Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thoughts on the movie The Eagle (2011)

Released earlier this year, The Eagle tells the story of a young Roman commander's quest to recover the eagle lost by his father's legion during a defeat in northern Britain twenty years before at the hands of fierce Celtic tribesmen.

Based on the historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe, published in 1954, the movie does a fine job of portraying the dynamics of military command, especially the tension every new leader feels in his first command, when his orders are being warily evaluated by the unit and they are weighing what kind of a commander he will be. The movie also brings to life the "atmospheric" feel of the Roman outpost, the windswept hills of the Roman frontier, and the swampy forests pregnant with the potential for ambush at any moment.

The film takes place around the year AD 140, twenty years after the loss of the legion that is purported to have been the impetus for the construction of Hadrian's Wall, which was begun in AD 122. During this time period, the "Persian Mysteries" had become the dominant religious cult among the Roman legions, and the movie conveys the hero's faith in Mithras, even featuring a small image of a tauroctony among his personal items (for more on the Mithraic mysteries, see this previous post).

In all, the film does an admirable job of immersing the viewer in the period of the Roman Empire in a different part of the world than is usually portrayed in epic films set in ancient times. The viewer gains a gut feel for the central aspect of the Roman approach to battle, in which the primacy of the organization over the individual was supreme. The contrast to the approach of the Celts, in which the initiative and importance of the individual was primary, is stark -- never more so than when the Celtic Esca asks the Roman Aquila (in the trailer clip above), "How can a piece of metal mean so much to you?"*

A modern analogy might be the difference between the style of play of college basketball in the US (in which teams that follow rigorous drills and play as a single unit are much more common) and the style of play in the NBA (in which the initiative of individual players is often much more central to the offense). These are of course gross generalizations, but may provide a helpful insight into the tension between the culture of the Celts and the culture of Rome and what each valued most highly.

It was an important diametric opposition, and one that has played itself out in many aspects of western culture since the second century setting of The Eagle, and one which in fact continues to this day. Even in the United States, where the rights of the individual are privileged to a degree rarely found anywhere else or at any other time, the tension between what we might call "the Roman" and "the Celtic" turns up in many aspects of life and many of the great questions of our time.

The Celtic warriors of the movie are portrayed as typical "noble savages" -- proud, heroic, ferocious in battle, deeply spiritual, and wanting only to be left alone by the invaders who are despoiling their homelands and destroying their way of life. During the movie at critical points, the soundtrack features beautiful and mysterious Celtic song or chant, adding to the atmospheric elements that are one of the movie's greatest strengths (for more on the importance of chanting and song, see this previous post).

However, this portrayal of the Celts emphasizes only one side of their culture. By all accounts (including the accounts of the Romans, who greatly admired their bravery), the ancient Celts, including those in Britain, were in fact proud, heroic, ferocious in battle, and deeply spiritual. However, they were also learned and technologically advanced -- in some ways, more than the Romans (who defeated the Celts by virtue of their unmatched ability to forge military units that functioned like precision machines, rather than because of superior technology). In his description of the Celts in the region that is today France, Julius Caesar wrote that the Gauls (as they were also called) and in particular their Druids were extremely learned, not only about "the heavenly bodies and their movements" but also about the "size of the universe and the earth" (see the discussion and quotation from Caesar's Gallic Wars in this previous post).

Additionally, Caesar makes clear that the Celts were able to construct enormous and beautiful swan-ships which were superior to the ships of the Romans in every way -- the Romans could only defeat them in battle by destroying their masts and dropping gangplanks onto their ships so that the Roman soldiers could march aboard and defeat the Celts with army tactics rather than with naval tactics (the nautical capability of the ancient Celts is discussed in more detail in the Mathisen Corollary book). The level of civilization required to create ships of the type that awed Caesar is never portrayed in movie versions of the Celts that the Romans faced.

Finally, the Celts are depicted as basically pagan in the film, just as they are depicted in most other modern fiction. In fact, there is some historical evidence that many Celts of the British Isles adopted Christianity at a very early period -- according to some ancient sources, within the first century AD.

It is quite clear that the Apostle Paul evangelized among the Galatians: Gauls or Celts who had settled in Asia Minor after being brought in as mercenary fighters centuries earlier. Some authors believe that these Gauls may have spread their faith through western Europe and even the British isles when Roman pressure on them increased in Galatia and some of them returned westward along the fringes of the Empire.

Other ancient authors actually maintain that Paul himself went to Britain, and that the Aristobulus whom he mentions in Romans 16:10 was a bishop of Britain. This assertion was made by Dorotheus of Tyre (AD 255 - 362). Dorotheus also maintains that Simon the Zealot, one of the original Twelve Apostles mentioned in the Gospels, was martyred in Britain.

Medieval legends assert that Joseph of Arimathea actually spread Christianity to Britain even before the arrival of apostles and other missionaries. The ancient support for this assertion is somewhat lacking. Nevertheless, it does appear quite likely that the Celts of Britain and the Continent were exposed to Christianity quite early. Tertullian, who lived from AD 155 - 222, declared: "The extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by Roman arms have received the religion of Christ."

While modern critics might argue that Tertullian, as a Christian theologian, had a motive in advertising the success his faith had achieved among even the most ferocious enemies of Rome, the fact that he lived at a period very close to that shown in The Eagle argues that his readers and listeners would have been aware that violent conflict was still going on between Celts and Romans, and that he would have had a difficult time passing off such a bold statement among other learned readers if it were not at least partly grounded in the truth.

The Eagle certainly does not treat the Romans as the unequivocal "good guys" in the film, and shows real sympathy to the virtues of the Celts, much the way modern Westerns often depict the American Indians in the face of an unstoppable if morally debased encroaching civilization. It is therefore probably not surprising that the movie basically imagines the Celts as Britannic versions of the Native Americans depicted in the movie versions of Last of the Mohicans or Dances With Wolves. We should be careful, however, not to project the events of the nineteenth century in North America, where one side did have vastly different and superior technology, onto the conflict between the Celts and the Romans, in which the technological differences may actually have been tilted the other way.

Nevertheless, The Eagle is a worthwhile film. Seeing good actors dramatizing the struggles of the individuals who lived in the ancient world can bring us closer to those ancient civilizations than can simply reading about them in books.

* The name of the protagonist Aquila, as summer stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere know, is Latin for "eagle," which gives us a fairly obvious play on words in the title of both the movie and the book and causes us to ask ourselves, "Is the movie about 'The Eagle' as in 'the standard of the legion that was lost and that Aquila seeks to recover,' or is the movie about 'The Eagle' as in 'Aquila himself'?" Ultimately, of course, the answer is the second, and the movie succeeds because of it.