The Eiger Sanction: Clint Eastwood attempts a James Bond style spy thriller with mixed results

The Eiger Sanction (1975), Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, is an action-adventure thriller inspired from James Bond films. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Rodney Whitaker AKA Trevanian, the film has Eastwood playing a government assassin, who has to ascent the Eiger Mountains to kill the spy responsible for the death of his friend.

After star, Sean Connery, departed the James Bond film franchise, and his successor, George Lazenby, flopped badly with his turn as Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the Bond producers took the radical step of Americanizing Bond; they seriously started courting American actors to fill the shoes of the British spy. One of the actors they approached was Clint Eastwood, who was already a big star in Europe, thanks to his “Dollars” trilogy of Euro-Westerns with Sergio Leone, and had steadily started climbing the ladder of stardom in America as well. Today it is even unthinkable to imagine an American actor- or rather ‘The’ Quintessential American star\actor – like Eastwood as Bond, but those were desperate times and the Bond producers were fighting to keep the franchise alive by hook or by crook. Clint had the good sense to politely decline the Bond offer; and the Bond producers zeroed in on actor, John Gavin, to play Bond. But then good sense prevailed on David Picker, the head of the studio, United Artists, who was backing the Bond franchise, and they brought back Sean Connery for the next Bond film; the role would subsequently go on to Roger Moore and other Brits in the future, and thus, a big embarrassment in movie history would be averted. Though Clint declined Bond, he would appropriate some of the Bond characteristics for his most iconic role as Dirty Harry: a trademark gun, the Magnum .44 analogous to Walther PPK, and a “License to Kill”, which in the case of Harry Callahan is is not government sanctioned, it’s something he appropriated as part of his vigilantism. But playing some variation of Bond (or a spy) was a holy grail for many of the big stars of the time; Frank Sinatra did the Tony Rome series; Paul Newman did The Mackintosh Man; Robert Redford was the most successful in making a solid espionage thriller with Three Days of Condor (released the same year as Eiger). The script of The Eiger Sanction, adapted from Trevalayan’s 1972 novel (which by the way was intended by the author as a spoof on James Bond), has been kicking around Hollywood for some time. It was originally developed for Paul Newman, but Newman was disappointed with the script and opted out. It’s then that it found its way to Eastwood. Eastwood was not a fan of Bond or spy thrillers, but it was keeping in with his desire to do a pure action thriller- devoid of any plot or much dialogue. He decided to concentrate on the mountaineering aspects of the film, which he chose to do on real locations without using any blue screen or back projection, though at the time he did doubt his ability to carry off such a large scale action film with complex action set pieces; he had just directed three films: the intimate romantic thriller, Play Misty for me; the drama, Breezy; and the bizarre Western, High Plains Drifter. He tried to convince his mentor, Don Siegel – who is unquestionably the master of such action pictures – to take on the direction of the film, but Siegel convinced him to go ahead with the project. Clint was aware that the the script was rather preposterous with plenty of plot holes, but his intention was to make the action-spectacle aspect of the film so pronounced that it will paper over the limitations of the plot. It only succeeds to an extend in the finished film. The film also fulfilled another wish Clint had for a long time: to make a film with minimal crew and equipment on an isolated location, far away from all the hustle and bustle of the studios. The actors will work as part of the crew carrying equipment, and stunt doubles will also play the part of bit actors in the movie.

The Eiger Sanction definitely has the look and feel of a James Bond film directed and starring the 1970s Clint Eastwood, and in many ways it tries to capture the style, swagger and political incorrectness of the Sean Connery Bonds of the 1960s. Like Connery’s Bond, Clint mainly uses his fists, wits and guts to overcome his enemies; he mercilessly beats up hulking brutes and is not above spanking and taunting women and minorities; there are no fancy gadgets on display here, but Dr. Hemlock, Clint’s character in the film is as much a sexual animal as Bond. And as all Bond films, or international crime thrillers of the time, the film opens in a European city, this time in Switzerland, detailing a microfilm theft and a neat murder of an agent. We see the face of only one of the murderers – identified later as Kruger(Walter Kraus). The murderer’s accomplice who steals the microfilm is a man with a limp whose face is hidden from the view. Next we are introduced to the shy, bespectacled, Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood), a popular professor of Art History at an American University. Hemlock is giving an inspiring lecture to the students who will soon be leaving the college, and he is soaking up all the affection coming his way from the comely girl students in the class. He is soon ‘hit on’ by one of the students, who offers sex in return for a higher grade. Though Hemlock is portrayed as quite a sex fiend, he is (thankfully) not low enough to accept such an offer, he gives the student some good advice on how to get that grade without getting him in the sack: “go on home, break out the books and study your little ass off. That’s the best way to maintain a “B” average. Don’t study it all off.” He also patronizingly pats her on her behind to get the point through (guess, another case of casual sexism prevalent in that era). Hemlock is soon visited by a guy named Pope(Gregory Walcott ), a thuggish operative in smudge sunglasses, from Hemlock’s old agency C2; Hemlock used to be an assassin for this shady government agency before he took retirement to lead a peaceful life as a teacher, but now, C2 wants their former employee back in their service. C2 is an odd bunch, almost parodic to Bond’s ‘MI6’. Its boss is Dragon (Thayer David,) a portly, reptilian, pink-eyed albino with a whispering, raspy voice. Ultra-sensitive to light, cold and germs- an almost grotesque caricature of Bond’s superior, ‘M’. Dragon hides in his headquarters, bathed in red-light Bond villain décor. His secretary Miss Cerberus (yes! his Miss. Moneypenny) is named after the three-headed Hellhound of mythology, which the dead encounter once across the River Styx.

Without much interest in renewing his life as a killer, but still obligated by his past, Hemlock returns to the Dragon’s lair, where he is commissioned by Dragon to conduct two more “sanctions“(euphemisms for assassinations). Hemlock agrees to undertake only one – and that too only after he is blackmailed by Dragon, who threatens to put the IRS on Hemlock’s multi million dollar art collection; Hemlock’s assignment is to kill Kruger, whom we have seen in the beginning assassinating a guy, who turns out to be C2 agent, Wormwood. Hemlock pursue the mission without any joy, almost botching the sanction; showing how out of shape and out of touch he is with this killing business. As the sanction is successfully completed, Hemlock receives his promised fee of 20 Grand and a letter from IRS clearing his art collection. On his return, he runs into Jemima Brown (Vonetta McGee) on the plane, who (unknown to him) is actually a C2 agent, and who seduces him and steals his money and the IRS letter. So now Hemlock has no other option but to undertake the second “sanction”; only after successful completion of this sanction will Dragon return the IRS letter and pay him a huge bonus of 100 Grand, which will ensure his retirement. There’s also an extra inducement involved: the C2 agent, Wormwood, who was killed (at the beginning of the film) was actually Hemlock’s old friend, Henri Baq, so now revenge is also a motivation in Hemlock’s assignment to hunt down the second killer of Baq. As part of the second sanction, Hemlock must join a team of mountaineers who are planning to ascent the north face of the Eiger mountains in the Swiss Alps, because the only information that C2 has about this killer is that he walks with a limp and that he will be part of the four-man mountaineering team. It’s up to Hemlock to find this killer and “sanction” him, hence the title “The Eiger Sanction.”

Before he leaves for the Eiger, Hemlock needs to get back in shape, as he hasn’t done any climbing for a long time. Hemlock, who is a crack mountaineer, had twice previously attempted to conquer the Eiger, but both times he had to retreat unsuccessfully. To get back into mountain-climbing shape, Hemlock trains at a Arizona resort run by old friend Ben Bowman (George Kennedy), where he tangles with slippery double agent Miles Mellough (Jack Cassidy) and the phenomenally fit native American trainer named George (Brenda Venus)- yes! George is a woman. Mellough had fought in Indochina with Bach and Hemlock, and had betrayed them, so Hemlock has intentions of murdering him. Mellough knows who killed Bach and offers to exchange the information for his life. As represented in the film, Miles Mellough is a perfect (and perfectly condescending) 70s caricature of a gay man, who leers at every good looking young man in the vicinity, including Hemlock. He even has a hunky henchman called Dewayne and a pet terrier called Faggot (yup! I’m not making this up). Mellough turns out to be quite a thorn in his flesh for Hemlock; Mellough repeatedly threatens him and even attempts to kill him, once using George. When Mellough makes one more attempt on his life, Hemlock decides enough is enough: He first shoots and kills Dewayne, then takes Mellough deep into the parched Monument valley desert and abandons him there without water. Bowman later reports that the police found Mellough’s corpse, ‘Dead as Kelsey’s Nuts’.

In Switzerland, Bowman (he is working as the “ground man” or supervisor of the climb) and Hemlock join up with Frenchman Jean-Paul Montaigne (Jean-Pierre Bernard), German Karl Freytag (Reiner Schöne) and Austrian Anderl Meyer (Michael Grimm) to climb the dangerous Eiger. Obviously, One of the men is Hemlock’s target; he just does not know which one, and nobody in the team is seen limping; a fact that Hemlock doesn’t seem to notice, which is a big loophole in the plot. Soon, Pope and Jemima also join them in Switzerland. While the team begins their ascent, Pope tells Jemima that Hemlock’s mission is just a decoy; that Baq was supposed to be killed; the microfilm was supposed to fall into the opposition’s hands, as it is fake. Hemlock’s mission is only to convince the other side that the microfilm is genuine. Jemima is shocked by this cold-blooded maneuver on part of the C2 and becomes as disillusioned as Hemlock regarding the business of espionage. For now, Hemlock and his team are on the ascent, and it is here, in the last act, that the film truly comes into its own. The well staged mountaineering sequences are novel and suspenseful, the tension well constructed and executed; Some breathtaking scenery and cinematography is offered, and the fact that the actors are doing most of their own stunts adds verisimilitude to the sequences. The film ends with the death of all the climbers, except Hemlock who manages to survive. Since all three mountaineers are dead, Dragon surmises that the person who killed Henri Baq is also no more, hence Hemlock has successfully completed “The Eiger Sanction”. Little does Dragon know that Hemlock has already discovered the identity of the real killer – in a twist ending, which i don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t seen the film; suffice to say that the real killer was not part of the team that went up the Eiger. And in another twist, Hemlock chooses not to kill him, as it was Kruger (and not this second guy) who killed Baq. That makes this is one of those rare films, where Clint, the action hero, does not blow away the bad guy at the end.

The film proved to be quite prescient, in the sense that it anticipated two other huge blockbusters of the future. First is the Indiana Jones films; Dr. Jonathan Hemlock – A shy college professor who moonlights as a government agent , who’s also a crack mountaineer, who’s also a discerning art lover whose price per hit includes modern art masterpieces he keeps in a secret room, is very similar to Dr. Jones played by Harrison Ford. I don’t know whether Spielberg and Lucas where inspired from this film, or its source novel in the construction of the famous archeologist, but the similarities are very strong. Second is the Sylvester Stallone starrer Cliffhanger, with a similar plot concentrated around mountaineering action; I have to say that the mountaineering scenes and the aerial photography in this film is even better than Cliffhanger, or Martin Campbell’s Vertical Limit that came after that. There was also a lengthy mountain-climbing climax in the 1981 Bond film, For your Eyes only, which also seems to be inspired from this film. Though this film is modelled after James Bond films, it doesn’t have the pace of a Bond film, and that’s a big drawback. It allows the viewer to ponder about the various plot holes, and they are plenty of them, and it lets the tension dissipate from time to time. Eastwood, as director, is at his best while making small intimate dramas which unfolds at a leisurely pace. He does looks a little out of his league here, and seems to have bitten off more than he could chew. I find a similar problem with his other spy thriller, Firefox(1982), as well which also he directed. He should have had some other director – like Don Siegel or John Sturges – who can combine drama and action on a big scale directing this one. I have a feeling that most of the film was supposed to be a “send up” on the Bond films; the exaggerated characterizations (and performances) of Dragon, Pope, Mellough etc. point towards that, but that element is not fully – or rather unsuccessfully – explored here as most of it come across as pretty “straight”, which makes it bland rather than fun. As an actor, Eastwood lacks the smoothness of Sean Connery, but he brings his laid-back persona to Hemlock, and this time it is very appropriate, as the relaxed approach masks a keen intent to remain uninvolved, his eagerness to complete the missions is driven by the desire to return to retirement rather a belief in any cause. In 1975, at the age of 45, Clint looked great; he was the height of his superstardom as well as his handsomeness, and the lustful interest in him from the beautiful exotic girls in the best traditions of the Bond movies appears fully justified. His star power and charisma goes a long way in holding the film together Clint did all of his own stunts, including the scene where he cuts his safety line over a drop of at least 1,000 feet. The only stunt he did not perform was a 2,500-foot drop, for which a dummy was used. and if anything, the film will be remembered for truly astounding scenes of the ascent to the North Face of the Eiger and the dramatic descent. But the spectacle came with a huge price: One climber, David Knowles, was killed by a boulder on the second day of shooting. Knowles was a skilled climber who worked out of the Dougal Haston International School of Mountaineering in Leysin, Switzerland. He was one of the few crew members who actually climbed the Eiger north face. He was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s highest honor for his actions in the 1970 rescue of several stranded climbers in Glencoe, Scotland. After this tragedy, Clint wanted to abandon the project, but the other mountaineers convinced him to carry on. Clint also felt that if he dropped the film, then Knowles death will be in vain, so he carried on and completed the film.

Another major problem the film has is that the three acts are rather disjointed. Each act takes place in a different location and atmosphere, and each feature different set of characters who hardly makes it to the next act. The first act has a very James Bondish urban feel to it; the second one is fully set in the deserts of Arizona and the third is set on the Swiss Alps. Though on its own, each act has its pleasures, the cumulative effect is not carried over to the entire film I also should admit that the twist in the end, if not totally probable, was satisfying enough to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The Arizona sequence allowed Eastwood the director to make some truly magnificent and stunning shots of Monument Valley. The shoot of Eastwood and George Kennedy climbing on top of the “Totem Pole” is a real spectacle and a symbol of masculinity, and is unquestionably, one of the greatest action moments in cinema. Besides being breathtakingly beautiful, it has historic significance – it was the last time anyone was allowed to climb the “Totem Pole”.

Of the cast, George Kennedy is really good as Big Ben Bowman, Hemlock’s pal and his trainer. Clint and Kennedy had gotten friendly during the making of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot(1974), and as was Clint’s way, he rewarded that friendship by making Kennedy a member of the Malpaso (his production company) “family.” Vonetta McGee, who plays the female spy, Jemima Brown, had made a couple of “Blaxploitation” pictures and was mainly cast because she had the kind of “taut bottom” that Trevanian had given Brown in the book. Trevanian himself hated the film and called it “vapid”, while Clint thought that, though the film wasn’t his best, he and several others had risked their lives to put the best mountain-climbing footage ever seen on screen, and he expected the audience to respond to that, but that was not to be. The film only made $14 million against a $9 million budget, which was much less than (say) what Clint’s Magnum Force (approx. $40 million) grossed about a couple of years ago. One main reason for this was that the studio, Universal, botched the release, even though this was a straightforward Clint Eastwood Action vehicle. After this debacle, Clint left Universal and moved to Warner Brothers. The film was also not well reviewed at the time, though today it is much more appreciated. I myself has mixed feelings about it. Being a die-hard Clint Eastwood fan, i didn’t think it was all that bad: Sure, it lacks cohesion, and maybe Clint wasn’t capable enough (then) to direct a film of this sort, but it has its pleasures, mainly in the dialogue, action scenes and of course Clint’s towering presence; no question about the fact that it could have been a lot better. Interestingly, This is the only movie that John Williams has scored for Clint Eastwood, and also the only time he scored for a spy thriller. He was just coming off his iconic score for Jaws (1975), and he contributes a very different (than the usual John Williams) score for the film, which is a combination of jazz and a classical, more traditional orchestral music.

5 thoughts on “The Eiger Sanction: Clint Eastwood attempts a James Bond style spy thriller with mixed results

  1. There are a whole host of errors in this opinion piece – too many to list them all. But I will give you a few: his character in Eiger Sanction was NOT a Secret Service agent, and he was sent to kill (“sanction”) the enemy, not capture him. Then you’ve got typos and errors galore. Oh, and “Indiana” Jones’s name is actually Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Junior.

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    1. Hi Don. Thanks for your feedback. I’ll recheck for typos. BTW I do mention it in the piece that sanction is an euphemism for killing. Also, I do know that Henry Jones Jr is the real name of Indiana Jones, I think i mentioned him as Dr. Indiana Jones in the piece so that readers can quickly identify him.

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    2. Cheers! “adapted from Trevalayan’s 1972 novel” “It only succeeds to an extend” “He does looks a little” also.
      I see you are a big Eastwood fan! As am I. Perhaps I was just in a bad mood back on August 30th.
      There are almost no analysis of The Eiger Sanction to be found online, so yours is a rarity. Though I knew of the death of David Knowles, I knew nothing of his biography – so that is some great information you have provided.
      All the Best!

      Liked by 1 person

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