The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Eagle

Written by Martin Zeller-Jacques.

Photo from the article Roman Britain was a man’s world. In fact, in Kevin MacDonald’s The Eagle, it seems to be almost entirely devoid of oestrogen. With the exception of a brief scene in which flirting with a couple of local girls draws some unwanted attention to our hero, we hardly even see a woman on screen.

Of course, if the film had been made back in 1954, when the Rosemary Sutcliffe novel was written, the relegation of women to supporting roles as passive love interests or the victims who motivate male revenge would have been a normal feature of the genre. However, recent films about ancient Britain have tended to foreground the role of women in ways which may be grounded in history, but which also carry a queasy suggestion of politically correct tokenism. Neil Marshall’s Centurion (2010) places women at the centre of its narrative, both on the field of battle and off. More problematically, Antoine Fugua’s Roman-era King Arthur (2004), starred a leather-bikini-clad Keira Knightly as an ass-kicking post-feminist Guinevere. And, although it’s not strictly ancient, Ridley Scott’s recent stab at Robin Hood (2010) tried to perform a similar historical transformation upon Cate Blanchett’s Marion. The point here is neither to praise these films, nor to censure The Eagle for neglecting to provide women with significant roles, but to point out that Kevin MacDonald’s film deviates from recent trends in the classical epic genre, and to ask what it gains by doing so.


At one level, we might see The Eagle as a piece of lad-centric retro-tainment. Certainly, some of the early hunting and fighting scenes wouldn’t seem out of place on a special Roman edition of Top Gear. However, the emphasis on men and masculinity in The Eagle goes deeper than that. When we first meet Marcus he is a tall, noble figure, especially when contrasted with the beleaguered legionaries under his command. Yet this is only his public face. In private he is wracked with uncertainty, fervently praying to any god who will listen that he will not dishonour his legion. The root of this uncertainty, and of his overcompensation, lies in his disappointment with his father, “the man who lost the Eagle”. Yet his feelings towards his father are more complicated than mere disappointment.

Although he speaks as if the most formative event of his youth was the shameful disappearance of his father along with the standard of Rome’s lost Ninth Legion, what we see him remembering several times throughout the film is his pride as his father, sitting astride his horse, hands him a carved wooden eagle and rides away for the last time. The real secret of this memory is that Marcus still feels that pride in his father, but is unable to reconcile this with his belief in Rome, and in the Eagle symbol which proclaims that “Rome did this”. The carved wooden eagle, which he still carries with him, thus becomes both a symbol of his father’s love and a synecdoche of the lost standard, and reconciling this duality is the true object of Marcus’s quest.


Meanwhile, the gesture of a father passing something on to a son is repeated throughout the film in a variety of guises, and each time it carries echoes of the problematic ur-experience of Marcus and his own father. The parallel to which the film draws most attention is to Esca’s relationship with his own father, a Chief of the Brigantes tribe who resisted the Romans only to watch his people slaughtered and his home overrun. If Marcus’s primal memory of his father is of the lost Eagle Standard, a legacy which has been tarnished by time, then the legacy bequeathed to Esca is twisted from the outset: as the Roman armies were entering his home town, Esca’s father took his mother aside, told her to kneel, and slit her throat in order to prevent her rape at the hands of the invaders. Esca, who still carries his father’s knife, makes an explicit link between Marcus’s legacy and his own when he tells Marcus the story of what happened to his family and reminds him, “Rome also did that.”

Romans have no monopoly upon brutality in the film, however. During their stay with the ‘Seal People’, a group of aboriginal tribesmen who adorn themselves with pale blue paint and seal-pelts, Marcus and Esca encounter family relationships which echo their own troubling parental legacies. The chief and high-priest of the tribe acts as a savage avatar of the culture which has forced Marcus to feel ashamed of his father, encouraging his own son into animalistic brutality in the name of loyalty and honour. Even at the moment of his death, the Chief mocks the supposed cowardice of Marcus’s father, though Marcus fails to understand his speech, and Esca, who does, kindly conceals this fact from him.


Esca’s experience with the Seal People is even more essential, and more filled with pathos than Marcus’. Befriending the grandson of the chief during his time there, Esca refuses to allow the boy to come with him when he flees, and even enlists the boy’s help to cover his escape. At the moment of leaving, he hands the child a carved wooden fish, a further echo of the wooden eagle given to Marcus, a gesture made all the more poignant because Esca does so in the knowledge that, like Marcus’s father, he will soon be vilified in the eyes of a boy who idolises him. In the end, the boy’s fate is even crueller, as he is murdered by his own father before Esca’s eyes, a final lesson in what happens to those who break the masculine code of honour which underlies the actions of all of the film’s characters.

It is in this moment of stark brutality that the cycle of honour-bound violence passed down from father to son is finally consummated, the spiritual and psychological violence implied throughout the film made literal in a father’s murder of his own son. Only with this apotheosis of the masculine honour-culture are Marcus and Esca able to move beyond the legacies left to them by their fathers. As they lay their fallen comrades out upon a pyre, they also set aside the tokens bequeathed to them, Marcus finally leaving behind the wooden eagle and Esca parting with his father’s dagger.

So, if The Eagle seems old-fashioned in the starkly masculine world it depicts, it is far from simplistic. Despite a seemingly homogenous palette of characters, it weaves an overlapping narrative about the costs of honour-bound militaristic masculinity. Ultimately, it succeeds far better in drawing attention to the things which are missing from such a culture than many other films which seem, on their surface, to present a more progressive view of gender relations.

This Alternate Take was published on March 28, 2011.

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