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 tries and fails to answer 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 facts that Britons hate Romans, and for good reasons. Esca’s even got some 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 something of the same?
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.
Though handsomely mounted, in more than ways than one, The Eagle is fundamentally a coy con job. 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.