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