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THE EAGLE

Centuries, Decades, Years
Late in the 20th century, one of Britain's top movie producers, BAFTA Award winner and Academy Award nominee Duncan Kenworthy, noticed that a certain kind of story wasn't being told any more on-screen; where, he wondered, were the historical dramas of high adventure?

He recalls, "As a boy, I'd read and loved all Rosemary Sutcliff's novels about the Dark Ages, and about Roman Britain, but especially The Eagle of the Ninth. I remember describing it to Mike Newell, when we were on set shooting [the Best Picture Oscar nominee] Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1993, as my favorite childhood book. "Mike told me one of his kids was at that very moment reading and loving it – many years after me – and that sent me back to it one more time. It's a wonderfully resonant and exciting story, with characters, issues, and emotions as vivid to me today as when Rosemary dreamed them up. I decided there and then that one day I would make a movie of it.”

Sutcliff had based her 1954 story on a tantalizing piece of then-current historical research: the disappearance of Rome's Ninth Legion. Stationed for several years in Eburacum – present-day York, in northern England – the Ninth suddenly vanished from the records in 120 AD, giving rise to the belief that they had marched north into Scotland and never returned. Today's historians are divided as to whether the Ninth did indeed vanish in the north, or whether they were instead posted elsewhere, but the original story of their disappearance remains historically viable. The novel, which has sold more than 1,000,000 copies over the decades, was previously dramatized for the U.K.'s Radio 4; and was made into a BBC serial of six half-hour episodes in 1977.

Kenworthy reached out to the late author's agents, estate and publisher, but he had backto- back projects in the 1990s. So it wasn't until 1998, during the making of another of his hit movies, that things progressed. He reports, "I have a vivid memory of standing on location in the Ritz Hotel in London – shooting Notting Hill – on the phone to the Oxford University Press about the movie rights.”

At first, Kenworthy's intention was to make a big-budget sword-and-sandal movie out of the book, and when Gladiator became a blockbuster hit and the Best Picture Oscar winner of 2000, the cinematic pendulum swung in favor of his vision. Then Kenworthy's pursuit of the rights in The Eagle of the Ninth came to the attention of director Kevin Macdonald. The filmmaker had won an Academy Award for his documentary feature One Day in September and had also recently made the docudrama Touching the Void. Kenworthy notes, "I already knew Kevin; his brother Andrew and I had started DNA Films together and Andrew was my producing partner at the time. Kevin came to me saying he'd heard I had the rights to The Eagle of the Ninth, and that he'd always wanted to direct a Roman adventure movie and had always loved this book. Could he direct it?

"At that point, though, I didn't yet have a script – I'd been waiting several years for one particular British writer who was passionate about the book but still unavailable – and Kevin had never done a narrative feature, let alone a big picture, so I didn't think there was much point in talking. I'd only ever hired a director after I had a script I felt was ready to go; developing a film with a director was something I had never done before.”

Macdonald, like Kenworthy, had carried the book in his consciousness for years. He remembers, "I read the novel when I was about 12 years old and was absolutely held by it. There was something about the atmosphere on the edge, and the way in which these cultures met – the Celtic, the British, and the Roman Empire – that stuck with me. The book fed my love of history, and now I felt I could tell it on film in a way that did justice to it and depict incredible worlds of 2,000 years ago.

"The story is also about friendship; the lead characters are two people from different cultures who don't understand each other and who see the world in different ways, and who must move beyond that to see each other as human beings.”

While the producer considered how to proceed, the movie industry sought to capitalize on Gladiator. Kenworthy comments, "A couple of ‘historical epics' were made and released, and they represented the road I quickly realized I didn't want to travel with The Eagle. They were too big, with too many computer-generated effects – replicated armies, invented cultures, and characters that didn't seem to me to belong to the real world.

"What's always been central to the appeal of The Eagle to me is powerful and credible emotional storytelling about real characters in a real world. Two men struggling through the mountains of Scotland; wet, cold, hungry, once wanting only to die but now driven to succeed. Yes, they pray to different gods, and the world is unrecognizably violent, but we know these men; we feel the passions that drive them. They just happen to live 2,000 years ago. I realized then that it would be wrong to inflate it in any way; that it should be as authentic as a documentary made by Romans, wearing their own clothes, shot in the places they'd actually journeyed to. Exciting, of course – entertaining, certainly – but feeling real in every way. And with that realization, Kevin became the perfect person to direct it.”

So in 2005 Kenworthy contacted Macdonald, who was preparing DNA's The Last King of Scotland. He notes, "Kevin didn't hold it against me that I had hesitated the first time around, and we've been working on it together ever since.”

Macdonald had been very impressed by screenwriter Jeremy Brock's work on The Last King Of Scotland, and immediately proposed bringing him on board to adapt The Eagle of the Ninth. Kenworthy remembers, "We had another writer on The Eagle at first, one who was great but just couldn't crack it. I was paying for the development myself, so it was a big decision for me as to whether to roll the dice again. Kevin suggested Jeremy, whose work I'd admired since Mrs. Brown, so I decided to give it one more go.”

"It turned out to be a fantastic threesome. If it's just two of you – writer/director and producer, or producer/director and writer – it can often go smoothly, but it's rarely a marriage of equal voices. But having three people, each with a different perspective, somehow breaks the impasse; disagreement is simply one more way of moving forward. The three of us working together resulted in some of my most enjoyable moments on the film. We used to sit in Jeremy's office high on Highgate Hill, talking about the story all day, testing ideas and coming up with new ones. Jeremy would go off to rewrite and then we'd come back and go through it all again. To have such privileged creative experiences is the reason I'm making movies.”

Macdonald remarks, "The Eagle explores a specific part of history that has rarely been seen on the big screen before. Movie audiences haven't much seen these people, these cultures, and these landscapes. Speaking of which, Black Robe is one film that influenced my concepts for making The Eagle.”

The movie could already be seen in Brock's pages. According to Kenworthy, "The key narrative structure of the film – two men on an impossible quest – isn't itself complicated, though it has surprising twists and turns. But there are some very rich resonances. These two men are completely different: Roman and Briton, conqueror and conquered, neither of them liking or even understanding the other, yet tied together – n

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