The Eagle (12A) * * *

Jamie Bell, left, as Esca and Channing Tatum as Marcus Aquila
Jamie Bell, left, as Esca and Channing Tatum as Marcus Aquila
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Abrave and noble son atones for the sins of his father in Kevin Macdonald’s swords and togas epic, based on the novel The Eagle Of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Set in the wilds of 140 AD England and Scotland but partly filmed in Hungary, The Eagle pits the might of the Rome Empire against the barbarism of the indigenous tribes, who slit the throats of their badly behaved children.

Channing Tatum strides manfully into the breach as the emotionally and physically scarred hero of the hour, coping well with the rigours of Jeremy Brock’s screenplay that includes some bone-crunching battle sequences.

A skirmish between the legionnaires and the heathens at the beginning of the film, the latter charging into the fray on chariots with blades affixed to wheels, is thrillingly captured by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editor Justine Wright.

Blood and mud spatter the camera lens as swords clash and sinews ripple, at least one soldier losing a limb as those horse-drawn carriages scythe through Roman defences.

Underpinning the barbarism is the unlikely friendship between master and slave, whose distrust must be put to one side as they venture north of Hadrian’s Wall, in search of a military trophy.

In 120 AD, the entire Ninth Legion disappears without trace in Scotland and its standard, a golden eagle, is lost forever to the eternal shame of Rome.

The commander of those soldiers also vanishes and 20 years later, his son, Marcus Aquila (Tatum), accepts a posting in Roman-occupied southern Britain in order to learn the truth about his father’s demise.

The young soldier is badly injured protecting his men and he recuperates with the help of his uncle (Donald Sutherland) and slave boy Esca (Jamie Bell), whom Aquila saves from certain death in the gladiator’s ring.

‘I hate you and everything you stand for but you saved my life, and I must serve you,’ seethes Esca.

Once he has regained his strength and mobility, Aquila heads north in search of answers accompanied by Esca, a member of the tribe of savages responsible for slaying the Ninth.

The Eagle hinges on the rapport between the leads and Tatum is impressive, bringing a brooding physicality and emotional vulnerability to his role.

Bell pales by comparison but gets his moment to shine in a touching scene, when Esca defies the orders of Aquila and refuses to leave the badly wounded Roman to his untimely fate.

With Tatum and Sutherland cast as Romans, British co-stars must adopt unconvincing American accents for the sake of continuity.

Mark Strong comes off worst as one of the long-lost members of the Ninth, who charges into battle to protect Aquila in his hour of need.

Thankfully his swordplay is more polished.