Director Kevin Macdonald, whose work has included both the mixed documentary-recreation “Touching the Void” and the loose docudrama “The Last King of Scotland,” showed his aptitude in dealing with pulpy material in the political thriller “State of Play.” Now he spins an old-fashioned adventure yarn based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s young adult novel “The Eagle of the Ninth,” and the result is a cheerfully adolescent male-bonding movie reminiscent of fifties stuff like “The Vikings.”
The supposed historical episode on which the plot’s based is the same used in Neil Marshall’s recent “Centurion”—the alleged disappearance of the Roman Ninth Spanish Legion during an expedition from the province of Britain into Scotland, the land of the savage Picts, early in the second century. The legend of the annihilation of the troops has been pretty well debunked by scholars (evidence suggests that the Ninth was actually recalled to the continent and then sent to the East, where it perhaps perished in battle against Jewish rebels or the Parthians), but it still provides a good basis for a macho action tale that, given its source, is rather appropriately juvenile.
“Centurion” dealt with a group of survivors of the Ninth trying to make their way back to Roman lines after the legion is led into a trap. “The Eagle” centers on the next generation, with the amusingly named Marcus Aquila (“aquila” being Latin for “eagle”), played by strapping Channing Tatum, taking over command of a frontier garrison north of the Roman zone of control. He’s the son of the general who led the doomed legion into Pictish territory, and he’s intent on restoring his family’s honor by recovering the lost eagle, the legionary standard representative of Roman power that presumably fell into enemy hands.
But instead he’s severely wounded defending his post from a Pict attack, and taken back into the Roman province of Britain, where he’s discharged with honors and recovers gradually under the ministrations of his uncle (Donald Sutherland) and Esca (Jamie Bell), a slave whom Marcus saves from death in gladiatorial combat at the local arena, and whom he uncle purchases for him. Before long the determined Marcus is riding north to try to retrieve the eagle on his own, accompanied only by Esca, who feels obligated to help the Roman in his quest because he owes the man his life.
The odyssey leads to two significant encounters. One is with the “Seal People,” a painted warlike folk who possess the eagle, which they employ in their Druid ceremonies; among them Esca pretends that Marcus is his slave, and there’s an attempt to create some suspense about whether he’s turned traitor. The other is with the few burly survivors of the long-lost legion, who prove their Roman mettle when Marcus and Esca, having purloined the eagle, are pursued by the furious Picts and a furious battle ensues.
There are a couple of oddities to “The Eagle.” One is that it’s peculiarly small-scaled; the locations certainly have an epic sweep, nicely captured in widescreen images by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, but even the battle sequences look underpopulated. The other is that it’s strictly a male affair; women are sometimes fleetingly seen, but there are no major female characters, and not even a hint of romance. Boys who always dreaded the inevitable kissing scenes in old action movies would have nothing to fear here.
A few of the supporting figures make an impression here—Sutherland, who brings his usual suave geniality to the older Aquila, and Tahar Rahim as the painted Seal Prince, stand out, and Mark Strong and Dakin Matthews are at least recognizable as Romans of very different status. But this is essentially a two-man movie, a period buddy flick, and Tatum and Bell, the former the stalwart muscle-man and the latter the shrewder, more limber lightweight, carry off their on-again, off-again friendship routine well enough, and certainly seem up to the action demands. Both of them, of course, began their screen careers in roles that required hoofing—in “Step Up” and “Billy Elliot,” respectively—but they don’t get the opportunity to dance here. They do, however, get to exit the movie together, like partners striding offstage.
“The Eagle” is frankly as silly dramatically as it is historically. But in this case the silliness is rather enjoyable, in an old-fashioned way.