Where Eagles Dare Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Where Eagles Dare Review

    Well, we recently had a look at what actor-turned-director Brian G. Hutton achieved with the larger-than-life war-time heist ensemble yarn, Kelly's Heroes, from 1970. Now it is time to look a little bit further back towards his lavish, first big budget blockbuster with 1968's Alpine adventure, Where Eagles Dare, produced by Elliott Kastner.

    Based upon the classic thriller novel from Alastair MacLean, Hutton's film became a much-loved highpoint in big name espionage and action, taking the staple ingredients of the covert military operation deep behind enemy lines, the rug-pulling character switches of the paranoid 60's “trust-nobody” ethic, and the perennial favourite of the all-out shoot-em-up, and flinging them across an impossibly wide cinematic canvas. For a generation, this would be the action/adventure that would shape the celluloid instincts for chaos and mayhem, none other Steven Spielberg citing it as one of his favourite films.

    “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.”

    The Schloss Adler is an impregnable mountain stronghold high up in the Austrian Alps. It is a German garrison and the HQ of Nazi Intelligence. Breaking in to such a heavily guarded and out-of-the-way joint as this is surely suicidal, but when a top ranking US General is captured and held captive there, a hand-picked squad of expert commandos are assigned the impossible mission of getting him out before merciless methods are employed to extract every ounce of Allied information from out of him. So, if no-one else can help you ... and if you can find them ... maybe you can call -no, wait a minute, that's the other bunch, isn't it? ... Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, WWII's greatest odd couple! They've got the guts, the guns, the gumption ... and more sticks of dynamite than there are buildings to blow up ... and only they are willing to go Where Eagles Dare.

    Although MacLean gets the credit for writing the screenplay, it was actually Kastner and Hutton who did most of the work. MacLean may have been a terrific and popular novelist, but his screenwriting skills left a lot to be desired. Where Eagles Dare, as it happens, was never actually intended to be a stand-alone novel, Kastner had approached the author to formulate the story, detail a screenplay for him to use and produce a tie-in novel off the back of it. But in MacLean's original draft, it took around forty minutes before the allied super-commandos of Richard Burton's Smith and Clint Eastwood's Schaffer to even get to the mountains. He even shoehorned-in a marriage between Eastwood's US Ranger and Ingrid Pitt's Bavarian bit-part undercover contact, Heidi! Subsequently, Kastner and Hutton had to drop a lot of totally unnecessary material, tighten up what was left and pitch-in a little bit more action and excitement. The “who's really who” element even came in courtesy of MacLean's earlier novel The Black Shrike, an element that appealed heavily to the film's hands-on producer, who wanted something with an ironic twist to spice up the finale.

    With lengthy weeks of arduous shooting up in the Austrian Alps at the awesome location of the Schloss Hohenwerfen, an edifice dating back to 1077 and the recipient of more restorations and rebuilds than Michael Jackson ever had, the massive MGM production swung into action like a well-oiled machine. And, for many around those parts, it must have felt like a second Teutonic invasion. With a fine international cast assembled - Patrick Wymark, Ferdy Mayne, Anton Diffring, Michael Hordern, Peter Barkworth, Donald Houston and so on - as well as a technical crew who had pushed boundaries before and were hell-bent on doing so again, this small army began to turn the picturesque mountains and timber-lodge village into a slaughterhouse.

    Yet, just when you think that this should have been the Die Hard of its day, or Cliffhanger, for that matter, and forever remembered as such, the odour of a few sour eggs drifts across the alpine shooting gallery.

    For, although I like Where Eagles Dare a lot, I cannot deny that it is a badly flawed movie from almost every angle. For a start, Richard Burton just should not be in the film. He is simply terrible, as far as I am concerned. And the crazy thing about it is that he is hardly in the film anyway. You see, the overwhelming majority of the action scenes which, let's face it, are the main elements you want to enjoy, don't feature any of Burton because the guy you see on-screen is not him at all, but rather his extraordinarily unsung stunt-double, Alf Joint. This was a flat-rate, but first rate stuntman who was so uncannily similar to the star that the camera could go in extremely close and you would never know the difference. Burton, who could not believe the amount of money he was getting paid for such fooling about - being far more used to the stage he tended to act for his pay - basically refused to do anything that required more than his just standing in front of the camera and spouting reams of red herring-laden dialogue. The long and gruelling weeks of shooting up in the Alps went largely unnoticed by him, as he as was, by his own admission let alone the opinions of everybody else involved in the production, drunk almost all of the time that he was actually there and not off on impromptu trips to Paris with Elizabeth Taylor, or having binges with the likes of Peter O' Toole, Robert Shaw and Trevor Howard, whom he liked to invite to his lodgings. Robert Shaw being around was, of course, understandable, as he was married to co-star Mary Ure, and would spend a lot of his time whilst she was filming there writing a novel in the peace of a mountainside cabin. At the time, the two were virtually inseparable. Ure had even played Libby, the wife to Shaw's bizarre incarnation of George Armstrong Custer in the wacky Custer Of The West only the year before.

    Burton, who was integral to getting the entire production off the ground as he had the most clout with the studio, was playing with the role of the stalwart and determined Smith. He had been persuaded into taking on a patriotic action character by his two sons, who had grown sick of seeing their old man dying in things like The Robe, Becket and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. So he thought he'd try his hand at a more pulpish soul. A consummate professional and devout Shakespearean actor he may well have been. A credibly heroic, swashbuckling espionage agent, he was not. Yet, however ungainly he appears when hefting a sub-machine-gun, or climbing on to the back of motorcycle side-car, or turning the wheel of bullet-riddled bus in a pre-Road Warrior climactic chase, he comes into his own in segments of seedy subterfuge and weaselly cover-stories that involve misplaced and mistimed innuendo and brusque “man's man” spiel. You can tell how thankful he is whenever Smith is required to expound pages of exposition (whether it involves truth or lies about the mission), and not ammunition. His mannered loquaciousness, that Welsh accent chattered away in the cold Alpine winds, finds him at home when emoting to captive (literally) audiences, and you get the impression that had the entire story played out in a locked radio-room, or even that pesky cable-car that comes to play such havoc in the tale, with explosions going off outside, he would have been in heaven.

    If you can detect a slight frostiness between Burton and Ure, by the way, it is more than likely because she detested his incessant drinking. The habit had ruined their own alleged affair a few years earlier, you see. But as far as Clint is concerned, Burton got along just fine. He hadn't wanted this upstart cowboy in the picture at first, placing his bets rather incomprehensibly upon Richard (The 300 Spartans) Egan, but he grew to respect the diligence and hard work that Eastwood was willing to put in. The American was more than eager to indulge in scrapes, tumbles, fights and the closest to a genuine stunt that he could get. Although he is clearly riding a German motorcycle during a couple of very easy turns, Burton is almost certainly not the person sitting next to him, it should be pointed out.

    “In your idiom, you're a punk. And a pretty second-rate one at that.”

    For his part, Eastwood handles the weaponry just fine, but he seems somehow lost in a screenplay that sidelines him, and deliberately leaves his character in the dark. Originally, MacLean's script had given him a lot more to do, although he was destined always to be a foil to Burton's stocky agent Smith. With Leone's films leaving him enigmatic and decidedly non-verbose, the trend seemed to have begun, in earnest, in American movies, too. It is certain that Eastwood would go on to become more comfortable with less dialogue - especially as the lines that he would come out with would be so damn good as a result - but I'm not sure if this wasn't a condition that was sort of wrung-about with the likes of Where Eagles Dare hanging him out as, relatively speaking, little more than the American poster-boy for the film ... a little something for the ladies. Even with the superstar status that was slowly smothering him, he would go on to mould himself into a unique form that sort of loved and hated the leading man/icon pedestal that he was ascending towards in equal measure. This paradoxical vanity is, of course, the very style that would ensure just such a throne would be rightfully his. His workmanlike, by-the-numbers performance in Where Eagles Dare, in many ways already a rude step back from the cult-heavy image that had shot him to fame with Dollars, was possibly the catalyst that would set-in-stone his archetypal loner of only few words but mighty deeds. But there are still some great little touches that he manages to put in. Guardedly suspicious glances at his commander as he cleans his guns in the mountain shack, sensing already that this mission isn't quite right. His quizzical look of hurt when the plot totally leaves him behind during the notorious round-table unmasking. A polite little “Hello” to a German he is about to plug with a bullet. His barely checked eagerness to stick a blade in. Little traits that go a long way when the character he is playing is little more than a craggy-faced prop.

    “You seem to have a lot of women stashed around this country, Major.”

    Many a crush was formed for genuine German evacuee Ingrid Pitt, seen here as the buxom tavern girl, Heidi, who has vital links to the British Secret Service. But with many of her scenes dropped, including that infamously daft marriage, she now makes only a brief but impressive impact, leaving her cult success and eternal adoration to warmly develop over her provocative tenure for Hammer Films. Mary Ure had previously been luminous in Look Back In Anger and Sons And Lovers, for which she received an Oscar nomination, but after a fair bit of marital shenanigans - the usual run of affairs and divorces - she seemed to lose her screen presence, the allure somehow dulled and haunted. In many ways, here, she comes to resemble the hip swinging 60's chick, ironically even more so when she is hefting a machine-gun, but there is a cold air to her performance that makes her seem bitter and brittle beyond what is required of her association with Burton on (and previously off) the screen, and she is better when squirming under the easy, but insidious interrogation from a beady-eyed Gestapo vulture under the masquerade of seduction. Along with Richard Burton's much put-on stand-in, Alf Joint, Mary Ure's double, Gillian Aldam, found herself with a lot more to do than her simple, flat-rate contract had initially implied. Again, just like Joint was with Burton, she was almost a dead-ringer for the actress and the production could get away with some extreme close-ups of her during the action scenes without anybody noticing any difference. You can always tell when it is Ure, though, because she blinks and flinches whenever she squeezes the trigger.

    For “Where Doubles Dare”, as Eastwood embarrasingly proclaimed the film, the stunt work was exemplary and would have been held up much more often as a shining example of what these daredevils are capable of, if studio and production intervention hadn't tarnished much of the incredibly dangerous and ground-breaking work that Yakima (Stagecoach/Ben-Hur) Canutt and his intrepid team had accomplished. For every barnstorming aerial display of fisticuffs, falling, leaping and whatnot, Hutton's film dumbly flung in far too much studio-set variations and inserts filmed back at MGM's UK studio in Boreham Wood, undermining the colossal, seat-of-the-pants efforts that the stunt-team and 2nd Unit had made in the genuine locations. Now, this sort of thing certainly went on a lot during this period - and still does, for that matter - but somehow Where Eagles Dare, for all of its bravado, just seems to come out of the other side with a remarkably hollow feel. You look at the classic stop-motion charades of Ray Harryhausen and you have no trouble at all suspending your disbelief. Somehow, Eagles keeps popping in and out of the imaginative bubble. The famous fight on the roof of the cable-car, and Smith's subsequent Bondian leap from one to another, were all done for real over weeks of intensive shooting, yet hardly any footage of the genuine article is in the finished film, Hutton being bundled back to the meticulously built mock-up back at Boreham Wood. Canutt must have rankled at that, although fake or not, the sequence we get to see went on to inspire some great moments in Moonraker, Nighthawks and Codename: The Soldier!

    “You will go on these insane missions. You're getting too old.”

    “Thanks for that.”

    I've previously mentioned Hutton's penchant for anachronisms with Kelly's Heroes - the odd sighting of an Electra-glide passing by and, of course, Donald Sutherland's entire character of hippy tank commander, Oddball. Well, the filmmaker gets a head-start in Eagles with the Bondian arrival of the German High Command via an American Bell Helicopter dropping straight into the castle courtyard. Yeah, they may have been flying “versions” of this back then, but “they” certainly weren't the Germans. But in a film as determinedly silly as this - the “proper” actors even forget to duck their heads beneath the circling rotors(!) - this sort of indulgence seems only fitting. What annoys me, though, is the protracted scene of a knife-wielding Clint tippy-toeing up behind an unwitting German radio operator under the sternfully watchful eye of Burton, when, at this point, all they need to do is cap him with a silenced round ... which, in the end, klutzy-Clint forces them into doing anyway!

    MacLean's lean thrillers are an addictive canon of work and most of their film adaptations have merit. My favourites would be The Guns Of Navarone and Ice Station Zebra, and since the latter has had a wonderful restoration already it should look astounding on the format. But you have to admit that his plotting tends to get too complicated for its own good when, really, there is no need for such elaborate inner mechanics. The revelations and developmental arc in Eagles, especially the movie adaptation, are, by far, the most complex and irritating in what is merely a rogue commando bullet-blaster. Unmasking the various spies and double-agents lurking in the woodwork of the Schloss Adler is a tedious affair and let down all the more by Burton's horrifically arched and starched delivery. The dinner-table exposé is one of the most needlessly contrived and waffle-heavy twisty-turny assemblies in this, or any, genre. It feels like a Nazi subversion of all those Poirot or Miss Marple grand unveilings. Hutton has always claimed that he made the film as a spoof of both the war film and the Bond film,but it is just that most audiences, particularly American audiences, didn't get the joke. Well, I think we should take that claim with a pinch of salt, myself. Hutton wasn't quite that sophisticated just yet. But this was the era of the Cold War and trust, as always, it seems, was a hard thing to come by. Sadly, in later years, and despite his evident happiness with the film, MacLean fell out with the producers, especially Kastner who had been the one that originally came to him with the idea in the first place, and even given the author the title, over certain royalties that hadn't come his way. It became but one knot in a string of misfortunes for the writer. Burton, too, would never again scale the same heights of critical acclaim that he once courted, the general held feeling being that he resented having “sold out”. His drinking, which had reached infernal proportions during the making of the film, and would never really slacken again, found him less reliable, with turns in the lowly Exorcist II, The Wild Geese and The Medusa Touch being the only things worthy of note.

    “Pull out now, Broadsword! Save yourselves!”

    “You must be joking. Over.”

    Another trademark from Schloss Adler was Ron Goodwin's rousing and dramatic score, which went on to become synonymous with the genre, containing a main title theme that is one of a select gathering of cherished rallying cries-to-arms that includes The Dam Busters, 633 Squadron, The Guns Of Navarone, The Great Escape, The Blue Max, Aces High and, yeah, come on, Zulu. Now, you'll all know already just how big and obsessive a fan of film scores I am but, to tell you the truth, Goodwin's music for Where Eagles Dare doesn't do a whole for me. The central motif from the Main Title is justifiably classic, but it swiftly becomes enormously repetitive and downright tedious when the composer then fails to deliver much beyond it throughout the entire last third of the film. Goodwin explained that, despite accusations of laziness, he didn't merely place the theme in a loop, he actually re-arranged and wrote additional elements of it when Hutton and Kastner and the US distributors required more bombast during the frantic final battles, escapes and chases - but that is no excuse for simply rehashing the same piece over and over again. It's strident title bars remain instantly recognisable, however, and it is clear that he modelled the frequent staccato snare-drums on the equally frequent sound of machine-gunfire.

    “Let me remind you, Major, I'm a colonel in the SS and not a lieutenant who you can frighten with your threats!”

    Where I enjoy Eagles the most is with the Germans and their in-fighting. This is quite an acute mirror image of the distrust and suspicion that is rippling though the Allied ranks. Ferdy Mayne is, admittedly, a bizarre choice for the HQ's highly decorated garrison kommandant, but he does well with what amounts to a role that merely relies upon him to be cordially frustrated with Robert Beatty's Yankee captive Gen. Carnaby, and then just plain bewildered by the whirlwind of subterfuge taking place around him. You can almost see his brain working overtime to keep up with each new startling accusation bleating out from Burton's arrogant mouth. Anton Diffring, on the other hand, is as unavoidably excellent as he always is when drafted-in to play yet another German Hailing! from the Fatherland. His edgy sparring and distrust of Darren Nesbitt's slimy Gestapo officer is notable as it provides a wary texture and a pecking-order in the ranks of the enemy that means even we sympathise with this imperious Kraut when it comes to the evil machinations of Nesbitt's mop-topped Aryan ideal. My son said that he looked like Horrid Henry's kid brother, Perfect Peter! And, with his smarmy advances on the ladies, undoubted intelligence and uncanny ability to loom up at the right moment to spoil the fun, he does come across like the spoilt brat all-growed-up It is actually a shame that we don't get a bit more time in their squabbling company.

    Now, in 1968 - the watershed year for so many things - violence was a darn sight more acceptable in films. Even if this was aimed at family audiences, we get flaming bodies, stiletto daggers plunged into the backs of skulls, blood-bags popping on German tunics, a mouth kicked open and, best of all, an ice-axe thrust into a vulnerable arm. John Wayne's The Greet Berets had celebrated mass slaughter and tried to make it appear patriotic and proud, but it had managed to inflict one shocking visceral image in the mind when a pivotal character was hoisted up on a wall of punji-stakes, so, suddenly, all bets were off. Peckinpah, more than most, would sit up and take notice, but Hutton was slyly notching up the carnage too in a determined effort to bring the explicit pages of those commando comics to the big screen. German soldiers fall, inelegantly, by the dozen. Great displays of ballistic science-gone-Hollywood abound. The Germans, who would be more used to their own weaponry than any Allied infiltrator you would presume, couldn't hit the ground even with the barrel planted in it, whilst Burton and, especially, Eastwood (who chalks up the highest bodycount in his not inconsiderable résumé) could fire the Hun's lead-spitter of choice just with their teeth and with their eyes closed, and still hit a bad guy at a thousand yards so effectively that the man's entire family would also be wiped out behind him. In a terrific coup de grace, Eastwood and Ure, under Burton's strict instructions, manage to unleash a barrage of smart bullets up into an airfield control tower that then seem to bend back down and take out the guy yelling down the radio for help! Wonderful stuff! It's how we won the war, you know. That, and all those neat little packs of dynamite that look like they were designed for IKEA.

    “We got company!”

    When you are caught in the middle of a German garrison that's hardly surprising, mate. Sadly, we hear that same line three times!

    Non-stop explosions round out the mission, proving to be the gleeful antithesis of the stealth approach that got Our Boys into the castle stronghold in the first place. Get in quietly, but try to make as much noise and mess as is humanly possible on the way out, chaps! That's the order of the day. There's no denying that Where Eagles Dare delivers plenty of bang for your buck. John McLane's line about there being enough explosives in Die Hard “to blow up Arnold Schwarzenegger” seems very fitting. Indeed, if the Austrian Oak had happened along during this mission, our intrepid duo would probably have been apt to climb up his northern face, so keen are they to hang off high precipices.

    Easy to pick holes in, fun to taunt, Where Eagles Dare still has that boundless ability to spring back and stick its tongue out at you. However daft and seemingly po-faced it is, you can't refute that the fact that it remains terrific entertainment, wart, doubles and all.

    Thus, the finest war film that Agatha Christie never made pummels common sense aside and bludgeons bravado over the head with a big stick. Clint idles on the sidelines, looking cool in Alpine Korps camouflage, Ingrid warms the cockles of the heart for the nano-second that she's in it, Mary blinks her way blindly through a thousand rounds without a single magazine change, and Richard ... well, Richard turns up occasionally ... to enunciate about nefarious Nazis, and to burn holes in the snow with his smouldering eyes when he isn't turning it yellow round the back of the woodshed. Brian G. Hutton would somehow realise that he could relax if he could just ditch the egocentric duo of MacLean and Burton and not bow down to studio pressure, and only then would he be able to cut loose with Kelly's Heroes. But, all jibes aside, there is an awful lot of fun to be had with this mock serious summit-siege, even if a lot of it is at the film's own expense. It is jubilantly gratuitous and war-hungry, and it refuses magnificently to deviate from the black-and-white and clichéd.

    War may well be hell, but that won't stop those brave boys from painting all those matte backgrounds!

    The Rundown

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