Rome’s lost Legio IX Hispana, maybe massacred in Britain around 117 A.D., is suddenly a hot commodity: The Eagle is the second movie in six months about the legion’s shrouded fate, following Neil Marshall’s viscera-spattered Centurion. The last time Hadrian’s Wall was getting this kind of dramatic exposure, Joseph Conrad was using the Roman conquest of the Picts as an opening monologue for Heart of Darkness: “It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” Not coincidentally, the audience for Conrad’s book was feeling a little queasy about its own role as colonial accomplice, and the subtext (we are bad, but maybe not so bad as the brutes, eh?) was very soothing. And so it is with The Eagle, which is the closest thing we’re going to get to a War in Afghanistan children’s movie.
I don’t mean that as some kind of veiled put-down: The Eagle is actually based on a 1957 British children’s historical-adventure novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, and its PG-13 rating is the result of director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) eliminating a single drop of blood from the battle scenes. The movie plays like Apocalypse Now Redux For Kids. (Mark Strong even provides a bedraggled Dennis Hopper homage as a Roman soldier living in the forest under the name of Guern.) It is a far less frank or credible movie than Centurion, but I found I liked it more: Its ideas of honor and thrill are almost exactly what I fantasized about when I was 12 years old, although I was rescuing a naked girl and not a golden bird. Anyway, the movie’s final 30 minutes constitute an especially rousing chase scene, with red ferns and men painted gray.
As the officer who ventures into uncharted glens to find that metal standard and redeem his father’s legacy, Channing Tatum is characteristically stalwart, though the picture belongs to Jamie Bell (almost every picture Jamie Bell is in belongs to Jamie Bell), as a kind of live-action Tintin. He plays an enslaved tribesman whose conflicted loyalties and resourceful tracking make him The Eagle’s obvious if unacknowledged lead. It’s a funny confirmation of Hollywood tropes that the indigenous guy has to play the sidekick, even when the indigenous guy is white. PG-13.
65 SEE IT: The Eagle opens Friday at Lloyd Center, City Center, Division, Evergreen, Bridgeport, Movies on TV and other theaters.