The Eagle is so much like an old school period piece that it feels almost new on how it goes about telling a story. It is the type of story that would have been told in the pre-CGI era when making things blow up was too expensive to have in every movie. The Eagle seems to be the type of story Ridley Scott would make if studio executives wouldn't interfere and inject CGI-steroids into his projects. The Eagle is a grounded down-to-earth movie that draws its strength from its simplicity.
Unlike an epic, The Eagle is not movie about the time it is set in but about its characters; it is a movie about friendship and loyalty that just happens to be set in Roman occupied Britain. It is the story of a Roman master, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) and his celtic slave Esca (Jaime Bell) who venture into hostile territory and in looking for the lost eagle of the 9th legion. For the characters the eagle is of great significance, but for the sake of the story it is just the excuse to get the characters launched into their adventure. Once Marcuse and Esca cross north of the wall they rely on each other for survival and the relationship of master and slave becomes one of equals. There is a certain elegance to how simple the premise of The Eagle is.
The Eagle has a second strength besides its ability to focus on a relatively small story; it has a genuine interest on the historical setting. There are no anachronistic cries of freedom or modern day morality slapped onto it for the sake of drama. It knows what life was like at the time and accepts it. Britain was a swamp filled island no Roman wanted to be in; despite this the Roman's occupied it because it was of strategic value to the Empire. The island was also home to many native tribes, amongst them the Celts, who didn't want the Romans to be there in the first place. I know little about Roman-era Scotland and the Celtic tribes that lived there at the time but something about how they are portrayed here felt real. This is probably because they don't look like anything Scotts have ever looked in the movies, and because they actually speak Gaelic.
These Scots don't wear plaid.
One thing is portraying these clashes for what they were and the another thing is dressing Mel Gibson in a plaid skirt while yelling, "freedom!" That is the modern day equivalent of a Native American dressing up in feathered headdress yelling "liberty!" It just didn't happen that way. The notions of personal liberty and freedom are modern inventions; the truth is for most of human history people were not concerned with abstract ideas like freedom but with everyday concerns like having food at the table. The Celts in The Eagle are fighting because the Romans are killing their hunt and raping their women not because the rule of a far off Emperor is being imposed on them.
Overall The Eagle is a solid film that is true to its nature. It is well made, well acted, and engaging. But I felt it didn't feel as fresh as it could. You've seen the story of reluctant friendships many times before and the setting has been explored every now and then. I understand that most people would prefer to see something a little more lighthearted this time of year. The Eagle is certainly not a romantic movie; in fact the absence of women is noticeable, but it didn't bother me as say in the case of The Thing. So what if it makes a terrible Valentine's date? The film is probably better than anything else out in theaters right now. Even then this is not the time of the year when the bar is placed high.