Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Eagle & the End of the Known World

The chances are, you missed Kevin MacDonald's The Eagle from last year;  starring Channing Tatum, Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong, the film obviously explores political scenarios of how the United States lost its honor (the eagle is our national emblem, after all) and that's an explosive topic the film handles well, but I am not going to explore that here, rather, I would like to examine the skill with which The Eagle presents us with the monsters of shame and dishonor lurking throughout Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) and how the film presents us illustrations for the real barbarian enemy where the end of the "known world" of our mind and soul begins and ends.
When Marcus and slave Esca get to Hadrian's Wall, the end of the "known world," a Roman soldier says, "See you in the afterlife," because their is no way that a Roman can survive "north of the wall," but that's precisely why the film offers a deep mirror for ourselves, because of the "walls" we put up within our psyche and the enemies lurking in the dark shadows waiting to destroy us. It's suicide to go beyond the known world within ourselves, but it's also suicide not to, and Marcus realizes that.
Very brief synopsis: Marcus is the son of a centurion in charge of 5,000 Roman soldiers who were sent north of Hadrian's Wall to establish the presence of Rome in the "barbarian north," but the Romans were attacked by various tribes and the Eagle Standard of Rome was lost as well. Marcus and his family have lived in disgrace for twenty years so Marcus lives solely to regain his family's honor, so he requests to be posted in Britain, the end of the known world. After valiantly protecting the fort he's in charge of, he's honorably discharged for his wounds. During a gladiator exhibition, Marcus saves the life of Esca (Jamie Bell) and Marcus gets Esca (a slave from one of the Celtic tribes) from his Uncle Aquilia (Donald Sutherland). Although Romans killed his family, Esca vows to serve Marcus as he must; when Marcus decides to go in search of the Eagle Standard that has been lost, he's putting his life in the hands of a slave that hates him but Marcus' life isn't worth living to him unless he can regain his honor.
The film itself invites a psychological interpretation based on symbols because that's what the film does with "The Eagle Standard," Marcus interprets its importance for Esca and the meaning of, "Where the Eagle is, there Rome is. What the Eagle does, that's what Rome has done."
When the film opens, it's a dark, winding river, shutting out the sun. The boat of Roman soldiers quietly drifts as a herd of cattle swims across, a young boy on a white horse watching them from the riverbank. I really enjoy when I know what something means, when a symbol is obviously working to the story line's advantage but The Eagle takes on that wonderful area of narrative everyone loves to hate: ambiguity.
Esca the slave and the gladiator fight to the death. As usual with "game theory," it's not a game, but a parable of what is taking place deep within ourselves. Esca, which means "bait" in Italian, is a psycho-analytic double for Marcus, because it is with Esca that Marcus can overcome the gladiator fighting him "to the death." Just before this scene happens, Marcus has been honorably discharged for his wounds, and that's a bitter pill for him because he had hoped that by serving honorably in Britain, he would redeem his family's name. Then, Marcus and his Uncle Aquilia go to the gladiator games and Marcus sees Esca. Esca refuses to fight the gladiator, who wears a mask on his face that also covers the back of his head. This contest is really about what is going on within Marcus at this time because Marcus now has to decide what he's going to do, and the masked gladiator symbolizes for Marcus the "great unknown" of what happened to his father and whether or not his father died fighting bravely. When Marcus calls out that Esca should be given life, it's really a vote in favor of himself that Marcus has cast because Marcus has decided that he will "take the bait" of finding the Eagle so he, too, can have life and overcome the masked gladiator within him.
Usually, it's a sign of poor writing that something important remains ambiguous, however, there is also that region where it is poor writing to try and explain something that must remain a mystery, words fail in reaching across a divide of experience and emotion and The Eagle gives us a great variety of all these aspects so we know with confidence that it's not leading us astray, but taking us on a fruitful exercise of understanding the dark regions of the soul, and the kind of light that brings healing to those dark regions.
So, what does the young boy on the white horse mean? The swimming cows? It's ambiguous.
We could say the swimming cows symbolize the general Roman soldier in their duty to Rome, just falling into line like the cows, and Marcus is the boy on the white horse, he's a different soldier because he's guided by the spirit of Rome and that nobility will help him throughout the upcoming quest. Water is necessary for life, yet it can also be destructive, and while we require challenges to strengthen us and discover who we are, challenges can also destroy us if we are not adequately prepared for them . .. no, none of that is really very satisfying, and that's okay; there are aspects of our daily lives that are ambiguous, especially our spiritual and psychological lives, but that doesn't mean we should write off everything as being ambiguous.
Skillful use is made of a green ring Marcus' father wore, and this is a sign that screenwriter Jeremy Brock knows what he's doing. While the green ring is first seen by the audience when Marcus is a young boy, and Marcus remembers his father before he disappears, the green of the ring symbolizes the type of man who kept the Roman Empire going, because Marcus' uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland) described his brother as a "perfect Roman."  The green, then, is likened to spring, the growth and fruitfulness of Flavius Aquila's royalty to Rome. When, however, he is killed by the Seal People of the North, and the ring is taken, the green turns to a sign of "envy" because of the power of the Romans the Seal People resent (and that's why they take the Eagle Standard); when Marcus regains his father's ring, it is a sign, not for Rome, but Marcus himself that he will have a springtime of growth and (inner) prosperity now that he can rest from his labors.
Another fabulous employment of symbols The Eagle uses is with masks.
Marcus and Uncle Aquilia (Donald Sutherland).
To me, the best example of masks used in a film is Amadeus: when Mozart opens the door and sees the mask that his deceased father had worn, and this man demands a Requiem Mass and is willing to pay for it, Mozart sees the mask as a job; but Salieri uses the Mass to "mask" his real intentions of killing Mozart, just as Mozart was masking his true feelings for Salieri (as a friend) until Salieri goes to a masquerade and sees Mozart playing his music and then farting to the crowd around him. The Eagle uses numerous masks in the same, complex and wonderfully diverse way.
Jamie Bell portraying Esca, the slave. This is the best shot of it I could find, but if you will notice, on his right, upper arm is a tattoo, supposedly a tribal marking from the Brigantes, to which he belongs. Being on his arm, it almost acts as a mask because his strength as a person comes from his true identity (which is comparable to Marcus' in Brigantes society) but he wears the social mask of a slave; you might say that's too easy, however, we can juxtapose this against the Seal People's Painted Warriors and the face/body paint they wear also acts as a mask. As a psycho-analytic double for Marcus, it's the double-edged sword we can all recognize: the power and might of Rome vs. the right of people to live their own lives with their own culture and traditions, and while Marcus is torn about this, he also becomes unified and healed because, at the end of the film, he and Esca walk out, their footsteps in unison with each other, symbolizing that the two positions have been reconciled within Marcus.
"Dark characters" in The Eagle wear masks consistently, so it not only masks identity, but motivation and relationship to Marcus. For example, in the gladiator contest Marcus watches with his uncle, a midget in a mask plays around in the ring, and then a gladiator in a mask tries to kill Esca (Jamie Bell); the gladiator's ring and the "game," make us question who is the gladiator and who is the slave? When Marcus and Esca go north of Hadrian's Wall, Marcus owns Esca, but Esca's knowledge definitely puts Marcus in Esca's care and the "mask" they both wear when they come to the village of the Seal People, that Esca is the owner of Marcus and Marcus the slave, not only masks their identity but their motivation for being there.
Esca watches as a painted warrior of the Seal People of the North checks for a scar under Marcus' chin (from the chin strap of Roman helmets) to see if Marcus really is a Roman. The "painted warriors" can also be said to wear masks because the painting hides features of their face, but also the way in which this particular warrior is killed by Marcus at the end: drowning. As Marcus holds this warrior under the water, all his face paint is washed away, and Marcus sees him as he really is. It's not just the terrifying war paint being "stripped" away, but the act of cleansing the wound this warrior symbolizes within Marcus' soul. Every battle scene within the film is a strategy of the film makers to depict for us the inner battles of Marcus and what it is attacking him, how the attack is achieved, and the wounds it leaves or the enemy he successfully overcomes.
Then there is the "priest" figure Marcus finds who has the Eagle Standard Marcus has been searching for; the priest wears a mask, animal skins and deer antlers. For a moment, before the unmasking of him, you think, because he wears the green ring of Flauvius Aquilia that maybe Marcus has found his father, but when the mask is taken off it reveals the leader of the village who had killed Marcus' father. The antlers are appropriate because it's a weapon, and the last words which the village leader says, in Gaelic so Marcus doesn't understand it, is about Marcus' father dying a coward, begging for his life, and even though Esca refuses to translate it for Marcus, Marcus has an idea because the possibility of his father dying as a coward is what the masked figure lurking within him has really been about, his darkest enemy, that lowest of animal instincts within us that discipline helps us to overcome: cowardice. And that's why the masked priest wears the animal skins, he validates Marcus' fear of his father's cowardice, but fortunately, that's not the truth.
Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes & Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) as Guern a member of Marcus' father's Roman soldiers who got away from the attack of the Seal People and has lived in the north since. Guern's "double life" as a Roman deserter is just one of the many layers of identity the film makers creates for its audience. When Guern dies, and his body is upon the funeral pyre, it's clear that Guern has not only symbolized the masked gladiator that Esca was up against in the beginning, because this unknown of what happened to his father was killing Marcus, but knowing the truth that comes from Guern gives Marcus his life back, just as the gladiator grants life to Esca.
Just one more example why this is a well-constructed film.
In the beginning, when Marcus has arrived at his first post, the fort is in disarray, and the fort (just as a house) symbolizes Marcus' soul; since Marcus has just achieved the position of centurion, he now has the inner-energy he needs to get the fort cleaned up, but when he was just a soldier, he didn't know if redeeming his family name was going to be possible; getting the fort command makes it possible now, and he does some much needed soul-searching and repairs, because when the attack comes, it's not (psychologically speaking) from the barbarian tribes, rather, from the Roman soldiers who call him "tainted" and a bad omen.
When Marcus has overcome (interiorly) the attack from his men, it wounds him, but the bravery he shows in standing up to them for the sake of his father's name, earns their respect, so this is a victory earned, however, as the surgeon later says, the wound is not dressed properly and there is still metal stuck within the wound, so it has to be re-opened and fixed again. This symbolizes the damage from a conversation that takes place over dinner at his uncle's home when a politician demoralizes Marcus, so Marcus undermines his first victory, taking the "bait" that only finding the Eagle will restore him completely to health, and it does.
Being attacked by rogue warriors is the same as being on your path and then you start having doubts; again, all the fights in the film symbolically present for us the difficulties Marcus has within himself as he travels through the unknown world.
The Eagle balances well-defined symbols with the region of ambiguity, but we shouldn't fret over the ambiguous, because there is plenty of that in all of us, and it reminds us of the inherent mystery of our own self that gives us our dignity as the children of God. That's probably the real reason a lot of critics didn't like it, yet the film gives us a solid foundation of symbols and conflicts, then builds upon that into the region that it knows for itself it can't discuss, but exists nonetheless, and just because it can't be discussed, doesn't mean it's not part of the known world and we should forget about it.
"Where do you want to go?" Esca asks Marcus as they stare at the vastness of the Highlands. There are a thousand glens and five thousand men could easily disappear into anyone of them. The point is, the vastness of this wilderness exists within each of us as well, and there might have been five thousand souls that disappeared into a region where we ourselves have to go, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't and it doesn't mean we won't conquer where others have failed.