Chock full of action, surprising plot twists, and World War II intrigue, Where Eagles Dare ticks all the adventure film boxes while adding the element of cool spy stuff to the mix. It may seem like the standard mission flick in which the brass assembles a crack team for some essential mission, but there’s a lot more to it. Major Smith (Richard Burton) leads a handful of British troops and one American (Clint Eastwood) behind enemy lines to retrieve American General Carnaby (Robert Beatty). The Germans shoot down the general’s plane and hold him prisoner in a castle high in the Bavarian mountains. The team must hurry because the general knows the plans for the allied command’s second front and, if tortured, could spill the beans. For some films, that scenario would suffice, but for Where Eagles Dare that idea serves as a mere jumping off point for a far more complex story.
After a brief introduction to the men assigned to the mission and the officers in charge, Major Smith and company board the plane for Bavaria and the Schloss Adler. They jump at night to avoid detection and hold up in a mountain cabin. There we get a look at their objective, the Schloss Adler. Accessible only by cable car, the fortress sets the scene for our heroes’ daring rescue. The team first heads into the nearby town to establish their German military identities. After all, the Alpen Corps would hardly allow a gang of British soldiers to gain access to their remote stronghold. We meet a couple new characters here too. Mary Ure, British agent and Smith’s lover, gets a job as a maid at the castle and Ingrid Pitt, long in deep cover as a bawdy bar maid, poses as Ure’s cousin and vouches for her. On the German side, we meet Major von Hapen (Derren Nesbitt) of the Gestapo. With the introductions taken care of for the most part, the main story can begin.
I won’t give a blow by blow here because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I will say the story and screenplay, both written by novelist Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra), combines flag waving action, red herrings, and dry wit to make for an entertaining film. Even at two and a half hours, the time flies thanks to the performances of Burton and Eastwood and the fabulous stunts choreographed and shot by Hollywood veteran Yakima Canutt and performed by Alf Joint. Burton and Eastwood have a nice rapport and make the most of the spare dialogue.
Burton’s weary and unflappable Smith runs the show and has seen it all. Eastwood’s Schaffer is sharp and proficient even though he’s not quite sure about this mission.
Canutt’s fights atop cable cars make for some of the most exciting action sequences I’ve seen. Similar scenes show up later in Bond films, but even 007 doesn’t do them as well as our team. I also love the use of explosives in Where Eagles Dare. Burton and Eastwood carry backpacks full of fun little bundles of dynamite attached to timers which end up all over the place and to put it mildly, stuff blows up good. They also have cool reversible uniforms so they can blend in the snow and look like official Nazis. The plot twists keep you guessing and the film abounds with double agents and moments of suspense.
Any description of Where Eagles Dare would be remiss if it left out the dynamic score by Ron Goodwin (Murder She Said, Village of the Damned). Catchy and memorable, you’ll find yourself humming it without even thinking. Brian G. Hutton (Kelly’s Heroes, Gunfight at the OK Corral) directed Where Eagles Dare as an action film with a spy story at its center. The film succeeds as both because Hutton, MacLean, Canutt, and the stellar cast elevate this film from a shoot ‘em up bang bang to a war film with spies and brains. I recommend it highly.