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Romans and Celts: "The Eagle"

Tahar Rahim, Jamie Bell and Channing Tatum in The Eagle (photo by Keith Bernstein)

The Eagle

You could have knocked me down with a stick 10 years ago when I read the Oscar nominations and saw that The Kids in the Hall’s Kevin McDonald was up for best documentary film! And for a pretty uncomical film, as well: One Day in September, about the terrorist attack on the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich.

The film won in its category, which was when I learned that its director was actually Kevin Macdonald, a Scotsman born to the business of filmmaking. His grandfather was Emeric Pressburger, who with his partner Michael Powell, created such classic films as Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and Stairway to Heaven.

Macdonald capped his career as a documentarian with the hit Touching the Void in 2003 before moving into feature films in 2006 with The Last King of Scotland, featuring Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance as Idi Amin.

Director Kevin Macdonald on the set of The Eagle. (photo by Keith Bernstein)

His new film, The Eagle, is set in second century England. Twenty years earlier, the Ninth Legion of the occupying Roman army invaded the northern region we now call Scotland, and were never heard from again. Channing Tatum stars as Marcus Aquila, a centurion who has volunteered for a command post in England. His hidden goal is to learn what happened to the Ninth Legion, which was under the command of his father.

Despite the wall erected by the emperor Hadrian to isolate the north of the island, Marcus enters the forbidden territory accompanied only by his slave Esca (Jamie Bell). But Esca is more knowledgeable about the region than Marcus realizes, and the bond between the two will be tested as they confront the forces that overwhelmed his father.

I spoke with Macdonald recently in Los Angeles, and the subject of historical verisimilitude inevitably came up. Was the Ninth Legion really defeated by Scottish natives?

“At the time the book was written [in the 1950s] it was considered to be true,” he says. “Then it became [relegated to the status of a] myth, but now archaeologists are saying it may be true. Nobody really knows what was happening in that period on the fringes of empire—there’s not much written about it. So you rely on archaeological evidence and descriptions, but it’s all vague. You find a coin, an inscription, a bit of pottery, and suddenly you’re making up a whole history of what happened. Then you find another coin, and, oh, I was wrong. So no one really knows.

“My theory for the back story to the film [is based on the way] Rome operated pre-Hadrian. They just kept expanding. They had all these soldiers who were taken from all over the empire, and what they were most afraid of was that the commanders of these legions would bring them back and try to have a revolt in Rome. So they dealt with that threat by keeping them busy, which they did by expanding and expanding. Finally Hadrian came to power and said, we can’t go on expanding, this is crazy, we’re going to draw a line here, and this is the end of the empire. And then that became the thing that kept the legionnaires busy, building this wall 18 miles long and 12 feet high.”

In adapting the novel Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, a popular and prolific author of historical novels generally aimed at young readers, the script gave greater depth to the character of Esca and the basis of his relationship with Marcus. Macdonald saw the story as resembling a Western.“ I gave Channing and Jamie John Ford’s The Searchers to watch. I saw it as a western in Scotland, with the Romans and the Celts. Two guys on a mission riding their horses—there are vague similarities to True Grit, too, which is the quest to kill a man. Here it’s a quest to find out what happened to Marcus’ father so he can fully live and get on with his life.”

In fleshing out the novel’s two main characters, Macdonald feels that the script makes the drama stronger.“ You start out thinking that this is about a simple straightforward hero, Marcus,” he explains. “But then his behavior starts to appear a little racist, he’s so single minded, you start to think, do I like this guy? And then Esca, the guy from the culture we’re supposed to fear, starts to become more likeable. So hopefully in the end they’re both equal, two people from totally different cultures who become friends and bond by the end of it.”

Fans of the novel have expressed dismay at the casting of Channing Tatum (Step Up, Stop Loss) as Marcus, but as Macdonald explains it, he fit the particular way he wanted to cast the part. Having admired his performance in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, the filmmaker acknowledges that Tatum is “a dancer and he’s very contemporary, and that’s not right for the role. But I wanted to turn the convention on its head of having British actors playing Romans, which is what you always see in films and TV—the Romans are all educated at either Oxford or Cambridge. That convention had its foundation in the 1930s and ’40s when Britain was an imperial power, so the parallel made sense then.

“But now the biggest power in the world is America, and the idea of [portraying] the Romans as marines seems to me to be an attractive contemporary way into making this film. Channing has played a lot of soldiers, and he’s got what I would call all the finest American qualities: he’s a beautiful looking guy, totally straightforward, his word is his bond. Everything that’s great about America. And that’s perfect for this role. Because it’s about somebody from one culture who clashes with and eventually becomes friends with someone from a totally a different culture. By putting someone unexpected into the role you may see the role differently and the film differently.

Co-star Jamie Bell is also a dancer, still best remembered as the star of Billy Elliot, and Macdonald cast him for the contrast he provided to Tatum. “I wanted them to be as much a cultural odd couple as a physical odd couple. They’re so completely different. Jamie has more of a feral quality to him, his eye is taking in everything, you don’t know if you can trust him. So that complexity was interesting, and physically they’re different. And completely coincidentally Jamie’s from the north of England where Esca’s tribe is from.”

As you might expect of a prizewinning documentarian, Macdonald is a filmmaker who values realism onscreen. Scenes set in the Roman fortress were filmed in Hungary because no British locations offer the uninterrupted flat landscape required. But the Scottish scenes were filmed in Scotland, much of which still looks as it did 1800 years ago.

“The concept was to go against the prevailing mood where sword and sandal films are all CGI and fantasy,” Macdonald says. “I wanted to create a world where this is actually what it felt like”

That extended to having the actors do most of their own stunts. “Channing and Jamie are very physical, Channing in particular as far as doing fights. The only time I had an argument with Channing over the entire shoot was when I refused to let him do a stunt because it was too dangerous. And he got furious with me! He fought with me all day.”

Although some consideration was given to making The Eagle in 3D, Macdonald says the idea was quickly nixed. “We wanted it to be a realistic, gritty film, and it’s hard to do that in 3D. It suits big CG kind of things, but you have to shoot in such a classical way, you can’t do the camera style. Shooting in Scotland in low light and terrible rain all the time and uphill, a 3D rig would have been [shudders].

“Personally I’m not a big 3D fan. Some films are great in it but I don’t believe that soon everything is going to be 3D. I take my kids to see 3D movies, and after awhile I look around the theater and everyone has taken their glasses off—they’d rather watch it all blurry.”

Watch the trailer for The Eagle

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