Saving Private Ryan has a lot to answer for. Suddenly, WW II was hot again, but only in a visceral, reflective, solemn way. “Earn this” indeed. I’ve a lot of time for it, but it took Quentin Tarantino to inject his own wicked sense of fun into the time honoured, “guys on a mission” war movie, with Inglorious Basterds. Here, I’d like to look back affectionately at the granddaddy of them all, Where Eagles Dare.
“Broadsword calling Danny boy, Broadsword calling Danny boy” - the mere mention of those words in Richard Burton’s radio transmission send me into a reverie of cable car ice pick fights, trip wire explosions, bluff and double bluff. Where Eagles Dare is a perfect machine of an action thriller, brainy and twisty, with an all action third act, where Nazis (I hate those guys) fall like ninepins. The title derives from Shakespeare’s Richard III – “The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.” And that perch is Schloss Adler, the Nazis “Castle of the eagles”, deep in the Bavarian mountains. Burton and co. have 24 hours to ostensibly rescue Yank General Carnaby, in reality to uncover a nest of Nazi spies within MI6, some of whom he just happens to have taken along on the mission.
The film came about because Burton’s stepson wanted to see him in an action film. Burton consulted producer Elliot Kastner, who in turn approached author Alistair MacLean. As he had no properties available at the time for adaptation, he sat down to write both the screenplay and novel in six weeks.
The team are introduced in a flashback, briefed by Colonel Wyatt-Turner (Patrick Wymarck) and Danny Boy himself, Admiral Rolland (the wonderful Michael Hordern). They handily explain they were chosen partly because they all speak fluent German. Burton commands as Major John Smith, later imaginatively reinventing himself as Johann Schmidtt. The only non- Brit is American Ranger Lt Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) then an emerging go to action star after the Dollars movies. A Yank is also there story- wise as someone Smith can absolutely trust.
After the team are dropped into snowy Bavaria, an extra team member is dropped shortly afterwards – Mary (Mary ure), Smith’s fellow agent and lover. It swiftly transpires the mission is a ruse. Two innocent team members are dispatched by the Nazis in their midst, who then allow themselves to be “captured”. Smith and Schaffer then have to penetrate the castle, aided by Mary, ensconced there as a domestic by their cuckoo in the nest, Heidi (Ingrid Pitt). Along the way, before and after the head scratching double-bluff by Smith, where it is also revealed Carnaby isn’t exactly who everyone else thought he was, there is plenty of action and some amusing Nazi bluster.
Derren Nesbitt as the head of local Gestapo, Major Von Hapen is a classic baddy, obsequiously chatting up Mary, yet nosing into her papers, caught out by his nominal superior, Colonel Kramer (a preening Anton Diffring). Annoyed at being kept out of the loop about the spies in their midst, Von Hapen snaps (or should that be schnapps?) “I’m aware of your loyalties Colonel, just as I’m aware of your attempts to discredit me with my superiors in Berlin!”
Nesbitt recalls filming here. He had worked with Burton before at The Old Vic, but they never got close – Nesbitt didn’t have hollow legs. Nesbitt stated “In the big scene at the end of the film, he (Burton) came on and couldn’t remember a line. So Brian Hutton, the director, took him away, and when they came back four hours later Burton was plastered – he could do it.” Whether Burton drank heavily or not, his commanding presence and mellifluous tones swat aside any thought of hokiness in the set up. Perhaps Eastwood’s jokey reference to the amount of stunts in the film – Where Doubles Dare – could apply to the brandies knocked back on a daily basis. This scene was memorably spoofed by Harry Enfield in the Dogs Of Death segment of his mocumentary, Norbert Smith – A life.
Nesbitt researched his part thoroughly, even down to his uniform medals. “I wore a medal with huge gold wings, awarded for hand to hand fighting. You were given a bronze for three hand to hand fights, a silver for eight hand to hand fights, and for the gold – well, you had to be a homicidal maniac!” I feel Von Hapen must be a direct inspiration for Gestapo Major Dieter Hellstrom in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, meeting a sticky end here:
Where Eagles Dare is also a glorious mix of stealth and all-out action, an inspiration for a host of computer games like Medal Of Honor and Castle Wolfenstein. Burton seems to be having a ball, and Eastwood seemingly has one of the highest kill counts in any movie here. Hilariously, at one point he verrry slowly picks up and chucks back a stick grenade to its dispatcher, before it eventually explodes. He also has more trouble than the smaller, slightly podgy out of shape Burton in scaling the castle wall by rope. Rumour has it Burton had a special hoist apparatus made to assist his climb.
Rivalry of a slightly more prickly nature existed between the two women, according to Ingrid Pitt. She stated that Mary Ure felt it would be confusing to audiences if there were two blondes (or three, if you count Nesbitt!), so Pitt’s hair was toned down somewhat. Also, as the gang make their escape in a school bus with a snow plough out front (handy for scything through fighter planes and motorcycles), Mary Ure blasts away alongside Eastwood out the back window at their pursuers, while Pitt and the General huddle in the seats.
Naturally Burton as the star has the piece de resistance, the cable car fight with two Nazi mole escapees, as Eastwood lies unconscious. One poor sod gets an ice pick through his arm before being blown to smithereens, while the other dangles from Burton’s legs before being kicked off to the valley below. Stunt legend Yakima Canutt directed second unit. His earlier Stagecoach stunt inspired the under the truck stunt in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
What also makes the film great, is the minimal banter and no knowing winks to the audience. Smith and co. are professionals, out to get the job done, and looking damn fine while doing it – vorsprung durch tecknik, or deadly competitive edge, indeed.
It was shot on 35mm Panavision anamorphic lenses, blown up to 70 mm on the original cinema release. The crisp, snowy vistas, the unforgiving granite of the fortress and spectacular explosions look stunning, even today. The helicopter, long derided as an anachronism, isn’t apparently so far fetched. The Germans had about forty small helicopters during the war, mostly used on the Eastern Front to rescue downed pilots. The model in the film appears to be an American Bell HTL-4, familiar to men of a certain age from 1970′s TV screenings of vintage American show, Whirlybirds.
Returning to Quentin Tarantino, here he ruminates on the likes of Where Eagles Dare, before he even made Inglorious Basterds, and whether there is still a place for such a film today:
“Where Eagles Dare…is my favourite of the bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission movies…you’re questioning:”I love that type of movie – can it still be done?” And my thinking on it is, I think so. Simply because I think there’s been so much focus on the victims of WWII – and not ignoring any of that, but that’s where we’ve been for so long – I think it could be considered a breath of fresh air to get back into that kind of adventure story where you’ve got the greatest villains ever.“