The year is 119 AD. Former Roman officer Marcus Flavius Aquila (Anthony Higgins) is haunted by the fate of his father’s legion, the Ninth. Four thousand men had been dispatched to fight the Caledonian tribes in Northern England, but they all vanished without trace. Adopting the disguise of a Greek oculist and accompanied by the faithful Esca (Christian Rodska), Marcus is determined to locate the Ninth’s Golden Eagle, which symbolises the honour of the legion, and bring it back home.
Originally published in 1955, The Eagle of the Ninth was a children’s historical adventure novel written by Rosemary Sutcliff. A prolific author, The Eagle of the Ninth has to rank as one of her most enduring works. And although the bulk of her output was written for a juvenile audience, Sutcliff once stated that she wrote “for children of all ages, from nine to ninety”.
That her stories had universal appeal is demonstrated by this adaptation, which ran for six episodes during 1977. Broadcast in the Sunday Classic Serials slot, there’s no sense that it was specifically tailored for a younger audience. As was usual for adaptations from this era, it sticks pretty closely to the original source material (whereas the recent film – The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum – took more liberties and therefore rather diluted the impact of Sutcliff’s tale).
Episode one opens twelve years after the disappearance of the Ninth. Marcus arrives in Britain to take up charge of an isolated garrison. He’s still a little touchy about his father’s fate, but the rebellious Britons massing outside the fort might be more of an immediate problem.
There’s some familiar faces lurking inside the garrison, such as the blunt Drusillus (played by Bernard Gallagher). Gallagher, probably best known for appearing in the first few series of Casualty, gives Drusillus an entertaining dose of weary cynicism – he’s an older and a much more experienced soldier than Marcus, but it’s Marcus who’s in charge.
This first episode – Frontier – also boasts an early television appearance from Patrick Malahide, as Cradoc. You may have to look twice to find him though, as he’s almost unrecognisable thanks to an impressive wig and beard. Marcus attempts to foster good relations with Cradoc, a notable local, but his friendly entreaties are in vain.
Anthony Higgins impresses right from the start. Marcus might be young and inexperienced, but he’s also honest and heroic, so it therefore seems natural that we immediately side with him against the influx of hairy tribesmen. The episode has a generous film allocation, although the scenes of the tribesmen attacking the fort do look slightly comic (and tight camera angles have to be used in order to hide how few extras were available). The hand to hand fighting is nicely directed though.
The injuries suffered by Marcus during the attack have left him unable to walk which means that his time as a soldier has come to an end. Whilst recuperating at his uncle’s farm, they both elect to visit the local amphitheatre. It’s not the coliseum, but it does introduce us to two important characters – Esca and Cottia (Gillian Bailey).
Esca is toiling in the pit – locked into a fight to the death with another slave – whilst Cottia, like Marcus, is a slightly queasy spectator (both were perturbed by the sight of a bear being gored to death). When Esca is beaten, the crowd – overcome by bloodlust – all place their thumbs downwards, signifying that Esca should be put to death. We can forgive this anachronstic moment – since it was widely believed to be accurate at the time – although quite how Marcus was able to persuade the crowd en-masse to spare Esca is a bit of a mystery.
Marcus needs a body slave and buys Esca. Their relationship is a key part of the story and the interaction between Higgins and Rodska works well throughout the serial. Esca is initially reserved and bitter, but it isn’t long before the pair form a tight bond. Gillian Bailey also impresses as the proud Cottia. She rails against being forced to act like a Roman maiden, rather than the Iceni tribeswoman she actually is. There’s a lovely moment when, anxious to see the ill Marcus, she bites the arm of a slave blocking her way!
The second half of the serial sees Marcus and Esca set out to find the Eagle of the Ninth. This quest results in Marcus suddenly gaining a rather unconvincing beard (but then fake face fungus can be found in most classic serials of this era). He’s also haunted in his dreams by the long-dead soldiers of the Ninth – in his imaginings they’re a legion of walking skeletons (a brief, but quite effective nightmarish scene).
The Eagle of the Ninth was made in the usual way for a production of this era – film for the exteriors and videotape for the interiors. Picture quality is as you’d expect for something that’s forty years old – some of the early film inserts are a little grubby and the studio scenes are a little soft – but overall it’s quite watchable. Production design is very sound throughout, especially the studio farmhouse which features in several episodes (nicely designed by Campbell Gordon).
Although the serial features a number of battle scenes, this isn’t an action story – it’s more of a reflective, character-driven drama. According to this webpage, Rosemary Sutcliff not only loved the adaptation, but was so taken with Higgins’ performance that she kept a photograph of him on her writing desk for decades afterwards.
It may be true that some of the tribal antics (and beards) are a little unconvincing, but overall this is a literate and well acted production which transcends its limited budget. Running for six 30 minute episodes (spread across two discs) it’s released by Simply Media on the 16th of January 2018 and can be ordered directly from them here. RRP £19.99.