Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

The 1960s and 1970s represented a golden age of wartime action adventure movies. The Eagle Has Landed, a British production, was unique in having a World War 2 setting with Germans as heroes.

In real life German paratroopers carried out a daring and successful operation to rescue Mussolini after he had been deposed. The premise of the movie, based on a novel by Jack Higgins, is that this operation gives Hitler the bright idea of ordering an even more daring mission - to kidnap Winston Churchill. Admiral Canaris (Anthony Quayle), the head of the Abwehr (the German military intelligence service), is instructed to carry out a feasibility study. Canaris thinks it’s the most stupid idea he’s ever heard but orders are orders, and in any case he’s confident that Hitler will forget all about his brainwave in a week or so.

Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall) is given the job of preparing the feasibility study. And then it seems that fate has taken a hand. The Germans just happen to have an agent in a tiny seaside town named Studley Constable in Norfolk, and the town just happens to be a few miles from the country house at which Churchill is going to be staying in the very near future. And the town just happens to be ideally situated on a quiet stretch of coastline. The clincher is that Radl just happens to have come across the perfect man to carry out such a mission. Colonel Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) is a brilliant and recklessly bold paratroop commander who speaks faultless English without a trace of an accent. The Germans would need to have a man on the ground first and here again fate has put the ideal candidate at Radl’s disposal in the person of Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland), an IRA terrorist currently lecturing at a German university. Much to Radl’s amazement he finds himself coming to the conclusion that the operation has a real chance of success.

There is one minor problem. Colonel Steiner is currently under sentence of death for trying to free a Jewish girl from under the noses of the SS. But when SS chief Heinrich Himmler (Donald Pleasence) presents Colonel Radl with a written authorisation from Hitler allowing him a free hand in carrying out the operation that minor obstacle is removed.

Colonel Steiner and his men agree to carry out the mission on one condition (a condition that will have fateful consequences) - they will wear Free Polish uniforms but they will wear their German uniforms underneath. They are prepared to die, but they are not prepared to accept the shame of being shot as spies.

Liam Devlin successfully makes contact with the German agent in the Norfolk village, but things quickly start to get complicated for him. The last thing he had expected was to fall in love in the middle of the operation but that’s what happens when he meets Molly (Jenny Agutter). 

Steiner and his men parachute in and everything is going smoothly. Then fate (yes, fate again) steps in. One of his men rescues a young village girl from drowning but in the process of doing so his German uniform is revealed. Nonetheless Steiner presses on.

Fate is also about to take a hand in the career of Colonel Pitts (Larry Hagman). Pitts is in command of a US Ranger detachment stationed near Studley Constable. He’s about to be shipped back home and will thus lose his one chance of seeing combat. When he learns of the presence of Steiner’s men in the village he sees his chance. Rather than contact the War Office he decides that he will be the hero of the hour and gain all the glory of foiling the German plan. Sadly Colonel Pitts’ military skills fall ludicrously short of his ambitions. Pitts’ rash decision does provide the opportunity for the movie to launch into some full-scale action sequences. The war has come to Studley Constable, with a vengeance. And Churchill is about to arrive. It seems that all that stands between Steiner and success is one bumbling American officer.

The movie goes to elaborate lengths to establish that Colonel Steiner is a good German, a man who hates the Nazis and who is determined to do his duty, but to do it with courage and honour. The movie goes to equally elaborate lengths to establish that Steiner’s men are good Germans, Germans who will risk their lives to save drowning children. This does serve a very important purpose. The movie cannot work unless the audience can be persuaded to be at least half-hoping the Germans will succeed. Even Radl has to be a fairly sympathetic character. Michael Caine and Robert Duvall manage to make their characters effectively sympathetic without being too irritatingly virtuous. They are honourable men, but they are also ruthlessly efficient. The performances of Caine and Duvall are crucial and they are both superb. Caine, surprisingly, makes a convincing German officer and he has the advantage that Steiner is supposed to speak English without a trace of an accent, so the actor fortunately is not tempted to have a try at a Teutonic accent.

Anthony Quayle had played countless British officers and he plays Admiral Canaris exactly the same way. Donald Pleasence is delightfully and chillingly menacing as Himmler. Larry Hagman is deliriously over-the-top as the hapless Colonel Pitts. His performance is a treat although he does seem to be acting in a different movie from the other actors! When he makes his appearance the tone of the whole movie changes subtly, with a slight suggestion of black comedy. This could have ruined the film but fortunately the premise is itself so outrageous that it gets away with it. Fate can turn life into tragedy but it can just as readily turn it into farce, and the line between tragedy and farce is in any case often rather blurred.

The movie faces a bigger challenge in making Liam Devlin sympathetic. Donald Sutherland pulls out all the stops to make Devlin a loveable rogue and he does a good job of it but we can’t help remembering that he is a member of a terrorist organisation, and he doesn’t have the advantage of being able to claim that he is a soldier doing his duty for his country. Devlin is certainly charming but his charm comes across as having just a little of a  sinister touch.

This was a lavish production and some care was taken to give it the right authentic touches, even to the extent of having an actual German Fieseler Storch aircraft (or a remarkably good replica aircraft) and a genuine-looking captured British Motor Torpedo Boat. The action scenes are executed with considerable skill.

John Sturges already had an impressive record as a director of action movies and his handling of this one is confident and assured. 

The Region B Blu-Ray lacks extras but the transfer is faultless.

The Eagle Has Landed is a fine example of the excellent action adventure movies of its era. Great entertainment, highly recommended.

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