Yet another one that I have been meaning to do for some time – I will never forget the first time I saw Where Eagles Dare (1968) by Brian G. Hutton (Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Nightwatch (1973)), back in the day when it was still a sufficiently modern film to be shown as the Saturday night ‘Big Movie’ on Yorkshire Television – I simply couldn’t believe that a movie could be so exciting, violent (for a war film that is, how’s that for irony?) and, well, just fun.
All these years later, when I still watch it as I do from time to time, my feelings have not changed an iota, and I am here to recommend it to you as being, well, still a perfect ‘Big Movie’ for Saturday or any other night.
A World War II action film, starring Richard Burton, a very young Clint Eastwood and a host of other big names, Where Eagles Dare was very well scripted by Alistair MacLean from his own novel, and benefits enormously from all participants being absolutely at the top of their game. It also has a tremendous score from award-winning conductor and composer Ron Goodwin, and splendid, tight, beautiful location cinematography (it was mostly filmed in the environs of Burg Hohenwerfen, Werfen, Austria) from Oscar-nominee Arthur Ibbetson.
In the winter of 1943-44, we join MI6’s Vice Admiral Rolland (Michael Hordern) and Colonel Wyatt-Turner (Patrick Wymark), in the midst of a top-secret briefing on the eve of a daring ‘rescue’ mission. General George Carnaby (Robert Beatty), a chief planner of the second front, has been captured by the Germans when his aircraft was shot down en route to Crete and taken for interrogation to the Schloss Adler, a seemingly impregnable fortress high in the Alps of southern Bavaria. Major John Smith (Burton) and US Army Ranger Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Eastwood) are to lead a mission is to parachute in, infiltrate the castle, and rescue General Carnaby before the Germans can interrogate him – Carnaby knows far more than may be healthy for him concerning the imminent D-Day operation, and it is (allegedly) the team’s task to rescue him before he is made to reveal what he knows by fair, or far more likely foul, means.
Also on the team is fellow MI6 agent Mary Elison (Mary Ure), Smith’s lover, who is an insider under cover at the Schloss Adler, and her presence and identity is known only to Smith. Shortly after the team parachutes in, two of the sergeants, MacPherson (Neil McCarthy) and radio operator Harrod (Brook Williams) die mysteriously, but Major Smith seems unperturbed, keeping Schaffer as a close ally and secretly updating Admiral Rolland on developments by radio: ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy, Broadsword calling Danny Boy.’ When word mysteriously reaches the Nazi’s high command that a rescue mission is in progress and Smith and Schaffer decide that the best option is to turn themselves in, the two officers are separated from the three remaining NCOs—Thomas (William Squire), Berkeley (Peter Barkworth) and Christiansen (Donald Houston)…and then things start to get really complicated and fun. Naturally, the team has a traitor or two in its midst – but who’s who? And how likely are any of them to get out alive, let alone complete their ‘mission’? All will be revealed…
Straight-faced, deadly serious acting from all involved allows the viewer to empathise with just how difficult the mission really is, and two brutal, ruthless and honest performances from Burton and Eastwood makes it very difficult until the truth is finally revealed to determine who is really running the show.
In addition, the action sequences, of which there are plenty, are breathlessly exciting, culminating in a high-wire tour-de-force of suspense aboard a fortress-bound cable car, very high above the Alps.
It could perhaps be argued that the James Bondesque aspects of the whole affair do not lend a great deal of credibility to proceedings (and both Burton and Eastwood have the definite air of Bond-like cruelty to them; Eastwood was once offered the role of 007, but turned it down, there’s a good chap, because he felt that Bond should always be British), but this matters not a jot – the film is quite simply a riot. The title is from Act I, Scene III in Shakespeare’s Richard III: “The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch”, and Eastwood and Burton reportedly dubbed the film ‘Where Doubles Dare’, acknowledging the great work of the stand-ins who doubled for the action sequences.