WHERE EAGLES DARE puts Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood together in a 1968 WW2 action thriller, where they pretend to be German officers while conducting an espionage & sabotage mission deep in the heart of the Reich. A hit on release, it’s perennially popular, praised unto Valhalla by a veritable Condor Legion of fans. It’s also preposterous to a degree even its type of escapism rarely reaches, but if you can digest the teaming of Burton & Eastwood to start with, then the plot’s skip past logic, a casualty count that would make Rambo blush, and the blithe manner with which it’s all conducted won’t be an issue. Bring magical amounts of ammo. Abandon Thought Process, all ye who dare to enter the ‘Schloss Adler.’
1944, Bavaria. A team of British double agents and a cucumber-cool American (Clint) parachute into the Alps to infiltrate a seemingly impregnable castle where a U.S. general is captive, about to be tortured into revealing plans for D-Day. Burton leads the 7-man team, and they are joined by two hot-looking female agents (who also sport 1960s hairstyles, but then so does Clint), because you can’t have a fully satisfying secret mission without sex. It’s supposed to make the slaughter less worrisome.
Ron Goodwin’s dramatic score kicks it off, and the wintry location filming in Austria and Germany is handsomely captured in Arthur Ibbetson’s cinematography. The fortress employed as the ‘Schloss Adler’ was the Hohenwerfen Castle, a medieval rock bastion built in the late 1070’s. Brian G. Hutton directed, with Yakima Canutt handling much of the action sequences. “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.”
Stalwart Brit officer types on board include Patrick Wymark, Donald Houston and Michael Hordern, with the German contingent ably represented by Anton Diffring, Ferdy Mayne and especially Derren Nesbitt, as the requisite icy Gestapo representative. Nesbitt, exuding confidence, complete with perfect Aryan hair dye and spiffy-evil black uniform, walks off with the acting honors. The sex angle comes in from Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt. Third-billed Ure (35, married at the time to Robert Shaw) had received an Oscar nomination back in 1960 for her supporting work in Sons And Lovers, but you wouldn’t know it from her lifeless work here (think Jill Ireland with even less charm). On the other hand, billed 17th, Ingrid Pitt in her first notable role, 30 and gloriously seductive, steals her few scenes with ease.
Burton walks through effortlessly, handling most of the expository dialogue loaded up by Alistair MacLean’s complicated script. Eastwood was still in lockjaw mode; his function is just to coldly dispatch platoons of incredibly clueless Wehrmacht soldiers (their inefficiency coming as a surprise to anyone who’d ever faced them); the films brazen body count hit 100, with no less than 73 shot, knifed or blown up by Clint. The literal overkill goes on and on once it starts; at 139 minutes, it’s a good 20 too long. I enjoyed this audience rouser vicariously back when I was 13, and a few times over the years, but the recent revisit wore me out: the casual carnage and utter implausibility finally just numbing. Everyone raves about it like it was V-E Day. If only WW2 was this easy. *
The months of filming in winter conditions took up $7,700,000 (star salaries @ 27%), but that was covered with a gross of $15,700,000; it was 21st at the U.S. boxoffice, while internatioal patrons added at least $6,000,000 more. With Robert Beatty, Neil McCarthy, Peter Barkworth, and enough explosions to create a new planet.
* Burton: “I decided to do the picture because Elizabeth’s two sons said they were fed up with me making films they weren’t allowed to see, or in which I get killed. They wanted me to kill a few people instead.” Getting paid a cool $1,200,000 couldn’t have hurt.
The beautiful, charming and multi-talented Ingrid Pitt (1937-2010) spent part of her childhood in a concentration camp, then later made a daring escape from East Germany.
1944 was a a prime target year for ‘safe’ war movies made during the height of the Vietnam War. Only John Wayne’s The Green Berets—-sincere and atrocious—dared tackle the ongoing fiasco in SE Asia. Otherwise 1968 played it AWOL by sticking to World War Two: The Devil’s Brigade, Counterpoint, Anzio, In Enemy Country, Hell In The Pacific, The Private Navy Of Sgt. O’Farrell and The Secret War Of Harry Frigg.