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Dying like a Roman / Living like a Briton (Eagle review)

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Dying like a Roman / Living like a Briton (Eagle review)

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I was going to wait and see The Eagle with my boys, but they aren’t here this weekend, and on impulse, and out of the fear that it wouldn’t be around next weekend, I took myself off to see it this afternoon.

And you know what? Aside from a few really annoying things, I enjoyed the heck out of it. There’s enough mud and shirtlessness to satisfy anyone, and, yes, the surgery scene is worth the price of admission alone. Plus, I am a sucker for windy heaths and snowy mountains.

And there is a rat scene right out of an episode of Merlin

If it is around next weekend, I expect I’ll take the boys and see it again, if only because they will get such a huge kick out of hearing someone actually say “Formate testudo” and people actually making the famous Roman battle tortoise with spears and axes flying all over the place. Not to mention the moat of burning pitch.



As expected, Jamie Bell is a perfect Esca. He looks fabulous. He speaks whatever version of Gaelic or Erse or Hungarian they have standing in for ancient Pict with aplomb. He does all the intense staring/ eye-fucking gorgeously. They didn’t cut nearly as much of h/c stuff from the end as I expected, and JB does competent!Esca hauling Marcus through the streams and rocky glens beautifully.

Channing Tatum? I can’t say I’m familiar with his, um, body of work. He can be quite an expressive actor as long as he keeps his mouth shut. Long speeches, however, are something of a problem. But he really does pain, fever and exhaustion far better than you’d expect for someone who looks like an incomplete attempt to carve a man out of a large, square chunk of granite.


The main difference between the movie and the book, and I found this pretty interesting, was the very different pictures the two painted of the relationship between occupiers and occupied, between conquerors and conquered. The movie paints the relationship between the Romans and the Britons as one of hostile and irremediable difference, whereas the book paints a much more fluid (and at times more disturbing) picture of assimilation and accommodation.


For example, whereas in the movie, the attack on the Roman fort comes out of nowhere, and you, as a viewer, are left thinking, who are these crazy-haired people yelling about how unfair the Romans are?, in the book, the attack comes only after Marcus has spent a fair amount of time in the village near the fort, and the person driving the chariot that runs him down and cripples him is someone he has hunted with, and whom he considers a friend.

The situation is then queasily replicated when (again, unlike the movie) Marcus and Esca live with the Seal people for weeks and gain their trust, before (arguably) betraying them by stealing (back) their religious object (aka the Eagle). There's a lot of gray, and fretting over the rules of hospitality in the book.

Which leads to the two things that really bothered me about the movie. First, that Marcus never learns the native language. In the book, he does so immediately upon assuming that first command and actually mostly converses with Esca (and others) in British (as the book makes a point of letting you know). To have him not learn anything makes him seem stupid, or arrogant, or both, in a way that book!Marcus does not.

And second: the return of Guern and the Legionaries who had deserted to have a second pitched battle with the “natives”—with Esca fighting with Roman weapons this time around. Not only did the scene confirm the “savagery” of the Seal People by having them slit the boy’s throat in front of everyone (a direct contrast to Marcus gaining their trust by curing a boy in the book), but it also confirmed that everyone’s cultural identity was absolute and unchangeable (except for Esca, I guess). Both sides are equally ruthless—Marcus, after all, wanted to kill the boy in the first place—and only one can win.

Whereas, in the book, Guern neither dies nor wholly reaffirms his Romaness-- but rather, when offered the possibility of returning to Roman Britain, chooses to stay with his British family. The eagle itself is “buried,” the Ninth Legion will never be reformed, Marcus will never be the soldier he planned to be, and Esca will never return to his tribe—all those identities are things that (must) fade away. And so, at the end of the book, Marcus, who has been dreaming of returning to Italy the whole time, decides to stay in Britain (with Esca, of course).

To be fair, the movie does a little bit of this—including the rat scene mentioned above—but it is all confined to Marcus and Esca’s relationship, everyone else seems stuck where they are.

It’s tempting to ascribe this difference to Sutcliff’s 1950s understanding of the fading of the British Empire (as Roman herself had once faded), and nostalgia for its glory, as compared to our own understanding of the “endless war” of occupation. Sutcliff’s Roman Britain is like the last years of the British Raj; the movie’s Roman Britain is more like the Palestinian territories in the grip of the second Intifada.


  • (no subject) - planejane
    • Thanks for reading! I agree about the killing of the boy, and the manumission--it seemed like they wanted to tie up everything more neatly (and brutally) than the book does, or than was even possible....

      And, weirdly, Marcus's character did seem to suffer more in the adaptation (and not just because of the casting)--in the book he's sometime clueless and arrogant, but he is also good at some things, and make interesting connections with people.

      But yeah, despite all that I liked it too--I was pretty much entirely happy when I was watching it!
  • This is one of those movies that I really don't know whether to go and see or not...

    I love the book, have loved it since childhood, have recently re-read it with my own son. Presumably this means that the movie can't ruin the book for me, but is it possible to keep the two separate in the mind while watching? I must admit that Jamie Bell as Esca does tempt me.

    I vetoed any suggestion in our house that we go and see the movie of The Dark is Rising because I knew I couldn't watch that and not be... vocal about how much it offended me, I guess.

    So, should I go see this?
    • Oh man, that's a hard one to answer. I loved the book as a kid, and loved it again on a recent re-read (so many of these "young adult" books have such a powerful core--you can see why they've lasted).

      And I really did enjoy the movie, despite the qualms I wrote about above. So far, most of the reaction I've seen on lj, even from purist fans of the book, has been positive, albeit in a qualified way.

      Jamie Bell as Esca pretty much does make it worth it. Otherwise, it might depend on how much of a sucker you are for movies like that: pretty boys and landscapes, mud and a few interesting period details, slashy-ness galore. I am easily seduced by such stuff--but if it just bugs you, I'd skip it.

      (Antony Lane in the New Yorker said it was like a not-very-good version of Last of the Mohicans, and that seems right to me).

      And yeah, I've never wanted to see the movie of the Dark is Rising either--loved the book, don't see how it could be captured on film....
    • It depends on the viewer, but I would agree that it is certainly possible for even a book-fan to be able to watch and enjoy this as essentially a sort of dark, broad-brushstrokes AU? There are so many changes to the plot and characterization and tone, and even the underlying themes, that the story and characters felt to me almost more like they were completely separate things that just shared names and a few of the broadest plot points with the book.

      If you're a fan of Jamie Bell and/or of book!Esca in particular, then you've probably got the best chance of finding this enjoyable -- I'm in total agreement with ariadnes_string that his performance alone is almost enough to justify watching this. The other characters are either missing entirely (Cub, Cottia and all the other named women), appear only as unnamed shallow caricatures of the book versions (Cradoc, Tradui, Placidus, Galarius, maybe Dergdian), or else are rather simplified and more unpleasantly characterized than the book versions (Marcus and Uncle Aquila); movie!Esca is also somewhat more overtly angry and unhappy than book!Esca, but he has enough pride, loyalty, compassion, and sense of honor to feel fairly similar to the book version; I can buy into the movie version as being what book!Esca might well have become if put into the more unpleasant world of the movie. And even aside from Jamie Bell's performance, I thought most of the acting ranged from competent to pretty good -- even Channing Tatum was much better than I'd feared; and while the script was really pretty lousy and muddled, everything else -- the cinematography, soundtrack, outdoor locations and interior sets, costuming and props -- was really quite well-done and lovely.

      Edited at 2011-02-15 05:55 am (UTC)
  • I haven't seen the movie yet - hoping to this week sometime. Thanks for the thoughtful review. I'm quite disappointed in the things they left out of the movie relating to Marcus and Esca's relationship - that Marcus doesn't buy him himself and doesn't free him before their quest north, mainly - but I'm hoping to enjoy it nonetheless. This simplification of the colonial relationships sounds disappointing too, but oh well. I thought that was one of the most interesting things in the book, the treatment of identity and place and the relationship between conqueror and the conquered.
    • (ooo, I like your icon! I have to get one).

      You know, I really did enjoy it anyway--it offers enough, um, pleasures, that it's worth seeing.

      Weirdly, the Marcus character suffers much more than the Esca character in the adaptation--by taking away his chariot riding, and buying Esca himself, and the eye-doctor disguise, they've made him seem kind of lummox-y.

      And I agree that the perspective on colonial relationships, and the impermanence of identity under those conditions is really one of the most interesting things about the book.

      Looking forward to hearing how you like it!
  • He speaks whatever version of Gaelic or Erse or Hungarian they have standing in for ancient Pict with aplomb.

    Mostly Scottish Gaelic, and they seemingly went to some considerable effort in casting and coaching the actors to do it well. Pity they didn't put as much care into some of the glaring historical issues in the script. :/

    (again, unlike the movie) Marcus and Esca live with the Seal people for weeks and gain their trust, before (arguably) betraying them by stealing (back) their religious object (aka the Eagle).

    I parsed that in the book as being ultimately seen as honorable from either side. The dishonor of the deception and theft and breaking of the laws of hospitality was outweighed for Marcus by his sense of duty as a Roman and a soldier to redeem the dishonored legion's good name and to remove the potential threat to Rome. And to both Marcus and the Seal People, the dishonor was outweighed by the personal duty of filial piety: he justifies himself to Liathan by saying he came to "take back -- not to steal, because it was never yours -- take back the winged god, because it was the Eagle of my father's Legion", knowing this would be an understandable motivation, as it had been when he spoke to Cottia earlier. (As for Esca, I'd similarly presume that he sees his own personal life-debt and oath of loyal service to Marcus, and the honor of Marcus' filial motivation, as justification enough for his part, even though he does not share the love or loyalty to Rome.) But like you said, it's all subtle shades of grey, while the movie mostly pits two flavors of anvilicious nastiness against each other.

    To have him not learn anything makes him seem stupid, or arrogant, or both, in a way that book!Marcus does not.

    Indeed. Not that book!Marcus is never arrogant-- even the first introduction to the character describes him as "Roman to his arrogant fingertips" -- but his arrogance is that of unquestioned superiority, thoughtlessness rather than stupidity, and his character arc involves coming to recognize areas where he has been ignorant and questioning assumptions that were once unquestionable givens. Movie!Marcus is a competent soldier, but really doesn't seem terribly bright or insightful, and his arrogance is of the stubborn, stupid kind.

    It’s tempting to ascribe this difference to Sutcliff’s 1950s understanding of the fading of the British Empire (as Roman herself had once faded), and nostalgia for its glory, as compared to our own understanding of the “endless war” of occupation.

    Hmm. I can see that particular interpretation working on the level of an individual Sutcliff Roman title, but it gets somewhat more complicated if you look at the bigger picture of her oeuvre, where the people who are shown as the cruel, hated invaders or primitive, savage foes in one story are the sympathetic POV characters of the next book, and vice versa. Looking at the arc of the Dolphin Ring cycle alone, where the emerald signet ring of the Aquila family passes from Romans to Romano-British to Welsh and ultimately Norse descendants, travelling (and taken as a war trophy twice) between Italy, England, Scotland, England again, Wales, Norway, and England once more. We last see it on the hand of a young Norseman whose small community in Cumberland hosts Saxon refugees (including the orphaned girl who's likely to be his future wife) as common allies in their own doomed struggle against the new invaders from Normandy. Bjorn's family lore still recalls that the heirloom it came by way of a distant British foremother taken from Wales, and she came by it in turn from her ancient family line ultimately sprung from the "Legions of Romeburg". So, in the big picture Sutcliff reads less to me as specific Rome = Raj nostalgia for the fading glory of empire, and more of a universal sense that All Things Must Pass -- melancholy, but not without a sense of hope that life goes on, even if no people or nations can hope to live forever. Artos' last words in Sword At Sunset is pretty much this recurring theme in a nutshell: "There will be more songs -- more songs tomorrow, though it is not we who shall sing them."
    • thanks for the link to the article about ancient Gaelic--I was wondering what language it was (I hadn't realized Gaelic had come over from Ireland that early).

      And yeah, I agree that in the book taking the eagle is eventually seen as an honorable action by all involved--I guess the point is that in the book they actually think and worry about these intercultural questions, instead of just brushing them off with an "oh, savage cannibals."

      I thought the Marcus character suffered more than the Esca character in the adaptation. He is sometimes arrogant and clueless in the book, but he's also good at things--and makes interesting connections with people (Esca, Cottia). Movie!Marcus wasn't a disaster, but he was kind of lummox-y.

      That's interesting about the rest of the saga! I've only re-read the Eagle of the Ninth so far (and can't remember much from my reading of the others as a kid). I meant less that it was a one-to-one correspondence with the Raj, just that I associate this attitude--more of a universal sense that All Things Must Pass -- melancholy, but not without a sense of hope that life goes on, even if no people or nations can hope to live forever.--more with mid-century Britain than with twenty-first-century America or England. The fluidity of identities in Sutcliff's book--or rather, that people can have the identity they were born into taken away from them and survive--also seems somewhat foreign to our investment in identity politics.

      Ha! Now I'm ranting--but thanks so much for a thoughtful comment!
    • Well, the modern Scottish Gaelic was really a standin for whatever was actually being spoken in 2nd century Scotland; there seems to be a lot of uncertainty as to just what the dominant language was, but it seems reasonable enough for movie purposes to use a living language with regional associations rather than trying to reconstruct/invent something based on an extinct tongue like Pictish...

      I guess the point is that in the book they actually think and worry about these intercultural questions, instead of just brushing them off

      Oh, absolutely -- that's a hugely recurring element throughout so many of her books, not just EOT9 -- on my friend chomiji's journal, for instance, I've just been discussing how the movie's talk of the Seal People as gruesome cannibals contrasts with Sutcliff's more nuanced portrayal of ritual cannibalism among the Old Ones in Sword At Sunset. Her sympathetic characters generally make an effort to understand customs that are alien to them and use that understanding to communicate better, rather than reflexively dismissing the differences as intrinsically inferior or wrong.

      I thought the Marcus character suffered more than the Esca character in the adaptation.

      Same here; the script makes him (and all the other Romans, even the ones like Uncle Aquila who were more sympathetic in the book) really blatantly, condescendingly prejudiced and superior, and leaves out almost all of book!Marcus's more sensitive and sympathetic traits. Movie!Marcus has little characterization beyond being an unthinkingly patriotic macho soldier and daddy's boy with a bit of an understandable complex about redeeming his family's reputation -- but the script can't even seem to make up its mind as to how competent and intelligent he is. He starts out keenly observant, with some fine tactical foresight; but when he heads out with Esca, he seems to not be thinking ahead or thinking much at all, and any sense of intuition or observational skills he once had might as well have been surgically removed along with the splinters in his leg. I *could* have gone along with the movie playing up the racism and arrogance of the Romans as a way to make Marcus's arc of learning to trust and respect Esca more dramatic, but the script mostly negates its own efforts there by giving us so little reason to like Marcus, and by making all of the Britons other than Esca so barbaric and nasty that the Roman attitudes end up looking halfway justified.

      I've only re-read the Eagle of the Ninth so far (and can't remember much from my reading of the others as a kid).

      Ahhhh, if you enjoyed them as a child and found your EOT9 reread interesting, I'd definitely recommend picking some of the others up again if you get a chance! My friend opalmatrix wrote EOT9-fic for Yuletide, and as her primary beta and a fellow Sutcliff fan I went on a massive binge late last year to brush up on the canon. I couldn't find my old copy of EOT9 when I needed it, and I'd never actually read The Silver Branch which is one of her favorites; then while shopping for those, I saw several others I hadn't ever read had recently been republished as ebooks. So I wound up reading about nine different Sutcliffs all in very close succession, and then re-reading lots of individual passages from EOT9 to glean further characterization and voice cues for the non-POV characters like Cottia and Esca. EOT9 and Sword At Sunset I'd first read as a child, and The Lantern Bearers) I'd found as an adult; and while I'd reread the childhood favorites in adulthood, but it'd been several years since my last rereadings and that had been done in a comfort-reading-old-favorites casual way, not with a more careful eye out to detail and critical analysis. So my brain is still a-buzzing with all the things picked up over this binge about her recurring themes, careful language use, etc., and boggling at some of the things I never noticed -- I'm still utterly gobsmacked at how I somehow missed the sympathetic gay couple in Sword at Sunset, for instance!
      • Yeah--I am very curious now to reread more of them--I have Sword at Sunset and The Lantern Bearers sitting next to my bed. I remember being really struck by the grittiness of Sword at Sunset as a kid (and I probably missed half of what what going on!)
    • The fluidity of identities in Sutcliff's book--or rather, that people can have the identity they were born into taken away from them and survive--also seems somewhat foreign to our investment in identity politics.

      She definitely has a huge recurring and marvelously nuanced theme about cross-cultural exchange, understanding and misunderstanding, conflict and communication; time and again her protagonists are travelers in foreign lands, prisoners or slaves or exiles, or literally cross-cultural by birth and upbringing like Artos. I don't know if I would go so far as to say that her characters' identities are fluid to the point that completely lose them and adopt whole new ones, though -- just using EOT9 as an example, for instance, Esca still proudly calls himself a Brigante even though his people have been killed and scattered, their political/military might crushed; and Cottia is explicitly fierce in her insistence that she is Iceni, despite her willingly-Romanized aunt's endless attempts at forcing a similar assimilation upon her niece. Uncle Aquila may have lost his heart to his adopted home so that he has no wish to return to Italy, but his lifestyle and attitudes are still essentially Roman.

      There are very few characters in Sutcliff who seem to more-or-less completely subsume one cultural identity into another, and they're mostly very young orphaned children (like Frytha in The Shield Ring). Guern is one of the rare cases I've found so far where a free adult character has done so mostly by choice, but as a Gaul, even a Romanized one, he was joining a culture that wasn't competely alien, and his appearance (even before adopting the Pictish dress and tattooing) didn't immediately mark him as an outsider -- and the choice was made under such harrowing and shameful circumstances that it wasn't entirely free, and still carries some element of regret and pain. Most of the rest of her slaves and exiles are a more fraught and ambiguous bunch -- the ones who have gone into things half-willingly out of some personal connection or debt of honor, or even perhaps a degree of Stockholm syndrome if you will (Esca, Owain in Dawn Wind, Jestyn in Blood Feud, Flavia in The Lantern Bearers) may live under the customs of another people up to a point, intermarry or settle forever in a new land, but they never forget their own country and people or adopt new, foreign gods; and when there is no mutually respectful personal connection made, only ill-treatment, then we see characters who nurse secret dreams of vengeance and escape until they can break free, like Aquila in TLB or Jason the Swordsmith and Madam Helen and the other thralls who turn the tide of battle against their hated Saxon masters in SAS.

      Blood and Sand (which I've not read yet) may be a rare exception to the rule, with its Scottish protagonist converting to Islam, but Sutcliff was novelizing a true story there; so far I've not really found any cases in her original characters of, say, free adult Romans "going native" in anything but a partial or surface fashion, like marrying British women or adopting some superficial British fashions; and the occasional free Britons who've thoroughly adopted Roman ways, like Kaeso and Valaria in EOT9, are held in utter contempt by the unassimilated Britons, while even the Roman characters who aren't so strongly critical towards them still seem to have a bit of a whiff of faintly negative judgement that they look slightly soft or foolish for trying too hard.
    • Which isn't to say that there isn't any fluidity of identity, of course, or that it's never associated with a sense of unwilling loss -- defeat in battle, slavery, exile, crippling injury; but it's a more complicated sort of fluidity than total conversion or assimilation. A lot of it has to do with redefining what old identities mean and how they can be adapted to new situations: Marcus loses his military career and all his future plans to his injury, but in his quest for the eagle finds a different way to put his sense of filial, patriotic duty towards his father, the Legion and Rome into action, and in the process stumbles upon a new path to take up when the quest ends. Esca, even if he'd chosen to escape to the free frontier tribes, can't return to life as a Brigante noble because his family are dead, and the survivors of his broken tribe are scattered; but in choosing to serve Marcus for the debt of his life and respect, he finds a new way to live by his warrior's sense of honor, and a new brotherhood of heart if not blood. Uncle Aquila and Marcus both end in a place where despite never losing the idea of themselves as Romans, their experiences and personal ties in Britain have left them unwilling to leave it -- Sutcliff was a great fan of Kipling, and Aquila's speech about why he never returned home to Rome echoes "The Roman Centurion's Song":

      ...My cohort ordered home!
      I've served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?
      Here is my heart, my soul, my mind--the only life I know.
      I cannot leave it all behind...


      Or in Mark of the Horse Lord, the questions of identity loss/fluidity on a more personal rather than cultural level gets dizzyingly complex because the whole plot hinges on a matter of impersonation. Slave-born Phaedrus, who has lost his only real identity as a gladiator after winning his wooden foil, finds a new dangerous-gamble sort of life by joining in a risky plot to impersonate a lost prince; while the real prince Midir, mutilated and exiled, remains in his humbler new life as a leather worker and trains his double to take his place, because his revenge against the usurper who faked his death and left him unable to rule will be all the stronger for it. Phaedrus gets ever more caught up in his false identity as he takes on the prince's friends, his kingship and rule of the tribe, wedding the royal heiress and siring a child in his name -- yet his arena-trained skills and attitudes are always underlying his actions, until both identities fuse entirely in an act that's simultaneously kingly self-sacrificing leadership and bravura death-defying gladiatorial showmanship.

      At the more cultural level, though, Sutcliff characters seem to pretty much stay constant in terms of their tribal/national/religious identity -- Picts don't become Romans, Mithras-worshippers don't sacrifice to Lugh; change comes only insofar as they can make connections of respect and understanding on a personal level to individuals, rather than dismissing each other out of hand as different and other, and therefore lesser. The end of the "Two Worlds Meeting" chapter really seems to sum up her treatment of this theme: "Esca had chosen his symbol well...between the formal pattern on his dagger-sheath and the formless yet potent beauty of the shield-boss lay all the distance that could lie between two worlds. And yet between individual people, people like Esca, and Marcus, and Cottia, the distance narrowed so that you could reach across it, one to another, so that it ceased to matter." Truly hybrid, new identities may come later, to the descendants born of the unions forged across those gaps, but they aren't inevitable -- sometimes one side or other of a family line becomes dominant so that the other culture is only a distant memory; but even when a new or hybrid identity arises, it's a generation or more later, not a complete change in the self-concept of the first couple to meet on the bridge between them.

      (Ah ha ha, sorry for spamming your comments with such prolix blather! It's such a rare and welcome thing to find other people who know Sutcliff at all that I kind of get carried away at any chance for meaty discussion.)
      • No worries--I feel the same way! thanks goodness for the interwebz, huh>

        it's a more complicated sort of fluidity than total conversion or assimilation. A lot of it has to do with redefining what old identities mean and how they can be adapted to new situations:

        This, exactly! It a really interesting take on the problem--

        (I love that moment with the dagger sheaf and the sword boss--it's so evocative, and also so in character for Esca to speak in terms of images and concrete objects--and for Marcus, too, who loves to work with his hands--)
  • (no subject) - frackin_sweet
    • Thanks for reading and for the nice response!

      The book is absolutely worth reading--I read it as a kid, and didn't remember much about it except that I loved it (and the others), mostly because Roman Britain seemed so exotic to me (as a child in New England). So when I picked it up again last month, I was surprised at how much fun it was, how incredibly slashy it was (more than the movie--really!) and how interesting it was about cross-cultural relationships.

      I actually do a fair amount of beta'ing -- PM me and we can talk :) (there's a good amount of stuff in the book about the time between Marcus's getting his leg operated on and them leaving for Scotland, but there's no reason for that to effect what you want to write for the movie 'verse)
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