An earnest throwback to an earlier brand of filmmaking, “The Eagle” plays like an amalgam of past toga-wearing adventure films. Anchored by a quest element, director Kevin Macdonald’s take on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel requires the audience to participate in considerable spackling to help fill in the story’s emotional arc, beginning with the central bond between slave and master. While the movie doesn’t wholly succeed, there’s enough to like here — including Channing Tatum’s credible performance as a tradition-bound Roman soldier — to prove modestly satisfying, albeit perhaps more to European auds than to history- and geography-challenged Americans.
Set in the second century, the story is derived from the legend surrounding Rome’s Ninth Legion, whose 5,000 men traveled into Northern Britain in 120 A.D. and were never seen again — losing their symbolic golden standard, the Eagle, in the process. (That story was chronicled last year, by happenstance, in the British production “Centurion.”)
Twenty years later, young Marcus Aquila (Tatum) is awarded his own military command, despite the taint left by his father’s leadership of the Ninth. Plagued by gauzy flashbacks of his dad, Marcus prays for strength to “regain my family’s honor,” and acquits himself admirably in an early battle with the bloodthirsty Britons.
That interlude leaves Marcus wounded, and while convalescing with his patrician uncle (Donald Sutherland), he saves the life of a slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), who swears undying allegiance to him. Marcus conceives a treacherous plan to travel north with Esca — beyond Hadrian’s Wall into Caledonia (now Scotland), erected after the Ninth’s misfortune — and see if their mini-special-forces operation can retrieve the Eagle and restore the family name.
At this point, working from a script by Jeremy Brock, who collaborated with him on “The Last King of Scotland,” Macdonald (a Scottish native who lensed in Scotland and Hungary) settles into an extended section where the sweeping vistas feel like Frodo and Sam pursuing the ring. Only in this case, with Marcus surrounded by enemies, Esca’s divided loyalties — to his master and his countrymen, who have suffered great indignities at Roman hands — create an additional element of suspense.
The grudging nature of their relationship isn’t well developed; nor does the story extract much mileage out of fine character actors (Sutherland, Mark Strong, Denis O’Hare) lined up in sadly limited roles.
What’s left is a generous amount of action — some pretty exciting, with other sequences edited so chaotically it’s difficult to appreciate them. (The rapid-fire cuts — obscuring as much as they reveal — were doubtless helpful in securing a PG-13 rating despite a good deal of mayhem and swordplay.)
Drawing from military fare as well as sword-and-sandals epics, the movie takes on faith the nobility of Marcus’ single-minded goal to redeem his martial birthright. As for the popular practice in such tales of expressing sympathy toward native people in occupied lands, other than Bell’s character, the Britons are almost wholly depicted as slavering savages, albeit visually exotic ones.
Fortunately, “The Eagle” saves the best for last — as Marcus and Esca are forced to flee, facing seemingly insurmountable odds. As acts of redemption go, that climax provides some compensation for earlier shortcomings.
Although relatively modest in scale and budget, the movie possesses a nicely authentic look, from Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography to the feral-looking Britons and eerily costumed and painted Seal Prince (Tahar Rahim).
“The Eagle” never fully takes flight as an adventure yarn, but given its worthwhile moments and limited ambitions, those involved survive the mission with their honor intact.