Director Kevin MacDonald’s follows director Domenic Sena’s Season Of The Witch by about a month, both films displaying sword fighting four years after Zack Snyder’s 300 brought the blood fests into vogue. While Season Of The Witch is an intriguing paean to the Hammer Films / American International Pictures of the 1960s (especially Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe movies), The Eagle sports multiple intriguing plots that push veteran actors Donald Sutherland and Denis O’Hare way into the background, and a not-so-thinly veiled homosexual undercurrent between the master, Roman soldier Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) and his British slave, Esca (Jamie Bell). Telling the story set in 135 A.D. with these two enemies building a deep friendship and devotion is less blatant but (in a very quiet and subtle way) more intense than Brokeback Mountain. Perhaps because Jake Gyllenhall’s Jack Twist and Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar didn’t come with Uncle Donald Sutherland purchasing one to attend to the other, Gyllenhall/Twist’s passive role couldn’t overcome Ledger/Del Mar’s self-hatred. As the hatred that Esca and Marcus have was inbred they have opportunities to overcome it. Starting with Marcus showing mercy to a slave that displayed absolutely no fear in a David vs. Goliath battle where Esca was a mere bull to be slaughtered for the pleasure of those in attendance.
The musical score in both films feels rather similar and provides a fine complement to the pageantry and lush landscapes. Esca and Aquila have no problem reversing their roles and letting their love/hate relationship sort itself out. “He will slit your throat the minute you’re alone” Sutherland as Uncle Aquila warns. But “Uncle Don”, it appears, was a little off the mark. When Channing Tatum looks up and says “Esca, what’s happening?” only to hear “Get on your knees”, well…the fact that these fellows keep their clothing on through most of the last three-quarters of the movie indicates that the historical fiction flick has its own mission beyond the obvious: the above referenced undercurrent in the plot, the gratuitous violence of 300 and the Goth/horror that takes over in Season of the Witch.
“You’re my slave”, Jamie Bell tells Channing Tatum. “Do as I did for you, and you’ll survive.” It might be ambiguous on the big screen but reading it in print gets the brain in gear.
Based on writer Rosemary Sutcliffe’s 1954 children’s book, The Eagle of the Ninth, and set in Roman Britain in the 2nd century AD, the quest to go beyond Hadrian’s Wall feels a bit like the original Star Trek as it set out for the “undiscovered country.” That Star Trek film never got where it was going, but luckily for filmgoers, and for the actors involved, the beautifully filmed epic keeps your attention for the full two hours. The battle scenes are exciting and the younger actors get opportunities the script doesn’t afford the older veterans.
Thirty-one year old Channing Tatum is on the cusp of movie superstardom and the choice of an historical epic works better as a career move than his truncated role in The Dilemma (a film that would have benefited from an expansion of his cavalier “Zip” character). Jamie Bell also gets a platform to bring his talents to a wider audience, and though it’s difficult to imagine life nineteen hundred years ago at least the filmmakers strive to keep the tone somewhat authentic. Season Of The Witch didn’t even try to get the language to transport you back. And where the memorable line in Brokeback Mountain was “I wish I knew how to quit you”, the telling moment here is when Tatum looks up at Bell and says “I thought I lost you.” Actor Jake Hamilton interviewed both actors and called it a “bromance”, but there’s more to it than that and the reviews already initiated could spawn a series of YouTube reinventions of The Eagle that could give it an entirely new life on the web. Macho twenty-somethings will find the battle scenes inviting, but there’s no denying the gay audience is going to view the chemistry of the Channing/Bell pairing in a way that will make this a cult hit, whether or not it clicks at the mainstream box office.
Joe Viglione is the Chief Film Critic at TMRZoo.com. He was a film critic for Al Aronowitz’s The Blacklisted Journal, has written thousands of reviews and biographies for AllMovie.com, Allmusic.com and produces and hosts Visual Radio. Visual Radio is a fifteen year old variety show on cable TV which has interviewed John Lennon’s Uncle Charlie, Margaret Cho, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Felix Cavaliere, Marty Balin, Bill Press and hundreds of other personalities.