Sunday 3 June 2007

Where Eagles Dare (1968) Brian G Hutton

This is exactly the sort of action film I grew up watching because we only had three channels on TV and no Blockbuster round the corner. It's also an Alistair MacLean novel and we had the whole slew of those in the house too, prompting us to pay attention when a film version of one of them came onto TV, whether it be the famous ones like The Guns of Navarone or lesser entries like The Satan Bug or Bear Island. The genres would shuffle around but they were really all better defined with an encompassing genre that doesn't really exist any more: the thriller.

I was surprised when I looked this one up. I'd seen it before, but a long time ago, and I only had vague memories of it. There's Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and, well no other real stars, so I presume my recollections are merging it with The Guns of Navarone or The Dirty Dozen or whichever thrillers of the era happened also to be war movies. There are people like Michael Hordern, Patrick Wymark, Anton Diffring, Robert Beatty and Derrin Nesbitt but however great they are as supporting actors, they're hardly stars. I knew all of them but only one of them by name. Diffring is the one who looks like a cross between Col Decker from The A-Team and Frank Sinatra (Burton, as my lass points out, being a cross between Rod Steiger and Bill Murray.

There's another actor here of note too: Ingrid Pitt, in her most prominent film role to date and the one that brought her to the attention of Hammer Films who cast her in The Vampire Lovers. From then on, even though she's only made 22 films to date, across four decades, she was known as a sexy vampire. The title role in Countess Dracula merely cemented that reputation. What surprises here is that Ingrid Pitt was not always Ingrid Pitt: she was born Ingoushka Petrov in Poland and spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp. I wonder how she felt appearing in a Second World film set in the heart of Nazi territory.

The story is a good one because it has plenty of depth. We're quickly told what's going on but realise that it isn't enough to know what's really going on. The outline is that General Carnaby has been captured by the Nazis and he's a prisoner that can't remain one for a very good reason: he's a key coordinator of the allied plan to move into Europe on a second front and if the Germans can get him to talk, there may just not be a second front. To make matters worse, he crashed ten miles away from the Schloss Adler, the HQ of the German secret service in southern Bavaria, so it's pretty obvious where he's going to be, and the Fortress of Eagles is well named.

So a group of soldiers are brought together and sent in on a particularly suicidal mission. The man in charge is Major Smith, played by Burton, and his second in command is a lieutenant in the American rangers, Lt Schaffer, played by Eastwood. There are others, all able men fluent in German and varied techniques of killing people. However something is going on that we and most of them aren't necessarily privy to. There's a double agent in the mix, for a start, as one of the men died in the parachute drop but not through any accidental means. Also only the Major seems to know that his girlfriend parachuted in near to everyone else, let alone why she did so and why he's keeping her existence a secret from his men.

It's all handled very well indeed. The stuntwork is excellent, as you'd expect with a name like Yakima Canutt running the second unit, though the rear projection shots are often a little too obvious. There are shootings a plenty and explosions galore, all realistic sizes exept the big one at the Schloss which I was waiting for with anticipation only to find myself a little let down. The acting is uniformly spot on though Eastwood was still finding his own screen persona. Perhaps that's the best time to see him, though, as it's not practiced enough yet.

Best of all is the story though. The bluff and double bluff is excellently handled and the big scene when Burton gets to confuse everyone into trying to work out whose side everyone is on is a peach. Burton has the perfect stone face for the job and Eastwood, a great stone face himself in his time, is just as great here with the face of patient confusion. MacLean outdid himself here, both as the writer of the source novel and of the screenplay. He's the biggest star here of them all.

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