Will Mahan reviews Kevin Macdonald's (director) 'The eagle' - on general release
Not much annoyed me more than when school teachers used to say, ‘Oh, you have to read the book. The book is always miles better than the film’. Or whatever. In fact the film should always be better, unless idiots are making it. Why waste your time reading instead of watching when there are so many other books to read?
But I hated it even more when the teachers were right.
I’d recommend all of them (and parents) to encourage children to read Rosemary Sutcliff’s The eagle of the ninth (1954). It’s a marvellous example of historical writing, which shows how literature can cast light on the human condition and address serious social questions. Set in Roman-occupied Britain in the 2nd century, the book deals with how peoples of different nations can cooperate and how imperial might prevents it happening. The film, by contrast, demonstrates how capitalism and the lowest common denominator can distort and utterly turn on their head the words of a great author. Although I would recommend the book for 11- or 12-year-olds, the film shows how the mass media treat adults as if they are more stupid than children.
I never expect Hollywood to get the books of nations other than America right. But I think I might be even more outraged this time than when the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy came out. That book had way too much intellect for Hollywood (they probably think Zaphod is the hero) and that little gimp from The office. I’d like to knock his teeth in for even thinking he was near good enough for the part. Hollywood wouldn’t dare treat their greats of literature with such disdain - just look at Huckleberry Finn or Batman films! For this slander the American ambassador should be called in and we should receive the head of whoever is responsible on a platter. If we were still a nation with any self-respect, The eagle should have provoked rioting in the streets! They had to change the name from The eagle of the ninth, by the way, so US filmgoers didn’t think it was about golf. If it had been about golf they may have made a film truer to the source.
Christ, all they had to do was follow a book. But right from the start they turn it on its head. Not only do they turn the book on its head: they turn history on its head. For example, the Roman troops move back towards the fort in a diamond formation. When the chariots come they run for higher ground. But the Romans wouldn’t have jeopardised their fort in this way: they would have accepted the loss of troops. Neither are the officers - including Marcus, who is trying to discover the truth about the disappearance of his father’s legion - fools or pig-headed in the book, but smart professionals. It seems that the Marcus of the movie is based on the worse, most sexually repressed officers of World War I rather than on a Roman.
Everything about the gladiatorial display is better in the book. Then there is Esca, the bought slave, who gets a wolf cub - something which would have appealed to children and should have been left in the film, you might have thought. The cub could be seen as an allegory for what should be done with the wild children of an orphaned nation.
The film makers also cut out the love interest of Cottia, a girl from a Romanised family. They need to leave this character out, as the storyline here is about compromise and how the Romans can get on with the British. It runs completely contrary to the macho-fest that runs through the film from this point, with the fights becoming more and more ridiculous. Guern is also a character than shows how the Romans and British have a common human interest. But in the film he is a militarist fool who finds honour in death like a Viking nut job. Not the really nice fellow of the book, who tries to get on with the locals instead of murdering them.
In the last scene the Roman legion is not reformed for sensible, logical reasons, as in the book. It is not reformed because those corrupt, meddling politicians don’t do the right thing and support ‘our boys’. Talk about reliving the rightwing mythology of Vietnam.
There is no nonsense in the novel about how the Romans are kind to children - unlike those horrible savages who all deserve to be murdered by Roman military power. What utter shite. The natives look a lot healthier than the Scottish punks I’ve seen in Edinburgh when I go to gigs there. I expect less Irn Bru and a healthy outdoor life would have done them a lot of good. There is no stupid stuff in the book about the ignorant, thick natives not having horses or the death rattle of a militarist who wants one more last stand because he didn’t get killed last time.
Hollywood takes a great anti-militarist book (but with all the excitement of militarism - not to mention swords and sandals) and turns it into an exercise in dumb, male-bonding cretinism: a recruiting video for the most moronic and ignorant cannon fodder that America can produce amongst its educationally deprived.