Released in 1961, The Guns of Navarone was a fan favorite and was a key war movie in terms of its influence. It opened up all sorts of doors for one of my favorite sub-genres, the men-on-a-mission movie. Based off a novel by author Alistair MacLean, it was a gem. MacLean tweaked the idea when he was approached by a producer several years later for a similar but BIGGER and BETTER version. The result? From 1968, Where Eagles Dare.
It’s winter 1943-44 and Major John Smith (Richard Burton) has been summoned for an impossible mission. An agent with years of experience and countless missions under his belt, Smith and a small team of commandos, including an American Ranger, Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), will parachute into the snow-capped mountains of Bavaria on a rescue mission. An American general with detailed knowledge of the second front — D-Day — has been captured by German forces and sent to the Schloss Adler, a remote, well-guarded fortress on a mountaintop where he will be interrogated by German intelligence. The clock is ticking with the general’s knowledge potentially altering the course of the war. Smith, Not is all as it seems though as Smith and the team parachute into Germany. What exactly is going on?
The backstory here is fascinating. Burton’s stepson wanted him to do a good, old-fashioned, action-packed flick that audiences would love. Burton approached a producer, the producer approached MacLean who 6 weeks later came to him with the script (and later the novel) for Where Eagles Dare. It became a huge hit and is now considered a classic while still remaining a fan favorite. How can you not love a perfectly random story like that when a movie really hits it big?
It’s just cool to watch Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood play off each other. That’s all. It just is. Classically trained Burton and tough guy Eastwood have this underplayed charm to their relationship. Burton’s Smith knows what’s going on while Eastwood’s Schaffer is just trying to get through the mission alive. MacLean’s script provides so many great little moments between the duo with both actors not missing a chance to deliver a snappy one-liner. Also, the call sign ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy,’ there’s nothing fancy about it, but Burton’s delivery makes it seem like a Shakespearean sonnet. Sounds almost musical when you hear Burton speak. Moral of the story, both actors are having a ball with the old-fashioned, spy shoot ’em up.
Not much star power here otherwise. Mary Ure is a welcome addition to the cast as Mary, a fellow agent working with Smith. No damsel in distress either. She’s a Badass with a capital B, a part of the team quite capable of using a machine gun to save herself. In small but parts, Michael Hordern and Patrick Wymark play high-ranking officers back at HQ waiting for updates. Donald Houston is the most visible of the rest of the team, but they’re there for the purpose of a twist or cannon fodder. Ingrid Pitt plays a barmaid with some secrets while familiar faces Anton Diffring, Ferdy Mayne and Derren Nesbitt play German officers.
What I’ve always found fascinating with ‘Eagles’ is the pacing. The first hour is set-up, all foreboding and mysterious. Clues are dropped here and there — pay attention, it’s worth it — as we’re introduced to the team and the mission. We see Smith and Schaffer put plans into work that won’t pay off — maybe at all — until days later. It seems unnecessary or wasted, but the payoffs are worth it. Now, the middle, the gigantic twist and turn that come at you a mile a minute. It’s a great scene running about 15 minutes where Burton just takes over, oozing charm and mystery in an almost monologue-like scene. Then, there’s the hour-long finale, a bullet-riddled chase and running gunfight where Eastwood dispatches half the German army without a single wound. Ridiculous? Yes, 100 percent, but it’s so damn fun.
A couple other things. Composer Ron Goodwin’s score is a gem, driving the action forward at all times with big, booming music. Listen to an extended part of the soundtrack HERE. Austrian filming locations don’t disappoint either, giving a true sense of authenticity to the impossible mission scenario in the snow-capped mountains. As for the story itself, the twist is awesome and the payoff is very memorable. But let’s face it, it’s ridiculous. Everything and I mean EVERYTHING, works out for Smith almost down to the second. As was the case before though, it’s ridiculous and if you think about it too much, you might just give yourself a headache. The point is….it’s damn entertaining and a hell of a lot of fun.
Just go for the twisting, turning ride with this WWII men-on-a-mission classic. Eastwood and director Brian G. Hutton would team up again a little over a year later with another WWII gem, 1970’s Where Eagles Dare. Also a must-see!