Where Eagles Dare (to explain things)
Where Eagles Dare (1968) is a decent movie, if you’re patient. It is very well-made and I love the environments, the story, and all the actors do a great job. However, this is a long-ass movie. It’s almost three hours. It has endless twists and actors explaining things, punctuated by dramatic moments.
This movie reminds me of Guns of the Navarone (1961), which is another sneak-in and blow-up-stuff movie. It’s pretty much the same plot, with a little less gloss and complicated twists than Where Eagles Dare. Gregory Peck stars in Guns as a soldier leading a team of commandos, and he’s joined by Anthony Quinn, who also does a good job. That movie has a good score too, so that’s a plus. Eagles has the same sneak-in and do-the-job group composition.
Unlike the actors in Guns, Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood compete for screentime. Many critics have complained about their contrasting acting styles, but I didn’t mind. I guess I feel like being nice for once. Clint plays his usual, cool-headed silent character who stares too much and Burton plays the defiant reckloose who is hiding something up his sleeve. I think it works. Clint doesn’t really get much to do until about 30 or 40 minutes in, so by that time, I was ready for less Burton anyway. I like Clint and Burton in this movie.
The movie opens slow, in a very traditional way. There’s a main score and titles and you get to watch a plane slowly flying the supercommandos over enemy lines, getting ready to drop them near the most secure base ever constructed by the dirty Germans. Unlike Guns or maybe even The Dirty Dozen, the 20 minute mission stands in as an exposition dumb, briefing all the men and giving them all quick exposures as “experts as enemy infiltration”, which sorta eliminates the need to do anything really special a la James Bond or Mission Impossible. It doesn’t seem that impossible, really. This is a strictly a military operation, but the goals aren’t very clear to the men, and one of them even objects during the briefing scene. They’re supposed to go infiltrate some fortified castle and get some allied joker out of jail, but this guy stands up and asks why. Why go to all that trouble? He suggests they just blow the place up and this idiot too, since he’s dumb enough to get captured. I agree. But they don’t do that. This confusion is cleared up later in one of the many twists and turns the movie delivers, so you’ve got to be paying attention.
The explosions and the action is very well-integrated into the story. The team is captured and escapes and evades German troops, kills more people, and blows more stuff up on and on for three hours. It’s fairly decent and none of the action feels overdone, at least by three hour movie standards. I like that part. The screenplay was written by Alistar MacLean, the same guy who wrote the book behind the Guns movie, so that’s probably why they feel so similar. Only this time, MacLean throws in the kitchen sink when composing the Eagles screenplay. People fight on top of cable cars, there’s vehicle explosions and chases and shootouts, and people take it for the team. Eagles certainly has everything.
This is the post-dollars Clint Eastwood, who still feels like the dollars Clint Eastwood. He doesn’t have the edge as in Dirty Harry, though it’s hard to tell which decade was better for Eastwood on film, the 60s or 70s. With hits like Dirty Harry and Escape From Alcatraz, it’s hard to beat the 70s, but the Dollars trilogy will always be remembered as classic to the Western genre, so there is that. Eastwood did many war movies, and Eagles is probably up there as one of the most well-regarded.
Overall, this is a good movie. I’m probably being too kind in my review today, but I genuinely like a well-thought-out plot and decent action. The substance is in the details, I think. The actors are maybe given a little too much dialogue, but the scenes are well-constructed, and there’s genuine tension. For example, when the Germans bust into a bar looking for them, Burton and crew surrender knowing they’ve been found out, but later escape custody and kill everybody, tossing them over a cliff in a burning car. It’s awesome. Probably the highlight of the movie is the double-cross and the final reveal of their real mission goals, making you nod your head as this complicated movie finally comes together. It’s a shame this movie isn’t remembered in the same breath as more flimsy and superficial movies like the comedic Kelly’s Heroes, but that movie is shorter and gets the TV time over the three-hour epic. Maybe Richard Burton should have had more one-liners and a laugh track.