THE EIGER SANCTION gave Clint Eastwood fans their man in form-fit action, snarling at and performing assault & battery upon guys, beguiling every hot-to-hop female in the supporting cast, swigging beers with George Kennedy and performing some audacious physical maneuvers on glorious scenery in Arizona, New Mexico and Switzerland. It also gave his detractors a bushel of well-aimed darts to hurl at the ridiculous storyline, blatant sexism, juvenile jokes, rainbow-smearing stereotypes and an overall stilted tilt at terra incognita best left to James Bond. Style and suave don’t always shake and stir together.
Pictorially filling, Eastwood’s cheeseburger for 1975 was bracketed by the sirloin steaks of 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Outlaw Josey Wales in ’76. Those two hold up beautifully, but other than the impressive mountain climbing scenes and camerawork, and a few daubs of spice from the supporting cast, this workout comes off like macho foolishness: wait, we already said “mountain climbing”….
In the comic-book screenplay, directed by the star, he’s ‘Jonathan Hemlock’, a college art professor, tempted/blackmailed back into his former field of expertise as a government-sponsored assassin. He’s also a veteran climber, which ties in the Eiger, 13,015 foot mankiller waiting for fresh meat in the Alps. Supervised by hearty old buddy ‘Ben Bowman’ (Kennedy),training is undergone in the American Southwest’s desert landscapes, then after “sanctioning” one target, Hemlock seeks another among a team who will ascend the Eiger. Why? Don’t worry about it: beyond ropes, ice axes and crampons, no character or action in the setup bears any relation to reality. Done strictly as a spoof, it may have worked, but it’s too mean for that, and the clunk-obvious humor between punch-outs, leers and footholds doesn’t much relieve an overall leaden tone.
The first draft was done by Rod Whitaker, who under his pseudonym Trevanian had written the 316-page tongue-in-cheek source novel (his first) and Hal Dresner. Clint wasn’t happy with it, so this was revised by Warren B. Murphy. All shared credit, although later Whitaker/Trevanian dismissed it as “vapid.”
Though the script is indeed vapid, there are compensations, chiefly the climbing scenes (often with Eastwood doing some of his own, pretty good at 44) and the location shooting in Arizona (Monument Valley), Utah (Zion Natl.Park) and Switzerland (Zurich, Grindlewald and on the lofty Eiger). Kennedy wisely plays it broad. Better are Thayer David as ‘Dragon’, the rasping albino who sends Hemlock on his mission, Reiner Schöne as ‘Karl Freytag’, arrogant team leader of the ascent and Jack Cassidy as ‘Miles Mellough’, hissy-swishy gay former comrade of Hemlock’s. Cassidy’s unlikable as ever, and the role will offend some, but he brings flair to it. Well-deserved credit goes to Frank Stanley, the cinematographer. Good music score from John Williams. About $9,000,000 was required to bring it on, and grosses tallied $24,200,000, 28th for ’75.
With Vonetta McGee (as ‘Jemima Brown’, one of the lame jokes), Gregory Walcott (on hand for Clint to insult and pummel), Brenda Venus as ‘George’ (cue nude scenes and hoary gags around Native Americans), Heidi Brühl, Jean-Pierre Bernard, Michael Grimm, Candice Rialson. 128 minutes. **
* The picture was nearly derailed on the 2nd day of filming at the Eiger when a rockslide killed one climber (David Knowles, doubling for the actors) and badly hurt another (Mike Hoover). Lead cinematographer Stanley was injured in a separate accident.
** Getting woke-stiffened braids in a twist over some of the script choices may be tempered by grasping that Miss McGee apparently possessed enough self-awareness to not be bothered by the ‘Jemima’ business, Cassidy being bi-sexual (self-kidding outlawed as well?) was likewise unfazed and Brenda Venus, half Native-American, rolled with it. The real complaints should come over how illogical the whole thing is. Counter-intelligence at work.