Where Eagles Dare (1968)

*. Also known as “the one where they get in a fight on top of a cable car.” I imagine that scene was sort of like the car chase in Bullitt (a film that came out the same year). In the script for Bullitt all it apparently said was “car chase.” They would have needed a bit more than that here, to take into account the planting of the bomb, the one bad guy falling to his death, and the jump to the other cable car, but there still might not have been much more than half a page of notes.
*. The cable-car fight grows in the imagination. For one thing, I’d had it stuck in my head that Schaffer, Clint Eastwood’s character, had been the protagonist. That would have made more sense — Richard Burton (age 43, overweight, and reported to be drinking up to four bottles of vodka a day!) was scarcely credible as an action star — but in fact Schaffer had been knocked unconscious and was sleeping back in the castle, leaving the heroism for Major Smith. Or Alf Joint, the stuntman who lost three teeth doing the jump.
*. The other thing that struck me watching the cable-car scene today is that there’s a lot less of it than I remembered. Most of it was done with process shots. For all the daring of the stunt work, which certainly was impressive, it only amounts to a matter of a minute or so on screen.
*. I kept thinking how they’d do it differently today. This is an old-school production which makes wonderful use of locations and physical stunts. In addition to the cable-car jump, Burton knocked himself out at one point (or else he was dead drunk), and the squib that exploded on the Gestapo officer’s face temporarily blinded him (squibs were a new technology in 1968). Sure some of it looks off, like the dummy that falls from the cliff and the ones in the jeep that explodes at the airfield, but overall it holds up well. I prefer practical effects to CGI any day.

*. One place where I think things have improved with today’s movies though is in pacing. I think Where Eagles Dare is sometimes sluggish and that’s not solely attributable to our abbreviated twenty-first century attention spans. Even in the 1980s action films would handle their main sequences in a far livelier way than director Brian G. Hutton does here. I kept thinking of the attack on the guerilla camp in Predator as a comparison. But we could also go with a more contemporary comparison. The assault on Blofeld’s mountain-top fortress in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is far better handled than anything here.
*. We spend a lot of time watching the gang set traps with their inexhaustible supply of dynamite bundles and it seems things should move a little quicker through the final act. I think some of this too might be blamed on the bizarre decision Smith makes to take the three double-agents with them. How was that ever going to work? Come on. And then it just goes from one escape sequence to the next, with the good guys always one step ahead of the explosions.

*. Geoff Dyer wrote a fun little book about this movie called “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy.” He’s pretty dismissive of director Brian G. Hutton: “Hutton’s stylistic signature as director lies in the absence of anything that might permit us to recognize him as an auteur. Apart from the stuntmen — and -woman — no one connected with the film is more undercover than its director.” But is a lack of flash a bad thing? I don’t think it has to be, at least for an action flick. But Hutton’s problem is that he doesn’t really deliver the goods with the action.
*. I grew up on the adventure novels of Alistair MacLean (and Hammond Innes, who I might have thought of as the same guy at one point). But aside from the basic premise I don’t think this is a great story. Eastwood found the script had too much exposition and he had a point. It’s far too complicated and left me wondering at the end just what had really been going on. The big dining-hall scene with Burton droning on only confused me. I wondered what would happen if one of the British double-agents was actually a triple-agent? How would Smith/Schmidt know? It’s not like they could have trusted Smith. And wasn’t this an incredibly complicated (not to mention dangerous) way just to smoke out some moles?
*. The cast manages. Aside from his being drunk I still had trouble buying Burton in his role but I guess he makes out. Eastwood refused to have his hair cut to look slightly more military, but can you blame him? That Sonic the Hedgehog ‘do looks great. Mary Ure had top billing along with the two male leads but I wonder how many people remember her today. She died young from an overdose.
*. Did you know that “radio room” in German is Funkraum? I didn’t know that, but I got a laugh out of seeing the sign on the Funkraum door. I guess radio in German is funk, or rundfunk. This is not, however, where we get the English word funk for a mix of jazz, soul, and rhythm & blues. That goes all the way back to the Latin fumigare for a strong, earth odour.
*. Another laugh came with the German soldier shot at the end of the bridge whose head falls forward so his helmet doinks on the railing. I don’t know if that was meant to be funny, or if it was even intentional, but it’s great.
*. Dyer’s book makes a lot out of how much the movie meant to him as a kid. Like me, he read MacLean as a tween. Going over the names he drops of people who still claim to love this film (Steven Spielberg has called it his favourite war movie) I have to wonder how much of this is nostalgia among men who are now middle-aged or older. While I think it’s still good entertainment, it’s too long, plays slow, and has a ridiculous storyline. Aside from the cable-car stunt there’s not even anything new or interesting in the action department but just the usual clichés like bad guys who can’t hit anything and cars (and planes!) exploding into balls of fire every time they get bumped. And yet it takes me back to better times. Maybe not better movies, but better times.

12 thoughts on “Where Eagles Dare (1968)

  1. Bookstooge

    I too read many of MacLean’s books in my teens and early 20’s. I’ve seen one or two of the films (by happenstance, not because they were based on his books) and if a bunch of them ever showed up on Prime I’d probably give them a go. I definitely wouldn’t pay though…

      1. Alex Good Post author

        This one was actually an original script that had been commissioned from MacLean. That is, it wasn’t based on one of his already published novels. He later turned it into a novel though.

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