If one looks at the 50 plus films ever produced on the 2nd World War in Hollywood and England, there is one striking feature. There is this uncanny understanding that the Germans are extremely capable foe with advanced weaponry and far reaching strategic thought process towards the war.
I recently had a chance to read a pocket sized version of “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy” (Penguin ,UK 2018), a semi fan book written by Geoff Dyer for commemorating the 50 years of “Where Eagles Dare”. Incidentally the film completes 50 years since its USA release on the 12th March, 2019. It really got me thinking on writing an essay elaborating on this monumental film.
“Where Eagles Dare” starring legends Richard “The Ice Cold” Burton and the “Oh So Hot!” Clint Eastwood and based on Alistair Mc Lean’s best selling book has been a tent pole of sorts in the war movie genre as it brought many firsts to the craft of war movies. It in fact pushed the envelope for movies in terms of scale, optics, performances and war narrative in general. Its director Brian G Hutton and his vision of depicting large scale action sequences became legendary. He then went on to direct “Kelly’s Heroes” starring Eastwood based on similar premise of the 2nd World War.
In 1968, when “Eagles” released in the theatres, there was already dozens of war films released already. “Guns Of Navarone” was out almost 8 years ago, so was “Bridge Over The River Kwai”. There wasn’t much difference expected in an already crowded subject matter. But “Eagles” re wrote multiple rules of the moviemaking game.
The film talks about the mission to rescue General Carnaby who has been held hostage on a mountain top castle called “The Schloss Adler”. The castle is located in Southern Bavaria in the German Alps. Its built on a peak and can be accessed only by cable cars. Carnaby whose plane crash landed in that area is one of the major coordinators of the second front being led and built by the Allied forces against Germany. In order to tackle this matter, The Allied forces send a small battalion of expert climbers and paratroopers to rescue General Carnaby from the castle. The team is led by Major John Smith (Richard Burton) of the British army and Lieutenant Schaeffer (Clint Eastwood) of the US Army Rangers with a group of other soldiers who go on a “24 hours” mission and are just “parachuted” into the area with a few supplies. Here they encounter endless roadblocks and major twists and turns including backstabbing, unexpected killings and ‘in a way’ go on to achieve their target.
The Surreal Portrayal of Major John Smith by Richard Burton:
Moviegoers over the past few years have lost the privilege to view incredible panache on the big screen. The license to be mean, ridiculous and brutal enough to kill people but to execute with a flair, style, dignity and grace at the same time. Burton in “Eagles” effortlessly brings humor in the most unexpected scenes in the story. At the end of the movie, Burton manages to climb from the exterior of the castle on a rope with Clint Eastwood following him. Burton reaches the room via the window and gets on with his work. Poor Eastwood who is at the back wriggling to get in doesn’t ‘really get Burton’s attention’ and when he reaches the window, he ‘murmurs’ at Burton ..”Would he mind giving me a hand”? In another scene, Burton reaches the first unmanned hideout where ‘he expresses the desire to have hot coffee’ to his associate. He then gets a ‘reminder’ that the coffee will be cold when he comes back. Burton replies” That’s the irony of such a mission…That you can’t really taste cold coffee”. When Burton utters “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy” , the code to contact his superiors on radio, many people would just marvel at Burton’s charm in a pressure cooker story.
In yet another sequence where Burton is at the castle with the entire ensemble of the film, he changes his stand thrice. First he introduces himself as an SS Intelligence official, then as a British agent and again as a German intelligence official to Gestapo Major who enters the room by accident. This sequence is close to 20 minutes where Burton whips the British defectors, ‘disciplines’ Eastwood and fools the German and Italian generals. This is rare. In the end, when Burton identifies that the top German agent is his boss, he ‘offers’ him to quietly jump out of the plane rather than be tried for treason, when the General is about to leave, he politely asks him “ Can I have your diary ?” and then poof …..he jumps out! Burton is unimaginably cool headed!
The Philosophy of “Where Eagles Dare”:
The film unabashedly shows its love for spy and intelligence movies as it creates close to 40 twists and turns in the script itself. Almost 80% of the main cast turn out to be defectors or get killed. At one point the film struggles to find a leader to the narrative but with Burton, those doubts get erased quickly.
Treating action as the central narrative: The cable car climax sequence was filmed in studios and in Austria but the imagery and action is just breathtakingly original. The viewer is literally perched at 80,000 feet when this happens. Hundreds of Germans are butchered in the film looking like a top rate kill-fest.Germans are considered superior in every way to the Brit-Americans: Be it the German agents in Britain, the traitors in the mission, the technology to set up the fortress, the speed at which they respond to challenges and the quality of their guns, choppers, jeeps etc, The Axis powers look far better than the Allied ones. It looks almost as if Burton and Eastwood steal victory from the jaws of defeat.The Women are the real surprise: Back in the day in 1968, women in world war films were portrayed as the damsels in distress and were seen as honey traps for enemy agents. All this changed in “Eagles” when a soft spoken Mary Ure is seen firing endless bullets at the German entourage which is coming on bikes to foil their escape. Ingrid Pitt who plays the bartender cum spy to the mission slaps Richard Burton real hard in front of the soldiers in the bar (albeit at the instructions of Burton). She is also seen as the logistics expert delivering vehicles and clothes in -20 degrees weather at the German Alps.
Fun Fact: Pitt was herself a holocaust survivor.
4. Ron Goodwin’s epic score : To build a film which is so visually appealing and has the greatest actors of the time, the music department needs to exude the spirit of the scale and optics of the film. The opening theme constructs the magnitude of the effort and creates a sense of height and the gravity of the problem in the film. He has created a Hitchcock type feel to the tense moments in the film. Goodwin would go on to compose great music for superb war films such as “Battle Of Britain”, “633 Squadron” and many more.
Where Eagles Dare In Popular Culture:
A couple of films have been influenced by “Eagles”. In “Moonraker”, Jaws and James Bond enter into a similar cable car flight in South America. Many films have created an impossible location as the hideout.
In Bollywood, the forgettable “Tehelka” film directed by Anil Sharma creates a Xerox copy of “Where Eagles Dare”. Each frame till the end reeks of cut,copy and paste of the original classic. But it is a poor adaptation and can be avoided.
“Where Eagles Dare” is possibly one of the greatest world war films ever made. It is like a Dom Perignon bottle, which can be savored by many generations alike.