Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Classic Tuesdays: Where Eagles Dare (1968)

    They say Clint kills more people in this movie than in all his other movies combined. And they’re all Nazis!

    There’s just something about World War II - the Western Front, in particular. It has consistently held a spell over entertainment across all media to this day. The Nazis left quite a scar on the cultural landscape - one that hasn’t healed even more than half a century on, with endless movies, video games and History Channel documentaries to their name.

    They are kind of the perfect villains. The décor surrounding them is inherently theatrical, actors can play with their already-menacing accents and, for fascists, they sure were snappy dressers. It also helps that they were really kind of despicable, responsible for some of the worst horrors in human history. So much so that even the most pacifistic of viewers probably doesn’t mind seeing a few of them get blown up from time to time. Where Eagles Dare provides such an outlet, so drenched in Nazi regalia that its main characters dress as Wermacht officers for nearly the entire running time *. 

    Brian G. Hutton has always been one of my favorite directors, even though he only made about a dozen films over the course of twenty years. Where Eagles Dare was his first really big movie, working with bonafide movie star Richard Burton and quickly rising up-and-comer Clint Eastwood, and from a script by a well-known author (Alistair MacLean, of The Guns of Navarone fame). A tall order for a bit-part actor turned director, but Hutton would go on to prove himself a chameleonic talent, effortlessly weaving between genres and styles through a much-too-short filmography. Hutton paces the movie deliberately, alternating between breakneck action and nail-biting tension - sometimes in the very same scene, like a stand-off between Burton and two men on a cable car that is Hitchcockian in its staging.

    The story is a classic MacLean setup: a group of specialists must infiltrate a castle high up in the Bavarian Alps to rescue a U.S. General captured by the Nazis, a nearly impossible feat due to the location’s only form of access by cable car. Of course, things go wrong almost from the start, as after they’ve all parachuted behind enemy lines, one of the team is found murdered - the first sign there’s a traitor in the mix. There are twists, turns, double-crosses and at least one or two triple-crosses up to the very end, true to form for a thriller from Alistair MacLean. It could all become tiring, but MacLean keeps us at arm’s distance from the characters for most of the running time, wisely establishing that any one of them (even the main characters) could be the traitor. We don’t learn much about our principals aside from being very good at what they do, but the filmmakers avoid them becoming empty ciphers by choosing the right actors.

    Richard Burton plays the leader of the operation, Major John Smith - a cat so cool he makes James Bond look like Tom Waits’ Renfield from Coppola’s Dracula. He’s constantly ahead of everyone else, and on the rare occurrence he isn’t, is good enough a liar to convince the others that he is. He secretly brings along MI6 officer Mary Ellison, played by Mary Ure, seemingly the only person he trusts (and only then because he sleeps with her). The only other person Burton trusts enough to keep around is U.S. Army Ranger Morris Schaffer, played by the still-on-the-rise Clint Eastwood. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly had just been released in U.S. cinemas the previous year, and Eastwood’s popularity was starting to really blow up. Watching him here, it’s easy to see why: he may not be the most versatile actor, but that didn’t really matter, as Eastwood was not so much an actor as he was a force of nature. He could coast through an entire film on merely his presence - which he does here, managing to overshadow his first-billed co-star in the process. Burton brings his all to his part, and has the film’s meatiest role, but despite his admittedly better acting skills he's still outshone by Eastwood with little more than a smirk and machine gun as he slaughters what appears to be the entire German army. There’s also an SS officer played by Derren Nesbitt (one of the many No. 2's on TV's The Prisoner), who’s so slimy and charming at the same time he had to have been a major influence on August Diehl’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds**. Rounding out the main cast is Hammer Horror beauty Ingrid Pitt, playing a tavern maid on Burton’s payroll who sneaks Mary into the castle.  

    And while the claims above about the body-count may not be quite true, it’s not that far off. The film builds tension slowly up to the final act, where Eastwood and Co. make their daring escape from the castle before blowing it all to kingdom come. The action is staged marvelously - as it should be, coming from second-unit director Yakima Canutt. Canutt was a titan of classic Hollywood - a former world champion rodeo rider who went on to become the most influential stuntman of his day, pioneering techniques that are still in practice. Name a classic movie and, chances are, Canutt was involved in the stunts (he often doubled for John Wayne, the actor later recalling that many of his famous mannerisms were taken directly from Canutt, whom Wayne called “a real cowhand”). As he grew older, Canutt became more involved behind the scenes, eventually becoming the go-to second-unit man for action scenes. Where Eagles Dare features countless explosions, shoot-outs and chases, so much so that Burton and Eastwood jokingly referred to it as Where Doubles Dare, in reference to the sheer number of stunt-doubles used.

    The movie proves to be a master action thriller, a perfect showcase for how Eastwood made a career out of little more than grimacing and shooting people. And while the film itself has relatively little to say about Nazism in-and-of itself, everything about the Nazi’s rise to power can be summed up in the quote from Richard III that inspired the film’s title: 

    "The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch."

*  While it makes sense from a story standpoint (Burton and Eastwood have to be wearing Nazi uniforms in order to successfully infiltrate the stronghold), it is interesting - and possibly disturbing - that we’re supposed to cheer them on while wearing the grey and black. I’m not saying the film is secretly pro-Nazi (far from it), but it does sort of raise some interesting questions about our culture’s strange fascination with fascism.

** The whole film is obviously a big influence on Tarantino’s WWII adventure film, as is Hutton’s later war flick Kelly’s Heroes, music of which Tarantino used in Basterds.


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