Adapted from a successful young novel by British writer Rosemary Sutcliffe, published in 1954, The eagle of the ninth legion takes us on a quest for a Roman centurion and his slave in England in the IIe century of our era. Focusing on human relationships and the beauty of natural settings over raw action, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) delivers an astonishing film that is primarily a political reflection. Brilliant at times, disappointing at others.
A newly formed young centurion, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) has not chosen a quiet assignment, here he is defending his own skin in a distant camp in Roman Brittany. But more than his life, it is to his honor and that of his lost father that he prioritizes. Twenty years earlier, the Ninth Legion, led by its father, mysteriously disappeared in Caledonia, beyond Hadrian’s Wall where the dark and barbaric Pictish tribes reign. To rehabilitate his name and erase the dishonor on his family, Marcus, accompanied by his Breton slave Esca (Jamie Bell), decides to find the missing emblem of the Ninth Legion: his golden eagle.
The disappearance of the ninth legion
What happened to the Ninth Legion? Did she really disappear north of Hadrian's Wall, slaughtered by Pictish tribes? This question of the fate of this ninth legion, also called the Legio IX Hispana, has long been the subject of debate among ancient historians and continues today.
Probably founded by Julius Caesar, it distinguished itself during the Gallic Wars from 58 to 50 BC. AD where it acquired a solid reputation. She then intervened in the struggle between Caesar and Pompey, then under the orders of Octavian. Participating in his fight against Marc-Antoine - which ended in 31 BC. at the Battle of Actium - the Ninth Legion distinguished itself in the Iberian Peninsula, which certainly earned it the nickname Hispana. We then find his trace both on the banks of the Rhine against the Germanic tribes and in Pannonia - now Hungary -. In the 40s of our era, it is to the conquest of the province of Britannia - England, Wales and the south of Scotland today - that she distinguished herself, pacifying the north in the years 50 and monitoring the border being confined to York until the beginning of 70. Subsequently, the information which reached us is more fragmented, however we have a trace of its presence in Nijmegen in 121 and its disappearance probably took place in the east. of the Roman Empire, perhaps against the Parthians around 161. Still, the conditions of this disappearance remain debated. Was she slaughtered? Demobilized? One thing remains certain, however, the fact that it would have disappeared in Brittany, north of Hadrian's Wall is in no way attested and remains unlikely in the light of recent research.
This is the premise of this film, however, which follows Neil Marshall's recent film, Centurion, unfortunately released far too discreetly on our screens in 2010 and recounting the massacre of this ninth legion by the Pictish tribes and the hunt for a group of Roman survivors. The disappearance of the Ninth Legion as it is presented in these two films therefore appears fictitious. As for its symbol, it is not attested that it is an eagle but rather a bull, symbol of the legions loyal to Caesar. So the story is hardly a priori at the rendezvous of this film which hides some good surprises.
A political message
There where Centurion by Neil Marshall amazed, turning out to be more of a bloody and enjoyable survival movie than a peplum, The eagle of the ninth legion also amazes. Director Kevin McDonald made the choice to move away from big Hollywood production, such Gladiator to remain more modest and to pass a political reflection. This film indeed turns out to be a critique of American imperialism through the mirror of Roman imperialism. Note in this regard that the Romans are all interpreted by Americans while the Celts are played by English. And this clash of civilizations and cultures is above all represented by this antagonistic and complementary duo of the Roman centurion and his Breton slave, a well-interpreted duo whose relationship grows in ambivalence throughout the film.
Towards the anthropological documentary?
Along with the political message left by Kevin McDonald, we are also witnessing a film that would gladly be an anthropological documentary. More than a peplum, this is a film telling the story of two people from different cultures who descend into a dangerous and mysterious stranger. Subjected to the hostile forces of nature, they must fight for their lives following a regressive path which may recall in certain aspects The 13th warrior by John McTiernan.
Throughout his film, the director has sought to maintain historical and anthropological authenticity. But paradoxically, this concern for authenticity only removes it from it. Indeed, due to the few existing sources on pictes, the director decided for example to make them speak in Gaelic, which was not their language. For their homes, their way of life and their clothing, the director sought to get closer to people living in cold and difficult areas like the Inuit, hence this sometimes somewhat documentary aspect of the film. However, creation and inventiveness were also watchwords to compensate for this historical unknown. In short, the Pictish warriors look more like African or Indian warriors. We will note in passing the presence of Tahar Rahim (A prophet), unrecognizable as a picte prince. However, these are just a few details compared to the main interest of the film: these natural settings.
Bewitching Scottish landscapes
While the first part of the film was filmed in Hungary, all elements of the film located north of Hadrian's Wall - the second half of the film - were shot in Scotland. And the documentary dimension then resurfaces when we discover the beauty of the landscapes whether it is the famous Highlands, the bewitching forests worthy of a fairy tale or the beaches of the north of Scotland. Nature is truly one of the main characters in the second part of the film, magnified by the photography Anthony Dod Mantle which can sometimes recall that of Valhalla Rising, the silent warrior.
The eagle of the ninth legion turns out to be a deceptive film. This is not a big, action-packed production. If the acts of bravery and heroism are very present, they are often relegated to the background in the face of the relationship between the Roman master and his Breton slave but also in the face of the very beautiful photograph of this film. Kevin Macdonald is therefore more interested in human relationships and nature than in battles. So this is a humble and finesse-filled achievement that rejects everything - too - spectacular. An interesting bias but which however only half seduces, involves a very linear scenario, a staging not always well exploited and a certain lack of originality for in the end, a film that is simply correct.
The Eagle of the Ninth Legion, by Kevin Macdonald, in theaters May 4, 2011.
The movie trailer