When you take a good, long, hard look at that much-loved sub-genre of the war film – the men on a mission movie – there’s usually only two moods you can expect.
The first is the white knuckle, jaw clenching ones that cast crazily intense actors giving terse performances as their no-nonsense characters have to perform miracles against ridiculous odds and brutal time limits in order to blow up something important just in time for thr allies to win the war. The other is a whole more jocular affair that sees a mis-matched band of characters, all with an oddly cheerful demeanor, banding together to stick it to the hun while proclaiming that yes, war is hell – but give it a chance and it can be quite fun actually…
But while films like The Great Escape and Kelly’s Heroes all have their fill of quirky guys, there’s still a real element of danger to sober things up when need be, but it truly sees like the makers of Escape To Athena didn’t actually get that memo, as this 1979 romp seems to treat war as something of an adventure holiday in Greece…
Somewhere in the Greek islands in 1944 lies a POW camp that, thanks to to the rather soft touch of its commandant, Otto Hecht, has its prisoners forced to excavate valuable, ancient artifacts like an archeological dig but with way more machine guns. However, while Otto, a former antiques dealer, sends out the pieces to his sister in Switzerland, the POWs realise that if the pieces run out, they’ll get send to one of the nastier, more traditional camps and so drip feed what they find and re-bury the rest to “discover” later. The main group contain a ludicrously mismatched group that contains the quintessentially British Professor Blake, shambling cook Rotelli and theclose-up magic obsessed Judson, but their inner circle grows with the arrival of Jewish comedian Charlie Dane and stripper Dottie Del Mar, two USO performers who were captured and immediately start muttering up Otto to make their stay more agreeable.
However, while Otto is more than willing to sot out the war and get rich from selling artifacts, in the nearby town, sadistic, execution happy, SS Comandant Major Volkmann vicious tries to maintain discipline while the Greek resistance led by the determined Zeno, fight back from their secret base located in the local brothel run by his girlfriend.
Zeno’s plan is audacious – contact the POW’s and instead of helping them break out, have them help take over the camp completely and use it as a staging ground to his a local fuel dump, which they totally manage to pull off much to Otto’s slight irritation who has agreed to switch sides with the minimum of nudging. However, Zeno has plans within plans and his next target is convincing his new allies to head up to the local monastery with him with the promise of hidden riches, but within the mountain actually lurks a V-2 rocket that’s ready to wipe out any invading fleet – can Zeno convince the cash-obsessed Charlie to actually fight in this war instead of just firing out zingers?
As I alluded to at the top of this review, Escape From Athena may be one of the unnervingly jolliest war movies you’re ever likely to see, with the bright sun, lush Greek surroundings and blue picturesque oceans providing a cozy contrast to the usual, harsh conditions usually braved in movies like this. In fact, the rosey warmth and bright colours seep into the jaunty tone of the film which give the perverse feel that the ravages of the Second World War is nothing more than a holiday camp everyone can look a Nazi guard square in the eye and deliver a sarcastic, cutting remark without immediately getting hauled off to face a firing squad. As a result, the incredibly joke opening 80 minutes has all the danger and nerve frying threat of an episode of Hogan’s Heroes as the eclectic, but admittedly entertaining, cast go through their usual schtick with gusto. Roger Moore proves he has lot more in common with Sean Connery than just James Bond when only intermittently attempting a foreign accent whenever he can be bothered but is an entirely passive force, far more interested in bedding Stefanie Powers’ remarkably sexually active performer than staining his record by playing an out and out Nazi. Elliot Gould ponders the danger of a Jewish man locked up in a German POW camp for about a minute and a half before unleashing a near unending stream of quips before becoming an unlikely war hero despite seemingly having no training whatsoever, while David Niven does his classic, stiff upper lip bit while negotiating the Greek sun in a cardigan. Also falling into old habits is the inimitable, booming form of Telly Savalas who seems to be the only member of the film who actually gives a shit about the cruel acts being perpetrated on the town by the Nazis, pointing out that innocent people are being hanged in the streets for literally nothing while clad in a black roll neck while wearing gold chains presumably borrowed from Mr. T.
Elsewhere, Shaft himself, Richard Rowntree and Sonny Bono – yes, that Sonny Bono – provide quirky backup at the story potters along at a breezy pace that weirdly seems unconcerned that there’s still fighting and death occuring all over Europe. For bonus points, eagle eyed viewers may also recognize Grange Hill’s Michael Sheard who eventually climbed the ranks of cinematic nazis from here to finally play the führer himself in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade – always nice when someone gets a promotion…
Maybe it’s because the film was made as late as 1979 that makes Escape To Athena quite so flippant about WWII, content to use the war as a lose backdrop while having the cast rat-a-tat the place with jokes.
It’s charming, sure, but it’s hardly what you’d call exciting; and yet with around 40 minutes to go, director George P. Cosmatos (he of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra and Tombstone – not to mention Panos Cosmatos’ father) suddenly releases the brakes and stages a near non-stop cacophony of gun fights and explosions that takes in, among other things, a huge fire fight that sees German soldiers flung through the air like rag dolls, an attack of Nazi frogmen who suddenly appear to try and stop our heroes planting limpet mines, an absail down an electrified mountain, a self-destructing mountain base and one of the finest motorcycle chases in cinema history as Gould speeds through rapidly narrowing Greek streets in order to catch up to an officer desperately trying to raise the alarm. Its truly rip roaring stuff even if the movie plays the camp card a bit too much by having all the bad guys be awful shots (even their snipers couldn’t hit the sea if they fell out of a boat) and the good guys charge through action scenes like someone’s ploughing through a round of Call Of Duty while playing against toddlers.
Entertaining enough (especially the action packed final third), Escape To Athena is nevertheless brought down by its overly chilled first half and comic characters that attempts to give us as goofy spin on WWII that only half succeeds in its mission.