At first, when viewing both Where Eagles Dare and its comrade-in-arms, Kelly's Heroes, it seemed that the latter was easily superior to the former in visual terms. And whilst I can confirm that it is the better looking of the two transfers, I am actually very pleased at how Warner have presented Burton's bravura Boys own in hi-def.
Once again, as with Kelly, the film has been taken out of the archives and merrily dusted-down but has not actually been the recipient of a full-blown, frame-by-frame restoration. This means two valid things - firstly, and reassuringly, it doesn't exhibit any ill DNR effects, and, secondly, it could, of course, look better.
Sporting a typical VC-1 encode, this 2.40:1 image has much to commend it over every other home video edition that has come down from the mountains. Print damage is still in evidence but, believe me, it is mild, and the film looks stable, robust and clean for the most part. Grain is intact and the print has a film-like, un-sharpened texture. Whilst the picture transfers as darker than I've previously seen it, detail and colours make for a much more rewarding experience than some reports have claimed. Skin tones are ruddy or muddy, or pale and yellowy, but this is down to the variable stock and photography, I would suspect. Whites have a tendency to bloom in shots were it brightens up, but again, this is not a defect of the transfer itself, just the way the film does happen to look. Primaries are good and there are some very bold and vivid examples of deep reds on offer, such as the big bus and the splashy gore. This latter stuff contrasts quite well in this higher definition image - splats of it from a shot throat, or dripping from holes plugged in the back, or wiped from Clint's blade. I like the orange and black fireballs of the numerous explosions, too. Some blow out quite livid and bright, whilst others are choked with black smoke and debris. It doesn't smack the screen with dazzling, three-dimensional conflagrations, and what does yawn across the frame may look a touch timid and old fashioned, but there is a ribald and glorious energy to the pyrotechnics that is very pleasing, just the same. Real explosions and real flames. Nice!
Several exterior location shots throughout betray their age - looking rougher and dirtier and containing less detail - and the sequence when three of Smith's men are shepherded from the cable-car through into the castle is noticeably inferior in terms of contrast and definition. The day-for-night shooting presents its usual problems for a vintage production of course, but the transfer, besides being darker than I've seen it before, handles such things reasonably well. Blacks aren't the most reliable, but they hold their ground with some considerable depth at times, and grey levels may become watery yet the shadows can retain their inkiness when it counts. It is true that the darker cast to the film can seem to shroud some detail at times, but this is not a major concern. It just looks older and murkier. The matte-shots and the oft-utilised front and rear projections stand out like an ever sorer thumb than they do in SD, the bluish haloing around them all too apparent.
Texture on the rocks, the walls, the snow, the wooden beams and doors, and all the uniforms etc. is a grand reward for those who have forked out for another version of this perennial favourite, and the fact that there is no annoying smearing, shimmering, artefacts or other digital saboteurs at large only sweetens the deal on transfer that is faithful and, in the main, very pleasing.
Consistent is the word to describe the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track for Where Eagles Dare. This is a solid, although unmistakably vintage audio presentation. There is a lid on things, but this does not mean that the lossless track doesn't have a bit of fun from time to time as well.
Ron Goodwin's martial theme gets a very fine delivery, the drums and brass surging from the deeper register and rising with bright and crisp militarism. The theme gets plenty of chances to shine, and certainly rolls on and on during the final act. It lacks the clarity and punch of a more modern rendition, sure, but this sounds a lot better and fuller than I expected it to. Dialogue has some of that restricted edge from the track's vintage, but, as with the score, sounds a lot brighter and clearer than I had anticipated. There is a little bit of directionality afforded it, and the stereo spread across the front widens things up a touch.
But this a film that wants to hurl fury at you. You can sense that the engineers wanted to let rip with this during its most outrageous moments, but held themselves back at the last minute. There is plenty of action distributed around the channels but, for the most part, it is subdued and consigned to bolstering the tumult emanating from the front. The barking Schmeissers kick and belch with clipped aggression, literally rat-a-tatting their way across a limited soundfield that is sure to please firepower-fans but won't exactly have you ducking and diving for cover. I like the little silenced whumps of the pistols and the odd tossed grenade cracks with a meaty but still nicely rendered blast that seems to embrace the frontal array with some decent, if small-scale heft, and does actually attempt to spew out some enclosed debris. The thunderous impacts of bullets ripping chunks out of the wall beside Clint as he recoils down one end of the hallway are more emphatic than detailed, but they do provide a bit of oomph that puts more of a kick into things. The radio channels drifting in and out of frequency - especially in that communications room that Clint fails to creep into properly - is effectively done ... you do actually think that the track has encountered some sort of problem. And we get some very slight teasing from the surrounds. A trace of Alpine wind whistles gently back there. Some vague explosive concussion ripples around us. Some effort is made with plane engines too, but this rear activity is nothing to write home about.
In short, this track is dynamic enough for its age and carries itself well across the front. The score and the machine-gunfire sound great, all things considered, and dialogue doesn't suffer. I can't say how well this compares to the 6-track audio that the film had for its 70mm presentation, but it sounds just fine to me.
Unlike its fellow German-squisher, Kelly's Heroes, the Blu-ray for Where Eagles Dare actually has something other than just its theatrical trailer. Sadly, though, all that Warner have come up with is a vintage featurette.
On Location: Where Eagles Dare is a 12-minute promotional oddity from MGM that reveals a fair amount of footage centred around the town at the base of what was turned into the Schloss Adler. We hear from the stars, Burton, Eastwood, Ure and Pitt, as well as from Hutton and a couple of the FX people. The altitude and the conditions are discussed and we are treated to a great little carriage ride in the company of Our Ingrid. It is all very cute and kind of, well, goofy.
And ... that's your lot. As with Kelly's Heroes, I'm sure that a retro-doc could have been out together, or even a commentary with Clint, Pitt and Hutton would have been nice.
Great to see on the format, Hutton's first “big” movie is both rousing and risible in equal measure. The plot is a stupidly convoluted excuse to have endless battles in the snow. The high-altitude, high-camp drama is often stale, crusty and laborious and yet ... and yet ... we love it, don't we? There is a child-like zeal to the endless mowing-down of anonymous bad guys - something that both Arnie and Sly took to their muscle-armoured hearts - that rises above the so-clever-it's-stupid narrative and the ill-fitting Miss Marple-style denouement. Clint is wasted and Burton is in the wrong movie, but you can't help but roll with it. This film helped start the relentless final set-piece that has become the expected component of every action movie made since, and wonky matte-shots as well as stuntmen replacing the stars for altogether too much of the running time notwithstanding, this is prime-time indulgence for the battle-hungry war-child in all of us.
Warner deliver another fine vintage movie in a very respectable and, thankfully, unmolested transfer. As with Kelly's Heroes, it is shame that nothing extra of worth could be produced, but fans will just be happy to have the film in hi-def.
One little epitaph, folks. The film effectively linked both Richard Burton and Alastair MacLean forever - with both alcoholics finally dying after long and wretched periods of self-pity, and winding-up being buried in the same Swiss churchyard, only yards apart. Fate, apparently, settling Where Eagles Dare.
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