The manliness is all. The drama centers on what we’d call the grunts on the ground, the ones forced to make moral decisions in the absence of clear rights and wrongs. The young, muscular Roman general Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) seems like a decent fellow, and so is the wiry Brit slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), whose life he helps to save in the gladiator arena. (He puts his thumb up and starts a trend.) They do have an uneasy relationship, the Romans having killed Esca’s father and the Brits (or at least a tribe of Britain) having presumably killed Marcus’s father, Flavius. Twenty years earlier, Rome’s 5,000-strong Ninth Legion led by Flavius Aquila disappeared north of Hadrian’s Wall in Caledonia (today’s Scotland) along with the golden eagle that was its emblem. After being wounded in battle and honorably discharged, Marcus sets out to reclaim that eagle and, with it, his family name, and Esca goes along, hating the quest but pledged to the quester. (“I hate everything you stand for, everything you are, but I’ll serve you.”) It’s an open question, though, what happens when they’re on Esca’s turf. Is his rage toward the killers of his father more powerful than his grudging loyalty to the Roman who saved him?
The Eagle is furiously unsettled—thematically, temporally, meteorologically. Wild-eyed, long-haired Brits leap atop the Romans’ shields as the soldiers blindly hack away, the bodies so close that you can barely tell the victor from the vanquished. The battles in the fog and rain have a hallucinatory power. In the final segment, Marcus and Esca come upon a primitive tribe—the Seals—that’s as nasty as the one in Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe, which set the standard (along with Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto) for ritualized cruelty.
I’m always happy to see Donald Sutherland, but here, as Marcus’s uncle, he’s a bit like a visiting hipster— especially with some tut-tut-that’s- barbaric dialogue dubbed in while he watches a fight to the death in the arena. (Do humanists normally attend gladiator matches?) Channing Tatum gives a forthright, straight-ahead performance, as if too much subtext would hobble his capacity for action, even his manliness. Jamie Bell, on the other hand, manages the difficult task of physicalizing irresolution, of being of two minds in the same scene, often the same line, and so he never eases into action—or almost never. When he finally fights against his fellow Britons, he gives all of himself, as if he has finally transcended tribalism for a higher realm. Their last scene edges into buddy-movie camp, but by then they’ve suffered so much (they shared a raw rodent) that it’s hard to begrudge them their smirks.