War Movie Mondays: ‘Where Eagles Dare’

1986’s Where Eagles Dare is a World War II spy/action film which is based on Alistair MacLean’s novel about a group of allied commandos who must break into an impregnable German fortress in the Bavarian Alps and rescue an American General who has vital information concerning plans for the “second front.” They must free him before the Germans can extract this information and change the the course of the war.

Richard Burton (Maj. John Smith), Clint Eastwood (Lt. Morris Schaffer), Mary Ure (Mary Elison), & Ingrid Pitt (Heidi) are the commando squad sent to free the General and uncover a conspiracy involving not only who they were sent to rescue, but what they were really sent to do.¬†Brian G. Hutton (Kelly’s Heroes), directs with amazing style and non stop action with a screenplay adapted by MacLean himself.

The one thing that I have always loved about the film besides the cinematography, and the Ron Goodwin score is that you’re always cold while watching it. When the commandos first parachute into the Alps, they come down during a snow storm and discover that one of their own had his neck broken in the drop.

You instantly feel as if you are there in the snow with them, almost like Sam Peckinpah’s sandy desert landscapes in The Wild Bunch. Smith carefully inspects the injury and discovers that the break was caused by the butt of a rifle or some other weapon. Smith now realizes that one if not several in the group may be possible German agents sent to make sure that the mission fails.

Smith confides in Schaffer (Eastwood) as an American officer, a non member of British intelligence (MI6), and as the only other team member that he can really trust other than Mary. In one scene, Smith tells the rest of the group that the radio codes that are needed to alert British intelligence of the mission were left in the breast pocket of the radio man (Sgt. MacPherson) who was killed.

Smith ventures out of the alpine lodge where they are held up for the night and tells them that he is going back to the drop site to retrieve the codes; but Smith is actually going to the barn outside where Mary (Mary Ure) is hiding and inform her that the mission may be compromised. Mary was secretly brought on the mission as Smith’s number one asset. Smith and Mary have worked together on several missions throughout the war and have developed a relationship with one another.

Smith tells her that the squad will move out in the morning and will make their way into the village disguised as German officers and prepare to infiltrate the castle where General Carnaby is being held. She is to follow, without giving away her position and contact Heidi (Pitt) who will help her pass themselves off as workers in the castle.

As the film progresses, Smith, and Schaffer (unable to trust the rest of their group after another member is killed), get themselves captured and are separated from the others who are non officers taken away for questioning by SS officials. Smith and Schaffer manage to kill their German captors and infiltrate the castle with the help of Mary and Heidi.

The film truly comes together when Smith and Schaffer discover that the remaining captured team members are in fact German spies. Smith stages an elaborate hoax to try and extract information from the German high command to find out who their top agent in Britain is.

Their are some lull points in the film which tend to drag on as secrets are exposed on both sides, but there is no shortage of action for the remaining hour or so. As they free Carnaby from his captors, the commandos now must escape an inescapable mountain fortress, and return to England with the information they now posses about the German’s top British spy. But who in British intelligence is the traitor?

Where Eagles Dare became and instant smash hit at the box office and secured Eastwood (playing second to Burton) as a major Hollywood star. Burton had wanted to do an action film for some time and got what he wanted with this film. Like all movies, there are many historical inaccuracies that could only be apparent to a film and history buff such as myself.

For instance, the Germans have a helicopter which is used by General Rosemeyer (Ferdy Mayne) to bring him to the castle for General Carnaby’s interrogation. The helicopter is an American Bell 47 which first saw use in 1946. Helicopters were still in an experimental stage of development and neither the allies nor the Germans had the ability to produce them for military use.

Another inaccurate part of the film for me concerns Major Von Hapen (Derren Nesbitt) an SS officer who has more medals on him than a French Admiral. His awards consist of a German Cross, the famed Iron Cross, and the Close Combat Clasp in gold. During the war, these were front line caliber decorations awarded to valiant men who served the German Reich on many fronts.

It seems unlikely that a Bavarian staff officer could have such medals. A man of such awards would be leading men into combat, not hung up performing menial tasks. The Close Clasp in gold was such a high decoration, that only 600 or so in the Wehrmact (Army) or Waffen-SS were awarded them throughout the entire war.

It was regarded with higher esteem than the famed Knight’s Cross. Someone in the costume department got a little carried away in my professional opinion.

Where Eagles Dare is available on DVD and Blu-Ray as a double feature with Kelly’s Heroes June 1, 2010 through Warner Bros./MGM.

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