2 Stars – Troubling
The brutality of Roman expansion and occupation is an historical fact. From the excruciating crucifixions of the people of Israel to the plunder and rapes of Britain, the Roman soldier was considered invincible. But legend speaks of one battalion that marched into the Scottish highlands in 122 A.D. never to be heard from again. In response, the Roman Caesar who lost the 9th battalion built a wall to cut Scotland off from the rest of the world. Called Hadrian’s Wall, portions of the wall remain to this day. Though the historicity of the loss of the 9th battalion is now being questioned, in 1954 Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a children’s novel that will forever memorialize the legend. Titled The Eagle of the Ninth, Sutcliff created a tale of honor lost and regained after a valiant quest. Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald expanded on this tale of honor by creating a violent war story called “The Eagle.”
Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is the son of the commander who marched the 5,000 men of the 9th battalion into Scotland and lost the Golden Eagle of the Roman empire. This loss brought great dishonor on Marcus and his family. Now a soldier himself and having reached the rank of Centurion, Marcus is given the choice of his own command. He predictably asks to be sent to Britain where it is his intention to restore the honor of Rome and his family. But this desire is cut short when in a moment of valor he is severely wounded and honorably discharged from the military. In a moment when all hope of regaining his family’s honor seems lost once again, Marcus providentially saves the life of a valiant young slave named Esca (Jamie Bell). It is in the joining of their lives that brings freedom and honor to both.
We won’t spoil the details of their quest or the unexpected discoveries they make in northern Scotland, but the emphasis on honor lost and regained is a vital tale. Often in our western cultures, we dismiss the motivation of honor. But in most of history and throughout most of the world today, gaining honor and avoiding shame are primary motivators. This is seen in Marcus’ desire to bring honor back to Rome and to his family by bringing home the Golden Eagle of the 9th battalion that his father had lost, as well as when Esca pledges his own honor to serve Marcus because he saved his life. It is this bond of mutual honor that creates a powerful friendship and partnership between them.
Although a violent film, the quest that Marcus and Esca pursue is a powerful tale of courage and honor. But it is for the honor of Rome and its expansionist desires as well as the honor of warriors who kill and die bravely in battle. That there is honor in being compassionate and merciful is only hinted at in the film but it is this honor that we would have liked to have seen lifted up. Though the characters are well developed and well acted, we can only give this film a partial endorsement based on its lack of value of life.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. When Rome expanded into the surrounding nations and made them their slaves, they did so in the name of Rome to bring honor to Rome. In our day, what do you think nations should do to bring honor to themselves? What should children do to bring honor to their parents?
2. The tribal culture which captured the Eagle of Rome used it as a triumphant symbol to initiate its young warriors. What symbols of initiation do nations use today - and what kind of young men and women are being produced?
3. The bond which Marcus and Esca formed was based on an indifference toward each other but a commitment to their individual honor. Do you believe such a bond is stronger or weaker than that of friendship? Do you believe they ended up having both?