Monday, August 5, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Eagle Has Landed" (1976)

"The Eagle Has Landed" is a pretty preposterous movie based on a ridiculous premise, but a terrific cast almost pulls it out of the garbage heap. Director John Sturges -- veteran of several terrific pictures including "The Great Escape" and "The Magnificent Seven" -- has a keen eye for composition and knows how to stage action scenes very well.

But this was also his last film, ending his career on something of a sour note (though commercially the movie was quite successful).

I'm not sure what Sturges really could have done with the material, based on a novel by Jack Higgins. The setup is that the Germans come up with a cockamamie plot to kidnap Winston Churchill. In late 1943, the war is considered already lost by most high up in the Third Reich, but they figure capturing the bull of England can at least delay the inevitable for awhile, and increase the morale of the Axis.

Robert Duvall plays Radl, the colonel charged with coming up with a plan to grab Churchill. The idea came from the real-life rescue of Benito Mussolini by German paratroopers from the mountain ski resort where he was being held by the Italians who deposed him.

His commander (Anthony Quayle) gives Radl the assignment out of disgust, calling it a silly joke. Write up a contingency plan so somebody can stick it in the bottom of their desk, is how he puts it. Radl laughs along, but as he pokes into the intelligence he learns that the idea actually has merit. Churchill is scheduled to vacation in the remote (fictional) coastal town of Studley Constable. It would be a simple matter to sneak in a team of soldiers, snatch him up and get out on a disguised ship.

I liked the Radl character quite a lot. A decorated hero, now relegated to unimportant duties by his wounds -- he's missing an eye and, apparently, his left hand is a prosthetic. Duvall gives him a sad, noble quality, the weary soldier who knows he serves a corrupt and loathsome regime but offers his full loyalty nonetheless.

Michael Caine plays Steiner, the disgraced paratrooper colonel selected by Radl to lead the mission. When we first meet Steiner, he and his men are returning from a tough fight on the Soviet front, and encounter German soldiers putting Jews aboard a train.

Inexplicably, Steiner goes into a rage, strikes another officer and helps a woman captive attempt to escape. Instead, she's shot and killed. He and his men are court-martialed and assigned to suicidal duty in the English Chanel, so Radl's offer is their only chance to be regain honor.

Why would a loyal soldier of the Reich object to the well-known plan for the Jews? It's never really made clear, and the Steiner character remains something of a mystery until the end. Caine and Sturges reportedly battled during production, and it resulted in the main character remaining distant and unrelatable.

Donald Pleasence also has a terrific little turn as Heinrich Himmler, who personally authorizes the Eagle mission via a letter signed by Hitler himself, which may or may not be a forgery. It's soon clear that Radl is Himmler's catspaw, to be used and disposed of based on the outcome of the operation.

Donald Sutherland has a corker of a role as Liam Devlin, an IRA insurgent who gets recruited into the mission by the Germans. He's a red-headed charmer and brawler, sent ahead to infiltrate the town as a marsh warden -- a position of dubious meaning to these American ears. He carries a shotgun and patrols the countryside, so I gather he's a constable of some sort.

While spying things out, Devlin falls for local lass Molly (Jenny Agutter), almost 19 and an accomplished equestrian. Their affair is perhaps the most outlandish aspect of the whole over-the-top story. Despite knowing Devlin for a grand total of two days, Molly is somehow willing to betray her countrymen, and even kill one of them, to protect a German spy.

Devlin gets into trouble with a local tough who has a sweet eye on Molly. Upon their first meeting at the local pub, he refused Devlin's offer to buy him a drink. After Devlin pummels the man in a bout of fisticuffs, the old gravedigger throws a bucket of water on the man's face to revive him, and offers the movie's funniest line:

"Well Arthur, looks like he bought you a drink after all!"

The whole cast acquits themselves well, and all of the half-dozen leads are terrific in their roles, even as the script (by Tom Mankiewicz) requires them to do and say some pretty zany stuff.

I should point out that this is a rare World War II movie in which English and American actors play Germans, which makes for some strange audience dynamics as the action plays out. Late in the game we're introduced to an imbecile American reserve colonel played by Larry Hagman, who frets about the war ending without him getting any combat experience.

When he learns about the Churchill plot, he declines to inform his superiors and rushes off with a few men to stop take on the Germans himself. Steiner's seasoned men quickly dispatch the Yanks in a sequence that almost reaches Keystone Kops levels of comedy -- until we remember these are American soldiers fighting and dying (poorly).

The film ends as absurdly as it progressed. Steiner, his entire command decimated, refuses to flee and impersonates an American soldier (Jeff Conaway), continuing the mission to kidnap Churchill, alone. He manages to make it to the mansion where they've hidden him, sneak up and kill him, dying himself moments later when guards arrive.

The young American captain (Treat Williams) marvels at his audacity to single-handedly murder the British leader -- but then we learn that the dead man is the double of the real Churchill, who's actually meeting with FDR and Stalin in Tehran.

In other words, the entire enterprise was a ruse. It's a fitting end for a movie about a made-up plot that was a joke until it became something more.

I loved the cast of "The Eagle Has Landed," but it fails Gene Siskel's test of whether you'd prefer to watch the same people doing almost anything else instead.

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