Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Eagle

Alternate Title:  Fuck Scotland

One sentence synopsis:  A Roman Officer and his Briton slave try to recover the lost Eagle of a legion that vanished north of Hadrian's Wall.

Things Havoc liked:  I'm a classicist at heart really, and so any movie with Romans in it has already done one thing right by me. Moreover, it's clear that they did actually try with this one, which is more than I can say for a lot of Roman movies I could speak of. There are subtle details that they did manage get right, such as the tendency of roman helmet straps to cut the necks of their wearers (they actually make a plot point out of this one), the purpose and utility of a testudo (one of the better versions of that I've seen), and the fact that Roman decorations took the form of armbands, not medals. It's something at least. Moreover, this is perhaps the only film I've seen wherein the Romans use American accents, for the simple reason that the Britons are already using the British ones. It sounded strangely jarring.

On other fronts, it's always good to see Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong, even if Sutherland's character is more or less pointless, and the two lead actors at least made a credible job of it. If the Scottish parts of the film wasn't on location, then it certainly fooled me. It certainly looked bleak enough to pass for it.

Things Havoc disliked:   *Sigh*

Okay, let's get this out of the way:

A Cohort and a Legion are not the same thing. The terms cannot be used interchangeably. Neither one was commanded by a Centurion. The Brigantes lived in the north Midlands, not Scotland. Hadrian's wall wasn't built until 122 AD, two years after this film supposedly took place. Any Roman unit that ran away from scythe chariots deserved to get massacred. It is not physically possible to outrun a horse on foot, not even if you are a barbarian warrior. The Emperor Hadrian was ruling the Empire in 120 AD, not the Senate. Individual Romans ventured north of Hadrian's wall constantly, for trade and exploration purposes, as did northerners crossing south of the wall. The Ninth Legion's disappearance from the records occurred in 117 AD, not 100, and it was never reconstituted, not by the Senate or anyone else. Thumbs down in an arena meant spare the prisoner, not kill him. Painting oneself blue with woad was done only on special occasions (such as a battle), and neither Picts nor Celts nor anybody else in Scotland went about so-painted all the time.

If your claim to fame for your movie is historical accuracy, you might want to look into some of these things. That being said, even if we ignore all of the historical anachronisms and mistakes made in this film, we have some serious problems here.

To begin with, while the two main leads (Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell) do a reasonable job with the material they're given, the fact is that the material they're given is pretty lackluster. We establish that the Briton slave (Bell) hates Romans in general and Tatum in specific because the Romans slaughtered his tribe in some revolt. Fair enough, but then why does he suddenly turn around and decide to be the Roman's loyal friend midway through the film? Did I miss some scene of them bonding that got cut for time? When the hell did these two become buddy buddies? At no point should this slave have done anything but slice the Roman's throat open the instant his back was turned.

Moreover, I hate to bring this back to historical anachronisms, but Romans did not fight like fucking ninja assassins, and neither did their enemies, for the most part. Yes, there's handwaves towards actual roman fighting techniques, the testudo and javalin and so on, but for the most part, whenever a fight breaks out, the Romans (at least our heroes), break formation immediately so as to go off and do crazy jiu-jitsu shit with their gladii and tower shields. News Flash guys, there's a goddamn reason why nobody broke formation in actual Roman battles. Formations were what permitted the Romans to take down armies of screaming barbarians five times their size. It wasn't the secret Roman praying mantis kung fu styles.

Plus, in an action movie that is supposed to be about guys killing one another in awesome and cinematic ways, shakycam bullshit is not to be tolerated. Braveheart was sixteen years ago, guys, why the hell can we not make a fight scene that looks anything close to the quality of the ones in that movie? I cannot admire a fight scene if I have no fucking clue what the hell is going on in it.

Finally, while I'm not one to shy away from gritty realism in films, and while I accept that Scotland was not the most civilized place in the second century, there's an awful lot of child murder in this film for a story that's supposed to be a historical adventure with pretensions of realism. One episode in particular is nothing but a transparent kick-the-dog moment for our main villain, just in case we missed the fact that he was a bad guy. It would come across as mustache-twirling stupidity if it weren't so gratuitous.

Oh, and where the fuck did the Briton slave manage to find all those fucking ex-Roman soldiers in about twenty goddamn minutes? And how exactly did he convince them to come and fight?

Final thoughts:  Look, I'm a sucker for movies set in Roman times. Spartacus, Gladiator, Ben Hur, even legitimate pieces of crap like "The Last Legion" will get a good word from me. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel just the slightest thrill at hearing the words "Prepare to defend the Eagle". But this thing plays like a Buddy Comedy Action Flick where they forgot the buddies, the comedy, and the watchable action. The movie consists of a whiny prat of a Roman "officer" doing stupid shit and somehow not getting killed for it while his Briton slave decides for wholly opaque reasons not to gut him and use his skull as a drinking cup. There's nice touches here and there: The Celtic and Pictish tribes all speak in Gaelic, Mark Strong (whom I didn't even recognize) is fun to watch, and some of the earlier battle scenes are at least halfway decent, albeit nothing close to what you'd find in Gladiator. But nobody does anything in this movie for any logical reason other than the fact that the scriptwriter needs them to. And I've seen more historical accuracy in a Mel Brooks film.

Final Score:  3/10

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