Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Back to 1976: THE EAGLE HAS LANDED

by Heath Holland
Forget killing Hitler, let’s kidnap Winston Churchill!

1976’s World War II yarn The Eagle Has Landed has a lot of things going for it. It’s based on a bestselling novel by Jack Higgins that has, to date, sold over fifty million copies worldwide. It stars an ensemble cast of famous faces that were proven box office draws. Maybe most importantly, it’s the final film of John Sturges, a legendary director responsible for some true Hollywood classics.

The Eagle Has Landed is hard to classify. It’s partially a drama, partially a war film, and partially a spy story. To make it even harder to put into a box, it even displays elements of comedy and romance. Like the best of its seventies brethren, this one is hard to pin down but is made more intriguing for that very reason. The central idea behind the story is that Hitler, enthusiastic after the rescue of his war-time associate Mussolini from a mountain-top fortress by German troops, has decided that he wants a crack team of German specialists to kidnap Winston Churchill and bring him safely to captivity. For all intents and purposes, this is the same World War II heroic mission story that we’ve seen dozens of times or more, but with the twist that almost every single one of our “protagonists” is a Nazi.
A big part of what makes this decision not only palatable but actually riveting is the huge ensemble cast led by three anchors: first and foremost, we have Michael Caine as a sympathetic German officer. That’s right, he’s a Nazi, but we still like him! Within moments of meeting his character, Caine is going rogue against a group of his fellow Nazis who are rounding up Jews, which he sees as unnecessary and cruel. It should also be noted that Caine really doesn’t even attempt a German accent, and we should all be thankful. Someone who does attempt one (and mostly succeeds) is Robert Duvall as a German colonel who is worn out by the war but still feels a lingering loyalty to the Fuhrer. Or is his loyalty really just defeated resignation to a fate already sealed? The last of our leading trio is Donald Sutherland, playing an Irish mercenary and member of the IRA who provides much of the intel and ground-level infiltration knowledge to the Germans about the quiet English town where Churchill will soon be arriving and when he’ll be at his most vulnerable. He’s kind of like a composer, writing the symphony of death that Hitler’s troops will perform.

The rest of the cast has a lot of recognizable faces as well, but it’s always difficult to talk about big ensembles without ending up in the weeds, so I’ll just name a few. We have a very young Jenny Agutter as a whimsical English villager, Donald Pleasance as the notorious Nazi commander Heinrich Himmler, Anthony Quayle as an admiral, Jean Marsh as Joanna Grey (a character as dubious as her name), and three Americans played by Jeff “Kenickie” Conaway, Treat Williams, and Larry Hagman (between I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas). There are so many more recognizable actors in this movie. The cast of this film is huge.
Maybe due to the literary origins of the story, or maybe just due to the nature of the yarn itself, The Eagle Has Landed often feels like it’s plodding along. The entire first half of the movie is set-up, with lots of groundwork being laid for the operation itself. Because of this, there are those who find this movie to be a real chore to watch. I’m not personally in this camp, though I do recognize that this is a slow burn with a lot of emphasis on the “slow” part. This movie is a grower, not a show-er. Personally, I find it to be a really interesting exercise in alternate history (there is no evidence that Hitler ever tried to kidnap Churchill) and the very realistic way that the war COULD have unfolded if a mission like this had been mounted and achieved. This is not a movie to watch while you’re doing something else; it demands our attention as it allows us to be a fly on the wall and see how this plot goes from the germ of an idea to a full-fledged covert operation.

Yes, there’s a lot of set up and character development, but when the action comes, it feels like the payoff that it is. The violence has more of an effect on us because we haven’t seen people being killed Schwarzenegger-style for the entire film. It’s brutal, shocking, and upsetting. I’m on record as having somewhat of a difficult relationship with war movies, but I like this one a lot because nothing feels gratuitous and the characters are all so well defined. Besides, it’s not really a war movie as much as it’s a black ops movie. It’s worth mentioning that even though our story takes place deep within the heart of the enemy camp, our characters are all defined in shades of gray. It’s so strange to be watching a movie about Nazis doing something horrible, but still be invested in them as characters and as people. That’s the real gift that this movie gives us: a different perspective.

I suppose Jack Higgins is to be commended for his story (I’ve never read his novel), but I have to give a lot of the credit to the screenwriter, Tom Mankiewicz, the guy who wrote several James Bond films (Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun) and the divisive fantasy film Ladyhawke. He manages to juggle all of these characters without leaving anyone feeling underserved, and his writing of them is one of the reasons we can invest in the central thesis of this film without seeing most of these people as outright monsters. It’s a tricky little tightrope, but it’s walked well.
But really, guys, the bulk of the credit for this movie goes to John Sturges. This singular talent was behind so many classic Hollywood films, but doesn’t seem to have the resonance in today’s society because he wasn’t an “auteur.” You don’t really watch Sturges films and say “oh, this looks like a Sturges film.” He has no discernable hallmarks or authorial calling cards within his work, nor does he have a distinct, defining run of films within a certain genre like John Ford or John Huston. Yet I would contend that Sturges is one of the most important directors of the 20th century. Look at his work behind the camera on westerns like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven, or at The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen. Look at Bad Day at Black Rock, which I wrote about in my series on the films of 1955. You can see it in his work with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, in his screen adaptations of famous novels. This is a director who was not intimidated by his subjects, and who had the ability to make us care about any story, big or small. The Eagle Has Landed is a success first and foremost because of the deft hand of Sturges.

It’s impossible for me to watch this movie and not detect—at least in my own mind--that it had a huge impact on Quentin Tarantino. In many ways, his film Inglorious Basterds seems like this movie told from the other side. I can’t say for certain, but there too many similarities to not at least suspect that QT is a fan of this film. Making discoveries like that (even if I’m only imagining things) is a huge part of the fun in watching many of these older movies and discovering what inspired them and how they, in turn, inspired other films. There’s so much joy to be found in recognizing this actor from that project, and then suddenly realizing just how connected all these movies really are. Digging deep into the films of yesterday really does shed a light on the creative process of many of the filmmakers today, and I think this is a great example of that.
The Eagle Has Landed is a very cool movie. It casts well-known, likable stars in roles that play against type and challenges us to look at the enemy in new ways. The pacing is deliberate, designed to slowly ratchet up the tension as all the players on the chess board move toward their inevitable destinies. It’s scripted well, shot with style, and directed by a master. The movie requires a lot of its viewer—more than most—but it rewards us for having faith and letting it take us along for the ride. The Eagle Has Landed provides us yet another example of how unique and wonderful the films of 1976 still are.

Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!

4 comments:

  1. heck yeah. i bought this blu-ray purely because the title sounded cool. i think i read the synopsis on imdb, but really it was the title. lucky it was a good movie too.

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  2. Great movie, I miss the old WWII flicks where the Germans had English accents.

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  3. Definitely a fun flick, though with an unfortunate dash of sexism...

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    1. to be honest, sexism was in 99.9% of the films back then. it's sad, but it's a fact.

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