Monday, 1 September 2008

No.55 : Where Eagles Dare

Where Eagles Dare at the IMDb

‘Where Eagles Dare’ is an 1968 ‘men on a mission’ World War 2 movie staring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. It is regarded as a genre classic and its fans include Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and me. The only dissenting voice I could find was Clive James who recently described it ‘the worst movie ever’, but what does he know? He’s got a stocking over his face for a start!

The film opens with a transport plane making a perilous journey through the Alps. Although the men on board are in German uniforms we know they’re the good guys because Clint is among their number. Their mission is one of rescue and is explained during a flashback sequence that introduced Michael Hordern of ‘Paddington the Bear’ fame as the Admiral in charge of the operation. We learn that an important American general has been shot down in enemy territory, and if he is not rescued plans for the second front will be lost.

We, the viewer, suspect things are not what they seem early on, as after the men make their parachute exit Mary Ure is ushered from a secret compartment and jumps a few moments later. On the ground the plan starts to unravel when the radio operator is found murdered. The team make it to a remote alpine lodge and after making his excuses Burton makes his secret rendezvous with Mary. The General, we learn, is being kept in the Sloss Adler, a remote castle base serviced only by cable car and seemingly impenetrable. Luckily Ingrid Pitt is on our side and manages to get Mary a job when she sweet talks horny Gestapo man Derren Nesbitt.

Fears of traitors in the ranks are quickly realised when another member of the team is killed and our men are captured by the Germans. Luckily the Nazis do a pretty poor job of escorting Clint and Burton to the jail and the pair manage to escape within five minutes. With the team now separated into two groups its up to the stars to break into the castle and rescue the General and their three comrades.

But no! Twists and schemes abound when the real traitors are revealed and the whole point of the mission is explained. With the castle aflame and the Jerries falling by the dozen can our happy crew escape back to England, and expose the conspiracy that reaches to the very highest echelons of M.I.6.?

I must have seen this film 20 times but rarely all the way through. It plays on a near constant loop on TCM and I usually get hooked in again when I flick past the cable car or school bus scenes. What a complete viewing allows is the chance to appreciate how well crafted the film is, with plot points seeded throughout that are harvested in the thrilling climax.

In some scenes the viewer is in on the plan with reveals such as Mary exiting the plane and the paratrooper being murdered rather than accidentally killed as the dialogue suggests. In others we are kept in the dark, such as the tavern scene where Burton is about to explain things to Eastwood and the camera tantalisingly drifts away to another part of the bar. Techniques like these keep us guessing and allow us a sense of involvement as well. This juggling act is well handled and not one of the later revelations seems improbable given what has happened before.

The action sequences are excellent with more Germans killed and more explosions per square inch than any other film I know. Some of the rear projection work is a bit ropey, especially on the cable car scenes, but you hardly notice amid the brutal fighting and face kicking. The cable car sequence is perhaps the best remembered and it certainly features prominently on the film’s poster, but for me the chase in the school bus is best with all the earlier planning paying off in tree-mendous fashion.

Clint does his usual good job as an action star but how the Jerries don’t twig his accent I’ll never know. Burton is great running the show and he just passes in the action stakes too. Barely 10 years later in ‘The Wild Geese’ he looks daft running about with his Uzi, but here he pulls it off - just. Of the second stringers who can fail to remember Derren Nesbitt’s nasty, horny Gestapo man? His earlier fall out with the General serves our guys well in the dining room showdown and he’s exceptional in the regard that he’s the only German with an IQ of more than 30. His successful reading of Mary nearly saves the day for the bad guys but sadly it’s not to be as she bursts in to ruin his night.

The script by Alistair MacLean is top notch and despite running for a hefty 155 minutes there isn’t a wasted moment or superfluous scene. The action is invariably described as ‘Boys’ Own’ and you can see why, when the good guy losses total Burton’s scratched hand against 500 Germans and a castle. No one claimed it was a documentary though!

If you are one of the four people who like war films but haven’t seen this masterpiece I trust you will rectify the situation immediately. Look it’s about to start on TCM right now! For the rest of us let us begin ‘ Broad Sword calling Danny Boy, Broad Sword….

Best Bit : “That almost makes it worse”

‘W’ Score : 22/23

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