By an odd coincidence, all my entertainment (admittedly quite limited) over the past week has been related in some way or the other to Nazi Germany. I watch almost no TV, but I’ve recently been getting a lot of laughs out of the farcical British comedy series, ’Allo ’Allo. And, the book I’m currently reading is Robert Harris’s Fatherland, set in an alternate 1964, where Germany has won World War II—and Hitler reigns.
So why not make it a hat trick, I thought. Let’s watch a WWII film.
Therefore, this. Where Eagles Dare was one of the first war films I ever watched, and till this day, it remains one of my favourite films. When it comes to action/adventure films set in WWII, this one tops my list.
Scripted by the inimitable Alistair MacLean (one of my favourites when it comes to adventure stories), the film gets off to a flying start. Literally, as a Junkers piloted by a Brit, carrying a team of British (and one American) commandos flies over the snowy mountains of Bavaria, towards the Schloss Adler—‘The Castle of Eagles’, regional headquarters of the SS.
No dialogue happens in this brief scene, as the camera pans across the seven men who sit huddled in the plane, waiting.
Instead, we switch back in time a few hours, to see why they’re in the plane in the first place. The scene now moves to Britain, where these same men are being briefed by Admiral Rolland (Michael Hordern) and Colonel Turner (Patrick Wymark).
Among the men are Major Smith (Richard Burton), Sgt Harrod (Brook Williams), Sgt MacPherson (Neil McCarthy), Christiansen (Donald Houston), Berkeley (Peter Barkworth), Thomas (William Squire)—and the lone American, Lt Schaffer (Clint Eastwood). All seven are fluent in German and expert in combat—which is why they’ve been selected for this mission.
The mission is to parachute into Bavaria, enter the Schloss Adler, and rescue a certain American officer, General Carnaby. Carnaby is a key man in the planning of the Second Front, and was on his way to the Middle East for discussions with his Russian counterparts when his plane was brought down within a few miles of the Schloss Adler.
Carnaby has been taken prisoner by the Germans and is now in the Schloss Adler, waiting to be interrogated. If the Germans are able to make him talk—which they will, no doubt about it—there might be no Second Front in the near future. The war will drag on.
Switch back to the present, and Smith, Schaffer, and the five other men are given the go-ahead by the pilot. They parachute out, and shortly after, a crew member helps a woman out of her hiding place in the plane, and she parachutes out too.
Down below, the men land in a snowy clearing and make their way to where three large cylinders containing their ammunition, weapons, etc have been dropped simultaneously. It’s while they’re getting everything together that Smith realises that their radio operator, Sgt Harrod, is missing—and when they go looking, they find Harrod dead, his neck broken.
Smith sends the others back to their work, while he checks the radio (and takes the code diary for the radio, from Harrod’s tunic pocket).
Before leaving, Smith checks the back of Harrod’s neck—and finds a dark bruise. He sweeps away the snow under Harrod’s neck, and finds only more snow. No rock, nothing hard that could have accidentally killed Harrod.
Smith joins the other men, who’ve now reached their interim destination—a small barn that’s deserted during the winter. They’re settling in when Smith says that he’d forgotten to take the code diary from Harrod’s body. He’ll go back and fetch it; it won’t take more than an hour.
Where he does go is next door—to another barn, where he meets the woman who had parachuted down separately. This is Smith’s sweetheart and colleague, Mary (Mary Ure).
Smith hurriedly informs Mary that Harrod has been murdered.
He then gives her instructions: in the valley below is the small town of Werfen, where there’s a gasthaus named Zum Wilden Hirsch. Behind it is a wood shed; Mary is to meet him there the next evening.
The next morning, along with Schaffer, Smith goes downhill to take a closer look at the Schloss Adler, a daunting building indeed:
…and, while Schaffer’s gone to lead the other men down from their shelter, Smith uses the radio to call Admiral Rolland and Colonel Turner. (His radio call sign, “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” is almost iconic in war film history). Harrod’s death is duly reported, and upsets both the senior officers back home. Rolland wonders aloud (after Smith’s signed off) who will be next. Smith himself?
When Schaffer rejoins Smith, we learn a bit more about Werfen. It is the headquarters of the Wehrmacht’s Alpenkorps, and hundreds of soldiers of the corps pass through Werfen daily. Smith, Schaffer, and their men, disguised as men of the Alpenkorps, will easily disappear in the crowd.
It does seem quite easy. Smith and Schaffer, dressed as Alpenkorps officers, and Christiansen, Berkeley, Thomas and MacPherson, dressed as soldiers, slip into town without anybody being any the wiser.
They make their way to Zum Wilden Hirsch, where Smith proceeds to get to ‘know’ the local barmaid, Heidi (Ingrid Pitt—who had, in real life, spent three years in a concentration camp).
Subterfuge again, though Schaffer, looking on, doesn’t know it. Neither do the Germans around. Smith has used his brief embrace of Heidi to tell her to come to the woodshed behind Zum Wilden Hirsch in a few minutes’ time.
…and, soon after, Smith leaves the gasthaus and goes to the woodshed, where Mary is already waiting.
He updates her on the identity she is to assume: Maria Schenk, cousin of Heidi, who has arranged a job for Mary as a staffer at the Schloss Adler. Maria is supposed to be from Dusseldorf, and had to leave her last job because of TB. Smith hands over the forged identity papers for Maria Schenk.
And Mary, no fool, comments that MI6 have been really fast setting all this up. After all, General Carnaby’s plane came down only last morning…
Then comes one of those twists that make Where Eagles Dare such a satisfying watch. Oh, yes, says Smith. General Carnaby’s plane did go down just the previous morning, riddled with machine gun holes. “British machine gun holes. But what the hell; a hole is a hole, is a hole, is what I say.”
It turns out the American general the Germans have caught isn’t a general at all; he’s a corporal named Cartwright Jones (Robert Beatty) who used to be an actor but is the spitting image of the real general. This is his best part till date.
The plan is to get Jones out of Schloss Adler before the Germans realise whom they’ve actually caught. That’s why Smith & Co. need to hurry—before Jones cracks under pressure.
Heidi arrives during this conversation, and Smith introduces her to Maria: Heidi, he tells her, has been British Intelligence’s ablest agent in Bavaria since 1941. And what a disguise!
On his way back to the gasthaus, Smith makes an unsettling find: MacPherson, shot dead, lying in a snowy alley. The second man to be killed. Somebody in Werfen knows that these men are not Alpenkorps soldiers. In fact, since Harrod was killed on the mountain—far away from Werfen, just as he landed—it seems the threat is not just from Werfen, but from somewhere much closer.
Smith gets back to the gasthaus and tells Schaffer what he’s found. They’re still talking when the main door opens, and Mary—Maria Schenk, now—makes a dramatic entry. Heidi puts up an equally good performance as the delighted cousin, and there’s an affectionate ‘reunion’ between the two women.
Into this meeting comes barging in Major von Hapen (Derren Nesbitt) of the Gestapo, eager to be introduced to the lovely newcomer.
He even insists he’ll accompany ‘Maria’ on the cable car to Schloss Adler, as soon as she’s ready to leave. Heidi says she’ll come along too.
Heidi takes Mary up to her own room at the Zum Wilden Hirsch—and, down in the bar room, Smith and his team receive a nasty shock. Armoured cars come screeching to a halt outside the gasthaus, and a hard-eyed SS officer enters, saying they’ve received news of five deserters—two officers and three men of the Alpenkorps—who have been traced to this gasthaus. Everybody is to stay put; one by one, each will be checked.
And Smith, instead of trying to sneak his men out, or pull a bluff, beckons to Schaffer, Christiansen, Berkeley and Thomas. They follow him to the SS officer, and Smith surrenders, saying that they’re the ones he’s looking for.
Just like that.
Christiansen, Berkeley and Thomas are hustled away for questioning, and the officers, Smith and Schaffer, are made to sit in the SS officer’s own car. He gets in, too, along with armed guards, and the car sets off for Schloss Adler.
…and Mary, accompanied by Heidi and von Hapen, is on the cable car, also bound for Schloss Adler.
The mission seems to have been nipped in the bud. But this is just about one-third into the story—there’s lots more to come, as the plot twists and turns with blinding rapidity, increasing the suspense. Is this mission just what Smith had told Mary it was—a rescue operation to get Cartwright Jones out of the Schloss Adler before the Germans realise they’ve got a dud general? Or is there more?
On the battered cover of my copy of the novel, Richard Burton is quoted as having called Where Eagles Dare “a humdinger”. I agree completely. It doesn’t get better than this.
What I liked about this film:
Unlike even other war espionage/adventure films like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, or The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare is adventure all through, undiluted by grey characters, philosophising on the bleakness and horror of war, or even anything approaching chinks in the armour when it comes to the good guys. It’s all smart, thoroughly intriguing storyline (with some amazing plot twists); great acting; excellent direction (Brian G Hutton, though the stunts were directed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt); and a fantastic score (Ron Goodwin). Even the landscapes—it was filmed in Austria—are gorgeous.
And Clint Eastwood? Yum.
What I didn’t like:
There’s nothing I actually dislike about Where Eagles Dare, though I do wish their haircuts had been better. Clint Eastwood’s hair, especially, looks completely 60s, not 40s. And certainly not the hair of a military officer, at any rate.
Little bit of trivia:
Although Clint Eastwood is almost synonymous with the ‘killer’ image from all the Westerns he starred in, it’s Where Eagles Dare that claims the position for his highest body count in any film: supposedly 73.
Interestingly, Eastwood occasionally referred to the film as ‘Where Doubles Dare’, because so much of the work was actually done by doubles, and not the actors themselves (especially in the case of Richard Burton). In one scene where both Smith and Schaffer climb a rope up a high wall, Burton’s character arrives at the top and comes in through a window, barely out of breath. Shortly after, Schaffer hauls himself up, and is panting hard—a result of Eastwood’s having actually climbed the rope, while Burton used a crane to have himself deposited at the window.
I usually do this section when I’m comparing a book-based film to its book version, so I’ll do it here, too. And for once, happily—since this is one film that’s very faithful to the book, because MacLean wrote both the novel and the screenplay simultaneously. There are a few minor differences in characters (for example, in the Schloss Adler, the commanding officer’s female secretary in the film is a stern-faced, stiff-lipped middle-aged woman; in the book, she’s a beautiful but vicious blonde). The plot with its brilliant twists and turns, the major characters, and the breakneck pace of the book, however remain the same.
My only grouse is with the character of Schaffer. Schaffer, in the book, is a combat expert (as he is in the film too), but he’s also a thoroughly likeable man, with a good sense of humour. And he’s a romantic at heart. Clint Eastwood, as Schaffer, is—well, Eastwood. Tough and taciturn, though he does have a couple of funny lines, like this one:
Smith: “Lieutenant, in the next 15 minutes, we have to create enough confusion to get out of here alive.”
Schaffer: “Major, right now you’ve got me about as confused as I ever hope to be.”
Schaffer has dialogues similar to that every now and then through the book, which makes it just that little bit more appealing to me.