Where Eagles Dare

by Sonia Mitchell

Remote castles accessible only by cable-car are no match for Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood.
Let’s get the famous bit out of the way first, shall we? This is the film with the cable car fight.

Made in 1968, Where Eagles Dare sits five years after The Great Escape in the chronology of Second World War films. It concerns a British operation to infiltrate a Nazi castle in the Bavarian mountains, ostensibly to rescue a captured American General in possession of important strategic information. Leading the mission is Richard Burton’s Major Smith, aided by Clint Eastwood’s Lieutenant Schaffer.

There’s something profoundly odd about seeing Clint Eastwood in a film with Richard Burton. They seem to belong to completely different eras, despite having been born only five years apart. In this film Burton is the leading man, while Eastwood’s role is more second lead than supporting actor. To be frank, casting politics becomes problematic towards the end of the film, when Eastwood’s character is incapacitated for a completely stupid reason, leaving Burton to perform the climatic cable-car heroics alone.

This was Burton’s project, and it’s completely understandable if as the lead he wanted to perform the main action scene, but you don’t keep a dog and bark yourself. Likewise, it’s a bit of a waste hiring Clint Eastwood to be the ass-kicking killer if you don’t use him in the big action scene. Of course, given that I adore Eastwood I could be accused of a little bias. I’m fine with that.

”This is Broadsword calling Danny Boy...”

If you’re likely to watch this, it’s best done unspoilered, so read on at your own risk.

Although very much an action adventure, this film does give the audience credit for having a brain. An example I particularly liked is the way no one ever specifically mentions that they are speaking German (the film is entirely in English), or feels the need for a comedy Allo allo accent. Instead, we learn at the very beginning that everyone in the Allied group speaks fluent German, and we later see them disguised as Nazis, conversing loudly about a girl back home as they walk straight past the German guards. All too many films would include the unnecessary ‘German only from now on, chaps’ line, and it speaks well of this film’s self-confidence that it doesn’t.

Having said all that, this film is also semi-notorious for being hard to follow. There’s a denouement in the castle banquet room that only really makes sense after the scene is over, which results in the viewer having to hold an awful lot of questions in abeyance. This is a pattern followed throughout the film, and we only see the final pieces at the very end. Fortunately there’s plenty of badassery to keep the interest in the meantime.

The banquet room scene is the film’s turning point. Up until then it’s about sneakily getting into the castle; following this scene it’s about getting out. Less sneaking, more shooting Nazis and blowing things up. Most of this is done by Schaffer (Eastwood), who duel-wields automatics, blows things up and generally acts as a war machine. IMDB says this film has Eastwood’s highest body count, which is pretty plausible. I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, will have compiled a list. Whatever the number, Schaffer kills a shitload of Nazis.

And yet, this film is more humanising that many in the genre. The Nazis guarding the castle are not cartoon villains, and even the Gestapo Officer is not a monster (although he is very unlikable). One of the more thoughtful moments of the film is when Smith opens the door behind a Nazi radio operator, who is listening to music. Apparently unable to kill him, Smith fetches Schaffer, who sneaks up but hesitates for a moment to kill the man. This moment of doubt gives the operator time to see Schaffer and raise the alarm before being killed. Schaffer is an assassin, and usually very matter-of-fact about killing, yet this moment of peace in the film as a man listens to music affects him as much as Smith. It’s a great scene.

As well as being very human, the Nazis are also not very bright. To digress for a moment, when we have security drills at my workplace I’m effectively in the control room dealing with the logistics of our response to hypothetical emergencies. The first time I took this role I found it involved so many jobs at once that I forgot to secure the perimeter of the site in time, allowing someone to wander in during the drill. I make this point to acknowledge that in stressful situations it’s easy to forget something obvious. However, it’s important to note that when I made my mistake it was a training exercise and I learnt from it.

I also think it’s important to note that I wasn’t in charge of a Nazi castle during a war. I therefore think it’s okay to judge the Nazis pretty harshly for not bothering to guard their cable-car during an attack, particularly as this is clearly flagged as the only way any intruders could leave the castle. I also think they should have noticed a little sooner that their leaders were all dead, but that does of course depend on how effective those leaders were when alive. The film relies on Smith and Schaffer being able to outwit the Nazis as well as outgun them, so I won't pick too hard at the Nazi incompetence.

One thing I enjoy about this film is the portrayal of female agents. The nature of the story means that there aren’t many women in it, but it’s great to see Mary Ure’s agent Mary kicking ass and taking names (although I could have done without the romantic subplot). Towards the end of the film she and Schaffer each take charge of an automatic and shoot at Nazis through the back window of a bus; she’s a member of the team, not a passenger. Although Where Eagles Dare is invariably and fairly described as a 'Boy's Own Adventure', it's nonetheless nice that women have a contribution to make that doesn't involved being rescued.

Ultimately, I don't think this film has anything new or profound to say about either war or human nature - it's no Stalag 17. However, as a piece of implausible escapism it's pretty enjoyable. The once-revolutionary greenscreen effects have dated badly, but most of the fight scenes are still actually very watchable. Personally, I rate Eastwood's battles more highly than Burton's cablecar battle, but plenty of others would disagree.

I’ll finish off with the somewhat startling fact that Alistair Maclean wrote Where Eagles Dare - book and film - in six weeks. This was basically a NaNoWriMo project.

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Comments (go to latest)
Michal at 03:01 on 2011-12-12
I watched this film a very long time ago. About the only thing I remember is the totally bitchin' theme song.
Arthur B at 07:16 on 2011-12-12
Sonia Mitchell at 12:51 on 2011-12-22
I have to admit, I find the soundtrack oddly unmemorable. It's atmospheric when it's playing, but if I heard it out of context I probably wouldn't be able to place the film.
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