Like a quick and dirty mission behind enemy lines, last weekend I polished off Geoff Dyer’s love letter to the 1968 war thriller, Where Eagles Dare, ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’.
It is a strange little essay. Not really a monograph, because it tells you very little about the making and impact of the film, the things a monograph usually does, and more an extended meditation on why it is such a great action film and the culture milieu into which it was born. A milieu that Dyer grew up in and which was pretty similar for a boy in Australia in the 1970s when I was growing up.
One of my favourite things about Dywer’s essay was the various cultural associations and memories it aroused. The war had only been over for a quarter of a century and, looking back then, it still felt strangely present, like it was not quite ‘history’ in the way it is now; war films were big business and our parents unselfconsciously took us, often at a very young age, to see them; newsagents were full of those graphic Sven Hassel paperbacks; we lived on British comics that were full of German soldiers barking basic English; and, the must have toy was a GI Joe, who amongst his many uniforms, could be dressed as a German soldier. Indeed, Dwyer’s recollection of owning a GI Joe that he could dress in an Alpine German uniform pinged big time with me.
Where we the worse for it all? To be honest, I am not sure. I certainly don’t want to excuse many aspects of the popular culture I grew up with but, having watched many of the incredibly and needlessly violent Marvel films, to cite just one of many examples, I am not sure all that much has changed. It is just that now no one is shouting ‘Englander pig dog, die’, at the top of their voice.
Anyway, back to Where Eagles Dare. It is a great film. Part spy film. Part war film. Part adventure film. I am pretty sure I first saw it with my parents on TV one Sunday night. As I have said on this site before, Sunday night at the movies was a big deal at our house and I saw some great stuff in that era. War films. Westerns. Dramas. I can still remember watching Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly one Sunday night, and the impact that had on me. Ditto, John Schlesinger’s 1969 masterpiece, Midnight Cowboy, which I liked even if I didn’t understand a lot of it on first viewing.
After reading Dywer’s essay I rewatched Where Eagles Dare – for the first time in quite a while – and it is still great. What is so good about it (and, be warned, spoilers ahead)?
1.The cast, particularly Burton. Even when he was cranking out stuff he hated (and he reportedly hated Eagles), Burton has gravitas. Add into the mix, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure, Patrick Wymark, Ingrid Pitt, and Derren Nesbitt as one of the most convincingly venal Gestapo officers ever to grace the set of a war film.
2. How can you not like Ure blasting away at the Nazis with a machine gun from the back window of a rapidly moving bus, with Pitt behind the wheel.
3. Burton and Eastwood fighting Nazio spies on the roof of a cable car, with the imposing facade of the Schloss Adler castle in the background.
4. I love the twisty – at times, improbably so – plot. Written by novelist Alistair Maclean in six weeks, the story revolves around a team of British commandos, led by Burton, sent to rescue an American general with knowledge of the allied plan to invade France, who is being kept prisoner is an impregnable fortress behind enemy lines. But the real reason for the mission is very different and involves a trap to unmask a German spy who has infiltrated the most senior levels of British intelligence. This includes a terrific scene in the fortress where Burton, Hercule Poirot style, gathers all the main players together to unmask the spy
5. Patrick Wymark jumping out of the junkers plane at the end of the film. For the benefit of anyone who may not have seen the film – is there anyone reading this who has NOT seen the film?? – I won’t say too much about this. But, I can still remember how amazed I was by this scene the first time I saw it.
6. My late father. Where Eagles Dare was one of his favourite films. It is a film I will forever associate with him, which makes it part of my life as much as it was his.
I might have missed this if not for you. Riveting viewing, especially the cable car scenes.
it was one of my father’s favourite flims too. I reckon I read the book about 5 times in my teens. My dad would always say, “If the Allies had a few more as efficient as Smith and Schaffer, the war would have lasted 6 months.”
Dad was a big fan of Maclean but, strangely, I did not read any of this stuff until quite recently. Very male, very of its time, with characters who not trying to be likeable or even relatable, which the antithesis of a lot of mystery fiction today.
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Yeah, my dad was a Maclean fan, too.
I still don’t care about likeable or relatable, just interesting!
I am inclined to agree with you.