- Release Date: 21/12/1968
- Cast: Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure, Patrick Wymark, Ingrid Pitt
- Director: Brian G. Hutton
- Story and Screenplay: Alistair MacLean
Dense, thrilling, and realistic! “Where Eagles Dare” is a relentless adventure that deserves multiple viewings to absorb all that it has to offer
At the height of the World War II drama, a US General who is entrusted with the planning and execution of the invasion of Europe unwittingly falls into the German hands. The General is held up in an elusive castle on top of an inaccessible hill surrounded by an army of German soldiers and secret police. The only access to the castle is through a cable car that is controlled by the Germans and is guarded round the clock. For all this and more, the castle is referred to as the eagle’s nest and is considered impregnable by the Germans and their enemies. The allied forces under the leadership of Admiral Rolland and Colonel Turner (Patrick Wymark) decide to send in a team of men led by Major Smith (Richard Burton) to rescue the General before he has the plans of the invasion interrogated out of him by the Germans. The men are aware of the slim chance of success but decide to undertake the mission anyways. As the men try to infiltrate the castle compound, they start getting picked out one by one pointing to a more sinister game that might be afoot without their knowledge. What happens next is what the film is all about.
Whenever we think of World War II adventures, The Guns of Navarone is the first film that comes to our minds. That film released in 1961, starred Gregory Peck and a host of other big stars, had a terrific story, was engrossing, and gave us a pulse-pounding and satisfying climax. However, one cannot deny that the film slipped into spates of slow progression and unnecessary lethargicity quite a few times in its runtime. Astonishingly, there were no such issues with Where Eagles Dare even though it is 2 hours and 35 minutes long. The film starts smack in the middle of the action as we see our team on the verge of disembarking from an allied plane as the opening credit roll. We are then treated to a brief but informational flashback sequence wherein we learn and understand about the mission that the men are about to embark on. We are then taken back to the plane and from here on we just follow the men as they make their way through one perilous situation after another in order to complete their mission.
One aspect of Where Eagles Dare that I loved was that the film didn’t leave anything for us to imagine or take for granted in terms of the planning and execution of the mission. Down to the little details like how a bomb is meant to go off (through contact or timer) is dealt with and we are given enough information to understand the tiniest details of every step of the planning and execution. The film doesn’t spoon-feed us all the details but gives us glimpses and insights into what the men are doing and how they are doing it which proves to be invaluable in not only making some of the outrageous sequences feel believable but also helping make the proceedings accessible, intelligible, engrossing and participatory. If there was a gap in between the men getting from point A to Point B or accomplishing task B through A, it would have formed a disconnect between the audiences and the film. That is not the case here. We follow the men through every step and stage of their mission and all of it is edited so flawlessly that neither the runtime gets out of control nor the pacing drags. On the contrary, the thrill quotient is bolstered considerably because of the amount of information that the audience has at its disposal.
The mission of rescuing the US General is not the only mission that the men are on. In fact, there is another mission that is even more important than rescuing the General. As the story progresses we are made privy to this mission through the different characters. These facts are also revealed in a manner that increases our thrill and interest in the tale. Every character in the team has some ambiguity associated with it. There are many instances when these characters change sides and we are left bewildered. The fact that we cannot fully trust any of the characters only makes the whole journey that much more thrilling. Where Eagles Dare may be a war adventure story but at its core, it is an intricately written detective story where the questions “why” “how” and ”who” assumes a lot of importance as the tale progresses and reaches an exasperating climax.
Every character in the film does complete justice to the character that they are assigned. Richard Burton has an indelible charm associated with him that made him one of the most sought after stars of his era. Here he makes full use of his charisma as his character violently oscillates between the two poles and yet never loses his likeability. There are moments when you genuinely feel that he might have led us onto something that was not true but then you realize that he might just be doing the right thing for the moment. Burton is able to mold our views and opinions of his character as per the need of the hour and that is one of the greatest strengths of his performance. He is also someone who infuses a lot of fun and charm in the character that is otherwise absent from the other characters who are all quite stoic.
Clint Eastwood had a lot of dialogues in the film but he had Alistair MacLean assign those dialogues to Burton’s character and I have to agree that it has been in his best interest. The fact that he doesn’t speak but does most of the killing suits his character to the ‘t’ and adds the kind of gusto that was needed from an American character in the midst of British and German spies. The fact that he speaks so little turns his character even more menacing and there are moments when it is difficult to predict what he would do next and it only adds to the overall tension of the narrative and is an absolute delight. Mary Ure doesn’t have a lot to do but puts her best foot forward. Patrick Wymark as Colonel Turner has an important part and he does complete justice to the character.
I loved the cinematography of the film. A large chunk of the film is shot at night and even the ones that are shot during the day are done with very little light. Hence the lighting was an important aspect of the film and the cinematographer, Arthur Ibbetson does an exceptional job of lighting the film in a manner that captures the mood and feel of the setting. He also had to ensure that the viewers understand the complex action set pieces unfolding in such low light and he excels in that front too. Even with such lighting challenges, Ibbetson is able to capture artistic images that appeal to your finer sense of visuals and satisfies your thirst for absorbing beauty. There are a lot of visual effects that are used but apart from a few portions where we see people fall off cliffs to their deaths, the visual effects remain mostly elusive and prove once again that the best VFX are the ones that cannot be spotted. The scenes that show our protagonists doing various stunts on a ropeway car deserve a special mention. I am informed that these scenes were made possible because of a front projection technology that was used for the first time in Hollywood for this film.
The chase sequences and the hand-to-hand combats felt on your face and had a lot of physicality to them. There was very little background score accompanying these sequences. This aspect made us react to the action in a specific way instead of a rousing music telling us how to react or feel. The action felt very physical and there was a sense of dread and unabashed physicality in how the action was choreographed, captured, and edited. The few hand-to-hand action sequences that are there were exceptionally well-executed and effective. A lot of extras were employed and a lot of the action sequences involving Eastwood and Burton were performed by stunt doubles but these sequences were covered up and executed so well that no one would notice a thing. At least that was the case with me.
Where Eagles Dare is always on the move forward. The film neither stops to take a breath nor allows us to breathe. Every plot point that the film jumps to one after the other brings with them their own set of challenges and twists. This further makes the screenplay absorbing. By the time, the film ends, we are so exasperated and drained that we can hardly believe that our protagonists made it out of the plot alive. We feel as dazed and tired as the characters might have been and it only goes on to show the level of involvement that the film was able to extract from the audience. The final payoff is just as satisfying and by the time the end credits rolled, I had already made up my mind to watch the film a second time just to clear a few points and enjoy certain action sequences once again. That I believe will be the case with most of the people who watch this film with attention. Where Eagles Dare is a must-watch for anyone who has a love for the genre and films as a whole.
Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)