(or: why don’t they shoot the radio operator?)
An appreciation of Where Eagles Dare at 50
Broadsword calling Danny Boy… Broadsword calling Danny Boy…
Richard Burton’s urgent voice, its insistent velvet rasp. Broadsword calling Danny Boy…
The master-plan of British Military Intelligence is close to triumph, the heroes need a way out, but the Germans are closing in and the castle’s going up in flames and surely Clint Eastwood hasn’t got many more ammunition clips for his machine-pistol…
Broadsword calling Danny Boy!
Where Eagles Dare premiered 50 years ago, on 22nd January 1969. And still its signature line brings a smile, a glow: faintly ridiculous, and oddly heroic, a shorthand for a film that’s melodramatic nonsense and still, somehow, strangely cool and gloriously unforgettably entertaining.
The eerie stirring theme music. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, the Hamlet-and-Hollywood legend side-by-side with the spaghetti western drifter, icon of a new cool. All the grey uniforms against the snow, then the lavish colour of the banqueting hall and the gunshot wounds. Evil Aryan Gestapo man. The cable car. Heidi. The radio operator. The cable car. The school bus. The notebooks. Everything getting blown up with cartoon-style sticks of dynamite. Danny Boy calling Broadsword…
Incredible, yes. But to the British very, very simple.
Richard Burton’s story was that he made the film happen because his step-sons ‘were fed up with me making films they weren’t allowed to see, or in which I get killed’; he asked producer Elliot Kastner ‘if he had some super-hero stuff for me where I don’t get killed in the end’. Kastner commissioned a script from Alistair Maclean, whose Second World War adventure The Guns of Navarone had been made into a high-profile hit a few years before. Maclean delivered a script in six weeks.
By the late sixties Alistair Maclean was a well-established best-selling adventure/thriller novelist. The Gaelic-speaking third son of a Church of Scotland Minister, he had served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and subsequently become a teacher. A prize-winning short story caught a publisher’s attention, and his wartime experience on the brutal, elemental Arctic convoys gave him the background for his first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses (1955). Bleak as well as gripping, it’s unlike almost anything else he would write. Something of its depth lingered in his next two or three books, and its harsh context (two were wartime, one a grim Cold War espionage). But thereafter his novels tended to be a little more pop, the espionage and the action more technicolour.
Maclean’s novels fall roughly into four blocks. The first few were darker, relatively deeper and in some cases purely action rather than mystery. The sixties produced his classics, a series of usually first-person books that successfully combine sustained action and engaging mystery; he had a knack for crudely appealing characters and shrewd plotting, parachuting the reader into the middle of things and peeling away the layers of revelation. He was writing the same sort of thing in the seventies, but they were hit and miss, the suspense more perfunctory, the descriptions more overblown; some still work alright, and some don’t. The fourth and final group of books, written in the late seventies and early eighties, are generally dire: he repeats characters and even names in rambling and incoherent plots, and even when the situations get vaguely interesting he hasn’t the patience to resolve them with any kind of tension.
Maclean also produced short stories, including the competition-winning ‘Dileas’ which prompted his writing career and is published in The Lonely Sea collection. Perhaps prompted by the success of Where Eagles Dare, which began as a film idea, starting in the 1970s Maclean produced several film outlines, including a series based around the United Nations Anti-Crime Organization; a few of them became films and a few of them were worked up as novels by other writers. He lived as a tax exile in Switzerland, and after his death in 1987 he was buried there – almost next to Richard Burton.
Alistair Maclean wrote to entertain. His books have dramatic settings, strong plots, tension and action. Goodies and baddies are clearly and strongly-defined (though one of the former frequently turns out to be one of the latter); women are glamorous, occasionally mysterious and generally passive assistants. The books are almost deliberately cinematic, and indeed by the 1970s he was writing some books with the expectation that they would be films. Where Eagles Dare was a film outline before it was a novel.
So it’s curious that the films of his books are such a mixed bunch. A couple of classics, quite a lot of meh, and some utter rubbish.
The film Guns of Navarone, like the novel, stands alone in the series, unlike anything that came afterwards. It’s a drama rather than a mystery. Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven are all Best Actor Oscar winners. At the start of the 60s, it’s closer in time to the war it portrays, and closer in style to the sober war films of the 50s. David Niven really had been a commando in the war, returning from a comfortable decade-long Hollywood career and doing reconnaissance work ahead of the troops advancing after D-Day; Anthony Quayle really had operated behind the lines in occupied south-eastern Europe. (By contrast, Force 10 from Navarone benefits from period setting, good cast – Robert Shaw, replacing Gregory Peck as the rugged Mallory, was by now married to Where Eagles Dare’s Mary Ure – and a plot that sticks broadly to the original. But, twenty years after Guns of Navarone and ten after Where Eagles Dare, the tone feels a little kitsch. Watching it, we know that Harrison Ford was also in Star Wars, Carl Weathers in Rocky, and Richard Kiel and Barbara Bach in James Bond films.) Some of the films have attractions that make them still worth watching: The Satan Bug is surprisingly successful in shifting the novel’s central England setting to the south-western US, with stylish desert and modernist surroundings; Ice Station Zebra is ambitious in scope and its Cold War message, though over-complicates the plot (which seems hardly possible) and goes off the rails a bit; When Eight Bells Toll does some shrewd slimming down and tweaking of the novel’s plot to work on screen, and benefits from the class of Nathalie Delon and particularly Anthony Hopkins; Breakheart Pass has good production values (especially considering that it’s not merely Maclean’s one pre-Second World War novel, but the best part of a century pre) and sticks pretty closely to the plot while delivering the action well. Most of the rest sank quickly.
Then there were some late TV/straight-to-video films based on Maclean ideas/outlines. (His Air Force One is Down outline hijacked the US President’s plane long before Gary Oldman snatched Harrison Ford in the unrelated Wolfgang Petersen film; when it finally became a film it had an updated post-Bosnian war plot and Rupert Graves snarling a lot as an evil Serb warlord. Death Train and Night Watch had Pierce Brosnan warming up his action hero muscles in the years immediately before he got his second and successful chance at Bond.)
So what’s the secret of the successes?
Sticking to the plot helps: Maclean’s stories were never strong on thoughtful character development, and the films rarely attracted enormous budgets, so it was better to stick pretty closely to the mysteries. Period helps: Where Eagles Dare and Guns of Navarone – and indeed Breakheart Pass – have dated less than the contemporary attempts at 60s and 70s cool. Music helps, arguably related to period (the contemporary thrillers got contemporary scores which perhaps last less well; When Eight Bells Toll and The Satan Bug aren’t bad): Dimitri Tiomkin’s catchy march for The Guns of Navarone and Jerry Goldsmith’s urgent melodrama-with-wild-west-touches for Breakheart Pass are excellent; and so of course is Ron Goodwin’s score for Where Eagles Dare, with the rising drama of the main theme and the perpetually-lurking moody mystery of the incidental music, all moaning wind and low brass.
Having the right kind of star really helps. Maclean wrote approximately one kind of hero (wrote successfully, anyway): cool, hard, sardonic; ruthless while witty; fallible but unflappable. It took a certain kind of actor to make this work. Gregory Peck gets by in Guns of Navarone because it’s chatty and historical; he was too romantic, too classic Hollywood to have carried one of the contemporary thrillers. Barry Newman in Fear is the Key, Sven-Bertil Taube in Puppet on a Chain and David Birney (reviewed by the Guardian as ‘about as expressive as a constipated owl’) in Caravan to Vaccarès couldn’t really cut it; they’re too vulnerable, too weak, like actual humans in actual mysteries. Donald Sutherland’s the wrong kind of cool – hippy not hard-man – and contributes to the general floppiness of Bear Island. But Richard Harris in Golden Rendezvous, Anthony Hopkins in When Eight Bells Toll and Charles Bronson in Breakheart Pass are the right stuff; Patrick McGoohan in Ice Station Zebra is ideal.
And of course Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare is right too. The lingering whiff of theatricality isn’t so bad in the period setting and the plot elaborations. And his legendary son-of-the-pit credentials – plus a lot of cigarettes – give him credible hardness that, say, Gregory Peck couldn’t produce for Guns of Navarone. (For anti-establishment celtic toughness, see also Harris and Hopkins.)
Ironically, given that he’s the most iconic element of the most iconic Maclean film, the one person who’s really wrong is Clint Eastwood. He’s too modern, too laid back, the wrong kind of cool (the wrong kind of hair). But paired with Burton he somehow works perfectly. The story goes that he didn’t like much of his lines, so had them cut, leaving Burton most of the exposition and himself even more laconic. As Burton and the other veteran British character actors exude intensity in all directions, Eastwood lopes around showing everyone how to chill a bit. He speaks for the audience’s bafflement at the labyrinthine plot. While the others pursue the detailed obligations of the double- and triple-crossing, he just blows stuff up and kills everyone he meets.
In style, the two main women in Where Eagles Dare echo the lead men. Mary Ure (Mary) was first distinguished as a stage actress, one of the original cast of Look Back in Anger (and staying for the film version which Burton joined); she was Oscar-nominated for her performance in Sons and Lovers. Her personal life was as melodramatic as an Alistair Maclean plot – she took up with John Osborne when he was still married to someone else, and seems to have had a son by future husband Robert Shaw while still married to Osborne – and her career was increasingly affected by alcoholism. She died of an overdose in 1975, aged only 42, after her new play had opened badly. Her cool brittleness works rather well for the experienced secret agent she’s supposed to be, notably when she’s struggling the remember the topography of Düsseldorf to the satisfaction of the Gestapo; but she sometimes seems aloof from the film. Ingrid Pitt as Heidi, by contrast, though a rather unlikely top undercover agent, is clearly having the time of her life – and is accordingly part of the film’s appeal. One of several cast members with German and Jewish backgrounds, she spent some of the war in a concentration camp, and then had to flee Communist East Berlin. After uncredited appearances in Chimes at Midnight and Dr Zhivago – two of the greatest serious films of the century – Where Eagles Dare set the tone for her buoyant 1970s career in Hammer horrors. While committed to serious issues – the suffering of native Americans, and maintaining awareness of the holocaust – she seems to have thrived on an exuberant willingness to try anything except taking herself too seriously: she produced spy books and ghost books and Dracula books and a script for Doctor Who, compendia such as the The Ingrid Pitt Book Of Murder, Torture & Depravity and columns for magazines including Motoring & Leisure.
Most of the rest of the cast were experienced character actors. Michael Hordern’s warm weary authority works as well here as it did narrating Paddington. In grim irony, Ferdy Mayne (General Rosemeyer) and Anton Diffring (Colonel Kramer) had both fled Germany in the 1930s: Mayne’s family was Jewish, and – further irony – at the start of the war he had been an informant for MI5; Diffring, also with Jewish blood, apparently had to leave because of his homosexuality. Both had to make careers playing the villainous Germans they’d escaped; you’ve seen Diffring’s distinctive sharp features many times – not least in the Michael Caine/Sylvester Stallone/Pelé/Bobby Moore war’n’football spectacular Escape to Victory, as the German radio announcer producing a ludicrously-biased commentary. Derren Nesbitt, golden blond hair and thick lips and pantomime Nazism, turns out like Heidi to be a key part of the film’s style – ripe characters performed with conviction and a certain pleasure. (His TV-dominated career including playing Number Two in The Prisoner; and if you fancy a treat, look out Episode 9 of The Persuaders, in which Nesbitt plays the louche international villain in an electric blue jacket and rouched shirt and more or less for laughs: ‘Zis is not ze way to go!’, he wails at the denouement, ‘Zis is not beautiful; zis is not right!’)
Given the relative skill of the film, perhaps it’s surprising that it was former bit-player Brian G. Hutton’s fourth of only nine films as director; he also helped tweak the script. The only other one you’ve heard of is his fifth, Kelly’s Heroes, for which he kept and developed Eastwood’s Where Eagles Dare cool, and produced a brilliantly tense opening scene and let Donald Sutherland enjoy himself (though the film suffers from the Curse of Savalas, who automatically spoils any film he appears in). Hutton eventually gave up directing to become, depending whom you believe, either a real estate man or a plumber. His success with Where Eagles Dare was probably helped by having the second unit directed by Hollywood legend Yakima Canutt, who’d been a champion rodeo rider more than fifty years earlier and went on to become one of the greatest stunt-men and stunt-directors in cinema history (John Wayne learned his walk from Canutt).
And then the music, of course. Ron Goodwin’s score for Where Eagles Dare would on its own qualify him for war-tune glory; he also composed evergreens such as Battle of Britain and 633 Squadron (as well as Force Ten From Navarone, and Hitchcock’s Frenzy, and Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, and the distinctive theme for the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marples).
The film was shot over the first half of 1968, firstly on location in Austria before studio work in the UK: Major Smith might have been right about no one being up in the hills above Hohenwerfen Castle in winter, but during the summer a couple of years earlier Julie Andrews had been dancing over them – the castle is in the background during the opening scene of The Sound of Music.
The shoot gathered as many anecdotes as famous film shoots tend to, especially ones involving Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who was photographed with her birthday cake surrounded by those striking grey German uniforms. Eastwood called the film ‘Where Doubles Dare’ because of all the stunt-work needed; Burton’s stand-in Alf Joint claimed he had to do extra work when Burton – reckoned by one fellow actor to be drinking anything up to four bottles of vodka a day and periodically disappearing on a spree with fellow legends – knocked himself out during filming. Joint was responsible for the cable-car jump, and it cost him three teeth. Derren Nesbitt was temporarily blinded when an explosive squib malfunctioned. Having agreed to give Eastwood a Norton P11 motorbike as part of his deal, the producers had made it very clear that he wasn’t to use it before the film was finished, because of the obvious risk. Eastwood of course ignored them, and took the bike for a spin at Brands Hatch – with Ingrid Pitt along for the ride. Because you would, wouldn’t you? Especially if you were Clint.
The film received its Royal Premiere in London on January 22nd 1969. It got pretty good reviews – more for action and style than comprehensibility – and was a commercial success. Fifty years on it’s a guilty pleasure that’s just good enough for people – men – not to feel guilty admitting. The affection it attracts is not the stuff of professional criticism; it was better captured in the below-the-line public comments on a recent article about it on newspaper website, which between them quoted most of the film to comic effect and in passing awarded Anton Diffring the prize for best ever movie lip-wobble for the moment when he’s flicking through the notebook. Steven Spielberg’s called it his favourite war film.
Perhaps there’s a hint of the film’s strength in the fact that it’s arguably better than the book it accompanies – perhaps because it was envisaged as a film first. The film-makers somehow got that the droll heroisms of Maclean’s adventure thrillers weren’t appropriate to the darker context of the Second World War. The book’s third person narration was rare in this phase of Maclean’s writing, and without the usual self-deprecating commentary of his first person narratives the Smith of the book is bland and obnoxiously infallible. And perhaps Maclean, a generation older, couldn’t really get Clint Eastwood; the book’s Shaffer is a cruder stereotyped American, wise-cracking cowboy rather than cool drifter. Mary is a wet rag, forever on the brink of tears at the possibility that Smith either doesn’t love her or might be dead; Heidi is even more explicitly a lust object, a buxom-but-brilliant secret agent who has Shaffer gazing after her with his tongue hanging out. The book makes you realize what unique finds Eastwood, and Pitt and Burton were for the film.
There’s a lovely series of behind-the-scenes photos of the four main players relaxing with flagons of beer in what looks like Zum Wilden Hirsch tavern. Richard Burton is in full flow: he could be singing, reciting Dylan Thomas or telling one of the Larry Olivier or ‘When I was in Hamlet’ anecdotes with which he would regale the cast into the small hours. Fragile Mary Ure looks fond, a little wistful. Ingrid Pitt is sitting on Clint Eastwood’s knee, and they both seem about as fine with that as you’d expect. You could spend a book analysing why Where Eagle’s Dare works; it would be as useful and interesting as explaining a good joke. Good raw material? A lucky gathering of production values and professionals? A plot whose madness is performed with such bravado that it becomes magnificent? (Or, as one analysis suggests, because the film ‘employs a radical approach to violence, gender politics and history’?) There’s the strong impression that it works substantially because, behind the sober intensity of the performances and the memorable melodrama of the action highlights, everyone involved was just having a good time.