Where Eagles Dare (1968 Britain)

500px-Where_eagles_dare4This is typical Alistair MacLean, with all the plot twists and set ups that are completely unbelievable, but if you are not expecting anything more it is one of the most enjoyable action flicks of that era. The Ron Goodwin score, very Shostakovitch in tone, is one of the most exhilarating while the sullen dark cinematography adds the atmosphere.

Richard Burton plays Major Smith, a British commando sent into the heart of Bavaria to rescue an American being held in a Nazi fortress, Schloss Adler, who is expected to spill the beans about Allied plans for opening a Second Front. With Smith are several British soldiers, a mysterious woman only Smith knows about, and an American named Schaffer, played by Clint Eastwood, is one of those shoot-first, ask-questions-later types. Eastwood and Burton was one of those movie partnerships that absolutely should not have worked, except it does.

While Eastwood squints as he hurls dynamite and fires his machine pistols into the torsos of unsuspecting Germans, Burton shows off pyrotechnics of a different kind, bearing a brandy glass as he confronts a group of Nazi officers with the evidence that their prize double agents are not what they seem to be. Burton calls Eastwood a “second-rate punk,” which is one of his better quips in the dialogue. Then there is my favourite line: “after all, a hole is a hole is a hole.” It must have been hard for Burton to keep a straight face delivering this one.

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The plot is fairly sharp and challenges you more than you expect, enough to appreciate the film’s 150 minute running time, because it takes that long to sort out all its twists and turns. Screenwriter Alistair MacLean, working from the same story he made into a novel the previous year, doesn’t insult your intelligence as much as he takes liberties with your indulgence, and that is the difference in why this film is so well regarded. I read somewhere that Quentin Tarantino is inordinately fond of this film, and I can see why, because the humor and thrills are kept in steady, logic-defying supply.

A job well done by director Brian G Hutton. Lovely Austrian locations used for the shooting too. There’s a vibrant sense of atmosphere, not only with the mountain fortress and the Bavarian village beneath it, but the funicular which connects it, and where Smith must face his most rabid adversaries in a sequence that is the most thrilling in the film. As Smith, Schaffer and their companions wend their way through twisting corridors, dodging bullets and each other’s quips, you feel yourself running alongside them, in a way few films manage.

A lot of what makes “Where Eagles Dare” special is the fact it does pull you alongside the heroes, making you feel their panic and elation first-hand. The back-handed compliment many offer here is that it is a “Boys-Own” adventure in the classic British tradition, forgetting that such a story requires as much if not a more subtle touch than the “kitchen-sink” dramas more commonly embraced.

Is it better than MacLean’s still slightly-better known film yarn, “Guns Of Navarone”? That earlier film does ask some interesting questions about man and warfare which “Where Eagles Dare” ignores, but given that the latter film is more entertaining and amusing, I feel at a loss to say one is better or worse. Let’s face it, if World War II was good for anything, it was good for giving us a world that allows us to ponder these questions.

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