It’s hard not to like a movie that’s as earnest and sincere as The Eagle. There’s not a hint of irony, let alone post-modern self-consciousness, anywhere in it. In spite of the obvious fact that the film’s producers hope to cash in on the current sword-and-sandal trend set into motion five years ago by Zack Snyder’s 300, The Eagle maintains a remarkable adherence to classic filmmaking and storytelling techniques, and eschews both the sexed-up cynicism of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and the gory indulgences of Neil Marshall’s (wildly entertaining) Centurion. It’s as if everyone involved with the production just decided to pretend the last 40 years or so never happened. The Eagle plays like an artifact from the mid ’60s—something pulled from a vault that was sealed and forgotten before 1967 came along and redefined America’s cinematic language. It has far too many problems to declare it a rousing success, but it’s the sort of engaging, straightforward adventure film that we see too little of these days.
The Eagle is every bit as guileless as its hero, a young Roman soldier named Marcus Aguila (Channing Tatum). As the film begins in 140 A.D., Marcus has assumed command of a remote Roman military outpost in northern Britain. He is a dedicated leader committed to the well-being of his men, but he has a definite agenda: He dreams of restoring his family’s honor. It was Marcus’ father who, 20 years earlier, led the storied Ninth Legion of Rome into the wilderness of northern Britain and, presumably, to their slaughter at the hands of Pict warriors. In addition to 5,000 soldiers, the senior Aguila also lost the legion’s standard, the titular golden eagle that represents everything the legion, and Rome itself, holds dear. If Marcus can somehow recover the eagle, he can perhaps begin to repair his family’s reputation.
Marcus quickly earns the respect of his men, but an insane act of bravery of the sort only young soldiers can commit soon leaves him heavily decorated, nearly crippled, and summarily discharged for his troubles. While convalescing at the home of his uncle (Donald Sutherland), Marcus hears rumors that the Ninth’s eagle has been spotted in the Caledonian wilderness, beyond Hadrian’s Wall. With the help of a British slave named Esca (Jamie Bell), Marcus sets out to get the eagle back.
Shot in Hungary and the forests and highlands of Scotland, The Eagle is a gorgeous movie, often stunningly so. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who collaborated with director Kevin Macdonald on The Last King of Scotland before picking up an Oscar for his work on Slumdog Millionaire, often keeps the camera close to the ground and tight on the action, filling the foreground with moss-covered branches and fiery autumn foliage. He even works in more than a few Hammer-esque nods to gothic horror: centipedes skittering over long-discarded skulls, and vines weaving through broken and bleached rib cages. This is old-school location filmmaking, with no room for green-screening and flashy post-production effects, and it makes the most of the film’s relatively modest scale.
Its look isn’t the only thing old-fashioned about The Eagle, of course. Based on The Eagle of the Ninth, a classic 1954 young-adult novel by Rosemary Sutcliff that has stoked testosterone-laden fantasies in several generations of middle-school boys, the film doesn’t have much use for things like nuance and introspection. Or, for that matter, girls—the only women in the movie are glimpsed out of the corner of the viewer’s eye as they ladle soup into bowls or wash clothes for the menfolk. But, in the context of The Eagle, that’s perfectly okay; this is in an intensely masculine yarn about honor, bravery, and really big swords. The film does get into some thoughtful territory after the halfway point, when it plays with themes of assimilation and subjugation, but it’s mostly a refreshingly straightforward and simple story about honor, loyalty, and redemption. There’s an undeniable hint of slyness about it, though—the fact that the Roman invaders speak an Americanized version of English seems jarring and even silly at first, but we eventually come to realize that, perhaps, some not-so-subtle parallels are being drawn here.
In the end, The Eagle is a bit too long and perhaps a bit too one-dimensional for its own good. It isn’t likely to enjoy wide appeal, at least in the U.S. It’s too tame for adults accustomed to increasingly dark and brutal action flicks, and too grown-up and deliberately paced to appease the audience that made the book a long-time favorite. But it’s a welcome throwback to classic adventure movies, and a perfectly acceptable way to spend an afternoon.