Some movies seem compelled to arrive in pairs, a bit like the animals on Noah’s Ark. I’m sure there are many good reasons why two studios might release films with a similar plot or theme at the same time, and I’m almost certain they don’t all involve conspiracies and dark dealings. It could be just coincidence. Perhaps it’s simply the right time for a movie, say, about an obscure Roman Legion that passed out of history into legend some nineteen hundred years ago…?
As cynical as that might sound, I suspect it actually might be the reason why we’re getting two movies in 2010 about the last stand of the fabled Ninth Legion in AD 117. In both Neil Marshall’s Centurion and Kevin MacDonald’s The Eagle of the Ninth (which would be a great name for a movie about golf), parallels are drawn between events in the distant past and the present.
We wrote about the first trailer for Centurion a couple of weeks ago and were suitably impressed. As we’ve come to expect from the director of Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Doomsday, the body count in Centurion appears to be well off the scale, but the blood and gore are in context and from what we can see Marshall has crafted an atmospheric, brooding epic set during the Roman occupation of Britain.
The title of Kevin MacDonald’s forthcoming feature leaves no doubt about its shared heritage with Centurion. The Eagle of the Ninth is an adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel of the same name, and like Centurion it is based more on legend than history. Even so, while Marshall and MacDonald each have one eye on the past, the other is firmly fixed on the present. Both depict a clash of cultures between a Roman Superpower and an occupied people, and the parallels between ancient Rome and the US are obvious and intentional.
That’s nothing new of course as such parallels have been recognised both inside and outside the US for years, with the notable difference that the parallels identified by those on the outside tend to be less favourable. And it’s a difference of perception that has only intensified in recent years with military activity in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the US’s ever-expanding cultural dominance.
Rightly or wrongly, the US’s cultural success is experienced by many as another form of Imperialism.
In a recent interview with Times Online MacDonald explained that his casting of American actors as Romans was always his “concept for this film.” Channing Tatum has the role of Marcus Aquila, an idealistic Roman soldier, and Donald Sutherland is his uncle, Aquila, who is convinced of the superiority of the Roman way. While it’s not unusual for non US movies to cast American actors as a draw-card in the US, MacDonald’s comments suggest that his chief motivation was to emphasise the parallel between Rome and the US. How successful this will be remains to be seen: we’re so used to Americans on screen that MacDonald’s point risks being missed.
It’s instructive that having established a parallel between ancient Rome and the US in Centurion and The Eagle of the Ninth, both British filmmakers then set about providing their symbolically American protagonists with a life changing experience that alters their perception of themselves and their homeland. Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds) who plays Quintus Dias in Centurion told Empire, “I guess you can always make modern-day parallels to the occupation of Iraq. But it’s the idea of someone who believes in an ethos, becomes disillusioned and comes to his own sort of beliefs. So there are parallels, and it’s interesting when you take it out of our time frame and stick it back 2,000 years.”
MacDonald describes an almost identical scenario in his movie, “It’s a film about a guy who believes wholeheartedly in the values of Rome, and believes everyone else must want to become a part of the great family of Rome.
“Marcus thinks, ‘It would benefit them so much — can’t they see it is the only way to live their lives?’ He comes to realise there are other value systems, other people have a claim to honour in the same way that he as an American — or a Roman — can claim honour. This is a film which in some way reflects some of the current anxieties and the political questions that we all have.”
Not all of us, I suspect.
In MacDonald’s opinion, The Eagle of the Ninth is in the tradition of Ulzana’s Raid or A Man Called Horse, Westerns made in the 1970s with a strong anti-war message and something to say about the right of occupied peoples to retain their culture: “That’s what we are doing — not simply reflecting on the Afghanistan or Iraq wars, but a sense of cultural imperialism. Those films dealt with torture and maltreatment of prisoners, but in the context of Indians. The parallel is definitely there, and it is part of what you would want the audience to take away from the film.”
A fairly predictable reaction to MacDonald’s comments from some quarters has been indignation that the director would focus on the US exclusively when other nations could just as well be targeted. The title of one article says it all: “Kevin MacDonald Admits Eagle of the Ninth is a Hit Piece on America”. The article is heavy with sarcasm and very much aggrieved that MacDonald sticks it to the US when the US has only been at it for 100 years and the “UK did it for a good 400 years, and they were infinitely harsher about ‘teaching’ the ways of the Empire”. Hmm.
It is of course legitimate to ask why MacDonald focuses on the US and not, say, Britain, and MacDonald’s response is simply this: “Britain isn’t a force any more, we aren’t cultural imperialists. That just didn’t seem the right way to go.” And he’s absolutely right. From a filmmaker’s perspective the US is the current Superpower and for the sake of contemporary relevance if no other reason, it is the most significant parallel to ancient Rome.
Kevin MacDonald is responsible for two outstanding documentaries, One Day in September and Touching the Void, as well as the critically acclaimed movie The Last King of Scotland, and most recently an adaptation for the big screen of the BBC’s exceptional 6-part thriller State of Play. He has completed the director’s cut of Eagle of the Ninth, which also stars Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as Esca, a Celtic slave, and the incomparable Mark Strong.
One final word then from the aggrieved writer quoted above: Eagle of the Ninth “arrives to explain to you the evils of America in September 24, 2010”.