When we think of Clint Eastwood’s early career, we usually associate it with the subgenre of films known as “Spaghetti Westerns,” so named for the productions that went overseas to Italy to produce films about the Old West. Today’s film, Where Eagles Dare (1968), is not one of them, and for me it was the one that I most associated with the decorated actor and director’s career. I have never seen movies like A Fist Full of Dollars (1964) or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), which hopefully does not immediately revoke my credibility as a reviewer. I have seen Dirty Harry (1971), and Kelly’s Heroes (1970), if that helps? There is also The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), which I reviewed. My point is that it is films like Where Eagles Dare, which are not Westerns (The Outlaw Josey Wales excepted), that I see as Eastwood’s best work. Further, I began watching Where Eagles Dare at a young age, and it has stuck with me since.
It makes sense that a title like Where Eagles Dare begins with soldiers about to jump out of an airplane, though a few parachutes eagles do not make. They are led by Major John Smith (Richard Burton), and, along with Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), they are about to land deep in German territory. Their goal, as given in a short flashback featuring Vice Admiral Rolland (Michael Hordern) and Colonel Wyatt Turner’s (Patrick Wymark) briefing, is to rescue an American general, Brigadier General George Carnaby (Robert Beatty), from an Alpine castle known as Adler Schloss, which is unsurprisingly translated as Castle of Eagles. Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer are part of a commando team handpicked to retrieve one of the planners of the D-Day operation, the planned Allied invasion of Europe. Once on the ground, things begin to go wrong almost immediately. Their radio operator seems to have broken his neck, although there is no evidence of a rough landing. Further, there is a mysterious woman who had parachuted after them, the identity of whom is known only to Major Smith, later revealed to be Mary Ellison (Mary Ure). All this begins to raise Lieutenant Schaffer’s suspicions, though he plays it cool for the time being. Instead, they carry on with their mission, and are able to get inside the village around their target castle. Once there, Major Smith converses with a tavern maid, Heidi Schmidt (Ingrid Pitt), who is also an agent working for the British government. In the course of their conversation, we learn that General Carnaby is actually not who he says he is, but rather an American corporal named Cartwright Jones who is impersonating a high-ranking officer. After this, another one of their team turns up dead, and now it is time for Lieutenant Schaffer to confront Major Smith. Before an explanation can be given, they are found by the Gestapo. While Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer are taken away for questioning, the remaining three of their team are separated. On their own, Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer are able to escape. They make their way back to the castle, and are given access by Heidi and Mary. From their Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer walk into the great hall, and there they find their three team members, along with Corporal Jones, sitting comfortably with two German officers, General Julius Rosemeyer (Ferdy Mayne) and Colonel Paul Kramer (Anton Diffring). Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer’s entrance is not expected, and they have their guns drawn to keep the little party from doing anything rash. In the course of their conversations, we come to find out the real purpose for this mission. At first, Major Smith weaves a tale about being a double agent, claiming to actually be Major Johann Schmidt, even turning his pistol on Lieutenant Schaffer. It is all part of a ruse to get the three traitors that they had come with to reveal the names of the top German agents working in the United Kingdom. First giving Lieutenant Schaffer a signal to get ready, he persuades the the turncoats to write down the names. The list he shows to Colonel Kramer is blank, and the German’s surprise is quickly snuffed out by Lieutenant Schaffer opening fire. From there, it is matter of taking their prisoners, with Corporal Jones’ help, rigging explosives wherever they can (so many explosives), and making their escape. After they exfiltrate the castle, the dynamite is detonated, and they take a cable car back the way they came. The three traitors die in this part of the escape, but they find Heidi waiting for them with transportation to the airfield. By this time, German troops in the area are buzzing trying to find the saboteurs, which means they have to shoot their way down the road, sprinkling in a few more sticks of TNT along the way. Upon arriving at the airfield, they board a disguised German plane, and are greeted by Colonel Turner. Their trip back has one last surprise: the one name at the top of everyone’s list is Colonel Turner. Rather than face justice, he chooses to jump out of the airplane without a parachute. That done, everyone can relax, and the film ends.
Where Eagles Dare is equal parts James Bond and World War II films. This is not too big of a revelation as the 007 author, Sir Ian Fleming, was in British Naval intelligence during the war. His time in this role served as the inspiration for many of his books, and the later films. Even if the subject matter is different, there are a lot of similarities between them, the most obvious of which is that they are spy stories. Being a spy involves lying, and that is something that I have found increasingly difficult. When I was little, I used to do it in order to avoid my mother’s wrath. As I got older, particularly as I have grown in my Faith, I have taken a progressively harder line on the sin. To use a cinematic reference, I always think of the scene in Kingdom of Heaven (2005) when Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) is given the oath to be a knight by his father, Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson). Before representatives of the Church, one of the vows Balian takes is to tell the truth, even at the point of death. When it comes to sin, there is none that is greater or worse before God, though there are some that the Church treats a little more seriously. Either way, sin is about separation from God, and a lie qualifies. As such, it is difficult to imagine having to do that as a career. One could say that Major Smith in Where Eagles Dare is doing it for a higher cause. After all, the Nazi regime that he is fighting was responsible for a whole host of atrocities. My worry is that for anyone engaged in these activities that they learn to switch off that skill. War does bad things to good people, and some can never let it go. This can be true in peace time as well, and I pray that you look at all lying as sin.
When I talked about The Outlaw Josey Wales, I mentioned that it was one of those films that we used to make a point of sitting down and watching whenever it was on. Add Where Eagles Dare to that list. The fact that Clint Eastwood is in both of them is mere coincidence. There is some violence in it since it is a war movie, but nothing over the top. If it was filmed today, the blood and gore probably would be over the top. Let us hope that Hollywood does not get its mitts on this one and remake it. It is fine as it is.