[Spoilers within . . . not that it matters. After all, it’s Where Eagles Dare.]
There are three kinds of movies in the world, my friends. At the top of this pyramid, are movies that are “art”; at the massive bottom are those that are strictly entertainment; in the middle there are movies that, successfully and not, fuse high art and lowly entertainment into one.
Of the three layers, “art” and “fusion” are the ones that drive the most chatter. Burning with ambition, they embrace themes, messages, ideas. We can debate whether the movie is moral, accurate or relevant. We can even talk about them without referring to whether the films themselves are well-made or not. I retain vague memories of walking out of films I felt were boring or otherwise inferior while my companions protested, “But at least it had something to say!” (Antonioni’s L’avventura — defended here — springs to mind.)
As for the lowly creatures on the bottom, the unwashed, the “pure entertainments,” who could say what? They tend to either work or not, in part or in full, mostly in regard to technical issues. Good battle scenes or good special effects surrounded by dross. Maybe there’s great scenery, a good score or an attractive supporting cast, some clever humor. We can admire them from a pure entertainment standpoint, but we can’t love them like we would Wild Strawberries. . . or at least we can’t admit to it. In public. Only to the face in the mirror or to our God.
Take Where Eagles Dare. For you whom no movies exist before 1977, Where Eagles Dare was released in the U.S. in 1969, that fantastic year in a great era of filmmaking: Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Medium Cool, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, Z, Luchino Visconti’s The Damned;and finally, a film that was both a great work of fusion and a curious book end to Eagles, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Some of these movies remain great while others have aged like plastic toys and may not have even been that good to start with.
Where Eagles Dare is the brainless hunk of the bunch, an action-adventure flick, a World War II commando movie starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Burton and Eastwood lead a team of commandos on a death-defying rescue mission up a towering fairy-tale mountain castle in Bavaria. The dragons are the hundreds of dozens of Nazi soldiers stationed there. Fairy tale notions, however, fall quickly by the wayside: It’s not a damsel in distress here (such as co-stars Mary Ure or the vivacious Ingrid Pitt) but a dude — captured American General Carnaby (Robert Beatty, pleasantly gnome-like) who must be rescued before he, supposedly, spills the beans on D-Day to his Nazi captors.
Over a couple of hours, Burton and Eastwood, with able backup from Ure as a fellow commando and Burton’s perfunctory love-interest, kill Nazis by the carload, bunches and oodles of them.
Where Eagles Dare is one of a genre that dominated big-budget moviemaking in the 1960s: the World War II epic. War films have been around since movies began, but in the 1950s, they bulked up to widescreen and color, starting with Bridge Over the River Kwai. In 1961 came The Guns of Navarone, a men-on-a-mission tale filmed in the Eastern Mediterranean with a mighty masculine all-star cast, headed by Gregory Peck. Besides appealing to teenagers and small boys, they also, as a friend pointed out, resonated with the generation that had gone through World War II, both at home and on the battlefield.
Navarone’s success really ignited the trend. There followed The Longest Day, The Dirty Dozen and quite a few others, running from good to bad like all genres. Some of them laid on a pretentiousness that clashes with their glossy surfaces, leading to a failed kind of fusion. In lower-budget films, such as those directed by Sam Fuller, this might be tolerable and even to their credit. But both Navarone and The Longest Day suffer for it, their clumsily planted messages like absurd flags of unearned significance.
Where Eagles Dare is a movie with nary a thought or idea in its head (except it sure is fun to kill Nazis and blow their shit up!). Burton’s Major Smith has a difficult romance with Ure’s Mary Elison and gripes about getting old. Eastwood’s Lieutenant Schaeffer glowers and all three of them kill dozens of Nazis. And that’s about it.
A nephew of mine once hacked into World of Warcraft and then spent a cheerful hour or so driving one army to massacre the other, back and forth across the monitor with a click of the mouse. Where Eagles Dare is a kind of like that.
This was not a movie for pacifists, for those opposed to movie violence, or those with no use for action movies at all. It’s not for those who’ve matured maybe a little too much; who’ve so severed their links with childhood, they’ve forgotten how movies captured their hearts in the first place. (If you started moviegoing with Hiroshima Mon Amour as a five-year-old, please raise your hand.) For those who thrill at how the Tyrone family lacerates itself in Long Day’s Journey into Night,(a play I once knew well, having acted in it)Where Eagles Dare will be dumb and dull.
To me, and others, Where Eagles Dare is all the better for its emptiness (or, preferably, utter lack of pretension). It’s two-plus hours of bombs bursting, bodies falling and blood gushing; a boy’s romp among the dizzying snowy blue peaks and deep green valleys of the Bavarian Alps, like millions of boys once acted out the TV show Combat! in their backyards and schoolyards, where we gave nary a thought to character development or the Geneva Convention. It’s that great rollercoaster ride where we stagger off in delirium, turn right around and say, “Can I go again!? Puhleezze!?”
Released in this country in March 1969, MGM, the releasing company, slowly rolled it out across the country until it arrived at the Time Theatre, a dull little box in downtown Oshkosh, Wisconsin, whose walls, I recall, were done in bluish green cloth, or particle board. It was early in my third dreary, bitter Wisconsin winter and money was short as always, but I somehow persuaded my Mom to let me go twice in one week. Trapped as I felt in the barren plains of Northeastern Wisconsin, maybe it took me home, just a little, to the wooded hills and snowy fields of my native upstate New York.
It’s primary point wasn’t to stoke nostalgia in a bored lonely teenager but to make money in the classic way: by nailing us to our seats for a couple of hours, bombing the limbic systems with sound and fury before sending us out with a dizzy, dazed grin, the kind of post-orgasmic glow that may not be as great as sex or a nature walk, but is unique to the movies.
It’s all popcorn and cotton candy and any writer who expends their fingers on it is at best, a time-waster or at worst, a blood-thirsty knuckle-dragger who revels in festivals of slaughter.
Now, I’ve seen Where Eagles Dare close to a couple of dozen times. It is, to the undying little boy within, the greatest “guilty” pleasure in all movie history. To further amaze, I’m not the only brainy little kid on this cable car. Among my fellow passengers are the distinguished critic Clive James; Man Booker Prize winning author Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient); the effervescent New Yorker critic Anthony Lane; and Steven Spielberg, who called Where Eagles Dare his favorite “war movie” (which it really isn’t, as it lacks the necessary seriousness).
Another fan piling into that merry little gondola up the mountain is distinguished critic and novelist Geoff Dyer who has done something your everyday highbrow would regard as far-fetched as the movie’s absurd plot — write a book, a whole book, about Where Eagles Dare.
I doubt if I could — or would — find even twenty pages to say on the pleasures to be found that movie. It might wind up an academic deconstruction of a roller coaster ride. In Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: Watching Where Eagles Dare (Pantheon), Dyerlays out 118 pages of things he finds worth saying, clever deep thoughts stimulated by a film with little or no thought at all. Formally, it’s like those slim deep-dish monograms published by the British Film Institute, analyzing such high classics as Rocco and His Brothers, Citizen Kane, and Last Year at Marienbad.
But this, folks, is Where Eagles Dare. In a movie so void of content, so resistant to furrow-browed analysis that Richard Brody would beat his forehead on his keyboard, what is there to say? How many ways can we say, “Nazis are fun to kill!” (“Killing Nazis equals fun!”? “Shoot more Nazis!”?) You could talk about the history of the production; its roots in movie history (Gunga Din, World War II propaganda movies, Republic chapter serials, The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen); you could crow about its enormously talented behind-the-camera crew, marvel at how these disparate talents were melded together into a Great Work of Ar — um, no Fun. First time out of the projector, movies were meant as fun, not Art. And Where Eagles Dare is a Great Work of Fun.
Where Dyer dares is in relating, step-by-step, twist by twist, the story and plot of the movie as it happens, letting each narrative turn lead his mind wherever it wills, in off-the-cuff-fashion.
As often as I’ve seen the movie, I have to wonder, though. The plot of Where Eagles Dare is as clunky as it is wild. Its script is practically nothing but plot points, full of holes that are often hopped over without a backward glance. “A hole is a hole is a hole,” Burton’s character, Major Smith, chirps at one point, before skipping on to the next one. (Clint Eastwood thought the script was terrible, but I’d guess he wisely thought the $800K paycheck would be another large brick toward building Malpaso Productions.) There are little jumps of humor, though nothing pops like the moment Major Smith, with his back to the wall, flipping from one lie to another, spins on a dime to bark: “We’ve just uncovered a plot to assassinate the Führer!” Now that’s thinking fast on the old feet.
Dyer celebrates the movie in impressionistic style, commenting on Burton’s bumpy career and its opulent frustrations; Eastwood’s early career and how his actions here shadow the Dirty Harry movies. He writes with jolly verve and wit as he marvels at how Burton and Eastwood (along with Ms. Ure, a distinguished stage actress and wife to Robert Shaw), keep pulling endless weapons and explosives out of their little rucksacks like magicians plucking rabbits out of a ball cap. He worries about the thin rope the commandos use to clamber up and down the castle walls (though it must not have bothered the stunt team, who did all the real climbing). At one point, after a frank assessment Eastwood’s acting skills, he marvels at his dancer’s grace as the star swoops about rigging a large palatial dining to explode. Nope, he’s not a real actor, but he is a genuine movie star, graceful and compelling. Until Arnold Schwarzenegger, no one else so clearly defined the crucial difference between stars and actors.
One of Dyer’s best riffs is a tribute to the film’s best villain, Gestapo guy Major von Hapen, a sparkling over-decorated Tannenbaum, and played with Teutonic precision by British actor Derren Nesbitt. With his ice-rink posture, pink face, refrigerated blue eyes and perfect muff of bleached blond curls, Nesbitt makes for the Naziest Nazi since Conrad Veidt, an impression so indelible, his Aryan puss shows up twice in a noted photo-collage work, The Nazis by Piotr Uklanski. There his face finds pride of place among the rogues gallery of movie stars who have donned the Nazi uniform in their careers, running from Marlon Brando through Anthony Hopkins to Lee Van Cleef.
Still, I felt a little dissatisfied when I closed Dyer’s book. For one, he doesn’t pay enough tribute to the rest of the supporting cast, including Robert Beatty, veteran Anton Diffring and, most egregiously, Ingrid Pitt, the young Polish actress (and World War II concentration-camp survivor) in her first major role as Heidi, the team’s buxom, alluring advance scout and infiltrator. (Replace Robert Beatty with Ingrid Pitt and I’d be up that castle wall like a bullet.)
There are several other worthy passageways Dyer’s book leaves unexplored. And I don’t think he gets to the core of how it is that Where Eagles Dare remains great goofy fun and retains such audience affection fifty years on while most other rollercoaster-ride movies are rightfully forgotten and even bigger, true war movies like The Longest Day have faded to reruns on TCM.
For all the passages about Burton and Eastwood, it’s not them, it’s amazing to say, that really carry it. Burton did the film, both to support his life with Liz Taylor and as a favor to her kids to whom he was close. But in the end, he regretted that this simple action movie might overshadow his other, worthy accomplishments. Both he and Eastwood had fun, enjoyed each other’s company, but were otherwise dismissive, with Eastwood referring to it as “Where Doubles Dare” for good reason — a huge portion of the film is actually enacted by stunt doubles. Burton has great fun barking orders in that remarkable voice that simultaneously booms and pierces. Lieutenant Schaeffer provides no room for the wry humor Eastwood brought to the “Dollar” films. Both men do their work, but the work is relatively simple: climb on stuff, run around and shoot Nazis. (Eastwood, a frugal producer and director, was startled at the amount of waste in the production and carried the lesson with him). Maybe the light-footed insouciance of Errol Flynn would have done the trick here.
Frowny French critics might call Where Eagles Darean example of cinema san auteur(like The Wizard of Oz). No singular someone holding pen or paintbrush. Director Brian G. Hutton was an American actor and director whose short resume shows no other distinction beyond this and Kelly’s Heroes, an ugly and charmless follow-up to Eagles, also starring Eastwood. He seems more like a traffic director, making sure actors and camera meet in space. (Later on, he moved into real estate and, we can presume, found fulfillment there until his passing in 2014. In an interview before his death, he admitted to remembering little of his directing career.)
So here we are: no message. And there’s no auteur, the Auteurist weeps as his bound volume of Cinema du Cahier sails past my head.“What the bloody hell is this about!?” as the doomed commando Harrod (Brook Williams) cries out in the opening scene as the men are briefed on their mission.
To start with, and to state the obvious, most movies are actually team efforts. Even true auteurs (and I don’t believe there all that many) are dependent on a transient community of others. Movies are complicated delivery systems with the bigger ones having an enormous number of moving parts. A good movie is really a piece of alchemy, of disparate elements and disparate talents. Usually there is a conductor in the middle, drawing it all together, but it’s not always a director. . . and sometimes things just fall right, as they did with Where Eagles Dare.
Recently, I purchased Cinema Retro’s special tribute edition to Where Eagles Dare, a dense, 116-page collage of photos, reminiscences and fun facts written in microscopic print. Like Dyer’s book, it’s structured around the film’s plot, using it to tell the story of the production.
It becomes clear that the closest thing to an auteur for Where Eagles Dareis producer Elliot Kastner. As the Retro history tells, it was Burton who approached Kastner looking for an idea with broader appeal than his most recent films, which had been going dim at the box office. Kastner then turned to thriller author Alistair MacLean (author of The Guns of Navarone, and whose books I devoured avidly) to cook up an original idea: “I said to him I simply wanted a caper . . . set in the Second World War. . . .”
Maclean delivered a script said to be around 240 pages. As the script was cut to shape, Kastner assembled the rest of the cast and crew, then stood close by while the circus ran loose around him. It wasn’t always a “fun” shoot and no one thought they were making Attack! or Paths of Glory, but it all worked out.
The marvels are right there at the opening: a long shot of the snowy Bavarian Alps, suffused with eerie cobalt twilight, as a plane appears in the distance, a metal ghost out of the mist, while drums roll and chatter underneath. And as plane draws nearer, the credits appear, in blood-red Lucida Blackletter font (as Dyer points out, the same used for Hammer’s Dracula films). The drums roll louder, a bass line thrums in, rising until the plane, a camouflaged WWII Junker, flies right into our faces, rocking us back in our chairs so we all but turn in our seats as it roars overhead . . . and then off we zoom on a dizzying flight through the Bavarian Alps.
As the brass section rolls in so does the list of the team responsible for making Where Eagles Dare such dazzling fun: cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson (Willi Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; Anne of a Thousand Days) captures the towering jagged Alpine landscape in gorgeous hues of blue and green with slopes of snow and drizzles of mist, creating an atmosphere of manly adventure and cliff-hanging danger. This is a mountain lover’s movie.
Then there’s editor John Jympson (A Hard Day’s Night; A Fish Called Wanda) who assembled the vast amount of footage (much of which was shot for single scenes employing a process known as front projection, used by Kubrick in 2001). The Cinema Retro tribute stops short of the editing room, but we can see that Jympson employs just enough cutting but not too much so we can follow the action (though it could use a bit of trimming here and there). He inserts a couple of clever cuts, one where an airplane’s red jump light becomes a red do-not-enter light in a conference room. In another, a slow zoom into a white rucksack dissolves into a snow field through which our intrepid heroes make their way to the Castle of the Nazis. Editors simply don’t get enough credit.
Composer Ron Goodwin (Frenzy), may not have had the distinguished credits of fellow Brit John Barry, but he must have been inspired by Ibbetson’s camerawork and Jympson’s editing for his stirring score of martial airs and Bernard Hermannesque undertones made up of rolling rattling drums and a brass section pumping out an inspiring main melody, while the string section mutters up and down the scale along with the action.
Kastner and his assistants did their own location scouting in Bavaria and Austria and found gorgeous playgrounds for the second-unit team led by a man who may have provided the biggest contribution of all — Yakima Canutt, a name I was distressed to find missing entirely from Dyer’s book. Allow me to fill in the gap.
If you don’t know of Yakima Canutt, you don’t know action movies. Canutt had been one of the pioneers in stunt work and action scenes since the 1920s. To stunt people he is a founding father, the inventor of many of the most famous hair-raising stunts in film history. As a stuntman in the 1930s, he helped teach Marion Michael Morrison how to be John Wayne and, together with Wayne, worked out a new way to choreograph fight scenes to make them more convincing, techniques still in use. He was, in film historian Jim Beaver’s words, “the most famous and respected stuntman of all time.”
Canutt is also well-remembered as an action choreographer. His list of accomplishments is a long one: Stagecoach (1939); his uncredited work for the Kubrick/Douglas Spartacus; and, most famous of all, the great chariot race in the 1959 Ben-Hur. For B-movie fans, it’s Canutt’s work (along with colleague Dave Sharp and director William Witney) that make those 1940s Republic chapter serials the best of their lot, still nutty, spring-loaded entertainments. Canutt’s one of those guys who really put the “moving” in moving pictures.
Canutt clearly brought memories of his Republic days with him. He and his stunt team are fully in their element with Where Eagles Dare. The team, consisting of Burton/Eastwood stand-ins Alf Joint and Eddie Powell, plus numerous other athletes and pyrotechnicians, romp about the screen with joy and vigor through a Parkour-like course made up of an exploding village, a cable car to the castle; the castle itself (with interiors designed by Peter Mullins), whose shadowy interiors wind about almost like an Escher painting; and finally a terrific chase along swooping Alpine roads.
While the close-ups of Burton and Eastwood on top of the cable car are clearly fake (as is practically all their action shots), the long shots are not. No, that’s not Burton and Eastwood actually clinging to the top of the cable car on the way up or battling with Nazis on the way down, hundreds of feet above ice, snow and rock; nonetheless when I watch stuntmen Joint and Powell I’m still choked. Even the best-laid stunts can go wrong fast and these sequences, shot in the cold Bavarian winter, remain scary. (Fun fact: Burton’s leap from cable car to cable car is lifted from a 1940 anti-Nazi British thriller, Night Train to Munich, starring Rex Harrison).
The best sequence though is the climactic jaw-dropping car chase through the mountains where Canutt and his team rig a series of head-spinning vehicular mishaps, with one troop carrier caught right in the middle of an exploding bridge then landing on the other side in a flaming heap (and it’s not even over then!).
Where Eagles Dare works not because of how it says what it says, but simply because of how it says it, period. There’s nothing else to it (except “Let’s kill Nazis!”). It’s a masterpiece of sight and sound, of pure action cinema.
Like most action films, once up the castle walls should do it, but as any fan will tell you, you can ride Where Eagles Dare again and again, its flaws charming instead of repelling. Its influence reaches to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jackie Chan, and, less successfully, Inglorious Basterds. Hollywood action films today are too often loud clangorous things, full of super-rapid editing, shaky camerawork and CGI that makes us ask, “Is it real . . . or is it digital?” That’s not an action movie. That’s money spent for a headache.
Still, the question remains: “Why this type of movie?” Trolls will respond “Because you’re STUPID!” Others, with teary Puritan concern, might say “Because you secretly love killing and war and probably vote Republican!”
While writing this, I stumbled across a more interesting answer in Mary Mann’s book Yawn: Adventures in Boredom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). Her lighthearted but perceptive survey asserts that boredom is an essential thread woven into the human condition, one that strikes even the most contented and contemplative of people, such as monks. Not only is it a constant among the poor, but it’s also a plague in war zones, of all places, where both combatants and civilians, with all of life’s other options closed off, suffer long episodes of crushing boredom punctuated by moments of terror that can actually feel like a release.
Mann further brightens the links between boredom and violence and crime in general. Violent movies represent one kind of relief by providing a safer escape valve for boredom, especially for those trapped in dead-end worlds, including, as Mann points out, women, who seem to enjoy action movies as much as men. Considering the trend of action films and TV series where women wear the shoes of Burton and Eastwood, Where Eagles Dare might be a great first-date movie after all.
All action movies are attempts to break the boredom. Their spectacle, crazed and basically amoral, relieve those lonely dreary patches of nothing, wherever we encounter them. They won’t ever solve our problems; they’re not meant to. All we sometimes need is a rollercoaster, a goodrollercoaster ride built by people who know exactly how to make them. Where Eagles Dare is simply, gloriously that.
Beaver, Jim, “Mini bio: Yakima Canutt,”IMDB,https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0134831/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1; accessed 7/20/19.
Cinema Retro, Movie Classics, a Cinema Retro Special Edition Magazine, Where Eagles Dare, Cinema Retro, London, 2012
Dyer, Geoff, Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: Watching Where Eagles Dare, Pantheon Books, New York 2018
Mann, Mary, Yawn: Adventures in Boredom, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2017.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story, “Lucky Day” will appear in the upcoming Berkeley Noir(Akashic Press, 2020). He’s also the author of Butchertown,a ripping 1920s gangster thriller, which was praised as “incendiary” by David Corbett (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday; The Art of Character). His contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil andDracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Posthoc.com,Swing TimeMagazine, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strandand Filmfax. Additional essays can be found on his webpage A Curious Manand Medium. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.