Looking Back At THE EAGLE HAS LANDED - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE EAGLE HAS LANDED

Tony’s on a mission.
You have to have a hell of a confidence in your ability to hook an audience to make Nazis your protagonists for a large part of your story, especially in 1975, just thirty years after the end of the war. For context, that’s 1991 from where you’re reading this.

Hat tip then to Jack Higgins for writing the novel of The Eagle Has Landed, and not only telling the story of a plan by a small group of Nazis to kidnap Churchill and take him back to Berlin at the height of the war, but also to use what’s called the ‘false document’ technique, to bed the idea in his readers’ minds that the story he was telling was based in fact.

It wasn’t, but when you watch the movie version, filmed just a year after the book came out, it feels strong enough and real enough to make you wonder.

When it came to filming the story, it’s almost like director John Sturges and producers David Niven Jr and Jack Wiener shook the British and American talent tree, and simply never stopped shaking.

If you’ve never seen the movie, check this out.
Michael Caine plays Colonel Kurt Steiner, commanding the Nazi operation to capture Churchill.

Robert Duvall plays Colonel Radl, the Nazi officer commanded to put the demented plan into action. The plan is initially the result of a Hitler rant and regarded as an idiotic joke – until he proves it might be possible.

Anthony Quayle is Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who got the initial command direct from Hitler’s mouth to conduct at least a ‘feasibility study’ into capturing Churchill, and who sets Radl on the case.

That triumvirate of star power enough for you? Oh honey, we’ve barely started.

Donald Pleasance is a creepily believable Heinrich Himmler, who gives Radl authorisation to continue the operation after Canaris tries to get it pulled.

Donald Sutherland is Liam Devlin, an Irish paratrooper who wants a united Ireland above all, and who is recruited to help the demented, ballsy Nazi plan by acting as a bridgehead in the tiny, sleepy hamlet of Studley Constable, where, unbeknown to most people, Churchill is due to visit.
The Nazis have that information because it’s been fed to them by Jean Marsh as sleeper agent Starling, Joanna Grey, widow of the parish with her eyes on something better.

Jenny Agutter is local 19 year-old Molly Prior, a girl with some physical itches to scratch, who falls for the enigmatic Irishman who just happens to be in league with Nazis.

Had enough yet? Nope – still not done.

An immediately pre-Dallas Larry Hagman’s in this movie as the slightly buffoonish American Colonel Clarence E Pitts. Perhaps thankfully, he’s backed up by Treat Williams as the always competent Captain Clark. Judy Geeson (famous for making slightly creepy eyes at Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love) turns up here as village stalwart Pamela Verecker. Her brother, the vicar, is played by John Standing, who has had a career so peppered with roles as to make him “Oh, that guy from the other thing. And the other other thing” to practically everyone who’s ever had a television.

Just when you think that must surely be it, up pops Maurice Roeves out of nowhere, alongside an uncredited (it was a strange time, the mid-Seventies) Roy Marsden, two absolute stalwarts of TV for decades. There are even more for those who play Casting Bingo – Dennis Lill’s in this movie. So’s Tim Barlow, another actor you’ll know from Something Else – but WHICH Something Else will depend on your viewing habits. Peter Miles is here too (albeit blink and you miss it briefly). So’s an uncredited Malcolm Tierney. And on, and on, and on it goes.

The point of all of which is that Higgins’ story is so absurdly compelling that all these people – some of them already stars, some of them actors on whose resumes The Eagle Had Landed would go on to do no harm at all, thank you very much – signed up to tell the story of the stealth-invasion of a bunch of German paratroopers and, for reasons never made entirely clear, an Irishman, and how the course of World War II was essentially played out across the usually calm and only moderately bigoted greens and lawns of a typical English country village.
It’s perhaps a slightly disturbing realisation that is in essence, the best, most gripping parts of the movie belong exclusively to the Nazis, and are in the first half of the film. How an idea could go from being a ranty piece of lunacy in the head of a despotic ruler, down a chain of command to someone who – while still believing it unlikely – believes that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well as far as possible, and so onward to people committed to do it or die is a fascinating allegory not just of the wartime process of command, but also of our own day and age. Without going overtly political about the thing, the same logic runs from ‘They stole the election from you’ to people storming the capitol building. Ranty idiocy becomes patriotic determination, becomes people dying.

Because they do, in The Eagle Has Landed. The Nazi plan, absurd at first but scarily possible in the hands of professionals, comes unstuck in the most innocent of ways. It’s slightly heavy-handed as a plot device, but Caine’s loyal paratroopers insist on wearing their own German soldier outfits underneath their disguise as British officers, and when a village child falls in the water and is about to be swept to her death in the water wheel, one of the Nazis jumps in to save her. He succeeds, but is himself mangled as a result – and his uniform is exposed to everyone.

The relatively meticulous plan goes pretty much to hell at that point, and the movie switches gear, turning from a stealthy occupation into a pitched battle between Nazis holding hostages in the church and the local American garrison, led (at least initially) by Hagman’s gung-ho Colonel Pitts, and later by the more sensible Clark. People die on both sides, while, maintaining a thread that is planted early in the film, where Caine’s Steiner is one of the ‘moderate Nazis,’ he releases his hostages uharmed, so the English themselves are relatively unharmed by the action.

Meanwhile, the sizzle of raunch between Sutherland’s Devlin and Agutter’s Molly Prior develops into breathy declarations of love after one of the most awkward screen kisses in history. Devlin’s story of potential threat more or less peters out when he realises he’s in love with her too, his devotion to any of the causes on offer less potent and important than a life with Molly.

How that’s going to be possible in the village he helped to occupy is anyone’s guess – especially as Molly has hot-bloodedly shot an angry villager stone dead by the end, a crime Devlin rightly explains will be laid at his door, rather than hers. Nevertheless, he abandons his Nazi pals for the love of a young girl who’s exceptionally eager to get her game on, Nazi or not.
With Devlin out of the picture, there’s a sense of the American Cavalry riding in to save the British from the German occupation towards the end, and it’s useful that Clark and his team eradicate the Nazi threat. It’s useful because it breeds a false sense of security, which Caine’s Steiner can use to his advantage to give us one more loop of thrills before the end. Escaping the village, he sets off alone, now with no hope of kidnapping Churchill – but with the potential of killing him still alive and well in his mind.

We won’t spoil the ending for you, because there’s a sense in which the movie does that itself when Steiner and Churchill come face to face. There’s lots of intense, nail-biting drama on the road to that meeting, but the aftermath is a little deflating. There is of course no way it could be otherwise, because we know that Churchill didn’t die in Studley Constable, so there’s only one possible outcome, but still, you’ll feel the dip at the end.

That said, if you have a Sunday afternoon on your hands, you can do a lot worse than to fill it with this high-octane, incredibly star-powered war film that boils a whole multi-continental conflict down to a vital crisis point in a quiet English village.

That revelatory and semi-satirical idea of how an idea that should be nonsensical, in the mind of a dictator with a chain of command, becomes a reality that gets a lot of people killed remains relevant in the age of cynical political opportunism, and it’s also great fun to watch simply as an example of lots of great actors doing their thing. As we said, it’s slightly unnerving that the most gripping and enthralling characters in the piece are the Nazis, but as they are the prime movers of the piece, that’s probably inevitable.

The Eagle Has Landed is a cracking movie that belts along at pace, while the acting calibre is good enough to ensure everyone has their own personality, their own issues, and their own dramas along the way. For a top-class war movie on a tiny focal scale, you can’t do better.

Watch The Eagle Has Landed today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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