Where Eagles Dare


The “men on a mission” movie has had some cracking entries over the years with everything from most of Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible movies to the time heist in Avengers: Endgame being the most noticeable. However, if you really wanna get some dirt under your fingernails when it comes to this incredibly tense sub-genre of cinema then you have to watch any of the series of movies made in the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s that has a group of (mostly doomed) manly men of action match wits, firepower and luck against the might of the Third Reich. That’s right, I’m talking about those kind of World War II movies that used to continually play during bank holidays that my father would claim are utterly flawless and yet would be snoring loudly not forty minutes in…
Years of dodging these films thanks to that very reason personally left me immune to the charms of classic war movies with casts usually packed with booming hellraisers but one day I vowed to educate myself in this most gung-ho of genres blessedly free of the sound of fog horn-loud unconscious breathing – and I started with one of the best.


MI6 has gathered a team of seven agents together in order to pull off a brazen rescue mission to infiltrate the Schloß Adler, a Nazi fortress high in the wintry Bavarian alps that they’re going to find as awkward to gain entrance as a proctologist with sausage fingers. Leading the mission is the no nonsense Major John Smith who has a habit of attempting absurdly complicated mission that frequently take him behind enemy lines; backing him up is Lieutenant Morris Schaffer, the group’s only American member whose squinty demeanour shows that he’s just as confused as everybody else by his involvement, but off they go nonetheless to rescue a General George Carnaby, a man with vital information about the planning of the Western Front.
Parachuting in dressed as Nazi soldiers and armed with the ability to speak fluent german in a way that sounds exactly like their own accents, the mission is immediately revealed to not be as it seems when we discover that Smith has made some refinements to the plans by hiring female agent (not to mention his girlfriend) Mary Ellison to gain access to the fortress as a secretary. Matters are further complicated by one of their team instantly and inconveniently showing up dead and it soon becomes obvious that what we think is going on and what’s actually going on are two very different things entirely.
If this mission was thrown together last minute, how does Smith already have other agents like Mary and a busty barmaid mole Heidi ready to go, who keeps killing Smith’s men and how do the Germans already seem to know that they are coming? The twists and turns come faster than the Monaco Grand Prix as motives, alliances and even entire identities are questioned as the action never seems to stop as the mission changes shape more times than a fucking octopus.


Coming quite late to the game with a movie such as this has it’s advantages – mainly that watching this movie in a bubble, sixty years after it was made means I can instantly see where a lot of modern action movies get their tone, pace and devotion to pure, molar grinding tension from. Despite clocking in at a weighty two and a half hours, the movie unbelievably devotes virtually it’s entire bulk entirely to the mission – much like Major Smith himself – while casting characterisation to the icy winds.
“Hang on a mo” I hear you interrupt due to the news that a bit of backstory is a bit thin on the ground; but don’t worry, the script by  Alistair MacLean know what the fuck it’s doing. Shorn of any recognisable past we can cling to beside vague reports in files and second-hand anecdotes, when the paranoia starts flying you start to realise that any of these rugged buggers could be bloody anyone, which carries us nicely into When Eagles Dare’s most bravura scene. Piling almost the entire main cast into a palatial room complete with long table and a roaring fire place, Maclean’s script decides to suddenly fuck with your head hard when various characters, at gunpoint are either accused of being german spies, english spies or even willingly cough up the shock revelation that they themselves may be a bit dodge when it comes to the tricky subject of international espionage. The scene is exhilaratingly insane as you realise that the very guys you have been following this whole time may have, in fact, been sneaking around for the Fatherland all along. Some are guilty, some are bullshitting as some simply have no fucking clue whatsoever as to who is who and it’s just as thrilling as the more action-oriented stuff that fills out the rest of the film.
That’s not to say that the action stuff isn’t up to par and some stand out stuff like a precarious life or death struggle on top of a cable car and a final act scramble to race to the rendezvous point which amazingly pays off the fact that earlier Smith and Shaffer seemed to booby trap two thirds of Bavaria with explosives… In fact it’s massively refreshing to watch a film from the 60’s that’s crammed with the kind of massive, boy’s own style action normally reserved for a Bond movie – so many explosions…
Despite the presence of the steely glare of Detective Harry Callaghan himself, Mr. Clint Eastwood, Where Eagles Dare is very much Richard Burton’s show. Channeling that harsh, volatile, performance style into a character that may be the most nonchalantly confident human being who ever strode into a Nazi bar and demanded a round (actually, probably knowing the actor’s legendary weakness for the sauce, it was probably more than one) althougg admittedly during the action scenes it looks like his over taxed heart is about to explode inside his chest like a claymore… Matching Burton’s robustness is the pointed whispering of Eastwood’s American tag along who manages to spark up a fascinating double act with his team mate despite them barely talking about anything other than the mission they’re in. There’s no Predator style handshake, no Top Gun style fawning, just two guys packed with quiet, old school, machismo endlessly mowing down watery eyed Nazis like they have a quota to fill.


Essentially delivering a major footnote in the history of action cinema, director Brian G. Hutton would also tackle similar material in a more jocular vein with Kelly’s Heroes, but Where Eagles Dare remained a classic in every sense from a bygone era where the Second World War could be shamelessly mined for escapist thrills and spills and where actually expecting your stars to attempt a german accent is unthinkable…
These Eagles fly damn high…


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