A few weeks ago, I was idly minding my own business (work, as some people like to call it) when my phone rang. I picked it up to hear the voice of our editor, Simon Brew, on the other end. “Nick, you know how you dressed up as a WWII soldier for the site a little while back?’ Of course, I did. “Well, how would you like to be a Roman?” Damn straight I would.
And that’s how I ended up on a coach very early in the morning on its way to the depths of the Hampshire countryside. To tie in with the release of The Eagle, we had been sent on a Roman Experience day, where we explored the ancient Roman town of Silchester, feasted Roman style, saw what may be the only Roman military eagle in existence, and most excitingly, were trained in gladiator fighting techniques. Bring it on.
Although as it was quite early, I had a nap first. I was woken by a kindly old couple, who ushered me into a church for tea and cake (not sure how Roman that was, but I thought a) I’m never one to turn down tea and cake, and b) when in Rome) before the producer of The Eagle, Duncan Kenworthy, stepped up to introduce the day and talk a little about the film.
An adaptation of the much-loved Rosemary Sutcliff novel, The Eagle Of The Ninth, Duncan explained how he had read it as a teenager and had been captivated by it ever since. He wanted to, not only get the adaption right, but also get the historical period and details right, and to make it accurate as well as work in the context of the film.
After then describing a bit more about the production of the film and the shooting of it in Hungary, rather than Britain (apparently, modern Britain is no longer ancient looking enough. And too expensive to put crew up), he then introduced Reading University’s Professor Mike Fulford. A real life archaeologist and Fellow of the British Academy, Prof. Fulford heads up the research team at Silchester.
After a brief talk explaining the significance of the site and the history of the discoveries, I could sense Mike beginning to get impatient. And then it struck me: this man wasn’t a stuffy book academic. He belonged in the field, Indiana Jones-style. Hell, he was a Fellow of the British Academy. In the nineteenth century he probably would have been a Victorian adventurer! And on that note he led us all outside, into the ruins of Silchester, where he truly came alive and revealed himself a man in his natural environment.
Leading us around the windswept wall of the old town, he described in vivid detail how the ancient place would have been in Roman times. My main thought at this juncture was “My dad would have bloody loved this.”
Following this, we were taken into the amphitheatre for what was quite clearly most people’s highlight of the day, gladiatorial combat. As we marched in past two legionnaires standing at attention, the sound of swords clashing rang out.
We were then witness to what was an extremely impressive display from the film’s fight choreographers, guys who had worked on everything from Gladiator all the way back to Highlander. It was quick, fun and well worked, with the tightly controlled and plotted moves looking natural, even without the benefit of editing.
Then it was our turn.
Lined up and handed wooden kendo swords, we were taught ten basic moves central to all stage sword fighting, five blocks and five attacks, with each corresponding to an opponent’s moves. When put together, it all looked extremely elaborate and that was the point.
Real fighting looks bad on-screen. It’s far too quick and efficient. So, directors instead want swinging swords at half speed, and that’s what we were taught, although, believe me, it was fast enough.
Then we paired up, but due to an odd number, I ended up fighting the professional, who was still kitted out in his gladiator costume, while I was wearing the somewhat less intimidating cardigan and jeans outfit.
We then proceeded to go through the moves, although I promptly forgot all of the attacks and so just vaguely jabbed my wooden sword in his direction. Somehow, a career choreographing fights does not beckon for me. The only manly credit I really gained was when he seemed impressed with my overhead swing and when I showed no reaction to his surprise roar and lunge at me. To be honest, though, I was actually looking at something else at the time, and so didn’t really notice it.
While all this wooden swordplay was nice, I still wanted to get my hands on some Roman gear. I couldn’t help but notice a table full of swords nearby and, obviously, my longing gaze caught the attention of the weapon master, as very soon he approached and asked, “Do you want to have a go with some of this stuff?” Does a bear do his business in the woods? Of course!
First I was lumbered with a Roman shield, which was damn heavy, and then I got my paws on a helmet, which makes you feel awesome while wearing it, by the way. And then, finally, I was handed a sword. A real genuine sword. I still can’t quite believe it. The only caveat I received was “Be careful, it’s quite sharp.” They let me loose with a sword!
I was then taught Roman infantry line combat, which mainly involved stabbing things a lot and making a fierce face. No wonder the Romans conquered most of the known world.
After having a brief taste of this, it seemed clear that the filmmakers of The Eagle really wanted to do their research and get things right in the making of the film. The military tactics on display in the film are important in establishing character and tone for the Roman, and they genuinely seem authentic.
It adds a lot to the film watching experience, and knowing a little bit of what they went through to get it right, and to understand the wider context of the Roman colonisation of Britain deepens the viewing experience and appreciation of The Eagle. Plus, they let me wave a real sword around.
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