Sunday, 28 January 2018

Eagle of the Ninth

As a child, I adored the work of Rosemary Sutcliff, and one of my favourites was the Eagle of the Ninth, telling the story of the Ninth Hispana Legion as it marched north into the mists of Caledonia and into legend.
At the time, the early 1950s, Rosemary Sutcliff was working from current archaeological research, by which the Ninth really had marched north and disappeared. Since then, traces of the Legion have been found at a later date, elsewhere in the Roman Empire, but when she was writing it really did seem that they had vanished into the mists.
And the other inspiration for her story was archaeological work at Silchester, where a Roman eagle statue had been found hidden in the hypocaust of a villa there. You can still see the Silchester eagle, at the Museum of Reading, though now it seems that it may have been part of a statue in the town, and not a legionary eagle after all.

In 2011 a film was made of the book, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, and though Donald Sutherland was perfect as Uncle Aquila, the plot of the film left out about half the book, jettisoning Cottia (the girl next door), Cub (the wolf cub), and Marcus's disguise as the oculist Demetrius of Alexandria completely. And they changed the ending.

In 1977, though, BBC Scotland made the story into a series. I loved the series when it was first shown, starring Anthony Higgins as Marcus and Christian Rodska as Esca, so I was delighted when I learned that it was now available on DVD, from Simply Media - and a little apprehensive. Would it be as good as I remembered?
They obviously had a tiny budget, but they did have the advantage of the rolling Scottish hills to film in, which gave it that epic scope. The director also managed to film battle sequences quite cleverly using overlaying images and only about a dozen extras.
It's a difficult book to make a story of, with a lot of the action in flashback as the story of what happened to the Ninth is told by a Roman and a Caledonian tribesman, and towards the beginning of the book, Marcus spends months recuperating from his wound at his uncle's house with not a lot happening. They manage to fit the story into six episodes quite satisfactorily, though.
I was very happy. They got it right.

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