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Roman Warrior's Quest For Honor Tests Friendship in 'The Eagle'

Channing Tatum in scene from "The Eagle"
Channing Tatum in scene from "The Eagle"

A quest for honor becomes a test of friendship and respect for a Roman warrior and his slave in ancient Britain. The adventure set 20 centuries ago is re-told in a new film starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell and directed by Kevin MacDonald. Here's a look at The Eagle.

"Father of our fathers, help me lead my men well. Do not let me dishonor my legion. Please help me regain my family's honor."

Marcus Aquila is the newly-appointed commander of a frontier outpost in northernmost Britain along the wall that separates the Roman-ruled province from the warrior tribes of Caledonia (what is now Scotland). The young officer is searching for clues to what happened there 20 years earlier when his father led Rome's Ninth Legion, 5,000 strong, into the mist-covered hills, never to be seen again.

Marcus Aquila believes if he can recover the sculpted eagle standard under which his father and the Ninth Legion marched into battle, he can erase the shame their loss caused to Rome and his family name; but to do so, he needs the help of a slave - a young Briton named Esca whose own family is also linked to those events.

"No Roman can survive north of the wall alone."
"Then I'll take Esca. I can use his knowledge. He speaks the language."

Channing Tatum as Marcus Aquila in "The Eagle"
Channing Tatum as Marcus Aquila in "The Eagle"

American actor Channing Tatum stars as Marcus Aquila. He has played contemporary soldiers in several other films and Tatum sees a modern equivalent to this story of ancient enemies.

"I kind of equated it to putting a Taliban soldier and a U.S. soldier together and if they had to rely on each other to survive, would they do it?" explains Tatum. "What would they learn about each other in this survival mode? Would they put aside their differences and make it through or would they just kill each other? I think human instinct goes a long way. It just wants to survive."

Jamie Bell as Esca in "The Eagle"
Jamie Bell as Esca in "The Eagle"

English actor Jamie Bell co-stars as Esca and says it took some research to understand the character.

"Specifically, I didn't really know that much about this moment in history: what the Roman occupation of Britain was like, how many tribes were taken out, what the native peoples of Britain were all about," admits Bell. "So I actually went to a lot of museums and just looked at some of the artifacts and some of the archaeology and, just from a very physical level, saw what they had at their hands and what they could use. So that informs it a lot, but then, personally [which I think is the most profound part], this guy has nothing …he has nothing to live for. Everything has been taken away from him by these people. Also, I think because he didn't die …because he went on to survive and was then captured by these people and enslaved …there is a sense of shame and guilt that goes with this journey."

Kevin McDonald and Channing Tatum on the set of "The Eagle"
Kevin McDonald and Channing Tatum on the set of "The Eagle"

Guiding them on the cinematic journey, Scottish-born director Kevin MacDonald says he tried to create an authentic portrayal of ancient times while telling a very up-to-date story.

"I always saw this film as a 'western' set in the Roman world," explains MacDonald, "and it shares a lot of themes with some of the classic westerns of the 1950's, 60's and, particularly, the 70's when a lot of the westerns of that period [were] a commentary on the Vietnam War. Nobody wanted to see films about the Vietnam War then; it took a few more years for anyone to make one, but, of course, it was on everybody's minds. In the same way, I think today if you make a film about occupation and clashing of cultures, it's very difficult not to see that as in some way relevant to what's going on in the world today if you're British or American or whatever. Maybe a film that reflects on those issues, but in a more oblique way, would be more welcome."

The Eagle
screenplay is by Jeremy Brock, adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff's internationally popular novel The Eagle of the Ninth. The international cast includes Canadian Donald Sutherland as Marcus Aquila's influential uncle and French-born Tahar Rahim as the fearsome prince of the "seal people" tribe in ancient Scotland.