Time for another blast from the past! Fearless Admin and I had long wanted to get our hands on the very-hard-to-find series, “The Eagle of the Ninth” (1977), ever since we saw one tiny, grainy photo of Mr. Malahide in costume as Celtic chieftain Cradoc on the now sadly defunct patrickmalahide.net site (although I recently found a copy of it on rosemarysutcliff.com). But the picture raised a few questions… What was he doing in that get-up? And why all that hair?? Was that really him?? Fast-forward a few years and we’ve finally managed to find the entire six-part series. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the acting and the story, both of which drew us in from the first episode – even if we had to squint a bit to see details in a muddy VHS transfer (apologies in advance for the quality of the screen grabs!). I also read the original 1954 novel by Rosemary Sutcliff afterwards to see how it stacked up against the series (or vice versa) and was pleasantly surprised once again. But mostly it was fascinating to see Mr. Malahide in one of his earlier roles – even if he was buried under a mountain of hair.
Marcus Flavius Aquila Arrives at His First Command
The first episode of the series, “Frontier Fort”, opens in Roman Britain in 119 AD. The Roman Ninth Legion, the Hispana, has been dispatched north to deal with an “uprising” by Caledonian tribes. They march off to the strains of “The Girl I Kissed at Clusium” and are never seen again. No trace of them is ever found and their standard, the Eagle of the Ninth, is presumed lost. Twenty years later, an ambitious young centurion named Marcus Flavius Aquila (Anthony Higgins) arrives in Britain at the head of the Fourth Gaulish Cohort to assume his first command, a frontier fort located at Isca (modern-day Exeter). He befriends the outgoing commander, Quintus Hilarion (Matthew Long), telling him that part of the reason he’s here is because his father was lost with the Ninth Legion; he hopes to learn something of his father’s fate while leading his own untried cohort to battle honours. Hilarion mentions that the Ninth’s reputation was rather tarnished, even at the time, which puts Marcus on the defensive; he’s already well aware how the Ninth were regarded. Changing the subject to something more pleasant, Marcus asks what diversions the isolated fort can offer, and Hilarion tells him he can enlist one of the Celtic hunters living nearby as a guide if he wants to go hunting. This will become relevant later.
Hilarion also offers a couple of words of advice before leaving the fort in Marcus’ hands. Marcus should beware of “the native priest kind, the wandering Druids”, and double his guard even if he hears only the merest hint that one might be in his territory. They “preach holy war”, says Hilarion, and “stir up trouble”. He describes the Celts in this area as a “wild lot” but “superbly brave”, who have mostly come to co-exist peacefully with the Romans – because they know that doing otherwise will result in their homes and crops being burned in retribution. We hear all this in voiceover over a scene of a wild-haired, excessively mustached, fierce-looking Celt riding a sturdy pony that appears a touch too small for him. We don’t know who he is yet, but he looks like he could be important. Anyway, according to Hilarion, once the Druids succeed in stirring up trouble amongst the normally peaceful Celts, they leave to incite more trouble elsewhere.
Seeking Cradoc’s Help
A few weeks into Marcus’ command and life is mostly uneventful – until his second-in-command, Drusillus (Bernard Gallagher), reports that a Druid has been sighted in the area. The local Dumnonii tribesmen are usually loath to tell the Romans anything about what the Druids are up to, but Marcus thinks he might have better luck getting information from Cradoc (Mr. Malahide), a horse trader he’s been hunting with.
Marcus then visits the Dumnonii encampment out of armour, perhaps trying to emphasize he’s there to be friendly. He’s unaware that the Druid priest (Iain Agnew) is already in the camp, watching his every move. Cradoc’s wife Guinhumara (Laura Graham), with a baby in a cradle at her side, tells Marcus her husband is in the stables with his chariot team. She’s also rather reserved with him, pointedly commenting on the hardship caused by recent poor harvests, and the many ways the Celts have come to serve the Romans without receiving much in return. And she completely dodges the question when Marcus asks if she’s heard anything about the Druid, instead simply offering to take him to Cradoc.
Marcus finds Cradoc in the stables, giving his horses (a matched trio of dapple greys) a vigorous rub-down with a handful of straw. As it turns out, Cradoc is the “wild, but superbly brave” horseman we saw during Hilarion’s voiceover. Familiar as Marcus is with Cradoc, some things about the horse trader are still a mystery to him. “I didn’t know you for a charioteer, Cradoc,” he says. “I suppose I might’ve guessed the British are all charioteers.” “The Commander is mistaken,” replies Cradoc, drily. “The British can all drive, after a fashion. But not everyone is a charioteer.” “You, I take it, are?” asks Marcus. “I’m accounted the best of my tribe,” answers Cradoc bluntly. No false modesty here! And if it hadn’t been for Mr. Malahide’s voice rolling out, I’d have had trouble recognizing him under the Yosemite Sam hair and mustache!
Marcus Proposes a Wager
Marcus then tells Cradoc that he did some charioteering himself back in Rome, driving Arabs which were larger but not as sturdy as Cradoc’s horses. He asks if he can drive Cradoc’s team, to which Cradoc flatly replies that they’re not for sale. Marcus clarifies that he only wants to try them, since he likely couldn’t afford to buy them. “How good is the Commander as a charioteer?” asks Cradoc skeptically. “I’m accounted the best of my Legion,” answers Marcus, getting a sly dig in. “I doubt if you could handle these jewels of mine,” digs Cradoc in return. So Marcus proposes a wager: he’ll stake his expensive fibula against one of Cradoc’s best hunting spears that he can drive Cradoc’s team to Cradoc’s satisfaction over ground of his choosing. “Or if that doesn’t suit you, name your own stakes,” adds Marcus. Cradoc considers only a moment or two before answering, “I will take your wager,” with an air of complete assurance.
We next find Marcus driving Cradoc’s team of three from a wicker-sided chariot, apparently totally exhilarated by the experience, while Cradoc, luxurious mustachios blowing in the wind, holds on stoically. And I’m not sure what BBC Scotland’s budget for stunt people was at the time, but it looked as though they might’ve really done some of the driving. 😮 They come to a stop. “Well?” asks Marcus eagerly. “The Commander begins to be a charioteer,” Cradoc admits grudgingly. Marcus has won the wager and may choose his spear before he returns to the fort. Then, perhaps surprising even Marcus, Cradoc’s dry manner vanishes when he talks about his horses: “These are the jewels of my heart. They’re descended out of the royal stables of the Iceni. And there are few who can handle them better than the Commander,” he declares, sounding moved. It’s a very deeply felt compliment from the normally taciturn chieftain.
A Double-Edged Prize
But Cradoc’s warmth seems to have faded by the time they return to the Dumnonii encampment. Guinhumara brings out a selection of Cradoc’s hunting spears for Marcus to choose his prize from. But before he can even begin, Cradoc picks out one particularly large and important-looking spear which apparently isn’t up for grabs, cradling it possessively in the crook of his arm. “Choose!” he then orders Marcus, peremptorily. Marcus picks out the second-best spear, saying he’ll use it when he hunts boar with Cradoc that winter. Neither Guinhumara nor Cradoc comment on that, which should twig Marcus that something might be… out of the ordinary. Instead, Cradoc merely comments, “Good spear,” in his usual curt fashion.
Marcus then notes that the spear Cradoc singled out is to the rest “as a king to his bodyguard”. “It is a war spear, is it not?” he asks, proving he’s not entirely unobservant. “It was my father’s spear. He had it in his hands when he died,” says Cradoc. “Up yonder under our old ramparts where the fortress walls stand now.” Then, as if that wasn’t enough of a hint, he shows Marcus that the spear still retains signs of his father’s blood – and the blood of his enemy, as Cradoc hastens to add. Not ominous at all! Marcus finally becomes a bit thoughtful, realizing that Cradoc’s eagerness to retain his heirloom weapon, along with the Druid sighting, very likely mean something’s in the wind. Even though Cradoc and Guinhumara aren’t telling him anything directly, they’re certainly throwing wagonloads of clues in his direction.
Back at the fort, Marcus tells Drusillus about his growing sense of unease, including the fact that Cradoc has recently refurbished his war spear. Drusillus pooh-poohs that it has any significance, but Marcus is still convinced that the renewed spear, Guinhumara’s reticence, and the note of regret in Cradoc’s voice when he spoke of the future all indicate that trouble might be imminent. Perhaps hoping simply to assuage his commander’s concerns, Drusillus doubles the guard.
An Attack in the Night
Later that night, sentries report hearing sounds of movement from one rampart. The sounds are so quiet that Marcus and Drusillus at first think they’re just hearing some stray cows, but Drusillus puts the cohort on action stations anyway. Unbeknownst to them, Cradoc – his hair stiffened and streaked with grey clay for battle, war spear in hand, the Druid by his side – is silently assembling his men, waiting in his chariot for the right moment to strike. Just as Marcus thinks he’s been a complete, over-reacting idiot because nothing’s happened yet, an arrow strikes a pillar next to his head and he realizes he was right all along. The battle is on!
“Aiieee Cradoc!!” shouts Cradoc as his war cry. The Celts attack the fort with burning brands and arrows as they bring up siege ladders. The Romans repel them with arrows, rocks, and swords in return. The fighting lasts throughout the night, with the Romans losing “four score” men. The next day, Marcus orders a smudge signal to be sent up, telling neighbouring forts that they urgently need reinforcements; he also realizes he’ll have to go out and bring in a stray patrol himself to prevent them being cut to pieces. Meanwhile, the Celts are still being whipped into action by the Druid, seemingly heedless of their own losses.
A Fateful Meeting
The stray patrol is sighted on its way to the fort, so Marcus leads a small force of fifty men out the gates to fight the Celts. At the height of the battle, he hears a familiar “Aiieee Cradoc!!” War spear in hand, Cradoc is bearing down on Marcus in his chariot – ironically (of course), the same chariot and team Marcus drove to Cradoc’s admiration only days before. Marcus stands waiting tensely for the attack; he manages to bat Cradoc’s thrown spear aside with his shield and then leaps onto the chariot, wrestling with Cradoc. During the short but fierce struggle, Marcus is violently thrown off to one side and Cradoc to the other. And that’s where the episode ends!
Aftermath and Finding the Lost Eagle of the Ninth
Not to keep anyone in too much suspense, at the start of episode two, Marcus awakens days later to find the battle won by the Romans. Reinforcements arrived in time and the Celts are either dead, run away, or taken prisoner, Guinhumara and Cradoc’s child among the latter. Then Marcus learns that Cradoc himself is dead, killed by the fall from his chariot, which causes him no small amount of regret. As for Marcus, his right thigh is so badly broken that it requires surgery. After a short convalescence, he still isn’t fit enough to go back into the army, so he’s invalided out and goes to live with his Uncle Aquila (Patrick Holt) at Calleva (modern Silchester). Once sufficiently healed to walk again, Marcus decides to embark on a search for the lost Eagle of the Ninth, which he’s sure must still be in Caledonia somewhere. He believes finding the Eagle, and discovering how it was lost in the first place, will help restore both his father’s honour and that of the Legion. I’ll leave it to the viewer (or reader) to discover whether Marcus succeeds and what adventures he has along the way, but the rest of the story is well worth pursuing.
Throughout the rest of the series, Marcus frequently thinks of Cradoc and their friendship, flashing back to their final encounter. But while their relationship was sort of doomed from the start (and there’s an interesting parallel with modern-day religious extremism, which I don’t think Ms. Sutcliff could have intended) Marcus uses what he learned from Cradoc to inform the relationships he forms with other Celts. In particular, Marcus forms a lasting bond with a Celt named Esca (Christian Rodska), whom he saves from the gladiatorial ring. Whereas Cradoc would’ve scorned any sort of servitude, Esca is grateful to Marcus for his rescue because he’s already had it quite a lot worse. He becomes a devoted slave (feels a bit odd to type that), whom Marcus frees before they go searching for the Eagle.
As for the production… it suffers a little from BBC budgets of the time. In one scene in a supposedly stone fort, the (probably plywood) walls visibly shake when someone slams against them. The battle scenes are a bit Monty Python-esque, in that they look as if a bunch of re-enactors (not quite enough re-enactors) were recruited. And some of the wigs… well, best not to go into the wigs. Mr. Malahide might’ve had the best one. *But*… all that said, the production was really extremely good for the time, the settings were authentic, and the adventure and characters so engrossing that I was completely drawn into the series anyway. I was quite surprised to learn, upon getting the book from the library, that Ms. Sutcliff had originally written it as juvenile fiction. It was far more sophisticated and complex than a lot of juvenile fiction you’d find nowadays, and the production was remarkably faithful.
Patrick Malahide as Cradoc
And as for Mr. Malahide as Cradoc, he was a man of few words, so we had to pay close attention to what he wasn’t saying, as well as what he was. He conveyed a nice bit of braggadocio when Cradoc confidently asserted his expertise with the chariot, followed by genuine warmth and love for his horses, and hard-earned respect for Marcus’ being able to drive them. He expressed understated regret when it was obvious to Cradoc (if not to Marcus) that their friendship couldn’t continue, as well as trying to give Marcus a definite warning over the spears. And there was a sense of fate in their final battle. It was extremely interesting to see one of Mr. Malahide in an earlier role with such a big action component; it looked like it required a lot of physical skill. I think he acquitted himself extremely well. But here, take a look for yourself. 😉