Let me say this right at the start so there’s no confusion: WHERE EAGLES DARE is a very, very good movie, boasting a phenomenal performance by Richard Burton and a still-thrilling and still-massive final action sequence.
But there’s something missing here that can be found in two other Alistair MacLean-derived films (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, ICE STATION ZEBRA, and even the lesser FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE), and that’s a bit of passion, a bit of energy, a bit of spark provided by one of the characters to help mitigate the long, slow march to the final action sequence. In NAVARONE, this was provided by Anthony Quinn, who’s intensity wonderfully balanced Gregory Peck’s more stately approach to completely the mission. Patrick McGoohan filled this role in ICE STATION ZEBRA, his sharp tongue and rapid talking style countering nicely with Rock Hudson’s calm. And FORCE 10, released a decade later, gives multiple doses of this spark in the performances of Carl Weathers, Richard Kiel, and the constant bickering between Harrison Ford and Robert Shaw’s characters.
What we have then, with WHERE EAGLES DARE, is the least of all MacLean set-ups and the best of all MacLean finishes.
There are relative terms, of course, because none of the MacLean films is ever outright bad. Yet WHERE EAGLES DARE takes far too long to get where it’s going and clumsily sets up and executes the traitor angle.
British Major John Smith (Richard Burton) and American Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) are paired with five other British soldiers to make a daring raid on Schloss Adler, a castle high in the Bavarian Alps, in order to rescue an American general. During their parachute jump, one of the soldiers ends up dead with a broken neck and so we’ve got a mystery of who on the team is the traitor. The problem is that I never believe it’s either Smith or Schaffer and neither Schaffer nor Smith believe it’s each other. That means it’s either an outsider, or one of the five Redshirts, and none of the Redshirts are, in any way, developed.
The film is so interested in following Smith around that it’s far more interested in his mysterious meetings with Mary Elison (Mary Ure) than it is in the killings.
Unfortunately for the opening half of the movie, the film mimics Burton’s laid back, professional cool and thus gives off the impression that there’s nothing to worry about because Smith is always in control. I needed some tension between Smith and Schaffer or some aggressiveness or humor from Schaffer or one of the Redshirts to give the film some tension. Burton and Eastwood are just a bit too similar for me. Perhaps if EAGLES had been Eastwood’s movie and we spent our time following the group’s one American around as he tried to piece together what was going on, the film could have created some more tension.
Here’s the best example of what I mean. The group parachutes into Bavaria and sets up shop in a seasonaly abandoned cabin. There’s a fierce snowstorm going on outside and Smith takes out the radio equipment to contact London when goes, “Oh darn, I must have left the codebook in the dead guy’s jacket. How silly of me. I’ll go get it.”
In a snowstorm.
Without any help.
And he’s the man in charge of the mission.
So he leaves and walks around back, where he meets Elison in the cabin’s barn, makes out with her, and after a little cozy time in the warm barn, heads back to the main cabin. He can’t have been outside for more than a minute or two between the barn and the cabin, which should be obvious when he walks inside as one’s face would look pretty abused being out in a blizzard for an hour. If Schaffer sees it, however, he doesn’t mention it and so there’s no tension created or raised between the two men. They seem oddly trusting of one another. Later, we learn that Smith trusts Schaffer because, as the only American on the mission, Smith knows Schaffer could not have been the British traitor he was sent to root out.
From the plane ride to the cabin to the town located at the base of the castle’s mountain, the action is solid but almost clinical. Eastwood might as well have been played by anyone, because the film doesn’t ask him to do a whole lot at this point – this is Richard Burton’s movie and while he’s always excellent, the rest of the film gets caught just watching him. There’s some movement with Elison as she goes undercover as a member of the castle’s staff but all that does is create a silly infatuation subplot with Gestapo officer Major von Hapen (Darren Nesbitt), which never goes anywhere successfully.
All of the relative sins are forgiven once Smith and Schaffer get to Schloss Adler and Smith reveals himself to be double agent Johann Schmidt (yes, the Red Skull), which comes as a surprise to the three remaining redshirts who are also double agents. Smith lays out this whole scenario about how he’s the real Nazi spy and that the three actual spies are really fakes that the British have inserted in hopes of springing the American general the Nazis have captured. It’s a fantastic scene because it speaks to how dangerous the spy game is – if no one really knows who anyone is, who can you trust? Smith has been pretending to be a double agent so he can put a phone call in to a high-ranking Italian who speaks on his behalf. Smith gets each of the three redshirts to write down a list of known Nazi agents inside MI6 as a means of proving their real identity, but he’s actually doing it so he can learn the identity of those traitors.
We finally get all the pieces of the puzzle laid out – the American general isn’t actually the American general the Nazis think he is, and Smith’s entire mission wasn’t to save him but to expose the British traitors. It’s a fantastic reveal and Burton owns that castle scene, expertly manipulating the Nazi generals, the Nazi spies, and even Schaffer. When von Hapen intervenes and gets shot, it’s all out action from here to the end of the movie and every single inch of film reel is utterly fantastic.
From a massive interior castle battle (does fighting inside Nazi castles ever suck?), the group makes their way to the cable car that provides the only entrance to Schloss Adler from the town below. It’s silly for them to bring the double agents with them as they only prove to make the escape even more difficult, but they take them and the payoff is the legendary cable car battle, which is every bit as good as you’ve heard it is. After the cable car sequence, our heroes jump out of the cable car and into a river that runs into town, and then escapes in a bus. There’s not much in the way of plot through this section, but the film finally comes alive with real energy.
WHERE EAGLES DARE is a conflicted film for me. The ending is far and away the best of the four MacLean-based movies but that long set-up is the worst. It’s still a very, very good opening, but it’s the only time in all of these 2 1/2 hour-plus films that I wish they’d tightened things up a bit in the long lead-up to the action. That ending, though … WHERE EAGLES DARE presents one of the finest executed action sequences in cinematic history. For an hour or more the film offers thrilling action and Burton’s reserved performance as Smith pays off when he fingers Colonel Wyatt Turner (Patrick Wymark) as the Nazi’s top man in England during the plane ride out of Bavaria. Smith allows Turner to save face by jumping out of the plane without a parachute, which leads to one of the few genuine pieces of humor in the movie as Schaffer deadpans to Smith, “Do me a favour, will ya? The next time you have one of these things, keep it an all-British operation.”
Smith replies with a brief, simple, “I’ll try, Lieutenant.”