I went to see The Eagle last night. I’m fairly certain that I read the book in my youth, but it must have been at least 30 years ago, and the only thing that struck me as familiar in the film was “Roman discovers that his slave is actually a very important person & undergoes a kind of role reversal.” I didn’t remember the book as having so many fight scenes in it. It’s all very clouded but I thought it was mostly travelling and conversation – quite tense conversation, true, but not full out warfare.
I’m also uncertain as to whether it was my own imagination that made me expect torcs and round-houses and more of an Asterix the Gaul look for the Celts than a Last of the Mohicans.
However that might be, what struck me, watching it as a Briton, was how much the film expected us to identify with the Romans. I was stuck in this odd feeling of cognitive dissonance right from the opening scene. (Which I loved.) Here’s this boat-full of soldiers punting up a tangled river in an impenetrable forest when a savage boy appears out of the shadows and watches them go past with an inscrutable expression. I looked at the boy and thought “that’s us” and for the rest of the film I was stuck thinking “this is a Cowboys and Indians film, where we are the Indians, but we’re still expected to sympathize with the Cowboys.”
I mean, it was all there – the fort surrounded by hostile wilderness, the savages who are so savage they don’t deserve any respect, the sidekick who proves his worth by defending the civilized man and is rewarded by being admitted to civilized society (albeit that, as he isn’t a Roman Citizen, he’ll never be considered as good as a real Roman.)
They paid lip service, I thought, to the idea that Esca was every bit as good as Marcus, and that he might have good reason to be anti-Roman. But I can’t help feeling that they didn’t really believe it. Who gets the pyre and the pomp and ceremony at the end? Who gets honoured with the gift of Esca’s dagger that represents his freedom? It’s the slain Roman returned to his civilized roots. It isn’t the young prince of the Seal Clan.
And I worried a lot that Esca, who is clearly a man of enormous honour, is forced to betray his hosts of the Seal Clan – who have shown him nothing but kindness. Why doesn’t that prey on his mind? Is it because we’re supposed to see the Seal people as being unworthy of being treated with respect and loyalty? Is that at all connected to the fact that they’re dressed like the last of the Mohicans? Is it Cowboys and Indians again, but this time guilt free?
Does anyone really doubt that Marcus’ father wouldn’t have killed him just as readily as the leader of the Seal Clan warriors killed his son (kudos to the actors for the tenderness with which that was done) if he thought that Marcus had brought him dishonour? Of course he would – that’s what the film was about, the importance of honour above everything else. Marcus would have done the same himself, had the circumstance arisen.
So, I don’t know. I couldn’t share any happy ending because I was too busy thinking “surely, having gained his freedom and paid back his debt, Esca would be going back to his own people now? He’s the son of the slain chief – that makes him the chief. Why the hell is he settling for a life as a hanger-on of Marcus (particularly given that as he’s no longer a slave he’s going to have to find work of some kind to support himself.)”
Frankly, even if every last one of his people was dead, it doesn’t explain why he’s going back to the Romans for his future. We know from the Seal Clan that his people have allies who would make him welcome. His family died fighting the Romans. He regarded the place where the invaders were finally stopped as a place of heroes (rightly so, IMO.) I saw no real glimmer of a friendship strong enough to wipe that out, so I was left feeling that the ending was thoroughly out of character for him, and had slipped, without the film makers being aware of it, back into “we are the Romans and therefore the Romans are good,” territory.
Whatever else I remember about the book, it was not that. I remember the book opening my eyes to the fact that the Roman PoV was not the only PoV, that their way of life was not the only way of life worthy of respect. That, in fact, everyone was doing the honourable thing from their own PoV – everyone was worthy of respect. I didn’t get that feeling from the film, and it left a bad taste in my mouth as a result.