Director: Brian G. Hutton
Cast: Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure
Spoilers Within: Yes
A quick research into the team behind the 1968 Second World War classic Where Eagles Dare shows a whole wealth of talent: from Ben-Hur‘s iconic chariot-racing assistant director Yakima Canutt filming the majority of the action set-pieces, stuntman and coordinator Alf Joint (whose stunt credits include Return of the Jedi and The Omen to name two) serving as Richard Burton’s double, and composer Ron Goodwin complementing the story with his brilliant, pulse-pounding compositions (such as the main theme). These, plus Alistair MacLean’s screenplay (which he drafted simultaneously with his novel) and Brian G. Hutton’s directing, amount to one of the most exciting and atmospheric MGM war epics I’ve had the fortune of seeing.
Several months before D-Day in the winter of 1943, U.S. General George Carnaby’s (Robert Beatty) aircraft is shot down by the Germans who proceed to capture him for interrogation, imprisoning him in the dungeons of the Schloss Adler: a fortress high above the Alps of Southern Bavaria. It’s up to a small team of Allied commandos, led by British Major John Smith (Burton) and U.S. Army Ranger Morris Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), to reach the stronghold atop the mountain before an interrogation begins. Where Eagles Dare is, intrinsically, a heroic ‘man-on-a-mission’ story (the likes of which Kelly’s Heroes and Saving Private Ryan did to similar critical success) that follows the duo – accompanied by Agent Mary Elison (Mary Ure) – as they navigate their way through the snow-covered mountainous region, avoiding the scrutiny of the Germans, double-agents, and MI6 spies.
I’ll talk about the superbly choreographed action in a moment, but without the magnetic and brooding performances from Burton and Eastwood, these stunt-filled, explosion-laden scenes would have much less importance to the survival of the characters, and thus, may have been extravagant for extravagance sake. Both acting titans carry the weight of this rescue mission from the village at the base of the mountain, all the way to the towering parapets at fortress’s peak, and though their mission shows how out-of-depth they could be, their ingenuity and resourcefulness proves that they’ll stop at nothing to return themselves, and their charge, home. It’s not until the film’s last 30 minutes that their reasons for taking specific routes or using carefully chosen words in conversation are revealed, so by the time their escape plan is set in motion, all the groundwork has been laid out with great attention to detail.
Burton’s finest moment, though, isn’t in the precise placement of explosives, nor in a scene of duplicitous capture, but rather a tense ten minutes of bluffing and deceiving a roomful of German Generals that I won’t pretend to have understood in the moment. The subterfuge is revealed to the room but not before another gun battle punctuates the disclosure of the true nature of Smith and Schaffer’s presence. Which brings me on to the action. There is absolutely no shortage of set pieces in its 155-minute runtime, with bullet-strewn raids and escapes within the castle keep, epic multi-vehicle chases in snow, and an iconic, wince-inducing fistfight atop a cable car that truly puts Joint and Canutt’s stunt choreography in the spotlight. It’s unusual for an epic of its stature to slow down when the action stops, coming to a wordy halt whenever the gunshots and punches stop, but with Burton and Eastwood’s rapport and MacLean’s script, it’s never once lifeless.
Where Eagles Dare is completely unsubtle, and often totally preposterous, but these flights of absurd action are so well-staged that you’ll be rooting for the success of their rescue mission. The vast team of professionals both in front of and behind the camera are fine with this gung-ho, barefaced action, and so am I. As WWII action epics go, it’s a fortress invading, dynamite slinging, machine-gun toting, double-crossing adventure that’s utterly perfect for a cold November Sunday: settling down next to a roaring fire, nursing a food baby with a glass of Schnapps in hand.