Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Eagle Has Landed

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)  

Starring Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland
Directed by John Sturges  

Based on Jack Higgins' 1975 bestseller, "The Eagle Has Landed" marked the final directorial outing for the veteran John Sturges, who had brought such classics as "Bad Day at Black Rock", "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape" to the screen.  With a script by three-time James Bond (and uncredited Superman) writer Tom Mankiewicz and a cast boasting Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland and Robert Duvall in lead roles with support from the likes of the great Anthony Quayle and - as an ever so slightly bonkers Heinrich Himmler - Donald Pleasance, the film proudly rubs shoulders with some fine all-star, "guys on a mission" movies of the 60s and 70s.  Despite its inherent potboilerish silliness, it retains an immensely charming and at times rousing watchability.

Perhaps it's just the nostalgia of the ATV / ITC connection and the words "Lew Grade Presents" up on screen but there's a special something about it which makes it worth revisiting.

The story sees German Oberst Kurt Steiner (Caine) dispatched to lead his fiercely loyal paratroop unit on a covert incursion into Britain with the objective of kidnapping Winston Churchill (no less) from a secluded country house in Norfolk.  Under cover as a unit of Free Polish on a training exercise, they descend on the typically quaint English village of Studley Constable to carry out their mission.  Preparations are made ahead of time by IRA "soldier" Liam Devlin (Sutherland) with the help of Abwehr sleeper Agent Starling, Joanna Grey (Jean Marsh).  Devlin, although bearing no love for King and Country, is ultimately out for himself and working for the highest bidder, whilst Mrs Grey has her own motives, revealed towards the film's climax.  Needless to say, things don't go exactly according to plan, and when the Germans are rumbled, the arrival of a unit of US Army Rangers from their nearby billet leads to a chaotic shoot out and stand off.  

Surprisingly, after the interesting initial formulation of the kidnap plot, things meander somewhat before the action really gets going.  For the most part this takes the form of Devlin, in his cover as Marsh Warden, investigating the locale, and introducing - and endearing - himself to the locals.  An implausibly fast-track romance with the innocent Molly (Jenny Agutter) ensues, to the annoyance of a local thug, whom Devlin duly bests in an impromptu bout of bare-knuckle fisticuffs in the churchyard in front of the bemused Vicar, Father Verecker (John Standing).  Within what seems like a single day, Molly is professing her love for Devlin.  It must be his lovable 'Oirish' cheekiness, that is to say his permanently fixed toothy grin and surfeit of Celticisms, all delivered in an 'interesting' accent of indeterminate origin.  The purpose of all this is not entirely clear.  It could be an attempt to broaden the film's appeal by including a romance element to counteract the gung-ho army parts; it could be to give more screen time to Sutherland, whose role is essentially a subsidiary one; or it could be simply to pad out the running time and an excuse to show Miss Agutter riding her horse through woodland and over sand dunes.  It feels rather forced, particularly as the consequences for these relatively minor characters (including one responsible for another's death) are largely forgotten when the actual shooting starts.  Even once the bullets do start to fly there is still a slightly puzzling element of absurdity.  Its principal source is the American Colonel Clarence E. Pitts (Larry Hagman), a well-intentioned but pompous officer who, desperate to grab some glory before his transfer back to the US, leads his men into the village when he learns of the Germans' presence, intent on saving the day.  Pitts is blustering and opinionated, not a million miles removed from the J.W. Pepper character in the first two Roger Moore James Bond films; Mankiewicz's influence, perhaps?  But he's the comic relief, and his sudden death seems unwarranted and mean, giving rise to genuine sadness, if only for a beat.  And therein lies the film's unexpected strength - that the hokum is littered with just such tiny moments, which suddenly strike a different tone, and really stick in the memory.

The film is interesting because it's almost entirely morally neutral, which is unusual for a war genre film.  The American and British characters, obviously are the 'Good Guys'.  But they are all subordinate figures, even the noble Captain Clark (Treat Williams), the most proactive of them all.  The heroes, or at least protagonists, are German soldiers in a war against the Allies, carrying out an act of war on British soil, so should be the 'Bad Guys'.  But from the outset it's made clear that these aren't Nazis; they're 'good Germans', if you will.  The heavily decorated Steiner is first seen on the way back from the Eastern front, on a train which stops at a siding in Poland whilst the SS are rounding up Jews from the ghetto to be sent to concentration camps.  Steiner intervenes to save a young woman, is subsequently court martialled, and he and his men are sent to a penal camp on Alderney.  When their deception is revealed to the villagers, it is due to the fact that the soldiers were wearing their German uniforms underneath their Polish ones (so they wouldn't be executed as spies if captured); one of them saves a young girl from drowning, but is himself dragged under the wheel of the watermill and killed, his uniform ripped open for all to see.  It's a further reminder that these aren't bad men.  Devlin might be an IRA man, but remarks early on that he doesn't agree with blowing up innocent people, and comports himself with such carefree chirpiness that there can be no suggestion he has a bad heart.  Even the senior Nazis Radl (Duvall), Admiral Canaris (Quayle), and Himmler seem to carry out the operation with a weary reluctance brought on by the knowledge of the futility of it all as the war is already lost.  So there aren't really any obvious antagonists.  Arguably the only truly evil figure is Hitler, appearing fleetingly in newsreel footage used in the opening moments.  Rooting for both sides is a strange experience.

There are very clear echoes, in subject matter, of "Went the Day Well?" , an unofficial British Wartime propaganda film based on a story by Graham Greene, which also tells of a fictional English village being taken over by German paratroopers.  Obviously "Eagle" lacks any of that 1942 picture's nightmarish "what if?" bite; this is pure escapism.  But something it shares with its predecessor, which makes them both stand out from the average Second World War film, is the unusual rural English backdrop.  Scenes of combat set against rubble-strewn continental European towns and cities, battle-scarred front lines, or on heavily fortified beachheads are familiar enough; but to see house to house fighting in the streets of a sleepy East Anglian village, pub windows shattered by machine gun fire, residents held hostage in the church, is more than a little jarring.

Its post shoot-out climax contains hints of the real events depicted in another film, "I Was Monty's Double".  Recognizing that the mission has failed, that Churchill will not be abducted and that he himself is doomed, Steiner escapes the village succeeds in infiltrating the grounds of the house where Churchill is staying.  He shoots and kills him, before being gunned down himself.  It's a brilliant scene, tension milked for all its worth; Steiner steps from the shadows aiming his pistol, and the two men exchange expressionless stares for what seems like an age...  A shocked Clark arrives a just too late, but then discovers that the man was an impersonator, an actor playing the role as a semi-public deception so the real PM could attend the Tehran Conference with Stalin and Roosevelt in secret.   Given what is known now about British Military Intelligence's fondness for deception it's a tantalising throw to the viewer - could this have happened?  And it's a smart, grimly iconic way to close, acknowledging in a small way the pointlessness of war. 

Sturges was never a particularly flashy director; his most recognisable films were extravagant, in the best sense, in that they were epic in scope, big budget male-centric ensemble pieces with brilliant use of widescreen images.  Those elements are all present here, if not quite at the same levels as the films of Sturges' heyday.  Caine wrote in his autobiography that it seemed Sturges' heart wasn't really in it, being in the twilight of his career.  But as with films of a similar ilk ("The Guns of Navarone", "The Dirty Dozen" etc) seeking to up the class-factor, there's plenty to compensate.  The cast are all on fine form (Sutherland's dodgy accent aside), not just the leads, but there are some memorable performances form the actors in smaller roles.  John Standing's anguished "God grant you time to relive this moment in shame" to Jean Marsh when her character's treachery is exposed to the community is just one of many powerful instances, as is Caine's brief moment with the mother of the saved little girl.   The cinematography by Anthony Richmond (who shot Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth") is sweeping and beautifully composed, in keeping with Sturges' established style, whilst the music composed by the legendary Lalo Schifrin ("Bullitt", "Dirty Harry", the "Mission: Impossible" theme) is suitably stirring, and deserving of a place on any 'WW2 Movie Themes' compilation. 

"The Eagle Has Landed" is a film which seems as though it should be filed under 'guilty pleasure', but really there isn't much to feel guilty about.  It's the sort of solid, entertaining movie that's not often seen nowadays - nostalgic, and old fashioned, without being especially dated.  It's violent whilst being neither graphic nor cartoonish.  It bounds along lightly, and if Devlin's romantic interlude seems forced and it takes a while to hit its stride, it doesn't matter because ultimately it's exciting stuff, and the payoff is worth the wait.  It's by no means perfect, and although it's rather throwaway, and not really all that good, it's nevertheless so much fun that it's almost great.  

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