Film Review - The Eagle has Landed (1976)
'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.
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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.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...
DVD (America and Canada)
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.
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All screenshots are taken by the author from the movie 'The Eagle has Landed'.
SOME OF MY OTHER WAR FILM REVIEWS
- Eye of the Needle (1981)
Henry Faber is a heartless German agent who will stop at nothing to complete his mission .... until, that is, he meets Lucy - someone who finds his heart; someone he cannot despatch with his usual ruthless efficiency
- Enemy at the Gates (2001)
In 1942 the battle for Stalingrad is raging. The beleagured Russians are looking for heroes to inspire them, and deadly sniper Vassili Zaitsev fulfills that role. But German Major Koenig has one mission in life - to eliminate the Russian sharpshooter
- Downfall (2004)
The last days of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker at the end of World War Two, has been documented often in factual programmes. This film is the first serious movie by a German director to tackle this sensitive aspect of his country's history
- The Blue Max (1966)
This is the story of a Bruno Stachel, a young but talented WW1 German pilot, and the film follows his progress as he hones his skills and notches his kills. But Bruno has a flaw - he is ruthlessly ambitious to win Germany's top honour - the Blue Max
- Zulu (1964)
The film 'Zulu' relates the events of Rorke's Drift. It is a historical epic, the story of a heroic defence against seemingly impossible odds - a British 'Alamo' This is a review of the film