Film Review - The Eagle has Landed (1976)

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INTRODUCTION

'The Eagle has Landed' is a war film caper in which a platoon of renegade German soldiers who have incurred the wrath of the Nazis are given a stark choice - continue a series of virtually suicide missions off the coast of the Channel Island of Alderney, or embark on one of the most daring missions of the Second World War; nothing less than the kidnapping or assassination of Winston Churchill.

The film which tells this story is based on a novel by author Jack Higgins which was published in 1975. One year later, this movie opened as one of the most enjoyable of war movies with a cast a colourful characters played by some of the best known British and American actors of recent decades. The film also provided a fitting tribute to John Sturges, one of the Hollywood greats, who retired from movie making after directing 'The Eagle has Landed'. This is my review of his final movie.

Colonel Radl ( Robert Duvall) and his assistant Karl concoct a plan to kidnap or assassinate Winston Churchill. All they need now is to find the right man for the job
Colonel Radl ( Robert Duvall) and his assistant Karl concoct a plan to kidnap or assassinate Winston Churchill. All they need now is to find the right man for the job
And Colonel Steiner (Michael Caine) unwittingly sets in train the course of events which lead to him commanding the mission, when he argues with a Nazi General over Jewish deportation
And Colonel Steiner (Michael Caine) unwittingly sets in train the course of events which lead to him commanding the mission, when he argues with a Nazi General over Jewish deportation

WHAT'S THE STORY ?

The premise of this story is that at the height of World War Two, Adolf Hitler and his 'think tank' came up with a scheme to send a secret crack force to England to kidnap British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The idea is then put into the hands of Admiral Canaris, Head of Military Intelligence, who privately believes that this is a crackpot idea which cannot possibly work. But that's not the sort of thing anyone - even a high ranking Admiral - can say to the Fuhrer, so he goes through the motions of setting up a 'feasibility study' with the intention of quietly dropping the scheme at a later date. He appoints his deputy Colonel Radl to carry out the study, but then a sequence of circumstances comes together to make Radl believe that it might indeed be possible to pull off this daring mission.

Against Admiral Canaris's better judgement Radl selects two men to lead the operation. One is Liam Devlin, an easy-going (most of the time) Irish republican who owes no loyalty to Hitler, but who dreams of a united Ireland, and to this end is prepared to work with the Nazis to win the war against Britain. Devlin subsequently travels to England to lay the groundwork for the secret mission with a traitorous local woman, Joanna Grey. The other man Radl selects is Colonel Kurt Steiner. Steiner is a courageous and highly decorated German officer who commands the utmost loyalty of his men, but holds no truck with brutal Nazi ideology. One day he oversteps the mark in a very bitter altercation with a Nazi General when he attempts to save a young Jewish girl from deportation to a concentration camp. It's a court-martial offence. The Nazis now have a dilemma - execution of a recognised hero would be embarrassing; better by far to send him to the remote backwater of the Channel Island of Alderney where he and his men are forced to conduct a series of suicidally dangerous raids on British shipping. This is where he is when Colonel Radl makes him a proposition; stay where he is till all his men are dead, or lead the raid to kidnap or kill the British Prime Minister, in which case he and all his men will have their misconduct records wiped clean. Steiner opts to lead the raid.

So it is that Steiner and his small platoon secretly land on the East Coast of England and head to the peaceful little village of Studley Constable, the nearest village to a country manor where Winston Churchill is due to spend a few days. So that the accents of the men do not cause alarm, they travel under the guise of being Polish Officers fighting for the allies; as such they are welcomed into village life. Steiner soon makes contact with Devlin and Miss Grey. All they have to do now is wait for Churchill's arrival in the locality. But then things start to go wrong. There's a small American base nearby. and they receive unwelcome attention from this. There's also a problem with Devlin who unwisely begins a relationship with a local girl. But the big problem occurs when a little girl falls into a stream near a watermill and one of the Germans risks his life to try to save her. In the process, the German uniform under his outer clothes is revealed, and the cover of Steiner's platoon is blown.

Now Steiner has to act quickly. Despite rounding up the villagers and holding them in the village church in an attempt to suppress the information from getting out, the nearby Americans get wind of the events, and Steiner and his men find themselves surrounded. It seems there is no hope of successfully completing the mission. But then one last chance presents itself for Steiner to make his escape from the church.

Colonel Radl, accompanied by Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland), puts forward his proposition to Steiner on the occupied Channel Island of Alderney
Colonel Radl, accompanied by Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland), puts forward his proposition to Steiner on the occupied Channel Island of Alderney

MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS

ACTOR
CHARACTER
Michael Caine
Colonel Steiner
Donald Sutherland
Liam Devlin
Robert Duvall
Colonel Radl
Jenny Agutter
Molly Prior
Treat Williams
Captain Clark
Larry Hagman
Colonel Pitts
Jean Marsh
Joanna Grey
John Standing
Father Verecker
Judy Geeson
Pamela Verecker

THE FACTS OF THE FILM

DIRECTOR : John Sturges

WRITERS / SCREENPLAY :

  • Jack Higgins (novel)
  • Tom Mankiewicz (screenplay).

YEAR OF RELEASE : 1976

RUNNING TIME : 135 minutes

GENRE : War

GUIDENCE : Some violent deaths but not particularly aggressive or gory

ACADEMY AWARDS : None


Robert Duvall as Colonel Radl, mastermind of the plan to attack Winston Churchill
Robert Duvall as Colonel Radl, mastermind of the plan to attack Winston Churchill
Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin, and Jenny Agutter as Molly Prior, enjoy a moment together
Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin, and Jenny Agutter as Molly Prior, enjoy a moment together
Donald Pleasence plays Heinrich Himmler, the Chief of Adolf Hitler's S.S.
Donald Pleasence plays Heinrich Himmler, the Chief of Adolf Hitler's S.S.
Larry Hagman is Colonel Pitts, who heads the American company near the village
Larry Hagman is Colonel Pitts, who heads the American company near the village
Four people getting on well together - but one is an imposter. Treat Williams as the American Captain, Michael Caine as Colonel Steiner (alias 'Colonel Miller'), John Standing as Father Verecker, and Judy Geeson as Pamela
Four people getting on well together - but one is an imposter. Treat Williams as the American Captain, Michael Caine as Colonel Steiner (alias 'Colonel Miller'), John Standing as Father Verecker, and Judy Geeson as Pamela

MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS

Michael Caine plays Colonel Kurt Steiner in a performance which is probably not his best - he looks and sounds a bit too much like an English man with an English accent. Colonel Steiner, as befits the 'hero' of a film about a group of Germans intending to kill the British Prime Minister, is no Nazi - he is rather more decent than this - brave, and without any undue respect for his superiors. This latter quality leads to the downfall of the Colonel and his platoon.

Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin gives an enjoyable performance as always. Devlin is an Irish republican and the portrayal of this terrorist is quite sympathetic. We learn that he has chosen not to indulge in typical terrorist activities because he doesn't want to make bombs which arbitrarily kill and maim innocent civilians. His argument is with 'The British Empire'.

Robert Duvall plays Colonel Radl. It's an understated role, but as usual his acting is good and appropriate. So too is that of Anthony Quayle as Admiral Canaris. Meanwhile Donald Pleasence appears to have some fun portraying Heinrich Himmler with an expression which may be described as smug, yet slightly bemused, with a hint of craziness.

On English soil Jenny Agutter (much as I love her) doesn't really turn local girl Molly Prior into a truly believable character, with a very posh accent and an apparent ability to fall madly in love within the space of 24 hours.

Larry Hagman plays Colonel Pitts who is the inexperienced leader of the American base. Although he is a man who dreams of playing the heroic role, he has, in fact, been sidelined from front line action; this is not very surprising - if even a small fraction of their leaders were as incompetent as Clarence Pitts, America would never win any wars.

Thank Heavens for Captain Clark (Treat Williams), who is left to pick up the pieces from Pitts's mistakes. It becomes his responsibility to try to stop the German plan in its tracks.

The two lead actors in the film, who also lead the plot to kidnap or assassinate Winston Churchill - Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin and Michael Cained as Colonel Steiner
The two lead actors in the film, who also lead the plot to kidnap or assassinate Winston Churchill - Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin and Michael Cained as Colonel Steiner

FAVOURITE SCENES

After a fairly slow but absorbing start in which most of the movie's biggest names are featured - Caine, Sutherland, Duvall, Quayle and Pleasence - the action picks up with the arrival of the Germans in England.

Perhaps there are no stand out scenes in the movie, but the accident involving the waterwheel is a key moment. When it occurs, the battle in the village is small scale and the outcome seems inevitable but it is well handled, and there are enough big explosions and crashing vehicles to satisfy the average viewer.

Inexperienced Colonel Pitts struggles to take control of the developing situation
Inexperienced Colonel Pitts struggles to take control of the developing situation

TRIVIA

Donald Sutherland's role as the Irish Republican activist was originally given to Richard Harris. The Irish actor relinquished the role following his controversial attendence at a fund raiser for the IRA.

Donald Sutherland's character is similar in personality, though less ruthless in nature, to a German spy he was to play just five years later in an adaptation of another novel - Ken Follet's 'Eye of the Needle'.

In one scene, one of the supporting actors effectively shoots himself. Jim Dowdall plays one of the German soldiers. At one point this soldier fires on an oncoming American jeep. The camera angle then changes to show the jeep careering into a pond. The dead driver of the jeep was played by ... Jim Dowdall.

The picturesque little fictional village of Studley Constable in the Eastern County of Norfolk, was actually the village of Mapledurham on the River Thames in the County of Oxfordshire. Much of what is seen is genuine and historic. The church dates from the late 13th century but was largely altered and renovated in the 19th century. The manor house is the Tudor Mapledurham House. As for the wooden water wheel complex - this is fake (couldn't blow up a real one!) but the stone watermill building behind it is genuine; it is the oldest working water mill on the Thames, operational since the 15th century, and producing flour today for tourists to buy. Sadly, most of the shops, the bar and the gravestones were not genuine - they were facades and props for the movie.

Steiner, posing as a British Colonel of the 'Polish' troops, is not best pleased when he discovers an unwelcome American presence near to the village where he has taken up residence
Steiner, posing as a British Colonel of the 'Polish' troops, is not best pleased when he discovers an unwelcome American presence near to the village where he has taken up residence

FAVOURITE QUOTES

There are, I think, no stand out quotes in this movie, though one can enjoy the sight of Colonel Steiner laying into an S.S General with a comment about one of the General's underlings who has just shot at a Jewish girl:

  • He reminds me of something that I occasionally pick up on my shoe in the gutter - very unpleasant, on a hot day! And if you have the dubious honour of commanding this senseless slaughter, I'd advise you to keep him downwind at all times! That is, of course, if you can tell the difference anymore!

It's a bold display of insubordination, but it's the incident which ultimately leads to Steiner arriving in England at the head of the mission to kidnap or kill Churchill.

This is not a hard film to watch. There's nothing pretentious or complicated about the dialogue delivered by the characters, but it's not dull and banal either. Each of the characters is strong, even if not entirely believeable, and each has their own individual style. The dialogue makes the story easy to follow.

NEGATIVES ?

If you wish to take it seriously, then some elements of this movie may jar. In particular, anyone who desires truly credible characters will not find much to praise here. We have the clichéd eye patch wearing Colonel Radl (only officers and pirates wear eye patches in the film world). We also have Kurt Steiner, who's not merely fluent in English, but fluent with a Cockney accent. Then we have the American Colonel; in Clarence Pitts we have an incompetent fool who wouldn't be left in charge of a toy jeep, let alone a company of men. Then there is the Irishman. Charismatic Liam Devlin possesses a seemingly magical gift for instantly calming dogs with just a whistle and a pointed finger, and an equally magical gift for encouraging 19 year old Molly to swoon for him and commit atrocities for him. In the village we have assorted clichés like the defiant clergyman, and an insular thug, resentful of any stranger who so much as talks to Molly. I could go on.

If all that sounds a bit harsh, I don't see it as a problem. This isn't really a serious war drama. It's an action adventure full of colourful characters.

The battle for the village is one of the best sequences in the movie
The battle for the village is one of the best sequences in the movie
Michael Caine as Colonel Kurt Steiner
Michael Caine as Colonel Kurt Steiner

WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT?

In the opening paragraph I described this as a war 'caper', which may seem rather flippant when talking about a bloody war movie. But this is first and foremost a simple adventure story, and it should be viewed as such.

'The Eagle has Landed' is a good 135 minutes of film entertainment, which features some of the most popular stars in America and Britain. Whether or not all that happens is credible, you can still enjoy the daring exploits of Steiner and his men, the efforts of Robert Duvall, Anthony Quayle and Donald Pleasence who bring their contrasting German leaders to life, the eccentric Liam Devlin, and the almost comedic behaviour of Colonel Pitts. You can also enjoy a great battle sequence set in a beautiful little village in the English countryside.

IF YOU LIKE THIS FILM ...

The Eagle Has Landed (1977)
The Eagle Has Landed (1977)

DVD (America and Canada)

 
The Eagle Has Landed (Liam Devlin)
The Eagle Has Landed (Liam Devlin)

Paperback - the novel on which the movie was based

 

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

'The Eagle has Landed' is really not a movie to be taken too seriously even if the subject matter is serious. This is just a fictional film which in turn was based on a fictional story by Jack Higgins. It is an adventure story, a daring escapade, it's fast paced, it's full of larger than life characters, and there are few dull moments.

If you look too deeply into the plot, then all of the inconsistencies and improbabilities will make the whole thing seem as crackpot as Admiral Canaris claims it to be. Just enjoy it for what it is.

Colonel Steiner may not be the favourite of the Nazis, but he commands the loyalty of his men
Colonel Steiner may not be the favourite of the Nazis, but he commands the loyalty of his men

PLEASE PROVIDE YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THIS FILM

4 out of 5 stars from 2 ratings of this film

PHOTOS ON THIS PAGE

All screenshots are taken by the author from the movie 'The Eagle has Landed'.

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I'D LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS. THANKS, ALUN 8 comments

alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

Jenny Agutter was the intelligent man's crumpet back in the 70's, especially in 'Walkabout' when she paraded her talents in the Outback together with the chubby blonde kid (meant to be her brother) and the Aborigine youth. She was already beginning to 'ripen' when she was in 'The Railway Children'. By the time she showed in 'The Eagle Has Landed' she was raring to go! She'd been angling after adult roles since doing 'Railway Children'.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks Steve;

Much as I like both Michael Caine and Jenny Agutter, it was hard to take either Caine's accent as that of a German officer, or Jenny's character as a local country girl - certainly she didn't have much of a rural East Anglian accent!!

What is it with Jenny Agutter? She wasn't really my type - too cool and demure - but I fancied her more than almost any other actress when I was young. Maybe it was her willingness in some films to reveal more than just her acting talent? :-)

Thanks for your votes. Appreciated. Alun.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England

Enjoyed your review Alun. This was a film I watched many times on TV and Video back in the day. The very British Michael Caine was miscast as the lead Nazi here and a year later would be back on the allied side shooting Germans in A Bridge Too far.

I also had a bit of a crush on Jenny Agutter when I was young, that was another reason to watch the film when it was on. :)

I remember there was a shorter version of the film on Video back then which ticked me off, the BBC always showed the long version.

Voted Up and Interesting.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Many many thanks Eddy for such a complimentary comment, and thanks also for sharing the review. It's appreciated. Alun.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

A brilliant review on a great film. I vote up and share. Eddy.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

I heard on a programme on the Yesterday Channel that for his part in the July Plot, Admiral Canaris was stripped naked and hanged on a butcher's hook, filmed for Hitler to gloat over. Mind, by that time old Adolf wasn't exactly 'with us' any more. What killed himself and Eva Braun in the bunker was a 'shell' of a man. If you read Shirer's 'Rise and Fall of the Third Reich', it's not hard to imagine Hitler hadn't been altogether there for a long time - possibly since an officer sexually assaulted him in hospital after a bit of his 'meat and two veg' were shot off in the trenches.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Many thanks alancaster for your thoughtful comment. Anthony Quayle played Admiral Canaris who featured mainly in the early scenes of the movie. Canaris in the movie was responsible for initiating the feasibility study into the Churchill kidnapping, whilst privately ridiculing the idea. At one stage he launches into a verbal attack on many of the Nazi party leaders including Himmler, Goebels, Bormann and of course Hitler. In real life he was one of the most prominent anti-Hitler figures in the military, and later became implicated in the plot to remove him from power. For this, Canaris was arrested and hanged by the Nazis in April 1945.

As I indicate in the review, I'm not sure I find any of the characters particularly credible, but I don't mind because this is escapist adventure, with characters who cannot be taken too seriously.

Your last point is an interesting one - it hadn't occurred to me, but it is true that the Germans appear to have had no interest in launching commando raids, certainly against Britain - a seemingly extraordinary failure on their part especially in the first year of the war when the Battle of Britain was underway, and raids against radar installations or air bases may have reaped big rewards.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

This film is true 'Boy's Own' story material, but entertaining nevertheless. Donald Pleasance as Himmler is the Bavarian chicken farmer down to his steel-rimmed specs, but Oberst (Col.) Steiner, Michael Caine is a bit miscast, as is Robert DuVall. Even as a highly decorated soldier Steiner would have been sent to a KZ. His men would have seen the Eastern Front again as a Punishment Detail. I don't remember Anthony Quayle in this. What was his role? Donald Sutherland did his agent again, as he did as Henry Faber ('die Nadel' - the Needle) in Ken Follett's book-made-into-movie 'The Eye of the Needle'. Donald Sutherland's part was the only believable one in both films - or am I just a big fan of Donald Sutherland? It would be a long shot - fraught with hazards - launching a 'Commando' operation from Alderney when Normandy might have been a better jumping-off point. As it was the Germans never seemed to have got the hang of, nor have the imagination for commando operations, hence Hitler's hysteria against British commando ops in the Channel. I know we made a complete dog's a**e of Dieppe and one or two others, but the Germans didn't even TRY, even with their numerical superiority in 1940!

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