Endgame

Late last Saturday night my oldest son and I decided to see the newly released film The Eagle. We were too late for the 7:25 showing so we went to the 9:55 late show. The film is based upon Rosemary Sutcliff’s award winning 1950s novel The Eagle of the Ninth. He and I are both fans of the book and couldn’t wait to see this movie. We both thought it odd that it received very little promotion and couldn’t remember seeing a commercial for it on television (I stumbled across the movie’s premier online somewhere). I had read some of the reviews, both by critics and viewers, but was undeterred. I’ve learned that their tastes and opinions often vary widely from my own.

  • “It’s not Lord of the Rings,” said one. (What is?)
  • “It’s really an allegory for America’s empire declining.” (Ummm…what?)
  • “It’s not Gladiator.” (I’m beginning to see why sequels are popular.)
  • “The Romans have American accents. Usually in movies the Romans have British accents.” (Really? This is the best you have?)
  • “Historically inaccurate.” (Riiiiight. Hollywood is known for its historical accuracy.)
  • “It’s not 300.” (Apparently the screenwriters in Hollywood aren’t the only ones with no originality.)

Still, we went. Twenty minutes into the film I knew why the critics hated this film and/or struggled with it. They didn’t understand it. Unfortunately I am of the belief that many Americans won’t understand it either.

While walking from the theater to the car in a soft rain Nolan asked me what I thought of it. I told him I could sum up the movie’s overarching theme in one word.

“Want to know what it is?” I asked him.

“Honor,” he said.

Bingo.

This is a film steeped in the concept of honor. (High respect, esteem. Good name; reputation. – thefreedictionary.com) It wraps it tightly around itself and wears it proudly throughout. And that is why so many who have reviewed it didn’t like the film. It is a film about honor and choices. No wonder the critics didn’t like the movie. Its overarching theme is beyond their comprehension or knowledge. If I was a conspiracy theorist I would say that that’s precisely why they panned the movie: to discourage an audience from seeing it and rediscovering honor. But that would be giving them too much credit.

And yet my fifteen-year old son understood.

(If you do not know the plot of the book you can read a brief synopsis here. The movie stays fairly true to the book.)

Marcus Flavius Aquila is the son of the man who commanded the doomed IX Legion Hispana. Twenty years after the disappearance of the 5,000 men in the wild north country of Britain, Marcus is Pilus Prior Centurion of the Fourth Gaulish Auxiliary of the Second Legion, based in southern Britain. When asked where he wanted to have his first command the newly minted officer said Britain, a place not known for glory or coveted by Roman commanders. Wounded after leading a successful defense of his fort from a local uprising he is sent to the home of his paternal uncle, played in the movie by Donald Sutherland. While recovering he receives word of his honorable discharge from the military. He sees his opportunities to restore honor to his father’s name vanishing.

It is here we meet Esca – a defeated gladiator that Marcus purchases as his personal slave after being moved by the choice Esca makes in the arena. Their relationship quickly becomes much more than master and slave, and we find that Esca and Marcus are almost mirror reflections of each other. Esca is from the Brigantes tribe from northern Britain – his father, like Marcus’, was a commander, a clan chieftain. In a battle against the Legions, Esca was injured, taken prisoner and enslaved to fight as a gladiator.

His wounds healed and his military career over, Marcus decides to venture north of Hadrian’s Wall and attempt to bring back the standard of his father’s legion, the Golden Eagle. Again, in the name of honor. And again a choice is made, this time by Esca. It is one of honor.

Repeatedly on their journey we see characters make their choices where honor is concerned. Some choose wrongly, but redemption is offered them in the end. Even the extreme northern tribe, the blue-painted Seal People have an honor of their own.

Is it a great movie? No. It is not without its flaws, but they lie not in the story’s execution but more in the director’s choice for filming the battle sequences. The herky-jerky hand-held camera motion was distracting and difficult to follow. But when you’re fighting for your life with nothing but a sword and a shield I don’t imagine it’s much better. But it is a solid movie that I will own on DVD one day.

This brings me to our country today and why I believe the critics, and the movie-going public at large, don’t get it. I could give example after example of the lack of honor in our culture. Any of us can. Just look at the headlines. Hell, look at the manner in which the news organizations present their stories. Pay attention to the types of stories that the media is presenting. When I was young my mother always bought The National Enquirer. I would read it as a lark, much as in college when I’d buy The Weekly World News and tape the bizarre headlines onto our dorm door for a joke. Thirty years later one can no longer tell The National Enquirer from the mainstream media. And that’s sad. I used to think they were patronizing their audience and treating us like children. I now believe that’s only half true. I believe the children themselves are writing the headlines. And these immature adults-in-name-only have no concept of honor.

To illustrate my point about the lack of honor in our country today I present Exhibit A:

Columbia University students heckled a war hero during a town-hall meeting on whether ROTC should be allowed back on campus.

“Racist!” some students yelled at Anthony Maschek, a Columbia freshman and former Army staff sergeant awarded the Purple Heart after being shot 11 times in a firefight in northern Iraq in February 2008. Others hissed and booed the veteran.

[snip]

Several students laughed and jeered the Idaho native, a 10th Mountain Division infantryman who spent two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington recovering from grievous wounds.

Maschek, who is studying economics, miraculously survived the insurgent attack in Kirkuk. In the hail of gunfire, he broke both legs and suffered wounds to his abdomen, arm and chest.

There is no honor at Columbia University. They’ve proven it time and time again. Sadly they are not alone in their shame. I could have chosen any number of stories in the news today, and from either side of the political aisle. But this one illustrates my point sufficiently.

Rome may have gone down as an empire and as a culture for a variety of reasons, and it did. I’ve studied the Roman empire in its various stages through its end. Near that end among the many things lost was honor.

The movie critics who tried to make the plot of The Eagle stretch to fit their simplistic worldview may have been right, but not for the reasons they thought.

In the book I’m writing for my kids when I came to the letter H for the eighth installment, “honor” was among the subjects I considered. But I passed it over to write about something that I believe to be greater than honor: Hope.

Without hope there can be no honor regained. There can be no redemption. There is no purpose or going forward, no improving ourselves and making the most of our opportunities. I won’t go further into it here. It’s in my book. But I’ll close with this: while I am saddened and dismayed by our culture’s appalling lack of honor and grace, hope remains. As long as there is the hope of turning that corner and of a choice being made then all is not lost.

An endgame in chess refers to the final moves before concluding the game when only a very few pieces are left on the board. Honor is a necessity fueled by Hope to keep the endgame at bay.

©2011 Jeff A Walker. All Rights Reserved.

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