Monday, November 19, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Where Eagles Dare" (1968)

"Where Eagles Dare" is a substandard World War II action/adventure film with a few notable qualities.

Clint Eastwood had just become an American film star, after the Spaghetti Western trilogy was released here in 1967. He'd also had modestly successful turns starring in "Hang 'Em High" and "Coogan's Bluff." This movie was an opportunity to play a supporting role opposite a huge international star like Richard Burton in a big-budget extravaganza.

Eastwood's role, and performance, are both rather flat, since the script doesn't really give him much to do other than execute action scenes and occasionally grunt out one-liners in response to Burton's wittier quips. It would be a long time before Eastwood played a supporting role again.

The story is simple in concept but convoluted in the telling. An American general with secret war plans is captured by the Germans after his plane crashes, and held in a remote base, Schloss Adler (actually Hohenwerfen Castle), which sits on a high peak and can only be accessed by cable car. A crack team of British agents, with Eastwood as the token Yank, are sent in to disguise themselves as German soldiers, infiltrate the base and rescue the general.

At 154 minutes, the movie is overlong and pedantic. Once the mission gets started, the action unspools in more or less real time. That's a fine technique if it's used to build tension, but here director Brian G. Hutton and screenwriter Alistair MacLean focus too much on the minutia -- getting in and out of vehicles, donning or doffing disguises, setting explosive charges, etc. It reads more like a primer on how to infiltrate a WWII German base than a dramatization of a team doing it.

Incidentally, Alistair wrote the book and screenplay together, both becoming hits. This was his first screenplay; he'd had a number of his novels turned into movies, most notably "The Guns of Navarone" and "Ice Station Zebra." A producer asked him to come up with an original idea, and he delivered the script six weeks later. This is interesting in that movies had been made before based on books that were not yet published, but this was an early, rare case where the book came after the script.

The film's stunts and special effects were, for 1968, pretty impressive stuff. Hutton and cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson employed front-screen projection effects -- a progenitor of the modern green screen technique -- to depict the scenes where the spy team infiltrate the base by riding on top of the cable car, plus the daredevil fight scene on the way back down. Burton and Eastwood spent so much time waiting in the wings while stand-ins and stuntmen took their place that they took to referring to the production as "Where Doubles Dare."

I found it hilarious that the filmmakers made absolutely no attempt to shift from English to German as the team infiltrates behind enemy lines. Usually movies of this ilk will do a single scene in the other language, then show some sort of transition to let the audience know that English will stand in for whatever. Here, everyone just speaks English all the time -- except for a few gunfights where the German officers yell commands in their own language.

But probably the thing that makes "Where Eagles Dare" stand out -- and not in a good way -- is its unnecessarily twisty and occasionally incomprehensible plot. Hutton and MacLean take their good time clearing the air. For a long while we're not sure of the motivations of Burton's character, Maj. John Smith. Once they get into the German town below the base, he meets up with a beautiful woman spy named Mary (Mary Ure) with whom he apparently has a long-standing romantic relationship. She appears to be a member of the team that Smith has not even told his commanders back home about.

Other members of the team start dying mysteriously, one by one. The clear implication is that one of their own operatives is doing the dirty work -- perhaps even Smith himself? Maybe the stoic American (Eastwood), Lt. Morris Schaffer?

Things finally come to a head in a sprawling, ridiculous scene inside the castle's great hall. Smith and Schaffer, having been separated from the three remaining members of their squad, burst in on the German general (Ferdy Mayne) and colonel (Anton Diffring) interrogating the captured American general (Robert Beatty).

Here's where things get really hinky, and absurd. It would seem that everyone is trying to double-cross everyone else. The result is a rambling sequence that goes on for nearly 15 minutes, with Burton as the mastermind pulling all the strings. He appears to change sides several times, resulting in what I believe is the exceedingly rare and dramatically unhinged quintuple-cross:
  1. Smith reveals that the American captive is in fact a thespian corporal selected to impersonate the general.
  2. The other three NCO members of Smith's team, who supposedly were "captured" while infiltrating the base, turn out to be German double agents. They've been killing the other Brits and have been trying to ensure the mission's failure.
  3. Smith claims that in fact he is the double agent working for the Germans, while the NCOs are actually triple agents who really work for England. He makes Schaffer drop his weapon and has the German colonel phone up another German intelligence officer to confirm his identity. In order to prove that the NCOs are not who they say they are, he has them write down the names of every German spy stationed in London, to compare to his own original list.
  4. Smith hands his original to the German colonel, who is enraged to find it is blank. It turns out it's Smith who's really a triple agent, and the NCOs are who they say they are, double agents. Smith has spent the last two years feeding false information to his German counterpart to set up the identity of a double agent. Really, he's been working for the Brits all along. Schaffer is allowed to retrieve his gun again. Smith announces that the entire operation, including planting the false general and infiltrating the base, was a scam to allow them to expose the German double agents in the U.K. and obtain the names of their collaborators.
  5. A German Gestapo major bursts in on them, demanding to know what is going on. Smith bluffs that he has just uncovered a plot to assassinate the Fuhrer and placed everyone in the room under arrest. Sufficiently distracted, it allows Schaffer to get the drop on him and shoot the Gestapo officer. The German colonel and General get bullets, too.
 Got all that straight? I seriously doubt if audiences back in 1968 did.

The sequence inadvertently turns into a total laugh fest, as Smith jumps from one side to the other and back again, and concocts one outlandish tale in succession. In the end it felt like an "Austin Powers" spoof -- "I'm on your side!" "Actually, I was fooling you!" "No I wasn't!" "He's the triple agent!" "No I am!"

After having executed such (in his mind) brilliant espionage moves, Smith then spends the last hour of the movie behaving like a numbskull as they attempt to fight their way out of the base. For some reason, Smith takes along the three NCO double agents, who have to be kept covered and inevitably fight back -- on top of that cable car, of course.

Why would he bring them? He's already gotten the information he needed out of them -- what could possibly be gained from keeping them around? Well, because somebody has to be left for that dramatic cable car melee.

"Where Eagles Dare" is one of the most bone-headed and turgid spy thrillers I've ever seen. Other than the primitive use of green screens and some cool stunts, this bird falls to earth with a thud.

1.5 stars out of four

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