Sunday 1 June 2008

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

Here's another of those few films that populated the video drawer under the TV in my parents' house that I haven't seen in what seems like forever. My parents weren't big film fans and this was before ready availability of movies anyway, when everything was VHS and not necessarily cheap or available. We only had three TV channels, but that's where my dad taped his films. My mother looked up from her books once in a while and I just watched whatever was playing until I could get a little TV of my own and an Amstrad double video deck and really start exploring what was out there.

This was a big one, a wartime thriller that I'd heard of based on a bestselling book that I'd heard of and starring a bunch of people that I'd heard of. Now, of course, I've heard of even more of them and know a lot more about them too. I can also see a lot of the subtext now that I couldn't at the time, and how the tone fits certain cultural concepts that have crept in over the last half century. Nowadays I get to play the 'count the Nazi' in World War II movies.

The story is a fantastic one, but then that's how it's presented from moment one. The term 'insane joke' is used more than once. A German admiral by the name of Canaris, on orders from Adolf Hitler, asks Colonel Radl to prepare a feasability study into the concept of kidnapping Winston Churchill and transporting him to Berlin. It's all nonsense of course and Canaris knows it, but has his orders. Radl knows it too, but a peculiar synchronicity of events makes the plan actually possible, so Radl starts making it happen. Canaris orders him to desist but Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler tells him to go ahead and provides him with apparent full authority from Hitler himself for anything he choose to do.

The scene between Himmler and Radl is awesome. Himmler is powerful but playful and Radl is nervous as hell in his presence. The inference is that he knows he's not in the company of someone altogether sane or predictable and would very much like to be somewhere else. He's polite and very careful in his answers, all with the fear that an inappropriate answer, however right, would have his head. It shouldn't be too surprising that it's played so well, given that Radl is an eyepatched Robert Duvall and Himmler is Donald Pleasence.

These are only two of the many major names involved here. Canaris is Anthony Quayle, for instance, and the men Radl enlists to fulfil his mission are played by no lesser actors than Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland. Caine plays Col Kurt Steiner, a parachute commando, honourable man and decorated war hero who is currently under court martial in Alderney for disrespecting an SS general who was liquidating a Polish ghetto. Sutherland is Liam Devlin, an IRA man for whom Ireland has become far too dangerous, and he's as lively and subversive as only Sutherland could manage.

What makes this major casting surprising is that all of them are playing the bad guys, though it's made painfully clear that 'bad guy' is relative. Col Steiner and his men are the epitome of the 'German not Nazis' concept, which has crept in gradually since the war ended. Nowadays it would seem that outside of Hitler's high command, there simply weren't any Nazis, they were all merely Germans who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and they were all misled. Devlin isn't a Nazi either, merely someone with a grudge against the British, and as is hinted at during the movie, under other circumstances he'd be in Berlin trying to kidnap Hitler instead.

The natural question is that given such awesome talent on the side of the bad guys, who did director John Sturges cast on the side of the good guys? Well, in the English village that forms the location in which most of the story unfolds, there's Jenny Agutter, the same year as Logan's Run, and Judy Geeson, along with people I don't know like the very effective John Standing. Thrown in for comic relief is a small American company featuring names like Treat Williams and Larry Hagman. Williams was still in his first year of film credits, but Hagman was well known already, not least for six years of I Dream of Jeannie. Dallas was still two years away. It's Hagman that provides possibly the most memorable character in the film, as a gung ho American colonel called Clarence E Potts eager to get into at least a little bit of real action before he's sent back home.

As a flight of fancy, this is a fun little picture and I think most of the cast treated it as such, Sutherland and Hagman especially. In fact Donald Sutherland has such a great time with it that there are points I think he broke out laughing. Hagman may or may not have realised he was playing a brutal stereotype of an American officer, as seen from the English perspective, but if he did he didn't care and he ran with it. We English may fight the Germans every chance we get but we've always respected their efficiency far more than we appreciated American impetuosity and propensity for over the top violence. To be fair some of them here do have a clue, such as Treat Williams's character, but it's plain who the 'real American' is.

Like most of those films from the video drawer under my parents' TV, this one is worth watching. It was the last film John Sturges directed before retiring, and it's a worthy one to go out on, even though it's not up to the level of Bad Day at Black Rock or The Great Escape or I would expect the key one I haven't seen yet, The Magnificent Seven. The biggest problem isn't the highly flexible tombstones, the insanity of the plot or the inevitable failure (like a few similar films, we know the mission can't succeed because we know Churchill never got kidnapped), it's the fact that in a film that tries to provide cover stories for everything, nobody bothered to address the accents. Sure, Colonel Steiner was educated in England and Devlin sounds Irish but that's it. Just one of my personal bugbears, I know, but a good example of it nonetheless.

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