Where Eagles Dare (1968)

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Broadsword calling Danny Boy…

Frank McCarthy’s original poster art.

Major Smith: Lieutenant, in the next 15 minutes we have to create enough confusion to get out of here alive.

Lt. Schaffer: Major, right now you got me about as confused as I ever hope to be.

Clint Eastwood (Lt. Schaffer) and Richard Burton (Major Smith).

By Scott Ross

I read the novel Where Eagles Dare a few years ago, as part of a veritable fit of Alistair MacLean. But I hadn’t seen the movie until a couple of months ago when, in search of something enjoyable, I pulled it from my formidably voluminous cache of “to watch” titles. In his venerable TV Movies (or whatever it’s called these days) Leonard Maltin describes it as a “modern-day version of a Republic serial, with slam-bang cliff-hanger action that never lets up.” Of course, he wrote that entry years before Raiders of the Lost Ark was made, and Where Eagles Dare, for all that it is hugely enjoyable, doesn’t have the stylishness or the referential, rich humor of that. But it’s great fun. (If one can use “fun” for a WWII adventure where a whole lot of people die…)

MacLean wrote the novel and the screenplay simultaneously — remarkably, it was his first script for a movie — and there is no fat. The film is 2 and 1/2 hours long, but you never feel a lull. (I wondered if there had been an intermission, and thought from my reading of the book that I knew where it would be. I pulled out the Film Score Monthly soundtrack CD afterwards to listen to it again and, sure enough, there was a beak, and exactly where I assumed it would be. The intermission is elided over it on the Warner/MGM DVD.) The plot is one surprise after another, with the audience never quite sure where the Richard Burton and Mary Ure characters’ loyalties are. One of the incidents I most remembered from MacLean’s book was a long sequence where Smith (Burton) shifts the “truth” over and over again. While I was reading, I found it curiously “stagey,” for a novel. I’m not sure I can explain that. But when you actually see that scene in the movie, it works. It plays beautifully.

Major Smith… or is that Schmidt?… creating confusion.

As for the two action sequences concerning the cable-cars… Sapristi knuckoes! as Spike Milligan might have remarked. On a widescreen, in the theatres, their remarkably sustained suspense must have had audiences squirming and shoving themselves against the backs of their seats.

Burton struggles with two foes in what could have been the climax of any other movie; there’s still another half-hour of “Where Eagles Dare” to go.

Ron Goodwin’s score is splendid, particularly his main theme which, like the alpine schloss Burton, Eastwood et al. must reach in their mission, ascends and ascends, higher and higher up the chromatic scale before resolving itself.

I also was struck by how beautiful Ingrid Pitt was in a supporting role — a much more interesting face than Mary Ure’s, Ure looks a bit like an interchangeable Bond Girl; Pitt is just strikingly lovely.

Von Hapen (Darren Nesbitt), Heidi (Ingrid Pitt) and Mary Ellison (Mary Ure).

The villainous Gestapo man is Darren Nesbitt, who was one of my favorite Number 2s in The Prisoner (the “It’s Your Funeral” episode.) I looked up Nesbitt’s Imdb entry later and noted that his most recent role, in 2012, was as “Man on Bus.”

God, but the Show-Biz is a miserable bitch.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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