On the Friday afternoon of the Classical Association conference, rather than go on an excursion I decided to stay behind and watch The Eagle (2011), in a showing which at times resembled one of the offerings of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The Eagle is one of four ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ films which have come out in the last ten years – the others are King Arthur (2004), The Last Legion (2007) and Centurion (2010). The Eagle has a literary pedigree, in that it purports to be the film version of Rosemary Sutcliff’s popular book The Eagle of the Ninth, which I have yet to read (so this review will include very little about that aspect of the film). Tony Keen’s theory is that the four films also all aspire to be westerns – but again, I have insufficient knowledge of the western genre to make much of a comment on that, and I await Tony’s further development of his theory with interest.
But what I do have is a bit of a critical eye and a heavy dose of cynicism, on which these thoughts are based. First off – the cinematographers needed to be told when to back off with the whole light/dark/sun/shade thing. Particularly as symbolic of Marcus Flavius Aquila’s battle with his own sense of identity and failure and coming into the light from the darkness. This led to a number of scenes with faces half in shadow looking broody, shots of trees and shade falling attractively, people walking from darkness into incredibly bright light, shots framed so that the sun nearly obliterated everything in them – you get the idea. It didn’t help that the sun-god/Mithras figure object of worship thing at the start of the film was also pulled into this nexus of meaning to add a vague wifty spiritual overtone to it all. I don’t want to sound philistine – I’m all for meaningful cinematography and sensitive mise-en-scène. But that does include knowing when to stop.
The second thing to point out is the whole negotiating identitytheme, done with about as much subtlety as the light/dark theme. There are multiple elements of this – Roman vs. Britain, free vs. slave, father and son, soldier vs. civilian, soldier vs. politician. There’s a lot in there about the importance of naming and speaking (who gets to name whom, the significance of the trinomina when Aquila is passing as a slave among the Seal People, the fact that only Esca can speak whatever it is that’s passing for Universal Briton), which all links together the idea of naming as identity. Aquila spends a period as his slave Esca’s slave once they’re over Hadrian’s wall, thus illustrating the ‘walk a mile in another man’s shoes’ cliche rather too tidily, which I think is the most heavy-handed part of the theme – but it fits into a general pattern in recent films set in the ancient world with a male protagonist (i.e. most of them) of a young man at a transitional period working out where he fits in the matrix of the world. In this particular case, Aquila has to cleanse his family name from the shame at his father losing the eagle of the Ninth Legion up beyond the border, but that’s used as a hook upon which to hang a whole load of other contemporary identity issues.
Third – Britain gets presented as frontier country, in this case with a very obvious crossing of the frontier into the Other, where a different and incomprehensible (although helpfully subtitled) language is spoken, and where Aquila’s flip from free to slave and back again takes place. Incidentally, it’s also where Rogue Romans first go Rogue and then reclaim their honour, servin’ as a liminal state where they can reshape their identities as they come to terms with their selves, guv. As I said, it’s not particularly subtle, but it is a lovely use of Scotland as space of mystery and Seal People and quite a lot of scenic hills. Actually, now I think of it, there’s quite a lot to be said about the use of geographical space here, and the Other Side of the Wall as the place where strange and peculiar things happen, where legends can be made (as opposed to the civilized world on the Right Side of the Wall, where everybody knows it would be impossible to get the eagle back). This is making me thing in terms of The Wall in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust now – but I digress. For more on the frontier in classical reception, see my comments on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Fourth – the first half hour of the film, in particular, is terribly keen to get the visual language of being in the army right. (I blame all those modern re-enactor types.) When a major feature of the plot is a properly formed testudo (once more deployed, incidentally, to mobilise the darkness inside the testudo/scary men and light outside the testudo theme), you know they’re going to be taking their military stuff seriously. The costumes are all very serious and the attempt to recreate horrid military life at the arse-end of the empire is terribly earnest. It’s a bit of a shame that this all eventually falls away once we get to the other side of The Wall, but it struck me as a feature worth mentioning given the general contemporary obsession with ancient warfare that manifests itself in other media like computer games and television programs.
Finally, I can’t let this go without pointing out that this is a more or less classic example of the buddy movie/homoerotic feature film. There is one particular moment when Aquila is having to undergo an operation on his leg, without anaesthetic obviously, and Esca is called upon in his capacity as Aquila’s personal slave to hold him down while the surgeon is cutting into the leg in order to remove some left-over debris from a battle earlier in the film. Bringing two faces very close together. While one body is penetrated. With sweat and high emotional tension. I’m sorry, I just sat there and tried very hard not to begin discoursing on the scalpel as a penis substitute. But that said, it’s interesting that I didn’t notice that element of queering turning up in the military scenes as much as in the interactions between Aquila and Esca (which, I should note, were normally a lot tamer than the surgery scene). I expect that a closer reading of cuts and body language throughout would add a bit more grist to this particular mill, but while The Eagle was a fairly entertaining way to spend an April afternoon, I don’t think I’m going have the opportunity to give it that kind of focused attention any time soon.