Sunday, 16 March 2014

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

The 1960s ushered in a kind of golden age of action adventure movies. There had of course been plenty of adventure movies made earlier but the 1960s variety added high-octane action with spectacular stunts and lots of explosions. One of the best of these movies was the 1968 Anglo-American production Where Eagles Dare.

The great strength of this movie is that it doesn’t try to be anything else other than a straight action adventure movie. It has no axes to grind, it offers no message, it gives us no insights into the human condition. It is pure entertainment, and it is all the better for it.

Alistair MacLean was probably the most successful of all the thriller writers of that era. It was inevitable that many of his books would be turned into motion pictures, which they were, although with mixed success. Some of the adaptations of his stories were outright clunkers but the immense success of the first Alistair MacLean movie, The Guns of Navarone, encouraged movie-makers to keep trying. Where Eagles Dare came the closest to repeating the success of The Guns of Navarone although the underrated Ice Station Zebra should not be overlooked. MacLean wrote the screenplay for Where Eagles Dare himself and it captures the feel of his novels rather effectively.

In early 1944 an American general is captured when his aircraft is shot down over Austria. That in itself would be annoying, but this general happens to be a senior member of the planning staff for the invasion of German-occupied France. The British know that he survived the crash and they are certain that he has been taken to the castle of Schloss Adler, the headquarters of German military intelligence. The castle is perched on an inaccessible mountain peak high in the Austrian Alps. Rescuing the general would be an impossible task but the British decide they are going to do it anyway. They assemble a team of seven agents, all of whom speak fluent German and all of whom are experienced intelligence agents. 

The team is led by Major Smith (Richard Burton). The other members of the team are British, apart from one American, Lieutenant Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), a member of the elite Ranger Division. What is known only to Major Smith is that there is an eighth member of the team, glamorous blonde Mary Ellison. Her job is to help the team gain access to the castle by posing as a member of the domestic staff. On arrival at a nearby village yet another agent joins the team. Heidi (Ingrid Pitt) works as a barmaid in a tavern frequented by members of the German Alpine division based in the village but she is in fact a British agent.

The task seems difficult enough but in fact the real mission turns out to be not quite the mission these men were told about. It is part of an elaborate espionage game of fiendish complexity with double-crosses aplenty. While this adds additional interest the real point of  the movie is the action scenes. And there are action scenes in abundance. In 1968 these sequences were breath-taking and they remain impressive today. The cable-car scenes are among the all-time classic movie action sequences.

Brian G. Hutton directed very few films but his small output includes some extremely interesting items, including Kelly’s Heroes (another action classic), the very underrated Night Watch (Elizabeth Taylor’s only horror movie) and the excellent if rather outrageously over-the-top melodrama Zee and Co. (released in the US as X, Y and Zee and featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Susannah York and Michel Cane all at the top of their game). Where Eagles Dare demonstrates Hutton’s ability to orchestrate a very big-budget action movie on an epic scale, and to do so very effectively, with the very able assistance of cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson. Where Eagles Dare not only has copious quantities of action but it’s all set against a background of breath-taking scenery.

Richard Burton’s illustrious career included a couple of classic action adventure flicks, the most notable one aside from Where Eagles Dare being The Wild Geese. He might not have seemed the obvious star for such movies but he did them remarkably well. Real-life mercenary leader Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare who acted as technical adviser on The Wild Geese remarked on Burton’s ability to portray an officer with uncanny verisimilitude and that ability stands him in good stead in Where Eagles Dare

Burton himself felt that Clint Eastwood was a perfect choice as co-star, the two actors being about as different in style as could possibly be imagined and thus complementing each other very nicely. He was spot on about that. Burton and Eastwood make an unlikely but very effective team.

The supporting players include some faces that will be very familiar indeed to cult movie fans, with Ingrid Pitt and Anton Diffring (inevitably playing a sadistic SS officer) being particular notable. Derren Nesbitt is superb as a Gestapo officer, combining charm and evil in a truly chilling performance. Michael Hordern and Patrick Wymark are other noteworthy members of the supporting cast.

This was 1968 so while there’s an incredible amount of mayhem the violence is not particularly graphic. It doesn’t need to be. It relies on thrills rather than gore and it delivers the thrills. The expenditure of ammunition is also truly prodigious. Clint Eastwood mows down approximately half the German army while Richard Burton and Mary Ure mow down the other half between them.

The British Blu-Ray release is 16x9 enhanced and looks very good. It includes a brief contemporary “making of” featurette.

It’s really only fair to judge a movie on the basis of how well it succeeds in doing what it sets out to do. Where Eagles Dare does just that, and does it to perfection. Highly recommended.

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