There’s no messing with a film like Where Eagles Dare (1968). As effortlessly macho, understatedly old-fashioned “boys’ own adventures” go, this espionage action movie has it all: a quick wit, an intriguing premise and panache to burn — and it all unfolds against a stunningly snowy landscape. It’s violent but stylish — the same way a young lad’s imaginary military escapade acted out with his favorite camouflaged action figurines might be violent but stylish. No one who matters is ever really going to get hurt here: it’s just a clear-cut mission that’s fun to watch precisely because it’s marked by repartee and good old teamwork. It’s James Bond without James Bond — or rather, it’s James Bond in a team of James Bonds, all suited and booted to go head-to-head with the Germans. Was there a better action film made in the ‘60s?
Of the many films to which Quentin Tarantino paid homage with his violent 2009 wartime adventure fantasy, Inglourious Basterds, perhaps the most overtly and solidly polished is Where Eagles Dare. Scripted by Scottish novelist and first-time screenwriter Alistair MacLean — who also wrote the novel of the same name —and directed by Brian G. Hutton, Where Eagles Dare brought together top names in both its cast and crew, including Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in front of the camera, and award-winning composer Ron Goodwin and future Oscar-nominated cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson working around and behind it. These elements are proudly announced in the film’s opening sequence, as Goodwin’s score — a thunderously punchy clatter of brass atop a syncopated bed of military snares — crescendos in, and we see a succession of credits laid over, in distinctively bold, scarlet imitation of an old German font, aerial shots of a gorgeously and elusively blue dawn on the Austro-Bavarian border.
In this opening sequence, a Luftwaffe transport plane cruises through the snowy Alps. Inside it, however, is a band of Allied brothers. A flashback cuts to the chase: six British soldiers and an American Lieutenant named Schaffer (Eastwood) are to be led by highly proficient Major Smith (Burton) to Schloss Adler — the Castle of the Eagles — a nearby German military garrison where recently kidnapped British General Carnaby is being imprisoned. Since Carnaby is knowledgeable of secret military plans, there’s no time to hang about — and indeed, no sooner has this expository flashback filled us in than our seven men are parachuting down to the foot of the castle. Upon landing on this conveniently deserted high alpine pasture, one of the men is found dead. Smith seems to know more about this than the others. Did the Germans kill him? Did Smith? At any rate, the premature sacrifice prefigures the perilous mission in Saving Private Ryan, in which the question of how many lives one man’s is worth comes increasingly to the fore.
The insurmountably daft odds that Smith and Schaffer et al. face involve the infiltration of the Schloss Adler and the subsequent escape from there with General Carnaby in tow. Beneath the men’s immaculately wintry tunics are Wehrmacht infantrymen uniforms. Our heroes seem to ditch one disguise for another here with all the ease of a Hasbro action toy. The film’s story, its actors’ chiselled chins, their dress codes and in-house repartee could all be lifted straight from an issue of Commando War Stories and Pictures (later Commando For Action and Adventure), the 68-page weekly comic published in the UK since July 1961. Indeed, just as the Wikipedia entry for Commando lists “making a cup of refreshing tea while in the face of danger” among its many recurrent motifs, here we have Burton’s impossibly handsome, sullenly assertive Major Smith temporarily leaving his troops to touch base with HQ with the jovial parting line, “save me some coffee.”
Is there a gay subtext to Where Eagles Dare? In MacLean’s novel, Schaffer and Mary enjoy a romantic spark. The film’s chief chemistry is that between Schaffer and Smith: early in the film, when the latter is about to let the former in on the real plan, the camera zooms past them and the sound design follows it, leaving the men to their privacy. Later, when Smith leaves Schaffer to abseil up the side of the castle, Mary asks why he doesn’t give his friend a hand (in a previous scene, when they were alone, he did). Schaffer, not knowing yet that Mary exists, finally reaches the top — no thanks to Smith — and eyes the woman with something between frustration and confusion: “You seem to have a lot of women stashed around this country, Major.” Indeed, from the snowy tunics down to the gun-wielding machismo required of their disguises, there’s something performative about Smith and Schaffer’s sexuality — and at the very least an androgyny permeates the Luftwaffe plane on which the film ends. As Smith himself says to Mary — not long before another woman enters the room — “a hole is a hole is a hole.”
Where Eagles Dare is a film all about camouflage. Even the initial sexual charge between Smith and MI6 agent Mary Elison (Mary Ure) turns out to be false: “Take your clothes off. Take your clothes off… Relax, I didn’t mean it that way.” Mary needs to quickly change into her new disguise, as a maid from the Rhineland here to distract an eternally suspicious but only belatedly cunning Gestapo officer. Such deceptions come to affect our own reading of the narrative. Indeed, much of the film’s suspense stems not from whether or not Smith and Co. will succeed in their mission, but from finding out what their mission actually is.
Though ostensibly a war film, it’s no spoiler five and a half decades later to note that Smith’s elaborate scheme to infiltrate this mountainside fort is done so on the back of deception: As it turns out, Carnaby is merely Cartwright Jones, an actor hired by the British military to fall into enemy hands in order to feed them misinformation – and, in so doing, expose a network of turncoats and double agents working on Allied soil.
Alfred Hitchcock called it a Maguffin: drawing an audience in with one assumption (the rescue of a British general) when the real story is quite different (the exposure of domestic spies). As such, this film isn’t so much about the Second World War as it is the Cold War: Just five years earlier, high-ranking British intelligence officer Kim Philby had defected to the Soviet Union after being exposed as a member of the spy ring known as “The Cambridge Five.” Indeed, in its aestheticisation of war-film traits — explosions, crisply kept uniforms, air sirens, military bikes with sidecars and the white-hot flames of rifles against a wintry night sky — Where Eagles Dare is paradoxically not a war film at all.
Targeted to young boys not old enough to remember the war their fathers fought, the film also pre-empted the same generation’s embrace of science fiction with the release of Star Wars a decade later. That film too has a rescue mission at its centre – and Darth Vader’s Death Star certainly sounds like something the Nazis themselves might have proudly named.
Michael Pattison is based in Gateshead, England. He has been published by Sight & Sound, The Guardian, Little White Lies, MUBI, Fandor, Tribune Magazine, Slant Magazine, Film Comment, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Indiewire, Jigsaw Lounge, Grolsch Film Works, Filmuforia, Eye For Film and others. He can be found online at idFilm.