Movie review: ‘Where Eagles Dare’

Author Alistair MacLean wrote bestsellers that were turned into films and his most memorable is the World War II classic “The Guns of Navarone” (click here for my review). The somewhat of a sequel, “Force 10 From Navarone,” is an embarrassment and simply shares the same author of the books on which they are based. Reaching out a bit, there’s another film that, while not up to the classic level of “Navarone,” is simply tremendous: “Where Eagles Dare,” which features then superstar Richard Burton and superstar-to-be Clint Eastwood. You simply cannot go wrong with “Where Eagles Dare” if you enjoy Eastwood, Burton or war movies.

‘Where Eagles Dare’
(1969; 158 minutes; rated M; directed by Brian G. Hutton and starring Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and Mary Ure)

MOW ’EM DOWN, CLINT

(NOTE: I updated some links in this review first on July 25, 2015. I then expanded the review with more opinion, added trivia, corrected an actor/character’s name and updated even more links on June 27, 2017.)

If you ever want to see Clint Eastwood really mow ’em down, then “Where Eagles Dare,” a World War II espionage/action thriller, is just the vehicle. Long before Schwarzenegger in “Commando” (click here for my review), Clint more realistically kills what seems like half of the German army in “Where Eagles Dare.” However, don’t be worried: All of the action and its more than two hours running time doesn’t detract from an intricate plot and excellent acting.

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Headlining the “Eagles” cast is Richard Burton, who brought superstar power to the film. Eastwood is the co-star and there isn’t any marquee value after him, but don’t be deceived today by the names. All the actors make the film really solid with near-great, efficient efforts, especially the distrusting, oozing Gestapo blond pretty boy (Derren Nesbitt).

Let’s look at the intricate, well-developed plot first …

What is initially touted as a rescue mission of a U.S. general is actually an espionage affair. The general has been shot down and being held in the Schloss Adler – or castle of the eagles – and must be rescued by a joint British-U.S. team before he can reveal D-Day planning secrets. Of course this is an espionage thriller, so you really cannot be sure of anything at any time.

The plot winds about like Lombard Street in San Francisco before playing itself out through the beginnings of a climax on a swaying gondola high above the frozen ground and freezing waters of a river. Once the end credits are in sight, there’s little time spent before the denouement.

Here’s a look at the somewhat thin cast:

  • Seven-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Burton, who managed a somewhat sparse number of 76 credits in his 38-year career, eases through his role as “Maj. John Smith.” He’s the leader of the mission and the only one who knows what it is all about. He does the acting with such ease and conviction that it is almost difficult to remember his quality as an actor over his superstar power. All but one of his nominations were for Best Actor and included “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Equus.” It was sad to see Burton do a role just for a paycheck – just check out “The Wild Geese” (click here for my review). Sadder still, Burton never won an Oscar.
  • Yet, despite Burton’s superstar power, it is four-time Oscar winner and five-time nominee (not for this one) Eastwood who manages to carry the film as U.S. Ranger “Lt. Morris Schaffer.” He is the outsider (there’s a reason) and provides the violence and machine guns. He even has one scene where he’s using a Schmeisser submachine gun in each hand to mow down the German soldiers in a castle hallway. Still, Eastwood’s character is one-dimensional and, along with female lead Mary Ure, doesn’t offer the depths and layers written into Burton’s character. I can’t even begin to review Clint’s career, so I’ll move on to …
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Ure, who plays female lead “Mary Ellison.” She’s the surprise character here and manages to be workmanlike and while she didn’t elevate the role, didn’t manage to make you wince, either. Ure was the wife of Robert (“Jaws”) Shaw and had a rather modest entertainment career, including TV series episodes such as “Ironside,” before dying of an accidental overdose in 1975, the year “Jaws” was released in the U.S. Ure was nominated for “Sons and Lovers” from 1960.
  • Robert Beatty, who plays the need-to-be rescued “Gen. George Carnaby,” had an interesting career beginning in 1939 that included comedies like “The Pink Panther Strikes Again,” other espionage efforts like the very underrated “The Amateur,” sci-fi like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and even superhero films like “Superman III.” He died of pneumonia in 1992 at 82.
  • As I already wrote, Nesbitt plays Gestapo officer “Maj. von Hapen.” Although not up to the quality of Christoph Walz’s Oscar-winning work with a somewhat similar character in “Inglourious Basterds” (very few roles are), Nesbitt is perfect as the guy who looks through others’ desks and doesn’t believe a word anyone says (as if they’d tell him the truth). Not bad. Nesbitt has 90 credits over a seven-decade career and his last credit is as “Grandad” in “Home for Christmas” from 2014 and has a post-production credit for the upcoming “Tucked.”

Eastwood once commented in an interview that he was initially surprised by people’s reaction to the killings in “Dirty Harry.” Heck, I recall he commented, they must not have watched “Where Eagles Dare.” On one Internet forum about Eastwood, one person notes 38 kills by Clint and 100 for the film. I haven’t bothered to research it, so I can’t vouch for the veracity of the sources.

Director Brian G. Hutton would work with Eastwood right after “Eagles,” with the equally well-known but not the same kind of espionage drama “Kelly’s Heroes” coming out in 1970 (click here for my review). Another of Hutton’s nine directing credits is the Frank Sinatra very good crime drama “The First Deadly Sin.”

The film’s war scenes are solid and appear pretty much accurate and add to the overall excellence of the movie. However, this isn’t a combat film – there isn’t a tank battle in sight. Nearly all the action takes place in the castle and finally on a quick but hair-raising road trip to the airport. Thankfully, the film is just over 2 ½ hours long and you’ll enjoy every minute.

Where Eagles Dare” was the 21st ranked film at U.S. theaters in 1969 with $7.1 million in ticket sales, according to Wiki, and was made on a budget of $7.7 million. Worldwide, “Where Eagles Dare” raked in $21 million. The No. 1 film of year was the Newman-Redford classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” with $102.3 million and coming in second was “Midnight Cowboy” trailing far behind with $44.7 million. “Where Eagles Dare” is the only film from 1969 that I’ve reviewed for this blog.

Other cast and film notes (from IMDb.com):

  • Directly from  IMDb.com: “Co-star Clint Eastwood referred to this movie as ‘Where Doubles Dared.’”
  • It was a tragic 1984 with Burton dying from a cerebral hemorrhage. It was also the year his final big-screen effort was released. The film? “Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • MacLean was both author of novels and credited with the screenplay of the same name in four films, but not on “Navarone,” which screenplay is credited to Carl Foreman. MacLean’s other notable novel-turned-film is the Rock Hudson classic “Ice Station Zebra.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “The ‘Schloss Adler’ is actually the ‘Schloss Hohenwerfen’ in Austria. At the time of filming, the castle was being used as a police training camp. There are no cable cars near Schloss Hohenwerfen. Hence the Cable Car shooting is done somewhere else.”
  • It is rumored that Burton’s stepson wanted to see the superstar in a war or action film and that Burton’s request found its way to then-star novelist MacLean. Since many of the author’s works had been taken or were being taken for film, MacLean wrote a new story (he first wrote the screenplay, but it was never used and then the novelization) within six weeks.
  • Lee Marvin was reported offered the Eastwood role, but turned it down since he had done a WWII film (“The Dirty Dozen”) and didn’t want to do another.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Richard Burton and Alistair MacLean are both buried in the same tiny graveyard in the Swiss hamlet of Celigny.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2015, 2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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