FILM (1968)

Nostalgia trip: Where Eagles Dare - all action and no talk

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 6:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 6:51pm

Where Eagles Dare
Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure
Director: Brian G. Hutton

They don't make 'em like Where Eagles Dare any more. Or at least they didn't until Quentin Tarantino did Inglourious Basterds in 2009, a descendant of this and 1970's Kelly's Heroes, his favourite "men-on-a-mission" movies. The moral quandaries of Vietnam might have made war seem a lot less fun in 1968, but you could still have a smash hit as long as Nazis were on the receiving end.

An American general key to winning the war has been captured and is being held in Eagle Castle high in the Bavarian Alps. It's up to Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton and Burton's secret agent girlfriend, Mary Ure, to parachute behind enemy lines, infiltrate the impregnable fortress, and rescue him before the dirty krauts get their torture equipment out. Over the 2½ hours it takes to do so, a whole town's worth of Wehrmacht is gleefully shot and exploded, mostly by Eastwood.

The logic-free plot is like an 11-year-old boy's "greatest war movie ever" concoction, and all the better for it. It's easy to see how Tarantino was inspired.

The making of the film seems to have been as much boys-will-be-boys fun as the plot. Burton was AWOL on the lash for days at a time in Paris with Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole, and Eastwood more interested in his female co-stars than a script he branded "terrible".

Written by thriller author Alistair MacLean (Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra), it was packed with exposition and clunking dialogue. Eastwood's character says about four lines, changes facial expression once and is basically a Nazi-slaughtering machine, racking up a body count probably not overtaken until the 1980s action movies of Schwarzenegger and Stallone.

The only person who really knows what's going on is Burton's character, which surprisingly works. The audience is as confused as the various Nazi commandants about who's double-crossing who and just how our heroes are going to escape.

Eastwood dubbed the film Where Doubles Dare because of the number of scenes performed by stuntmen. Alf Joint, Burton's stand-in, recalls the actor knocking himself out by walking into a mantelpiece while hammered. "After that it was, 'Alf, get into uniform', and we shot the rest of the scene from behind," he said in a 1998 interview. The action team was directed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. It's testament to his team's talent that the stunts still hold up.

Released at the height of the anti-Vietnam movement, it was one of MGM's biggest hits of the year, perhaps for its sheer escapist, espionage-and-dynamite action.