Immediately after Jamie Bell’s character, Esca the slave, appears shirtless in a small Roman coliseum and refuses to fight the hairy gladiator for the sport of the attending Romans, Channing Tatum’s character, Marcus Aquila, persuades the crowd to spare his life.
His uncle, played by Donald Sutherland, asks him, “Now why did you do that?”
He doesn’t answer, and the rest of the film avoids answering the same question.
Similarly, the narrative never really explains or justifies Esca’s devotion to his master, a devotion that only deepens when Marcus sets him free, despite the fact that Britons hate Romans for good reasons. Esca’s even got some character-specific reasons: Marcus’ father killed his entire family.
So, I’m supposed to believe that honor and some vague notion of “freedom” are the sole reasons why Esca turns his back on his cultural heritage, his personal tragedies, his opportunity to get revenge, and the bedrock reason why he was willing to sacrifice his life willingly rather than fight for the satisfaction of his enemies? That Marcus saved Esca for similar reasons?
The only thing that could compel most human beings to behave so, well, stupidly, is love. Or lust, or some combination of the two.
Marcus was a Roman, after all.
The Eagle, though beautifully mounted, is fundamentally a sly con job in more ways than one. This is a love story with hints of sexual obsession and symbolic dom/sub roleplay. There’s even a flip-flop in the last half of the film.
Then again, maybe all the references to Hadrian’s Wall represent some sort of inside joke.