The Eagle Has Landed
Director: John Sturges / Screenplay: Tom Mankiewicz (from Jack Higgins’ novel) / Editing: Anne Coates / DP: Anthony Richmond / Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Michael Caine / Donald Sutherland / Robert Duvall / Jenny Agutter / Donald Pleasence / Anthony Quayle / Jean Marsh / Sven-Bertil Taube / John Standing / Judy Geeson / Treat Williams / Larry Hagman / Michael Byrne / Joachim Hansen / Denis Lill / Terence Plummer / John Barrett / Ferdy Mayne / Siegfried Rauch
A Little Knowledge Really IS a Dangerous Thing…
Imagine you’re John Sturges. A Hollywood veteran with Directing credits ranging from Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). By the time you’ve reached your mid-fifties, there’s little left to prove, so you spend your days deep-sea fishing off Baja, California.
I can see the attraction.
But it’s an expensive hobby so, when a young British producer (none other than David Niven Jr) turns-up, offering a return to the limelight (and some ready cash) with a starry war-movie set in England, what are you going to do?
What you don’t then do, is disappear back to Baja, the moment the shoot’s over, yet according to Michael Caine’s autobiography, that’s precisely what Sturges did. Worse, he compounded his hand-washing of the film, by refusing to get involved with either its editing or post-production; behaviour ultimately detrimental to the end product. Neglecting the editing suite is particularly damaging, given that’s where most Directors ‘find the rhythm’ of a film and it’s probably why I still find the end result so uneven, after having just rewatched it for what must be the fifth or sixth time (blame a childhood spent consuming war movies with the zeal of an addict).
Henry Patterson wrote the original novel – his thirty-sixth – under the pseudonym of Jack Higgins and, according to WikiPedia, it marked a step-change in his style, being longer and with a tricksier narrative than the pulpier fare that’d preceded it. The basic plot of The Eagle Has Landed, revolved around a simple premise: An undercover German agent (codenamed ‘Starling’) is in rural Norfolk during WW2 (must’ve been a quiet assignment) and reports that Winston Churchill will be visiting the area over a forthcoming weekend. From this tidbit, an idea forms: use elite troops to abduct the P.M. and, as a result, force Britain to accept a ‘negotiated peace’.
For his novel, Higgins makes its primary character one Liam Devlin, a member of the IRA and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, now seeing out WW2, by teaching literature at the University of Berlin. Devlin it is, who’s recruited to act as the mission’s ground liaison. Where the film differs, is the greater emphasis it places on the operation’s Commander – Oberst Kurt Steiner – perhaps on account of its starring role for Michael Caine.
It’s reported that Caine was originally interested in the role of Devlin, but feared a possible backlash at home, from playing a lovable rogue of an IRA man (especially given that, in the Seventies, the IRA’s ‘armed struggle’ was then in full-swing). After Caine, the next choice was Richard Harris, but he’d apparently blotted his copybook by attending an IRA fund-raising event in New York, so the job fell to Donald Sutherland, who had no such qualms: after all, he came to ‘Eagle having just played a near-bestial Fascist in Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976). Portraying a freewheeling Irish terrorist would’ve been, I’d imagine, a pleasant, almost relaxing contrast…
We begin, however, with an interminable sequence in which Donald Pleasence as Head of the SS Heinrich Himmler – perfect casting, by the way – meets with Admiral Canaris, the Director of the German Foreign Intelligence Bureaux, ‘the Abwehr’. It’s the day after Italian Dictator Mussolini has been rescued by paratroops led by the daring Otto Skorzeny, from a hotel on the Gran Sasso mountain, where he was being held by partisans.
Higgins’ tale picks-up from where such reality left-off.
Flushed with success and keen to secure an even greater target, Hitler suggests – and Himmler wants developed – a ‘feasibility plan’ to either kidnap or assassinate Churchill. The request is passed on to a bemused Canaris, played by the iconic Anthony Quayle, who goes toe-to-toe with Pleasence here, neither man putting a foot wrong. Canaris is savvy enough to realise, that his position relies on him being nothing less than supportive when amongst slippery colleagues. If ever an actor could produce a look that said ‘I’ll be kicking this idea into the long grass as soon as humanly possible’, it was Quayle. In this scene.
Lalo Schifrin’s lively score lifts a pointless, time-wasting aerial shot of the Admiral’s car, that’s all springy mandolin and strident horns. The optimism duly fades when, back at Abwehr HQ, Canaris meets with Oberst Radl, head of ‘Section Three’, handling ‘counter-espionage’. He gives Radl the job of preparing the report; a task he believes will be a waste of time, given that Hitler will soon forget the suggestion. But Himmler? Himmler expects… Radl’s assistant, Karl (a young Michael Byrne) recalls a recent report from Starling, that suggests it might be possible; an answer that inspires Radl.
Robert Duvall glistens as Radl, with his eyepatch, gloved hand (all suggestive of past hardships) and the attentions of a doctor concerned with his patient’s medium-term prospects, let alone anything more ambitious. Radl’s living under an unspecified death-sentence and has therefore nothing to lose: he’s going to run with the idea, if only for sport… Duvall’s had an interesting career. Seldom the headliner, he prefers to be the archetypical understudy supporting the showier lead: consider his Tom Hagen in Coppola’s first two Godfathers, or his psychotic Kilgore in Coppola’s later Apocalypse Now (1979). In his quiet, undemonstrative manner, Duvall brings gravitas to a part, as here, though I think he’s helped by Tom Mankiewicz’s screenplay.
Mankiewicz is another interesting character. His father was the multiple Oscar-winning Writer-Director Joseph Mankiewicz and, looking at the career of son Tom, one might be forgiven for thinking the movie business ran in the family’s blood. After a variety of theatrical & TV work, Mankiewicz impressed James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, who included him on the re-writing of Diamonds Are Forever (1971); the picture that would lure Connery back to the fold, one last time. This led to a sole writing credit on Live and Let Die (1973) and a future career as a ‘script-doctor’ for a few studios. For ‘Eagle, Mankiewicz had the unenviable job of filleting Higgins’ original text to produce a screenplay running to around two hours, twenty minutes. He also had to alter its emphasis. As previously mentioned, the novel focussed on Devlin, but Caine’s chosen role as Steiner meant changes to reflect his status. We’ll cover those shortly, but for now, consider this speech of Radl’s, to Karl. He begins by talking about the philosopher Jung, then we get this:
Radl: ‘He speaks of synchronicity. Events having a coincidence in time and because of this, a feeling that some deeper motivation is involved. Take this affair. The Führer comes up with an absurd suggestion that we emulate Skorzeny by abducting Churchill. Now, for political reasons, we’re plotted-in to make a worthless report of the prospects and, suddenly, synchronicity raises its disturbing head. We receive a routine report with a brief notation that next month, after visiting a Bomber Command, Churchill will spend the weekend at a country manor less than seven miles from a deserted coastline. At any other time, this report would mean nothing. But at this particular time. In that particular file… It becomes a circumstance which titillates coincidence and teases us.’
Karl: ‘But surely, Herr Oberst, you don’t believe this thing can be carried off?’
Radl: ‘A wink from a pretty girl at a party rarely results in climax, Karl, but a man is a fool not to push a suggestion as far as it will go!’
It’s a remarkable speech, regardless of its author; all the more so, because it embellishes Radl’s character & portrays him as a natural, deep thinker. Yet, however much it impresses, it’s also far too long and sucks momentum from the picture. Himmler & Canaris have already told us the outline, so why rake-it over again? Had this been an Alistair Maclean yarn, I suspect proceedings to this point would’ve been streamlined, getting us to a slimmer version of this speech, much quicker. In being left to edit the movie alone, Anne Coates did her best with this unassailable rump, even if it rounds-out Radl’s character.
Another character that needs all the on-screen help he can get, is Steiner himself. For a start, he’s a German officer (of the Fallschirmjäger or ‘Parachute Regiment’). Trouble is, a general audience would struggle to divorce a regular military officer from the SS, so Mankiewicz addresses this, with Steiner’s opening scene:
A train waits at a junction. Steiner leads his men off for some fresh air. Outside, they witness Jews from a Polish ghetto, being herded aboard a waiting goods train. A young woman escapes: Steiner catches her. Despite requests from guards, that he should release her, Steiner actually places her aboard a third train that’s rumbling past. She’s shot anyway, with her killer revealed to be an SS General, who now places Steiner and company in-custody.
It’s an important scene, not for its contribution to the overall plot, but for how it humanises Steiner and by extension, his men. These are professional, ethical, elite soldiers. In making this ideological break with SS dogma, and having the group shipped-off as one, to the penal colony on the Channel Isle of Alderney, Mankiewicz (like Higgins before him), is putting clear water between Nazi fanatics and the regular armed forces. Steiner now becomes that rarest of cinematic creatures: a German officer for whom we feel sympathy, given his principled sacrifice and subsequent appeal for leniency to be shown towards his (loyal) men. We now want him to succeed, even if it means in the context of the film, the end of Churchill: ah, the movies…
Disillusioned even with the idea of devoting time & energy to a ‘pointless report’, Canaris orders Radl to stop. Instead – and luckily for the movie – Radl meets with Devlin and together, they fly to Alderney (quick note: scenes on ‘Alderney’ were all shot in Cornwall. One glance at the rolling hills beyond the airfield, suggests a more expansive hinterland than can actually be found on that hardy isle). Still, despite the film’s modest budget, I appreciate the efforts made in production design, such as the conspicuously original Fieseler Storch aircraft, props such as the manned torpedoes or even having a couple of VW Beetles under tarps on Steiner’s train; little touches to suggest time and place that aren’t always appreciated, yet help build a cohesive world.
The production also did good work when it came to the fictional Norfolk village of Studley Constable (in reality, the Oxfordshire village of Mapledurham).
I’d imagine a large chunk of the budget went into building an extension for Mapledurham’s original, three-hundred year old watermill, a fake pub (‘The Spyglass and Kettle’) and a few period shopfronts; almost a pity to blow much of it up, in the final battle… Our first taste of life in rural Oxfordshire (sorry, Norfolk), comes when Devlin meets Starling for the first time. Jean Marsh plays Joanna Grey with her usual flinty reserve and makes an effective foil for Devlin, who wastes little time, in his capacity as the new ‘Marsh-Warden’, in riding the scrounged, though anaemic-looking motorbike about the estate.
In the area of Norfolk that Higgins’ chose for his village, can be found considerable, wide-ranging tracts of salt-marsh, some of which is navigable out-to-sea. Land such as this, especially if it falls within a private estate such as that imagined, would almost certainly have a ‘Warden’, to monitor water levels & drainage and keep an eye out for poachers, etc. It’s perfect cover for Devlin, as it allows him to find a discreet spot capable of hiding a German patrol boat from prying locals…
He then meets Molly Prior, a naïve young woman, played here by Jenny Agutter, an actress who’d originally been discovered whilst studying ballet (note to self: it’s not too late!). Her breakout role for cinema, was probably The Railway Children (1970), though Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) remains the stronger artistic statement for me. A shared-lead in the Sci-Fi soufflé Logan’s Run (1976) preceded ‘Eagle and might be worth a look, if only to see her stretch between such diverse roles.
In ‘Eagle, Agutter understands that Molly has come-of-age in wartime. Men – and male role-models – are in short supply, so it’s understandable that she should fall so hard for a scallywag’s roguish charm. Their courtship is necessarily brief and it’s to Devlin’s credit (by that, I mean his two writers) that he’s all-too aware of the ridiculous futility in the situation; how a reckless fling might compromise matters, yet as Steiner himself comments, later on:
Steiner: ‘Mister Devlin? You’re an extraordinary man!’
Devlin: ‘Colonel Steiner? You’re an extraordinary judge of character!’
Before that exchange, Steiner has to arrive, along with his crew, halved in number by their duties on Alderney. After parachuting into the surf at a lonely beach, they rendezvous with Devlin & Grey and proceed to occupy the village dressed as Polish troops. As Devlin’s toying with Molly, Steiner’s cosying-up to Reverend Verecker (John Standing) and is having to factor Verecker’s sister Pamela into his plans (Judy Geeson; a staple figure of British cinema in the Seventies), for Pamela has a worrisome involvement with Captain Clark (Treat Williams). Clark, a U.S. Ranger, is stationed with his unit at a house a few miles away. You can imagine what happens. Suffice to say that, once the game’s up, the cavalry arrives in the form of the idiotically Gung-ho Colonel Pitts (Larry Hagman). Pitts might be written as a buffoon, but Hagman’s unfortunate audition for pantomime doesn’t sit well in a ‘serious’ war movie; tonally, it’s all over the shop and I can’t help muttering ‘about time!’ when he later takes a bullet to the head…
For the purposes of this review, I came to realise something that may have influenced the choice to play Pitts for laughs. This is, after all, a war movie of the Seventies. It carries a whiff of the irreverence seen in late-Sixties war movies i.e. Kelly’s Heroes or M*A*S*H (both 1970), but has yet to taste the bitter cynicism that would taint the genre in the wake of Vietnam. There’s an honesty here, almost a sweetness, in ‘Eagle’s view of wartime. Characters might be ideologically driven but, as Steiner & Devlin prove, a basic humanity is at work here. Not that this excuses Hagman’s mis-cast, mis-directed performance in any way. If anything, it merely reflects Sturges’ lack of Quality Control. There’s a tightness to early scenes, that just isn’t there later-on. Funny, that…
Steiner also has another moment to shine, when he meets Clark outside the church, where he and his men have taken the villagers hostage. Now proudly wearing his German uniform, he greets a startled Clark as Officer-to-Officer; a momentary throwback to a more chivalrous age. Though he’ll not surrender, Steiner’s no butcher. When he lets the hostages go, it merely reinforces that which has been clear from the start. If Steiner’s to die, he wants to go out fighting, not cowering behind defenceless civilians.
The real tragedy here, is that Sturges appears content to employ dull camera moves, uninspired choreography and lame whizzbangs to achieve the film’s climax. One of the G.I.s tosses a grenade through a smashed church-window, only to cower under an unrealistic bloom of fire & rubble in-return. A Jeep will drive into the mill-pond; another, into a ditch. It’s all inconsequential flimflammery that wouldn’t disgrace an episode of the A-Team…
Worse, Sturges’ shots drag, leaving the entire churchyard sequence feeling as though it could be measured in geological time… We see a G.I. line-up his shot then see it make its target; the camera zipping back and forth as if covering the action at Wimbledon.. Not without some irony – given the consecrated location – the film’s climax all feels lifeless. Watching the G.I.s run hither-and-yon, is to watch a bunch of un-Directed actors ‘playing at soldiers’ and there’s little Ms. Coates could’ve done here, other than junk everything and start over.
No wonder Steiner’s keen to leave, after Devlin shows-up via a ‘secret tunnel’ linking church-to-vicarage (a detail previously revealed). Having said goodbye to his vainglorious band-of-brothers, Steiner’s free to go-it-alone… Whether he does – or doesn’t – achieve his end goal I’ll leave as a surprise, but it’s telling that Caine himself, saw parallels in Higgins’ work to that other popular action-thriller of the era: The Day of the Jackal (1971), based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth. In both cases, it’s almost irrelevant as to whether or not the assassins succeed or fail: the audience is merely thrilled to see them remain one step ahead of disaster.
In which case, might I suggest that John Sturges so identified with the archetypes presented by Steiner and Jackal, that he left the production when he did, precisely because he sensed he was about to be uncovered as a burnt-out hack? Needless to say, ‘Eagle was to be a shabby end to an otherwise notable career…
PS: Seldom have I encountered such a blatant disconnect between what’s on a poster and the movie itself. It’s easy to imagine wavering punters back in ‘76, standing outside their local fleapit and tossing-up between this and something like Rocky or Carrie. Even for fans of war movies, the sheer disappointment must’ve been hard to swallow when they considered what they should’ve chosen…
Devlin: “There’s an old poem I know which, freely translated from the Irish says: ‘I realised fear one morning when the blare of the hunters sound. When they are all chasing at the poor bloody fox, it’s safer to be dressed as a hound!”
Steiner: “You’re quite a literary man, mister Devlin!”
Devlin: “Truth be known, Colonel, I’m a bloody literary genius!”