The Eagle

By • March 1, 2011

Composer: Atli Örvarsson
Label: Silva Screen
Suggested Retail Price: $8.99
Grade: A


Ever since the fall of Rome over a millennia ago, archeologists have labored to re-construct the life of an Empire as capable of cultural sophistication as it was wanton cruelty. Historical sites and museums have shown these researchers’ valiant efforts to restore and recreate Rome for a new epoch’s generation to appreciate. But when it comes to truly breathing new life into this globe-spanning civilization’s sights and sounds, there’s no re-enactor like the glory that is Hollywood. The pantheon of their “sword and sandal” genre has ranged from the high-minded likes of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE to the audacity of CALIGULA. For composers like Miklos Rozsa, Alex North and Hans Zimmer, it’s yielded an Oscar-winning score to BEN-HUR and nominations for SPARTACUS and GLADIATOR. While the first two went for “authentic” Roman music as performed by a full-blooded orchestra and ancient instruments, the latter employed a fusion of Holstian orchestrations and ethnic trance music. Yet however great these justly lauded soundtracks might be, and no matter the research their musicians put into them, it’s likely no Centurion worth his salt would recognize these scores’ melodies in the songs flitting about his far-flung post in the Empire.

That being said, THE EAGLE just might stand as the first “Roman” soundtrack that would likely prick up said soldier’s feathered helmet as something bordering on the authentic, even with its understandable compromises to the trends of 21st century film music. It’s also the first score to make the biggest impression yet for Icelandic composer Atli Örvarsson. As one of the latest talents to hail from Hans Zimmer’s scoring dojo, Örvarsson’s past work has included VANTAGE POINT, BABYLON A.D., THE FOURTH KIND and the Crusades-set SEASON OF THE WITCH. All bore the propulsive stamp of Zimmer’s pop-inflected orchestral touch within Örvarsson’s own voice. Yet the score you’d think would be the most “Zimmer”-esque for the GLADIATOR feel of its ad campaign comes across far more as a deconstructed take on BRAVEHEART­. It’s music that embodies the culture clash between the gallant string sophistication of Rome with the Celtic primitivism of war-painted tribes who are a long way from putting on kilts. Credit this approach to THE EAGLE’s setting in the land to be known as the United Kingdom, as well to director Kevin Macdonald (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND). He’s nobly defied many of the recipes for sword n’ sandal disaster and has delivered a stunningly well-made, exciting and intelligent film that makes THE EAGLE a truly unique entry in the “Roman” action movie cannon, especially with the high-minded ammunition of Örvarsson’s score at unobtrusive hand.

From its opening shot of a heroic Centurion Marcus Aquila arriving in the mysterious forests of Britannia, Örvarsson conjures the equivalent of this dangerously beautiful, fog-shrouded land of verdant trees and cold, rocky shores- as well as the force of an empire foolish enough to think it can conquer an untamable people. THE EAGLE’s opening cue “Testudo” sets a strong thematic tone to follow, as silky Middle Eastern strings part for military percussion, which is then leapt upon by war chants and battle cries, all entering into a brassy fray with the trumpeting of eons-old war horns.

Yet while THE EAGLE won’t stint on the music of Celt skulls bashing against Roman armor, much of the film’s fascination comes from Aquila’s journey into the forbidden zone that lies behind Hadrian’s wall as he searches out the fate of his father’s vanished 9th legion and the eagle standard they bore- a tribal journey caught somewhere between QUEST FOR FIRE and LAST OF THE MOHICANS, as heard through the raw music of William Wallace’s family tree. Like MOHICAN’s Indian adventure, Örvarsson captures the percussive tension of fleeing through an eerie wilderness, with “savages” on your tail. Though an orchestra might be at constant hand, the spare, ethnic approach is just as fascinating. Whether it’s the plainsong of “The Highlands” and “Edge of the World,” the ritualistic dance and haunting, humming voice of “The Seal People” or the echoed string cries into the mist of “The Searching” and “Barbarians” Örvarsson’s haunted history makes the listener feel like they’ve stumbled onto a skeleton-covered recording from a time long before tonal scales as we knew them existed. Here, they’re being formed in fire and sweat. It’s musical exoticism of a highly intriguing order, very far removed from any ancient Hollywood music we’d consider properly Roman.

Örvarsson is wise to undercut any potential pomp and circumstance with a boldly melodic sense of anguish which also suffuses THE EAGLE’s guilt-ridden Aquila, Solemn strings and voices befitting a Viking funeral accompany “The Ninth Legion” while a pensive dulcimer hears the disappointment of Aquila’s “Honourable Discharge.” Yet for all of the score’s often muted quality, THE EAGLE most definitely delivers on the noble blood and thunder that fuels the genre’s blade-upraising warriors. “I Will Return” is all about the honor between Aquila and his servant Esca, who finds honor more worthy than hate, the cue’s bagpipe playing over the rousing sound of symphonic honor. “Better Angry Than Dead” whoops it up as the orchestra once gets throttled with tribal fury, while a jig-chase theme finds Aquila and Esca “Fleeing the Village.” It’s a dance that also captures the primal joy of battle in “Our Swords!” When the dead are counted for “May Your Souls Take Flight,” the fallen centurions who’ve gone native are giving a bagpipe send-off, as joined by a beautiful symphonic flourish that reminds audiences they’re indeed watching a Roman epic- albeit one cut from a wholly different cloth.

As the trembling strings, mournful horns and dissonant chirps that lie “Beyond the Territories” dangerously finish off THE EAGLE, Atli Örvarsson successfully rings out an epic that’s more about atmosphere than musical force- the cue’s whispered, ancient lyrics and cutting winds casting a hypnotic spell over a mainstream score that does the neat trick of seeming truly time-lost, while remaining melodically identifiable to any audience that’s watched a guy in a feathered helmet. One hears the chill that must have cut through a hapless Centurion on guard duty at the edge of the known world, with invisible barbarian eyes upon him. In the end, it’s music that’s more about the nobility of said solider than the Empire he serves, a powerful, often unsettling mix of emotions that takes Atli Örvarsson to new heights as a composer, let alone as someone who’s transformed Hollywood’s Roman past into how own, powerful voice.

Flying on Örvarsson’s wings here

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