Saturday, 6 August 2011

I've been reading... The Eagle of the Ninth

I'm subtitling this 'This Curse of the Bromance'.  Contains spoilers

 I fell onto Rosemary Sutcliffe's The Eagle of the Ninth after watching and very much enjoying the recently released movie adaption The Eagle.  Sutcliffe wrote a short series of book during the 1950s which are all based around the invasion, occupation, and hurried departure of the Roman Empire from Britain.  The Eagle of the Ninth is the first in the series and follows a young Centurion, Marcus Flavius Aquila, through his first command on the dangerous frontier of Hadrian's Wall and subsequent dismissal from the army following an injury.  Marcus has spent his entire life working towards a military career in order to regain the lost honour of his family following his father's shameful defeat in battle, and is forced to consider a new life as a crippled civilian.  Hearing that the bronze Eagle standard used by his father's former legion has been spotted in the hands of the northern barbarian tribesman, he resolves to try and steal it back with only his British-born slave Esca for help.  Either version of the story makes for a good Swords-'n'-Sandals adventure with a more personal touch, and although it won't win any Oscars I found it very enjoyable.  I'd highly recommend either the book or the film, but that's not really what I want to talk about.

The main point of this blog comes from when I sat down to watch the movie with my housemate.  I'll need to give you an idea of the two main characters first and the book and the film are set out slightly differently, mainly because of their different audiences and times of writing, so bear with me and I'll be fast:

Book version:
Book Marcus is quite different from Film Marcus. He's more enlightened (almost too enlightened to be realistic in some ways) about the nature of a slave. He saves Esca mainly out of sympathy and frees him before the quest even starts, so the story here really is mainly about the search for the Eagle. There is never any question that Marcus and Esca are on the same side, and even towards the British tribes who currently hold the Eagle Marcus has no real enmity, saying that if the tribesmen are able to keep the Eagle from him they are welcome to it. His aim in finding it is not to regain his honour so much as to prevent it becoming a trigger for further bloodshed. Still, the companionship between the two is central - in contrast to the film in which no women appear, in the book you meet a grand total of one woman, which was very much the way of the times. Men and women had different functions in society and operated in very different worlds, rarely seeing much of each other until a marriage was decided upon, and even then the union was often financially or socially driven. Esca needs less explaining as he is roughly the same in both the book and film: prickly, reserved and determined to cling to the sense of honour that is all he has left to him after being snatched away from his former life. I think this idea of being honour-bound is very interesting and something we've lost in our culture, but that's a pondering for another day.

Film version:
In the film Marcus subscribes very much to the view of Roman law and sees his slave as nothing more than a piece of property.  While he and Esca are able to work together well enough, the course of the movie revolves around the testy relationship between the two of them.  Esca, honour-bound into Marcus' service after the Roman saves his life on a self-pitying whim, rails inwardly against the master who represents the nation that killed his family, invaded his home and forced him into slavery.  In the meantime Marcus drags them both relentlessly through the Scottish Highlands in the hope of bringing the pride and glory of Rome back to his family, and cannot comprehend how anyone could despise the empire he has dedicated his life to.  At the start neither of them understands the other at all but by the end of the journey each has come to recognise that neither of their nations is purely good or evil, and their forced reliance on each other turns into a strong and trusting friendship that is tested when Marcus finally frees Esca from his enslavement and Esca in turn helps him defend the Eagle rather than running to safety himself and leaving his former master behind.

The Main Point:
The point of all this back-story is that I jokingly described the film to my friend as a "bromance" (that is, a slang term for a very close but non-sexual relationship between two men, such as between brothers - hence the "bro" in bromance.  If you're not sure what that looks like, think of the friendship between Frodo and Sam from Lord of the Rings, JD and Turk from Scrubs, or Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.  For some reason there doesn't seem to be a female equivalent).  It's true that The Eagle is a bromance, if only by necessity due to the lack of women, but mainly because of the depth of the friendship that evolves between Esca and Marcus.  But for some reason my friend has taken this to mean that the two main characters are gay, and cackles with laughter every time she finds a line in the movie or passage in the book that she feels backs this up.

If that's how she wants to see it then that's down to her (although if she did turn out to be right surely it ought to be worthy of a neutral shrug rather than hysterical giggling), but I think it does a great disservice to men in general to immediately assume that two male characters are sexually or romantically attracted to each other simply because they care about each other.  The author would be extremely unlikely to write two gay main characters into a book for teenagers and get it published (one of her adult books does allude to a relationship between two male characters, but it is very underplayed).  Additionally both the twenty-something-year-old actors and the director of the recent film have said that the characters weren't written or played gay, so where is this idea coming from that they are romantically involved?  Why is it that the behaviours they read as a bond between brothers are being read by others as signs of a sexual attraction? 

Much of it may be just the way our social conduct has changed over time.  Since 'coming out of the closet' has become more common and accepted over that last few decades there seems to be a pressure on both men and women to define their sexuality in a way that wasn't there before, and so any behaviour that could be interpreted ambiguously has been cut down, such as in this case showing signs of strong affection for another man, even if that affection is platonic.  So of course, any time we see those rare signs of affection they are jumped on, and mountains made out of molehills.  The excellent Charity Bishop has noticed a similar trend in female duos, with fans clamouring for relationships within the space of a few episodes.

It may be partly the fault of us women too.  We go on and on about how men are so much more insensitive than us and can't express their emotions that I'm afraid we're all actually starting to believe it -even to expect it.  Being masculine apparently now also implies being callous, crude and emotionally shallow, and so if any man does decide to be vulnerable with his friend it is seen as being far too forward or feminine compared to what is socially acceptable.  The trouble is, I don't think that's the truth at all.  I firmly believe that all of us, men and women, are capable of much more
humanity than that in the way we act towards each other, and that it's not the potential for sex but our belief in the value of other human beings that drives us.

The ability to be emotionally open or close with another person doesn't make you a wuss or determine your sexuality, it shows courage, trust and strength of character on both sides!  To assume that any man who genuinely cares about his friend must want to be involved with him romantically is demeaning to the great and noble hearts of the men around us, and if we don't want them to lose that ability to care then we'd better stop laughing at them for it.

So guys, it comes down to this.  I believe that you are capable of great kindness, selfless genorosity, and emotional depth.  And it appears there may be scant few of us left that think so.  Don't let us down.

1 comment:

  1. You commented on my blog post about "Confusing Attraction With Sexuality," and mentioned that you had written a similar post recently, so I came over here to check it out. Yes, you can link to my blog entry if you like. =)

    I am incredibly frustrated with the increase in fascination in seeing homosexual tension between heterosexual same-sex characters in our present culture. I think it diminishes male relationships by reducing their affections for one another to common sexuality, and... it makes our culture seem more callous as a result. For the record, my number one HATE "pairing" is Sherlock/John, but since the X-Men prequel came out not too long ago, running a close second is Magneto/Xavier. Ugh.