Where Eagles Dare Review
World War 2 movies are a dime a dozen. For the better part of three decades following its end, they were the staple fare of virtually every major British and American studio, plundering virtually every important event (and many minor ones too) of the war in order to spin outrageous yarns that often had little to do with the actual events that inspired them. Some of them are so bad that they become unintentionally funny, running the full gamut from sanctimonious drivel to idiotic shoot-'em-ups that want nothing more than to provide a suitable number of explosions. Where Eagles Dare is an intriguing affair: a Boys' Own style yarn that is a complete work of fiction and seems to have no loftier goal than to thoroughly entertain its audience. While perhaps not as accomplished or as well-known as its similar cousin The Guns of Navarone (which was based on a novel by Where Eagles Dare screenwriter Alistair McLean and shares a comparable style), Where Eagles Dare has a legion of fans of its own and is a thoroughly enjoyable romp provided you are prepared to switch your brain into second gear and accept its charmingly ludicrous story at face value.
The plot initially seems completely straightforward. A crack team of British agents, led by Major Smith (Richard Burton), are tasked to infiltrate a castle deep in the Bavarian mountains and rescue a captured American general before he spills the beans to the Nazis about the Allies' plans for D-Day. Tagging along is an American ranger, Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood). However, it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Smith has been advised that there is a mole in his ranks, and when members of his team begin dropping like flies he must work both to discover the mole while at the same time concocting and daring raid and plan of escape.
In actual fact, the truth of the matter is much more complicated and far-fetched than any of this, and by the time Smith reveals the real reason for the mission and the actual agendas both of the various members of his squad and of the captured American general, you'll probably give up trying to make sense of it all... which is probably the best thing to do, since I suspect that MacLean's tongue was very much in his cheek when he wrote the script. (The fact that the mission itself seems completely pointless once we learn the actual objective is best glossed over.) The sole American in the troupe of do-gooders, Eastwood's Lt. Schaffer takes in all the outlandish proceedings in much the same way as the audience: completely baffled, but willing to accept it in order to see it through. His reactions remind us that, no, we're not crazy: the whole thing really is as far-fetched as it seems. Complementing Eastwood's stolid but bemused performance is Burton's portrayal of Major Smith, a man who gives the impression that he is always in complete control. Even when (briefly) captured by the occupying Nazis, you get the impression that nothing worries or surprises him unduly, and Burton manages to make such activities as scaling a castle wall and hopping from one moving cable car to another look effortless. The third major player is Mary Ure, whose character of secret agent Mary Elison is a surprisingly active female heroine in a period and genre usually dominated by men.
A lot of the enjoyment of the film is derived from its sheer excess. The location itself, a huge gothic fortress towering above snow-capped mountains and reachable only via cable car, has a superb atmosphere of its own, and Arthur Ibbetson's Anamorphic Panavision photography frames it beautifully. While the first half of the film is played out in a relatively (and I stress the word relatively) subdued manner, the second half, which sees our bold heroes making good their escape, is a classic study of popcorn excess. Perfectly synchronized explosions ring out in unison, whole stone-walled rooms collapse based on the power of a couple of sticks of dynamite, and Clint Eastwood mows down entire battalions of soldiers thanks to his seemingly endless supply of weapons and ammunition, all pulled from a small knapsack that has now become a movie legend in itself. Despite incoming machine gun fire from multiple positions, Eastwood's character seems to have no trouble in dispatching multiple opponents in a matter of seconds, whether it be with a machine gun of his own, his trusty pistol, or one of those magic sticks of dynamite. It's all incredibly silly, but it is the sheer lack of believability that makes the film so entertaining. You never truly know exactly what is going to happen next, thanks to the fact that our heroes seem capable of clearing any obstacle laid in the way of their goal.
Of course, no good World War 2 action film is complete without over-played Nazi stereotypes, and Where Eagles Dare has them in abundance. From the monocled General Rosemeyer (Ferdy Mayne) to the simpering pretty-boy Gestapo officer Major Von Hapen (Derren Nesbitt), complete with curly golden locks, none of the villains of this piece are to be taken seriously. These fellows are cackling villains of the first order, all of whom could have stepped straight out of a pantomime: General Rosemeyer, for instance, asks for the Gestapo to be kept out of the interrogation activities until the requisite information has been acquired since "we don't need them cluttering up things with torture chambers". Of course, they all speak perfect English (minus the odd "Heil!" and "Fraulein!" and the fact that they pronounce "the" as "ze"). Indeed, English is the only spoken language in the film, despite a big deal being made of the fact that our heroes speak perfect German. Such is the magic of film, I suppose. It's probably a good thing that none of the German soldiers are allowed to be anything other than cardboard cut-outs, because they are gunned down with such carefree panache that to view them as actual people would make the film a rather depressing exercise in disregard for human life. A case could be made for the fact that this and many other similar films make light of Nazism (given the atrocities committed by the Nazis, their comical portrayal here could be described as incredibly tasteless), but in my opinion these criticisms can be countered by the fact that the film is so far removed from reality as possible that it is difficult to see these characters as having any relation to the real thing.
Where Eagles Dare is something of a guilty pleasure for me: a film with a great deal of nostalgic value attached to it, and while I can't defend it as a serious work of cinema, it remains a highly enjoyable action romp and one that remains effective to this day, provided you watch it in the correct frame of mind and don't take it seriously.
Presented anamorphically in its original Panavision 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Where Eagles Dare looks pretty good for the most part and is certainly a revelation when compared to the grimy pan and scan hack jobs that do the rounds on TV every Christmas. The colour scheme is decidedly muted, and although the flesh tones look reasonably accurate, I got the feeling that the image was overly dark. Heavy edge enhancement also appears in a number of shots, particularly during the opening credits, although bizarrely many other shots are completely unaffected. That said, I seriously doubt that the film has looked better since its original theatrical exhibitions, so I am reasonably happy with this presentation.
The only English audio track provided is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. "Wait a minute!" I hear you cry in outrage. "Where is the original mono audio track?" I thought exactly the same thing myself, but it turns out that a 6-track mix was in fact created for the film's 70mm prints. Whether or not this or a remix is provided here is open to debate, but to my ears it sounds reasonably good. What struck me was just how loud the music and sound effects were in comparison to the dialogue. After become used to listening to the relatively normalized mix of the TV version after so many years, I was somewhat taken aback by the range in volume and often found myself with my finger on the remote, ready to raise or lower the level as required. This is not a criticism, since it adds to the film's epic scale, but I suspect that many people who think they know what the film sounds like will be in for a surprise.
Released as part of the Clint Eastwood Collection, despite the fact that this film is more a vehicle for Richard Burton than for Eastwood, the bonus features are somewhat limited but are quite interesting. The most substantial feature is On Location: Where Eagles Dare, a contemporaneous 12-minute documentary focusing on the locations used and the filming process. Burton, Eastwood and Ingrid Pitt are briefly interviewed, and we are treated to a decent amount of behind-the-scenes footage. It's short and doesn't go into much detail, but compared with the "EPK" featurettes that have become the standard these days, this is like gold dust.
Also included are a Theatrical Trailer, the quality of which is a lot closer to the manner in which most people will be used to seeing the film on TV (although the Panavision aspect ratio is maintained here), and Cast & Crew listings. Clint Eastwood gets a filmography, but no-one else seems to be considered deserving of this honour.
This reasonably-priced disc, while clearly not a major effort on Warner's part, is pleasing enough and is well worth picking up if you are a fan of the movie. While it has played on TV so many times that many will probably have no desire to actually buy a copy, its vastly superior presentation on DVD leads me to consider this a must-buy for anyone who, like me, considers this one of the most enjoyable World War 2-centric action movies ever made.