World War II men on a mission movies: we all know them and we all love them (the good ones, anyway) but sometimes, aside from the odd change of scenery and a reshuffling of the standard, all-star cast, you could argue that if you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen them all.
The formula is fairly basic: throw together a band of dedicated soldiers and/or eccentric misfits and aim them at the nearest German stronghold in order to perform a death-defying mission against the clock that – if successful – will win the war. But in 1976, dangerously underrated director John Sturges (how you can be underrated when you’ve made both The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, I don’t know) gave us a movie that flipped the concept like a coin and proposed an intriguing concept: what if we do all the usual stuff associated with the genre – but we focus on the Germans instead?
Ladies and gentlemen, this is The Eagle Has Landed.
Among the upper echelons of Hitler’s inner circle, an idea is banded about that eventually falls into the lap of staff officer Oberst Radl. The idea is to kidnap Winston Churchill and his job is to examine the feasibility of such an audacious plan in order to satisfy the near- obsessive fastidiousness of Henrich Himler, however, what initially started as a joke soon gains some traction when the pressurised staff office actually finds a window of opportunity. It seems that Churchill will soon be planning a brief retreat on the Norfolk coast and this provides a scenario where snatching the cigar puffing Prime Minister would actually be doable.
With the mission dubbed “Eagle”, the first port of call is the hiring of mercenary IRA agent Liam Devlin to infiltrate the village a few days earlier and the second is to find a man to lead the mission – step forward Kurt Steiner, a once highly decorated officer who has since become disgraced after showing open disdain at the treatment of Jewish prisoners in Poland. Fiercely loyal to the men under his command, Steiner agrees to the mission and is parachuted into play disguised as a platoon of Polish soldiers, soon infiltrating the village with the help of Devlin and a mysterious double agent.
However, as soon as they arrive, things immediately begin to get dicey. There’s a very good chance that if the mission goes awry, the German high command will simply claim no knowledge of said orders (already destroyed by Himmler) and any survivors will no doubt be shot for their troubles – also, matters are instantly made all the more fragile by the arrival of a unit of US army rangers and Devlin’s seduction of a young village girl which cause no end of drama.
However, the final straw that breaks the Eagle’s back is when the German’s true identities are discovered after one of them perishes while saving the life of a child and befor you can bark “Gott in Himmel!” in a strained accent, all hell breaks loose.
The Eagle Has Landed is a genuinely intriguing prospect that, despite ticking a lot of the boxes you’d expect to find in a mission movie, still feels vaguely experimental. Obviously you couldn’t simply bang out an irony-free World War II movie where the Germans are the heroes, not even in 1976, so great care is taken to construct a perfect storm of thrills, drama and some storytelling that walks a tightrope so impressively, it should audition to be a part of Zippo’s Circus.
So how do they approach it? Well, much the same way a Hedgehog attempts to mount his mate – very bloody carefully. The first step is hiring Michael Caine (wisely opting out of trying a German accent) to portray a German officer who believes in the ideals of his country, but violently objects to the murdering of Jews which immediately makes us take him seriously as a lead character – the second step is nabbing a wildly overacting Donald Sutherland to not only play a member of the IRA while grinning at everyone mischievously and looking for all the world like satan startex cosplaying as Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, but also have him seduce and fall in love with an 18 year old farm girl played by Jenny Agutter. Unbelievably, these casting choices actually work and so it’s now down to the script to gradually explain away exactly how all this goes down without copping out to the fact that the filmmakers are expecting us to be invested with characters trying to whisk Winston Churchill to an all expense paid trip to Berlin. It’s to everyone’s credit that The Eagle Has Landed very nearly succeeds, thanks to an opening half that opts to use a deliberate slow burn in order to get us invested against our better judgement. We know they can’t succeed (no Inglorious Basterds type historical revision here) and we know we shouldn’t be rooting for them, and yet the meticulous build-up takes the only avenue left to it – to spark our curiosity as to how all this can possibly end.
Our patience is rewarded in the second half, when all the seeds the script has sown finally sprout into buds of cinematic payoff as all the disparate factors come into play. Jean March’s hateful double agent, Judy Gleeson’s vicar’s daughter, Larry Hagman’s blustering Colonal, Treat Williams’ cool headed Captain – all come into play the second the game is up and Steiner is forced to try and hold the townsfolk hostage in the local church and it entertainingly careens all the way to the end with an inevitable – yet still surprising – denouement.
It’s close, but it ain’t perfect. As tight a ship as director Sturges maintains with this unenviable balancing act, you could argue that the opening slow-burn us maybe too slow as the movie unhurriedly gets its ducks in a row as it waits for us to get used to the idea that were going on a mission with the enemy. But remember, this isn’t a war-is-hell narrative like All Quiet On The Western Front or Das Boot, it’s a black ops spy film where the leads are the enemy (think a Mission: Impossible sequel from the point of view of Sean Harris’ character) and everyone involved, including Donald Pleasance playing a legitimately sinister Himmler despite spending the entire film behind a desk and Robert Duvall’s unflappable German accent deserve high Mark’s for making a highly intelligent war time thriller that impressively turns tropes on their heads.
Coldly intelligent, nicely sardonic and loaded with loads of little character touches (all the darkly clandestine business even seems to infect the simple townsfolk with the formally innocent Agutter murdering a man to protect Devlin and even the local vicar lowering himself to hurl a chair in anger), the movie admittedly is forced to drag its heels in order to set up its controversial concept correctly, but for the most part the Eagle lands nicely.