WWII Film Review – Where Eagles Dare (1968)

No real plot spoilers ahead. Here is simply a rollicking classic shoot ‘em up war flick with all the ingredients to make us cheer, groan and howl with delight. That’s how I felt when I watched this classic action flick after having avoided it for the last 25 years, thinking I’d seen it too many times on Saturday afternoon TV. It still stands, fifty years after it was made, as a satisfying thriller. If you are looking for a deeply moving, philosophically challenging film, this is not the movie to watch (though read my blog, there are plenty of those). This is for plain old entertainment.

Resting upon the performances of British acting giant Richard Burton and American legend Clint Eastwood, Where Eagles Dare (1968) follows a British and American commando unit as they sleuth into the local nervous system of the Nazis in frozen Bavaria, uncover moles in British intelligence, knock off the whole leadership of local German intelligence, blow up just about everything in sight, speed swiftly cross country, disable the Luftwaffe, humiliate the Gestapo, all while planting diversions regarding D-Day and not dying. And they escape. In grand style.

Director Brian G. Hutton took Alistair MacLean’s story and screenplay and turned it into a two and a half hour film packed with fast action and suspense, plot twists and flaming explosions. Its a shallow film with little more going for it than suspense, action, and good guys versus bad guys. But that’s really all it needs. It really does succeed as just a commando film.

The film does have the setting and historic look and feel of the area it is trying to replicate. Despite the limitations of special effects in 1968, it has enough authenticity to be believed. There are tons of extras; the sets are fantastic.

But it is also a typical film of its day in that anachronisms really do abound. For example, we see Nazi helicopters… in 1943. There is the threat of using truth drugs that did not exist yet. We see vehicles – cars, busses and armor – that were not around in the 40s. And, typical of all eras, the hair styles are distinctly circa 1968. These quirks, while demerits in a modern film, were common then. They all provide some chuckles.

The frequent use of the infamous “day for night” film technique mark this film well on the cinematic technology timeline, and the bright red paint that passes for blood makes the violence just a bit less graphic. Flaming dummies in cars and floppy mannequins tossed over cliffs are not quite as groan-worthy as we’d think, because by the time the campy effects are rolled out, we’re invested in the film and have suspended our imaginations sufficiently. We then understand that ALL cars filled with dead Nazis that are rolled off of cliffs immediately and automatically explode in gigantic flaming gasoline fireballs. And its fantastic.

The plot begins in the air as the film’s iconic Junkers Ju-52 transport carries our heroic commando unit deep behind enemy lines, and from the start there is secrecy, plot twisting, suspicion, deception and commando action. Burton, though he was a heavy drinker at the time, pulls off a great performance as the leader of this outfit, and Eastwood shines as the man of action. The ladies of the film are not mere filler nor ditzy dolls, they are key plot members.

Militarily speaking, the commandos are lousy tacticians. They yell out to one another instead of using silent communications, patrol in the open, carry far less ammo than they shoot, and use the Hollywood-style “spray and pray” method of sweeping a submachine gun back and forth from the hip while mowing down dozens of Nazis at a time. Their weapon of choice is the MP-9, a pistol-caliber sub-gun with hardly the cyclic rates depicted and scarcely the effective range shown in the battle scenes. But despite these typical flubs, the movie shines as a classic action film that doesn’t disappoint.

I must praise the film for its lack of foul language and nudity. During the late 1960s, nudity was common, though much less graphic and lingering, in war movies. It is refreshing to see the uncut film and not find such lowbrow techniques that cheapen a film. There are some minor implied sexual situations, but overall, this is a film that is family friendly. After all, it was Richard Burton’s stepsons that asked him to do a film with him in it that they were allowed to see.

So, suspend your belief for a while, root for the good guys, shiver at the snow, cringe at the feminized blond Gestapo man. Cheer as dynamite trip-lines buy time and commandoes duke it out on top of Alpine tram cars. Enjoy it for what it is, a shallow, enjoyable, action and suspense movie with plenty of intrigue to carry you through to the final plot twist and big reveal. Its a pop-corn worthy movie. I give it an A.

Here are some more scenes:

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