Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Rant About an Awful Movie

Last night the Duchess and I curled up on the sofa with a big bowl of Eton mess to watch The Eagle, the 2011 movie version of Roseary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.

Now, to put my reaction in context, The Eagle of the Ninth was one of the best things that ever happened to me as a young Dux. I was completely transported back to the world of the Roman Empire by the book, and by the old TV series that annoyingly has never been released on DVD. It is no exaggeration to say that it, and other books by Rosemary Sutcliff such as Frontier Wolf probably shaped my love of history, and thus the whole direction of my personal and professional life. It is a great regret of mine that I never wrote to Sutcliff before her death to tell her how much her books meant to me.

So, obviously any film was going to have to work hard to meet such powerful childhood associations. Nevertheless, I'd like to think that the Dux is a magnanimous viewer, happy to take a film on its own merits. For example, I largely liked the movie Centurion, which owed an obvious debt to Sutcliff's novels. And there were certainly things to like in The Eagle. The first half hour certainly evoked something of the isolation of a Roman frontier fort and the professionalism of the Roman army. Much of the photography was beautiful.

But here's the thing. I understand that anyone writing a screenplay needs to simplify novels to make them work as a film. Heck - Peter Jackson's The Two Towers arguably improved aspects of Tolkein's story. What I fail to understand is why anyone would wantonly stuff around with aspects of a story for no apparent reason other than to make the story more stupid and illogical. For example, in Sutcliff's novel, Marcus Aquila heads off North of Hadrian's Wall to find the eagle of his father's legion disguised as a travelling Greek eye doctor. This makes sense - it explains his foreigness in the eyes of the Picts he and his slave Esca meet, it allows him to travel widely and makes him valuable to the peoples he meets. This would hardly have been difficult to include in the film, but instead we just have Esca insisting on doing all the talking, while Marcus sits on his horse in the background looking Roman. As the Duchess asked, what on earth was Esca saying in all these encounters with random Picts? Presumably something like 'oi mate, we're looking for a Roman legion that disappeared here about 20 years ago. Have you seen it at all? No? Ok, thanks anyway. Romans? Us? No, no.' Ultimately of course we find out that Esca knew all about the site of the last stand of the Ninth Legion because his people, the Brigantes, implausibly travelled the length of Britain to take part in it. In fairness, I will point out that the overgrown battlefield they find with fragments of skeletons looked fantastic.

But enough of being fair. When they finally met the Seal People who buggered off with the Legion's Eagle, I nearly choked on my Eton Mess. What were the costume people thinking? Actually, the probably drunken meeting where they decided what they should look like is all too easy to reconstruct. 'In the book they're called the Seal People, yeah? Seals are, what, grey and that? So how about they have grey skin, you know, like seals? And because they are supposed to be dead hard, lets make them look like punks with mohawks. Actually, I saw Last of the Mohicans last week. How about we make them look like the Hurons or whatever from that, but grey, and wearing skulls on top of their heads. And camouflage jackets. Yeah, why not? Another pint? Go on then, I've only had eight.'

As bizarre as this was, the butchery the screenwriter made of the climax to the film eclipsed even whatever the Seal People did to the Ninth Legion. As Esca and Marcus escape with the Eagle, Marcus is finally unable to go on. Not to worry, Esca heads off and returns with a bunch of beardy old Roman survivors from the Ninth Legion, who fortunately have all kept their Roman shields and armour, so they can all give up their lives at last defending the Legion's Eagle and regain their lost honour. In the book, the chase reaches an altogether more satisfying and plausible climax as Marcus and Esca defend an abandoned watchtower. In the final, rushed, scene of the film, the two men, now friends, present the procurator of Britain with the Eagle, and he effectively promises Marcus that the legion will be reformed and he'll be given command of it! The conclusion to the book, which I won't give away, is infinitely superior.

Anyway, end of rant. I think I will read the book again as a form of ritual cleansing. As though having George Lucas to contend with wasn't enough.

11 comments:

  1. Agree, it is a rather lame film.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Too bad. I'll have to give Sutcliff a look. For me it was I Claudius, and that is on DVD.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the review, which confirmed the impression I've had from everything I've seen about the film. Will avoid like the plague! I wish Hollywood would not continue to butcher classic novels like this; I felt with LOTR that they were progressively less true to the books and characters, to the detriment of the films, so that by the end (ROTK) it was almost unwatchable, especially for anyone who had read the books.

    I did write to Rosemary Sutcliff back in 1986 to say how much I enjoyed her books and also to make some comments on e.g. the wrong trees turning up in "Frontier Wolf" (beech, never native in Scotland), one of my favourite books of hers. I had an interesting reply too. It strikes me (from what she said in that and elsewhere) that she never really accepted that she was an author writing fiction but wanted everything she wrote to be almost entirely true, a curious attitude in a novelist where the freedom to invent is much of the pleasure, I'd have thought.

    Cheers,

    David
    http://nba-sywtemplates.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sutcliff was a class act - a pity that such a pigs ear was made of the movie.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I watched this recently as well. Haven't read the book but I enjoyed the movie in general but....The Seal people WTF! Looked like some sort of Hollywood version of Canibals from the South Pacific!! Stoopid!
    Cheers

    ReplyDelete
  6. It wasn't that bad and that was a quality rant!

    ReplyDelete
  7. While I appreciate your anger at the 'demolition' of your favourite work of literature by the Hollywood machine, there can be little to compare to the utter arrogance on of the film Troy, where H'wood execs thought they could 'improve' on the plot of Homer's Illiad eg. let's not start the story 7 years into the war and tell the rest in flashback, let's keep it in chronological order so peeps aren't confused, ...or let's not let Achilles be killed by Paris after killing Hector, let's save it 'til the end of the movie..make it more like Die Hard. Doh!!!.

    It was just satisfying to see the film was panned by the critics and buried within 6 months of its release...compared to the Illiad, which has been getting rave reviews for the brilliance of its construction for...for...well around 2,700 years actually!!!

    Well Rosemary Sutcliffe has done well to be so highly regarded 30 odd years on. Just 2670 more to go!!!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sorry for being a year late - I only got here from the link in Parum Pugna. Enjoyed your review of the film very much - excellent job. For some reason, Rosemary Sutcliff rather passed me by, which is a shame. I checked the dates, and the Eagle of the Ninth was published in 1954, so it's not just that I am too old (which is refreshing - it usually is). I appear to have spent much of my childhood with my head up my bottom, and as an adult I would have had little patience with books for children, so I must make an effort to do something about that. My mother, I see, has many Sutcliff titles in her "upstairs" bookcase.

    I watched "The Eagle" with my son (who is 10), and he thought it was pretty good. I thought it was pretty good too, for the first half, and then it was like they sacked the director and the screen writers and tried to make the thing more like a formula adventure. The Seal People were scary, but very strange, and not at all convincing. The end of the film, as you say, is straight out of a bad Western.

    So I don't have the personal grievance of comparing it to the book, but just found it poor and flatulent from basic principles.

    Agree about the Iliad. Come to think about it, I recall having my head available at school to translate (and elide, of course) most of Virgil's Aeneid - in fact I can still recall great chunks of it "instat vi patria Pyrrhus nec claustra nec ipsi custodes suffere valent" and so on. Maybe *that* is what I spent my childhood doing? Who knows?

    That's enough about me. My compliments, once again, on your critical style - enjoyed it very much.

    Tony

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Tony for your thoughtful and generous comment. I would recommend having a crack at Sutcliffe's 'Frontier Wolf'. Terrific story, but I often wonder whether my continued enjoyment of it is overly influenced by childhood nostalgia. If you do read it, I'd be very interested to hear what you think.

      Cheers,

      Alan.

      Delete
    2. Alan - I won't report back on a regular basis(!), but I duly went to my mum's and borrowed a stack of Sutcliff books, and have started off with Frontier Wolf, as recommended. Going very well, but on p34 it states that the HQ of the Votadini were at Traprain Law, to the South East of the fortress at Cramond. This is all correct - I know about the Votadini, and their stronghold at Traprain (which in those days was called Dunpender, or something similar) is about 6 miles from my house. You can see Traprain Law from our upstairs windows.

      Nothing unpredictable, but faintly spooky. Last time this happened to me was in 1984, when I was recovering from an operation, and I was reading Sassoon's "Diary of a Foxhunting Man" trilogy in my garden in Edinburgh. At one point, Sassoon describes a bicycle trip from Slateford Hospital to visit a friend at the Observatory, and he reports that he rode along "The Greenbank Road", which was, in fact, where I was sitting as I read it. He rode past my house in the account I was reading!

      Ho hum. Just coincidence. I was tempted to have a look outside to see if there was any sign of him...

      Cheers - good recommendation about the Sutcliff books - I'll get my son wired into these as well - many thanks.

      Tony

      Delete
    3. That's great news Tony. I once climbed up Traprain Law the morning after a blizzard went through. I've never been so cold in my life. I love the Sassoon story. That must have sent shivers up your spine.

      Cheers,
      Alan.

      Delete