The Eagle of the Ninth
Author: Jeremy Brock
Writer’s Potential: 3
Logline:With the help of a Celtic slave, a Roman soldier searches ancient Caledonia for his father.
Synopsis:In 135 AD, 15 years after the Ninth Legion of the Roman army disappeared in northern Britain, MARCUS FLAVIUS AQUILA (23) leads a cohort of 500 troops to a Roman fort in the British countryside. LUTORIUS, a grizzled Centurion, greets Marcus and shows him the ropes. After getting the lay of the land, Marcus asks what they do for fun. Lutorius takes Marcus to CRADOC, a British charioteer. Cradoc shows Marcus the British chariots — larger and less difficult to control than Roman chariots — and they race through the cornfields and forests. Marcus and Cradoc become fast friends, to the consternation of Lutorius, GALBA, and other Centurions, who think Marcus is tainted. Galba explains that Marcus’s father was the man who lost the Eagle of the Ninth, along with 5000 men. Marcus awakens and observes that their shipment of grain hasn’t arrived. Lutorius tells him it’s normal for goods to arrive late. Marcus tells Galba to send out the patrol. While patrolling, Marcus catches sight of creatures sneaking through the tall grass. Unsure of whether or not it’s just cattle, Marcus errs on the side of caution and assembles the troops.
Legionaries and Centurions spring into action, and not a moment too soon. A huge line of Celts attack the fort. In the distance, Marcus sees the cart full of grain. So do the Celts, who form a division between the fort and the cart. Marcus is forced to lead the men out of the fort and into battle. He’s surprised to see Cradoc among the men doing battle. Marcus kills Cradoc. In the distance, Marcus sees a standard bearer carrying the Eagle of the Ninth. He flashes on his father, FLAVIUS, carrying the Eagle through their Tuscan villa. Flavius gives young Marcus a wooden reproduction of the huge, iron Eagle. He tells Marcus that the Eagle is charmed and that if young Marcus talks to his Eagle, Flavius will hear him wherever he is.
In the present, Marcus awakes in his UNCLE AQUILA’s villa. He wonders how he got off the battlefield. Uncle Aquila tells him reinforcements came. Marcus is injured and must rest and recuperate. Uncle Aquila has Marcus play checkers with his slave, STEPHANOS. Some time later, Lutorius visits Marcus with news. The cohort has been rewarded for holding the fort. Marcus is proud, but that’s short-lived: Lutorius sheepishly tells him that he’s being honorably discharged because of his wounds. This sends Marcus into a depression. As he continues to heal at Aquila’s villa, he grows bored. Days later, Marcus asks Aquila what his father was like. Aquila tells Marcus he was the perfect Roman, and that he must have died defending the Eagle. They go to a coliseum and watch gladiators fight to the death. One of the gladiators is ESCA, who bears the blue markings of the Celtic tribe Marcus recently fought. Marcus believes he resembles Cradoc. Esca’s opponent catches him in a net. Marcus tries to convince the audience to choose life after such an unfair victory. Eventually, the audience is swayed. Listening to them, the gladiator spares Esca.
The next morning, Marcus calls for Stephanos. Aquila announces he bought Marcus a personal slave. Marcus says he doesn’t need one, but Aquila says Stephanos can’t serve two masters. Marcus introduces Aquila to Esca. Esca tells Marcus that, although he doesn’t wish to be a slave and he hates Marcus and everything he stands for, he must serve Marcus because he saved his life. Esca is a sloppy but somewhat helpful servant. When Marcus collapses, Aquila calls in a SURGEON, who is disgusted by the poor treatment Marcus’s wounds received. Esca is forced to hold Marcus down while the surgeon works.
Six months later, Marcus has healed. He and Esca hunt in the forest. Knowing Esca was around for the attack on the Ninth, Marcus asks him about it. Esca tells him that the Roman soldiers must have liked the Caledonian weather so much that they stayed. He says he hears that the Eagle is a god that haunts the forests. Marcus asks if his tribe believes that. Esca says his tribe is dead, slaughtered by the Romans. Both of his brothers died, along with his father, who killed his mother to spare her the torture. Esca was the only survivor. Marcus brings CLAUDIUS to Aquila’s village. He tells Claudius that the Eagle is held by tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall. Claudius is skeptical and says he can’t lead troops based on a rumor — besides which, the last time anyone went that far north, 5000 people disappeared. Marcus suggests sending only one person an expedition — Marcus. Claudius doesn’t like the risk, but Marcus insists. Aquila also warns him of the risk, so Marcus tells him he’ll take Esca. As a Celt, he’ll blend in. Aquila’s horrified that Marcus would entrust himself to a slave. Marcus has no problem with it.
Marcus and Esca ride through the frontier to Hadrian’s Wall. They’re heckled by the guards and gatekeepers as they go past “the end of the world” into Caledonia. They ride through the lowlands, with Esca talking to Celts along the way, trying to figure out what happened to the Ninth. At one point, rogue warriors attack. Esca and Marcus fight side by side. Esca kills well with a bow, but when he’s forced into a close-range knife fight, Esca hesitates with the deathblow. The warrior runs away, but Marcus kills him. Esca and Marcus stop in a village, where the elder remembers nothing more than the Legion marching north. They reach the mountains that mark the highlands. Esca isn’t sure about this — the highlands are so vast and easy to hide in, all 5000 troops could be alive and well and it’d take them years to find them.
As they ride through the highlands, they’re attacked by a warrior. Esca hesitates to kill him yet again, enraging Marcus. Esca announces he’s a Roman legionary. He has the telltale chin-strap scar from a Roman helmet. The legionary, GUERN, is shocked when Marcus tells him that he’s the son of Flavius. Esca doesn’t trust Guern because he’s a deserter, but Marcus wants to give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s a Roman. Guern leads him to the village where he’s settled. As they ride, Guern tells what happened to the other troops. Although they had 5000, the Caledonians had more. They ravaged the Romans for four nights, until most mutinied and deserted to save their own lives. Marcus asks what happened to the Eagle. Guern says the Seal People have it. Marcus asks how to find them. Guern tells them, then says he’s upset that Marcus forced him to relive his shame. Marcus says he doesn’t judge Guern. Guern says the remaining soldiers have their swords and shields still. They part ways as Marcus and Esca head for the Seal tribe. Marcus is angry with Esca — part of Guern’s story suggested that Esca’s tribe was responsible for hunting the Romans. They get into a brawl about it just as they’re surrounded by the Seal people. Esca pretends Marcus is his slave. This impresses the SEAL PRINCE, who has only heard of Germanic tribes keeping Roman slaves. The Prince takes Esca and Marcus back to their village. The CHIEFTAIN marvels at Marcus. Marcus wanders with the other servants before asking what to do.
Late at night, Marcus thinks he sees Flavius in the Chieftain’s hut. He also stares at the Seal Prince’s attractive sister. When the Seal Prince catches him, he’s enraged. He tells Esca to control his slave, Esca beats Marcus and offers to allow the Seal Prince to kill him. The Seal Prince doesn’t. That night, Marcus thinks he hears his father calling him. Marcus sneaks out of the hut and catches sight of the Seal Prince, making urgent plans. He follows the Seal Prince to a massive throng of young warriors. In the distance, Marcus sees a standard bearer raise the Eagle of the Ninth. He tries to sneak toward it when he’s knocked unconscious by warriors. Later, Esca wakes Marcus and announces this night is their only chance to get the Eagle. He must come while they’re asleep. Together, they sneak into a cave and steal the Eagle. As they leave, a small boy sees them. Marcus wants to kill him before he can alert the others, but Esca tells the boy not to tell anybody and trusts him to keep his word.
They ride quickly through the night, away from the village. A few days later, Esca spots the Seal People in pursuit. He says they’re a half-day away, so as long as they keep ahead, they should be fine. Unfortunately, they have to move slower than expected because of their increasingly tired horses. Marcus’s leg injury acts up, preventing him from walking. With the Caledonians’ dogs in hot pursuit, Esca drags Marcus to a hidden overhang whose smell is obscured by a stag, which confuses the dogs. Marcus gives Esca the Eagle and tells him to leave and save his own life. Esca refuses. Marcus grants Esca his freedom and demands that he leave his sight. Marcus sits with his handmade Eagle replica, waiting to die as he watches the Celts get closer. Just as they discover him, lying still, the Celts approach — maybe two dozen in all. Marcus is shocked by the sight of 30 old Roman legionaries rumbling through the highlands, swords and shields in hand, led by Esca and Guern. They defer to Marcus’s leadership. Marcus leads them into battle. Despite the even numbers, it’s a tough battle. Nonetheless, the Romans are willing to fight to save the Eagle. Marcus and Esca survive, along with a few Legionaries, but the Celts are vanquished. Marcus asks Esca where he’ll go now. Esca isn’t sure. The two directionless warriors discuss what to do. Hunt? Farm? Breed horses? They ride away, uncertain of where they’ll go next.
Comments:The Eagle of the Ninth wants to create a rousing, modern epic in the style of Gladiator. Unfortunately, both the story and characters lack depth and intrigue, yet there’s not enough action to keep things moving along. As written, the script merits a pass.
Because the search for the Eagle drives the narrative, the most important thing the writer needs to do is establish its utter importance to both Marcus and Rome, and the negative consequences of Marcus’s failure. The writer never does this, opting instead to spend the first act setting up Marcus’s injuries, devoting the second act to the search, and the third act to his and Esca’s escape and the ultimate redemption of the Ninth. The story lacks stakes and doesn’t set up meaningful conflicts — yes, there are battle sequences, but the enemy is virtually faceless.
The characters don’t fare much better. Little is learned about Marcus other than his bravery and his obsession with finding the Eagle on behalf of his presumed-dead father. Esca has a tearful monologue about his slain family, but aside from that, he doesn’t get much development. The relationship between these two characters should have been much more compelling, but the conflict between the two is short-lived, and the writer fails to exploit the interesting opportunity of having Marcus act as Esca’s slave in front of the Seal People. Similarly, none of the supporting characters have much depth. The Romans who are introduced early in the story do nothing but provide exposition and fade into the woodwork. The Seal People are portrayed as generic, bloodthirsty savages, with no nuance or subtlety.
Overall, this script feels like nothing but missed opportunities. Not even a great cast or lavish production design can save this script.