By Eleanor Ringel Cater
As Peter Graves so famously said in “Airplane!”: “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”
My name isn’t Joey and I’m not a 9-year-old boy, but I have ALWAYS loved movies about gladiators. Maybe it was seeing “Spartacus” at an impressionable age. Maybe it was Steve Reeves and those badly-dubbed Hercules movies.
At any rate, strictly speaking, “The Eagle” isn’t a gladiator movie. There’s just one scene in the arena, but it’s an important one: a Roman nobleman Marcus (Channing Tatum) saves the life of a slave, Esca (“Billy Elliott’s Jamie, Bell, all growed up) by giving him the thumbs up during a gladiatorial bout in which Bell refuses to defend himself against a hulking refugee from the World Wide Wrestling circuit.
Actually, Marcus isn’t all that noble according to his toga-ed peers. See, his father was the leader of famously doomed 9th Legion who marched into the netherworld of unincorporated Britain, ie., beyond Hadrian’s Wall, sometime around 120 AD (think, OTP circa 1940) and never returned.
As we witnessed in the pretty-good but little-seen “Centurion” (also known as “The Ninth”) last year, they were picked off one by one by the Picts and the Seal people and various other folk who paint themselves sorta like the pre-meltdown Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” and do things like rip the hearts of people while they’re still alive, sorta like the all-Mayan “Apocalypto,” directed by a mid-meltdown mel Gibson. It ended pretty brutally for the 9th in a kind of Custer’s Last Stand with swords and sandals.
Okay, so 20 years later, Marcus wants to avenge his father’s honor. To that end, he and his brand new slave …yes…Esca…head back up north to retrieve the legion’s lost standard, the Eagle of the title. That means marching up into uncharted Scotland, well-played by the Hungary and the Scottish highlands themselves.
If I’d seen this movie when I was about 11, it probably would’ve been one of my all-time favorites, like “Jason and the Argonauts.” Even so, at considerably older than 11, I thought it was gripping entertainment.
Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction The Eagle of the Ninth, the picture has been put together with care and justifiable brutality by Kevin McDonald, who knows his way around a very different “Scotland,” having directed Forrest Whitaker to a well-deserved Oscar as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.”
The ever-shifting balance of power between master and slave is smartly acted by the two leads and the story itself, simple as it is, exerts a power as old as cowboys and Indians I went out of a grudging sense of duty and was rewarded with a swell afternoon at the movies.