Directed by Kevin Macdonald
In the most quotable movie of all time—Airplane!, of course—you surely recall that great moment when the glad-handing pilot turns to the 10-year-old boy who’s come to visit the cockpit and says, “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”
Joey would be around 40 today. He didn’t answer the pilot’s question, but I think if he had said yes, he might have grown up to be one of the 30 people at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square multiplex the other night when I went to see The Eagle. There was only one woman in the theater, which may not be surprising, given that the movie is being sold as a military action picture. But there were no teenage boys, the usual audience for action-adventure fare featuring fights with swords and shields and bows and arrows. Everyone else, including me, was a middle-aged male. And let me just say that everyone else, but me, all seemed to love gladiator movies.
The Eagle has an intriguing premise devised by a children’s adventure writer named Rosemary Sutcliff, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based. Director Kevin Macdonald and screenwriter Jeremy Brock explore it with enough skill and intelligence to make it very much worth seeing even if you are indifferent to gladiators.
It begins 20 years after the famously terrifying disappearance of an entire legion of 5,000 Roman soldiers in Northern England along with the legion’s military standard, a golden eagle. Marcus Aquila, the son of the man who had commanded the vanished Ninth Legion, comes to Britain to assume his first command. The tired and cynical soldiers who man his fort think Aquila is just a lightweight boy, but in an opening battle sequence that is both thrilling and confusing, he discerns a threat from locals the veterans do not, saves the fort with his quick thinking, and then devises a brilliant strategy to save some hostages from the bloodthirsty Druids.
Based on a 1954 novel The Eagle may be, but in these first scenes, we can already see its true inspirations. There’s a dollop of Dances with Wolves, a dash of Black Hawk Down, a sprinkling of Patton, and more than the daily recommended serving of, yes, Gladiator. Later, it ladles Apocalypto over itself, with a garnish of 300. And through it all, there exudes the testosterone of those old movies with Steve Reeves as Hercules in the shirtless form of the ex-model Channing Tatum, who is as buff and hairless as a Roman statue. Tatum is actually very good in it, but it’s not clear to me that his acting chops really matter as much as his torso.
Grievously injured, the noble Aquila ends up in the Londinium residence of his uncle, played by Donald Sutherland. From the way he looks at Channing Tatum, Donald’s avuncular interest is rather like that of Chris Rock’s Uncle Johnny. (“Everybody’s got that one molester uncle. Your mama’s like, ‘Where them kids at?’ ‘They’re with Johnny.’ ‘Get them kids! Hurry up, get them kids! Don’t leave them with your Uncle Johnny!’ ”)
It is at this point that the movie’s utter and complete lack of women (except as the very occasional silent extra) begins to take on fascinating dimensions. Donald doesn’t have a wife, or a mistress, or a daughter, or anything. Channing Tatum didn’t leave a wife, or a girlfriend, or anything, at home. Angry Britons allude to the abuse of their women by the Romans, but you would be hard-pressed to know there were any women in Britain. And in the movie’s last third, when a bunch of painted pagan warriors get together, they do a dance that in a traditional gladiator movie would have been performed by a bevy of curvy female ecdysiasts.
The Eagle is a movie about ancient martial life, so it’s both innovative and refreshing that the action is not interrupted by unnecessary heterosexualization. But it probably didn’t have to go all Brokeback Mountain on us either. After a time The Eagle comes to turn on the relationship between Aquila and the British slave he rescues from a gladiator’s blade. The slave’s name is Esca, and he pledges his life to Aquila even though he says he “hates the Romans and everything you stand for.”
Their relationship is extremely physical. During an operation to save Aquila’s leg, Esca throws himself on top of Aquila’s body to hold him down. They ride together, they camp together, they even have a fight during which they roll around on each other. Later, after a complex chain of events, Aquila whispers to Esca, “I thought I’d lost you.”
That’s a little on the nose, guys. We got the point already.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s movie critic.