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Where Eagles Dare (1968)

by on 2010/11/24

We recently learned of the death of Ingrid Pitt, an actress in the Hammer pictures of the Sixties and Seventies. Though I was unfamiliar with the horror queen, in reading her biography, her work in Where Eagles Dare immediately caught my eye. It happened to be one of the remaining titles in my stack of November war videos. Of particular interest, she had spent years of her childhood in a concentration camp.

Where Eagles Dare doesn’t take place in such a location, but it is set in World War Two Germany. Written by Alistair MacLean, who brought us The Guns of Navarone, it too is the tale of an Allied team, selected to locate and disrupt the operation of an “inaccessible and impregnable” stronghold. This time the scoundrels of record include British Major John Smith (Richard Burton) and U.S. Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Clint Eastwood). However, little goes as planned and, as members of their team begin dying, Schaffer becomes suspicious of Smith, perhaps with good reason.

Occasionally I thought of Star Trek as I watched. I’d heard rumours the Original Series episode “Patterns of Force” was inspired by the desire to see Spock dressed as a Nazi. Whether true or not, seeing Burton and Eastwood dressed in enemy uniforms definitely gave me more pause than I would have expected.

Appropriate to their pretense, much of Burton’s time is spent barking orders, so much so that Eastwood doesn’t seem himself despite, at one point, being called (wait for it) a punk. The Man With No Name has little to say here and, if he weren’t already well-known, you’d probably forget him. Burton, on the other hand, is an imposing presence, if unconventional. Like the product of Robert Shaw and Bill Murray, he talks a good game, but feels a bit warm, smooth, and comfortable for the job.

In many ways my viewing was full of such surprise. Characters were not as they initially appeared. Straight lines twisted into knots, and simple things soon got complex. What started out feeling like a travelogue became something more psychological, a game of infiltration, of wrinkles and confidence tricks. Most movies include the “journey into hell” as part of their plot, yet this team reaches their goal almost immediately, at which point the story becomes a locked room mystery of sorts. Though we later return to a pyrotechnic flight, the recurring “explanation” scenes hurt the sense of momentum.

This never-moderate approach extends to much of the production. Some effects are unusually well done: the parachute drop, the model work, the explosions, and perhaps the most convincing vehicle roll I’ve ever seen on film. All benefit less from budget than intelligent execution. Other aspects are sloppy by comparison: obvious stunt doubles, blue screen haloes, and strange issues of timing, as when a dining set is pushed by an explosion too long after its shock wave has passed.

One persistent gripe of mine is the poor use of compositing. Even as one of my wishes is successfully realized here — blurring the background to approximate a realistic perspective — it’s undercut by another issue: the foreground and background move in unrelated directions. So while the road bounces about chaotically behind them, passengers in a truck calmly mime their way through a friction-free simulation.

That sense of contradiction, of unevenness, lies at the heart of my frustration. It’s as if the filmmakers tried for something unconventional, painted themselves into a corner, then shot their way back out again. Like Return of the King, this movie starts late, leaves too much in, and doesn’t know when to quit. Somewhere inside Where Eagles Dare is a great action flick, waiting for an editor to cut it loose and set it free.

* * *

Rated PG for violence

155 minutes

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