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The Eagle: a movie review

In January my 7th grade ancient humanities class read The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (author of Black Ships Before Troy).  This is the story of Marcus Flavius Aquila (an apt name as Aquila means eagle in Latin) as he ventures into the wilds of untamed Britain to recover the lost Eagle standard of the Ninth Legion, and thus also recover his family’s honor.  It was Marcus’ father who had led the ninth legion into northern territory years before, never to return.  Marcus takes with him his friend and former slave, Esca.  The story becomes a tale of discovering present friendship and loyalty as much as recovering and then letting go of loyalties past.  The lost legion and the mystery surrounding it is very real.  The rest of the story is Sutcliff’s imagination helped along by her evident knowledge of Roman history and culture.

My 7th grade students absolutely loved this book.  We were all very excited to hear of the development of The Eagle, the movie version.  As a class we attended opening night, then adjourned to review the movie and the book over pizza.  The following is a review of the movie compared to the book through the eyes of 8 members of my 7th grade class.

(I will use the students’ chosen Latin names in order to protect privacy per our school’s policy.)

Magistra (me):  First off, how many of you liked this movie?

Discipuli (students collectively): 7 (out of 8 students) thumbs up

Magistra:  How would you rate the movie as a portrayal of the book?  GOOD – it was a good portrayal, followed the book’s plot and themes well.  OK- It was just ok, somewhat followed the book.  POOR – Did not follow the book well.

Discipuli: GOOD – 0, OK – 4, POOR – 2

Magistra:  What was your impression of the movie compared to the book?

Iulius: The movie was just an ok representation.  I really wanted to see Cub.  I did really like the scene with the chariots.

Augustus:  I thought the first battle scene with the testudo and the chariot was really cool.  That scene was a lot like the book.  I also really like how in the movie Marcus told off Placidus.  (Placidus really irritated all the students.)

Margherita: The movie could have related to the book more, but it represented Rome well – like the weapons and armor.  It seemed historically accurate.

Cecilia: I didn’t like it (the movie) because they did not portray the book well enough.  I would have liked to seen Cottia and Cub.  (These characters were significant in the book, but not included in the movie at all.)

Robertus:  The book really gets into the personalities of people.  The movie only shows what they say.  The book shows what they are thinking and feeling.  I also thought there was something wrong with the pyrotechnics in the first battle.  It didn’t look right.

Rufus:  The movie represented the book pretty well.  They got the slave and Roman as the underdog of relationships.  That is unlikely.  The end was totally different, but I liked the last stand.

Leo:  They tried to over exaggerate the battle scenes.  Should have emphasized the relationship of Esca and Marcus.

Augustus: But the story of the standard (the eagle) and why it was so important.  They got that.

Overall Consensus:

This group of 12 and 13 year olds are well versed in the language, history, and culture of Rome, more so than most.  They have studied Latin with me since their third grade year.  Our curriculum is one that allows students to read a lot of history via Latin literature, and learn a good deal about Roman civilization.  This year in their humanities class they have read English translations of Herodotus, Odyssey, Plutarch, Oresteia, Livy, and the Aeneid.  Their take – the movie did a very poor job of developing the characters and in particular the relationship between Marcus and Esca.  All were disappointed that Cub and Cottia were cut out of the story completely.  They all did, however, very much enjoy the story that was presented on the big screen.  In particular, they liked the inside look at life in the Roman military on the frontier.  They agreed there were many more battle scenes in the movie than the book.  In fact, it seemed that the screen writers worked in a battle scene every chance they got.  But for my 7th grade boys, that was a PLUS!

My Review:

Those were the opinions of my students.  For those of you who care to know, here are my thoughts.  Beware of SPOILERS if you have not read the book.

I full realize that Hollywood will always change a good book for the sake of making a good movie and I reluctantly accept that.  They did get the basic plot right.  Marcus goes after the Eagle, the standard of the Ninth Legion, in order to restore honor to his father’s name.  The importance of the standard was well emphasized.  I was not surprised that Cub and Cottia were cut.  My biggest problem with this film is that it did such a poor job of developing the characters.  Sutcliff’s book is about Marcus learning who he is by first overcoming adversity and disappointment, and then rising to meet a new challenge against overwhelming odds.  The development of his character and his journey are reflected in many small ways like the rosebush, Cub, and his relationship with Cottia.  All of these are cut.  We see his character develop most within his relationship to Esca.  The movie completely changes the dynamics of this relationship.  The two young meet in the same manner.  Marcus saves Esca from the fate of the gladiatorial  arena.  But it is Marcus’ uncle who buys Esca for him, not Marcus seeking or asking for that connection.  Marcus seems to resent Esca’s presence from the beginning.  Esca makes it clear that he does not like nor want Marcus, as he represents Rome and thus the destruction of his own family. There is a tension between the two from the beginning.  In the book the two young men quickly find they have much in common and we see the relationship change from master and slave to friends and equals before they ever embark on this journey.  In the movie the master-slave relationship continues for most of the movie.  Then negative tension between the two is palatable and you wonder if Esca has only revenge in mind.  When friendship shows up it is a sudden unexpected twist, not something that has been nurtured and strengthened over time. It feels unnatural.  The basic plot and setting of Sutcliff’s work remains the same, but the friendships and loyalties she so beautifully wove into her story have been untied and knotted up in an entirely different manner by Hollywood.  So my consensus does to an extent line up with my students – as far as the book goes, Hollywood didn’t do a great job.  But, if you like Roman battle scenes, you’ll not be disappointed.

From the “mom” point of view – Although this film is rated PG-13,  it is relatively tame (as much as any movie with Roman and Celtic warriors can be).  There is no nudity and no sex.  The worst bit of language is “piss.”  The battle scenes are bloody in places as is necessary.  The worst of the violence, such as the slitting of throats and beheading, are heavily implied but then take place off camera.  There are two scenes where a child or young person is killed.  As a mom, I really didn’t like that, but as one of my astute young observers pointed out, “they wanted to show how evil this group could be so you wouldn’t feel pity for them.”

What are your thoughts on the Eagle?  Post a comment.

One Response to “The Eagle: a movie review”

  • NJ Latin teacher for homeschoolers:

    Dear Karen,

    Thank you so much for submitting a review of this movie. I had noticed the trailers during Christmas, but had forgotten about it. I am definitely going to see it. Now I can take my 9th grade Latin students also! As you said, the boys will love it.

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