Where Eagles Dare(1968), the highly Entertaining World War II adventure film that brought together the talents of British thespian Richard Burton and American superstar Clint Eastwood, is great fun even after 50 years.
“The world is grown so bad / That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch,”
The above quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III and the presence of Richard Burton might give the impression that Where eagles Dare is a serious dramatic piece, with Burton unleashing his electrifying theatricality. But this isn’t Richard Burton, the titanic theater actor, but Richard Burton, the fading movie star who is front and center of this movie. Burton was a born stage actor, and with his great prowess with words he effortlessly conquered Shakespeare and Marlowe on stage. But he never became a comfortable screen actor in his career, much less a popular movie star. His stardom came thanks mainly to the fact that he was one half of the world’s most fascinating movie star couple. The other half made up by Elizabeth Taylor, the most beloved, most beautiful and perhaps the biggest female star of all times, and with whom Burton hooked up on the sets of the film Cleopatra. Burton’s most successful films were the ones he made with Taylor. But by the end of 1960s, even those movies were flopping badly. That’s when Burton implored his friend and producer Elliot Kastner to find a commercially viable project for him, something that his children would be able to see. Usually, Burton’s films were adult movies with him essaying more or less serious, tragic roles. He wanted to play a heroic character for a change and expressed an interest in making a film in the mold of the 1961 hit film The Guns of Navarone. So Kastner enlisted the services of Alistair MacLean, who wrote the original novel on which “Navarone” was based, to write an original screenplay set in the backdrop of WWII. MacLean obliged, writing both a novel and a script that became “Where Eagles Dare”.
Between 1961, when The Guns of Navarone was made, and 1968, when Where Eagles Dare was in production there has been a lot of changes in international mainstream cinema and these changes are reflected in “Eagles”, which differentiates it from “Navarone”. First, there was the highly popular James Bond films that debuted in 1962 that had become an international phenomenon and no mainstream blockbuster action film was immune from its influence. Reflecting this, the lead character of Britisher John Smith\Johann Schmidt played by Richard Burton, who is leading the ‘Men on a Mission’ during World War II, is given the dimensions of a double agent and the film has an intriguing thread of espionage and counter espionage. Also in the vein of Bond films, the film feature a couple of gorgeous girls- Mary Elison (Mary Ure) and Heidi Schmidt (Ingrid Pitt)- who are as adept with firearms as the men in the film. To top it all off, there are also some highly improbable, though spectacular stunts in the picture that puts the best of ‘Bond’ films to shame. Second major development was the emergence of a new hyper-stylized, ultra-violent genre (or sub genre) of Spaghetti westerns with its cool, amoral ‘Man with No Name‘ heroes that became very popular world over.. Influenced by this, the filmmakers not only brought in the character of the cool, silent killer- here it’s the character of American Lt. Morris Schaffer- but also the actor, Clint Eastwood, who became a star on account of those movies. The third main development was the emergence of a New Hollywood – around 1967- with films like “Bonnie and Clyde” that put an emphasis on a more down and dirty, gritty realism and it is reflected in the violence of this film, with gunfights and bullet hits being more graphically portrayed. The film also has a more grittier, monochromatic color palette as opposed to the soft technicolor palette of The Guns of Navarone. The film has a much more serious tone, with less humor and more action set pieces than the earlier films of this vein. Also, this is a traditional adventure film through and through: characters are black & white; there’s no critiquing or moral philosophizing on the evil effects of war or anything like that; WWII just forms an interesting background for more than a couple of macho guys to display their exaggerated machismo.
With these Men on a Mission Pictures, we know the drill. First, there is a briefing scene in which the Mission parameters are spelled out in detail; then the team for the mission is assembled; and then the actual mission begins, which forms the rest of the picture. But in this film, there is a slight Tarantino style manipulation of the timeline. The film begins with the mission already underway. May be the filmmakers were going for a spectacular opening sequence, and the film does have one of the most spectacular movie openings. We see breathtaking aerial shots of the snow covered Alps, with the rousing Ron Goodwin score playing in the background. We see the team members led by Burton, readying to parachute down from the plane. And it is at this point that film cuts back in time to the briefing sequence (that happened before they began the mission) where the mission is laid out to the already assembled team members. There are seven members in the team, one American and the rest British. Admiral Rolland(Michael Hordern) and Col. Turner (Patrick Wymark) are briefing the team. Their mission is to rescue an American General Carnaby, one of the architects of the ‘D-Day’, from a secluded castle called schloss Adler – the Eagle’s castle- where he is imprisoned by the Germans. The team, disguised as German troops, has to get in and get Carnaby out, before he spills the beans on the ‘D-Day’ plans.
The scene then cuts forward in time to the team members parachuting out of the plane. There is also an eight member, Mary, unknown to the rest of the members (except Smith), and who takes the jump a little while after the other team members have landed on terra firma or rather ground covered with a thick layer of snow. Soon, one of the team members is found dead, perhaps accidentally, while landing, but Burton later deduces that it was as murder. So, in the traditional of other Maclean stories, we have a traitor in the midst making things difficult during an already difficult mission. Soon, another member also ends up dead, thus reducing the team to 5. Inspite of these setbacks, Smith soldiers on; keeping Schaffer as a close ally and secretly updating Rolland and Turner by radio about the progress of the mission. Schaffer repeatedly asks Smith what the hell he, an American, is doing in the midst of this all-British operation. Smith’s cryptic reply is that the reason why he is here is because he is an American. Later, Smith relents and explains the whole mission plan to Schaffer, though we, the audience, has to wait till two thirds of the movie is over to understand what’s exactly going on.
Both Smith and Schaffer are separated from the other three team members: Thomas, Berkeley and Christiansen, when the team surrender to the Germans, as part of a plan concocted by Smith. After killing their captors and then blowing up a supply depot — in one of the first full blown action sequences in the film, Smith and Schaffer reach the castle by riding on the roof of a cable car. They climb inside by using a rope lowered by Mary. Mary had already managed to enter the castle, disguised a s a secretary, with the help of a British undercover agent, Heidi, who is already employed there. For a film that’s an action packed thriller, the first action scene takes place only about an hour into this two and half hour film. The film spends a lot of time in setting up the characters, the geography, the plot and hell of a lot of exposition, which Burton, thanks to his unique vocal prowess, get through quickly keeping the interest alive for the audience. But the true worth of his talky, theatrical acting style comes to the fore in the most pivotal scene in the film , where the true objective of of the mission is unveiled.
In the castle hall , German General Rosemeyer and Standartenführer Kramer are interrogating Carnaby when the three new prisoners, Thomas, Berkeley and Christiansen are brought in; all three identify themselves as German double agents. Suddenly, Smith and Schaffer barges in and hold them at gun point. But then, Smith does a volte-face and he forces Schaffer to disarm and sit down with the others at the table as well. Now, we are as perplexed as Schaffer, as to what Smith is upto. Smith identifies himself as Sturmbannführer Johann Schmidt of the SD of the SS intelligence branch. As proof, he discreetly shows the name of Germany’s top agent in Britain to Kramer, who silently affirms it. He reveals that Carnaby is actually Corporal Cartwright Jones who is hired to impersonate Carnaby and the the three double agents are actually working for the British and they planned to penetrate the German high Command. Burton’s mesmerizing voice, coupled with his very formal, dispassionate style of dialogue delivery never found a better outlet than in this scene, where he practically holds court; piling deceit upon deceit and seducing the German top brass with his words. In the end, it is revealed that the entire mission was a ‘Mole hunt’ to smoke out the German spies working in Britain. The list of their names are very tactfully extracted from the three renegade British officers by Smith. Up to this point everything goes as Smith had planned, but Just when he is about to wrap up the proceedings in the castle Hall, they are interrupted by a suspicious Gestapo officer who has been trailing Mary. But then again, Smith, using his vocal ingenuity creates enough confusion to give Schaffer an opportunity to gun down all the Germans in the room.
Burton famously remarked about the film that “He did all the talking , while Clint did all the killing“. So at this point in the film, Clint, who until now was in Burton’s shadow, starts unleashing himself. From this point on, the film is one continuous action\chase sequence as they the team tries to escape from the castle dodging the German army. Clint goes on a killing spree, as he shoots, knifes and blows up anyone and anything in German Colors; and in turn racking up a record body count, which he’s yet to break. But since Burton is still billed above Clint, he cannot be a bystander. So Burton gets a major action set piece – a fight on top of the cable cars- in which he eliminate those three traitors in his team. It’s amusing seeing all this today: The macho action hero Clint Eastwood being knocked cold by the three renegades and Richard Burton racing to the rescue; leapfrogging over cable cars and indulging in some violent fistfights. In the end, the team makes it to the airfield where Col. Turner is waiting with the plane, and after some more gunfights and explosions, manages to make it safely onto the plane.
Thus, It all ends exactly where it started, on the Junkers, high above the snow-capped mountains. Except, there is one last bit of mystery yet to be revealed, which i would let the viewers to find out for themselves. Suffice to say that, as at the start of the film, one of the members will jump out of the plane; this time without a parachute I’m afraid, and hence is not destined to land as smoothly as the members at the beginning. Clint gets to say the penultimate line of the film, something that he has been saying on and off throughout :“Do me a favor, will you? Next time you have one of these things, keep it an all-British operation.” Burton assures him that he will try. And so, as the tired team members are about to doze off, the thundering Ron Goodwin score returns and the end credits roll.
The film proved to be a much needed hit at the box office for Burton, but that did not prevent his career from sliding further down, as an endless series of boozing , brawling, marriages and divorces will take a toll on his career and health. It’s interesting to note that Burton is just five years senior to Clint, But he looks aged and pretty washed out as opposed to the fresh and youthful Clint, who had just tasted stardom. Though Clint hated the script and was reluctant to do the film at first, he benefited the most from the success of this film, as he was able to establish himself as a genuine international star after the successful Spaghetti Westerns, and that too in the company of a respectable co-star like Richard Burton. Burton benefited financially though, as he had a big piece of the profits from the film and so did author Alistair Maclean. Though total opposites in both acting style and temperament, Eastwood and Burton got on well off-screen, and it shows in their chemistry displayed on screen. It was one of the best screen pairings, with characters designed perfectly to suit the strength of the actors. It’s a rare supporting role or rather Co-lead in Eastwood’s career, who is usually the sole hero in all his films. The actions scenes from the film, done with a mix of practical effects, miniatures and matte paintings still work, though some of the scenes that employ back and front projections does look dated. The great stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, who was behind the great chariot race scene in Ben-Hur, came out of retirement to do this film. He stages some impressive action scenes featuring a variety of props and vehicles; from parachuting from planes and action scenes involving cars, cable cars, bikes and buses.
Brian G. Hutton, who did a great job of directing this film, had done nothing before this to signify that he had in him to direct a picture like this. He handles both the adventurous and the dramatic aspects of the film very well. He was also instrumental in retooling the script and characters to suit the actors. He would re-team with Clint Eastwood in another WWII adventure movie , Kelly’s Heroes, that was made a couple of years after this. Where Eagles Dare continues to be very popular and its scenes and dialogues have become part of pop culture , especially the phrase :”Broadsword calling Danny Boy…. Broadsword calling Danny Boy“, the code used by Burton to communicate with the British high command . Both Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg are big fans of this film. Tarantino paid homage to this film in his Inglorious Basterds, while the influence of this film on Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones” films is very obvious.