Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel, The Eagle Of The Ninth, is a classic of British young adult fiction: a well-told story of friendship to a Roman backdrop.
This film adaptation, with its abbreviated title and American stars, suffers slightly from the advances in historical research since Sutcliff’s time — we now know that the Ninth didn’t vanish in Scotland at all — but its biggest problem is a confusion of plot that detracts from the well-directed action.
There’s a promising start as centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) arrives at his Roman garrison in a barely civilised Britain and sets out to get his troops in line.
Tatum makes a convincing soldier, even if his accent never quite settles and seems to infect those around him, and the opening military scenes are exhilarating, displaying Roman tactics in action in a way that shows just how they conquered half the known world.
Things stumble just when they should take off, however, as Marcus is invalided out of the army and heads into the north with Jamie Bell’s Esca, a slave he rescued from the gladiatorial arena.
We are treated to a few scenes of the pair bonding and even though it makes a good attempt at forging an ancient-day bromance, the film never properly communicates their unlikely friendship.
As a result, Esca’s actions don’t ring true and the plot becomes fractured.
Director Kevin Macdonald is clearly keen to emphasise the difference between the golden Roman provinces, basking in sun and drifting along reed-lined rivers, and their barren, stony northern neighbours, but builds the contrast to a degree that will jar with anyone who’s ever experienced questionable British summers.
A cleverly constructed final battle, small in scale but big in impact, can’t compensate for a middle section that never finds its feet and the climactic face-offs here – featuring soldiers who look more like metal band roadies than they do mean-machines – are about as monumental as a scrap in a nursery playground.
The film is most memorable when it gets deranged: when a bunch of tattooed midget punks start springing down from trees or when the native Seal people get sloshed on mead.
Overall, it’s a sword and sandal slice of historical action that’s plenty entertaining, despite its shortcomings.
If you take Braveheart, Gladiator and Apocalypto, leave them to simmer in a iron-age pot...and you’ve got The Eagle.