The riddle of the army ‘lost’ on the march

SCHOOLBOY’S DEVOTION: A library book read by Yorkshire film producer Duncan Kenworthy as an 11-year-old is his new blockbuster. Phil Penfold reports

Fast forward to 1960 or thereabouts, and to Uppermill in the West Riding Pennines, where a small boy is skipping happily home, with a new library book under his arm.

The lad is Duncan Kenworthy, who will go on to get a first class degree at Cambridge, and then make a career for himself in television and film, with films such as Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually. The book which 11-year-old Duncan had stamped at the counter of Saddleworth Library shelves has really taken his fancy. Published in 1954, it’s by the best-selling author Rosemary Sutcliff, this is possibly her most famous yarn, The Eagle of the Ninth.

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“I just couldn’t put it down”, says Duncan today. “But I was hardly ever out of Saddleworth Library in those days. I was known as a regular and a voracious reader – on average about a novel a night. I loved books – I still do.

Duncan’s long-help ambition to make a movie of Sutcliff’s novel came to fruition and it opens here next week. He approached the book’s publishers, Oxford University Press in the mid-1990s and finally got the rights to make it in 2004. “It was then a case of getting it all together, getting a studio to come on board, and finding the right director.”

The studio turned out to be Universal, with funding from Focus Films and Film 4, and the director is Kevin Macdonald, famous for The Last King of Scotland, State of Play and Touching the Void. He had also read the book, as a child of 12. But, the film was delayed until he finished other work.

The box office success of Gladiator may have convinced the moneymen that another story of Romans would be a winner. But then along came Alexander and Troy, set in ancient Macedonia and Greece, both of which flopped. “No-one wanted to get their fingers burned badly again with sword and sandal stories. Actually, it was a blessing in disguise, because we pared the whole script down, made it less large-scale, and we’ve ended up with what we hope is a rooted-in-history, stylish action film that is about a relationship of loyalty and trust.”

The title became The Eagle and a rising Hollywood, star Channing Tatum, was recruited to play the lead as Marcus. Virtually all the scenes south of Hadrian’s Wall were shot in Hungary.

“Look”, says Duncan, “I make no apology for this. It’s just a lot cheaper, more economical. Believe it or not, one of the, biggest costs of any film production is the bill that you get for accommodation for the stars, the technicians, the actors, the crew. So if you work in Hungary, and the extras and crew live in Budapest, just an hour’s drive down the road, they don’t need hotels, they can all drive home at night.

“It is a fact of life that however much one might want to make a film about Roman Britain in the countryside a hour away from London, you are simply not going to find the right locations. The other thing is that sets are less expensive to make in Eastern Europe than they are here. They use wood instead of scaffolding. It doesn’t cost so much. And if one of the biggest sets is the fort at Calleva, and that’s an historically accurate wooden construction, then it becomes obvious where you have to film.”

Scenes in Scotland that involved the two young male stars getting wet and very cold nearly every day, were nearly all filmed in and around Stirling, and at the famous Devil’s Pulpit near Drymen.

But did Rosemary Sutcliff root her story in fact? Up to a point. The last inscription in which the Ninth is mentioned was made in 108AD in York, then Eboracum, the legion’s fortress base. There are no inscriptions about them after that. Some historians think they may have been posted to Germany, but there is no solid evidence. The only thing we know for certain is that they marched out of the city and into conjecture.

Columns erected in Rome in about 162AD in the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, list all the legions. Two are missing. There is no mention of the XXII Deiotariana, or the IX Hispana. Both had been removed from the historical record. The period, between 100AD and 170AD was a time of great Roman expansion, a period when all manner of people, from emperors to senators, from public bodies to the legions, left their mark for posterity on tiles, slates, statues, monuments, graves and lead piping. But after the York inscriptions of 108, there’s not a fragment that carries a whisper about the Ninth.

Some argue that Caledonian tribes could hardly have wiped out 5,000 highly trained men. But there were massacres of troops throughout the period of Roman rule and before the Ninth vanished completely, it had suffered heavy losses in 82AD when Agricola campaigned in the area around where Hadrian’s Wall is today. The contemporary Roman historian Tacitus writes at length about heavy losses – and there were more to come, across the centuries.

The tribes of the north would have known every last stick and stone and had surprise on their side. Uprisings are recorded and forts built to garrison the region were sacked.

York was a huge, strategic Roman town and garrison. Yet when it comes to Roman finds, it gives second best to Calleva – present day Silchester. Professor Michael Fulford, of Reading University claims it was the most important Roman site within their empire. The walls surrounding the Silchester site are almost intact and dig after dig (there is another this year) has turned up exciting finds. One, a bronze eagle, was what inspired Rosemary Sutcliff.

Her cousin and godson Anthony Lawton, the administrator of her estate, believes that she could have visited both Silchester and Reading Museum where the wingless eagle is displayed. It was found by the Rev JG Joyce, the Rector of Stratfield Saye, on one of his digs between 1864 and 1878. The then owner of the site was the second Duke of Wellington. One spectacular mosaic pavement that Joyce and his small team of amateurs unearthed was lifted in its entirety and is still in the hallway of the present Duke’s nearby stately pile.

For Joyce, a meticulous detailer of everything he found and a brilliant illustrator of his discoveries, the eagle was the pinnacle of his achievement. His theory was that it was indeed a legionary eagle which, as it was covered in ash and burned wood, had escaped a raid by marauding Anglo-Saxons in the years before the Romans left Britain.

Rosemary Sutcliff put a new twist on this. Her story has the eagle standard rediscovered, and returned to Calleva, by the son of the commander of the Ninth Legion who had led his men to their deaths. Her novel caught the public imagination, and it spawned a series of historical tales that gave her other bestsellers. It cannot be thought of as just a children’s novel – Sutcliff herself said that she wrote for “everyone – aged eight to 88”.

Since it was first reviewed in 1954, more than a million copies have been sold worldwide and it’s still in print. A new edition’s cover ties in with the film. It was adapted as a radio series for the BBC and again for television in the late 1970s.

Sadly, Jillian Greenaway, the curator of the museum today, shakes her head as she lifts the precious bronze (not gold) eagle from its secure case. “It’s a lovely story”, she says. “But Joyce was a long way from the facts. It’s not an eagle from a standard – the shape is all wrong – but possibly one from an orb, in the hand of a massive statue.

“Look at the way the talons curve around a ball shape. It’s almost certainly Romano-British. The reason for the ashes around it? Simple – it was in a storeroom in Calleva belonging to a metal smelter. The bronze eagle was waiting to be melted down for its weight in very desirable bronze. That, fortunately for us, never happened. But it was, in effect, going to be recycled. Something interrupted the re-cycling process.”

Half a century after Duncan read the book, The Eagle is fully-fledged, ready to take off. What carried him through to this? “Sheer bloody Yorkshire tenacity”, he says. “The fact that I just didn’t want to let go”.

• The Eagle opens on March 25.