Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

It’s 1943, and people like German general Canaris (Anthony Quayle) already see the writing on the wall. Hitler, on the other hand, still has plans, like, for example, kidnapping Winston Churchill. Himmler (Donald Pleasence, because why not), recognizes a nice way to put one over on the competition and boots the whole stupid project over to Canaris, who in his turn orders his Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall, because really, why not) to at the very least produce a feasibility study.

Ironically, Radl realizes the mad project might actually be feasible, for it just so happens that a German spy in Britain has just radioed in Churchill’s plans for a weekend stay in a small village neighbouring a practically undefended beach. After a bit of political back and forth – one has to blow up the film to a running time of more than two hours after all – Radl acquires the always dangerous help of Himmler for the project and sends out disgraced – like every German not in the SS in the movie, he’s not a real Nazi, you know – paratrooper commando Colonel Steiner (Michael Caine), his men, and Irish revolutionary Liam Devlin (a man so Irish he could only be played by Canadian Donald Sutherland) to do the deed in beautiful Norfolk. The men are disguised as Polish paratroopers and a marsh inspector, respectively, so whatever could go wrong?

If for some mysterious reasons it hasn’t become quite clear already, let me just emphasize that the plot of The Eagle Has Landed (based on a novel by Jack Higgins, which never bodes well), is utterly, preposterously stupid. Not necessarily because it is lacking in historical veracity (which it sure as hell does) but because the script’s (and I very much assume the book’s this is based on) handling of the whole affair just too stupid to bluff its way through. A lot of films get away with a stupid basic idea by thinking the results of that idea through in a logical and coherent manner; The Eagle Has Landed prefers to load stupid idea on improbability on ridiculous nonsense.

This is, after all, a film that finds Sutherland’s character, who is supposed to be some sort of vanguard for the Germans, one supposes, landing in Norfolk and at once romancing Jenny Agutter, in the sort of romance that goes from meeting someone to the willingness to murder for him in the course of about half an hour, or a day in movie time. Even worse, as much as I like Agutter, the subplot really has no business at all to be in the movie, and most certainly not in the completely pointless form it takes. To make matters sillier, there’s improbable crap like that happening in nearly every scene, as if writer Tom Mankiewicz had never heard of concepts like theme, or tonal coherence, or even pacing. For of course the film does stop and start early and often, sometimes meandering from one scene to the next, sometimes drunkenly jumping, leading to a structure you can’t even call episodic because that word suggests that there’s actually something happening, which is not how I’d describe at least The Eagle’s first half.

And still, watching the film I found myself not at all bored but enjoyed myself quite a bit. Not only because I wanted to see what stupid nonsense the film would come up next but because everyone involved not responsible for the script actually put a lot of effort in. Director John Sturges, a man who made much worthier and just plain better films to be sure, doesn’t exactly bring his A-game here, but a Sturges just doing his job (I cannot assume any real personal involvement in the film at hand, at least) is still a director bringing dignity and a degree of style to material that frankly doesn’t deserve it, even managing to turn the script’s absurd ideas about pacing into something that can look like charming distractibility.

The actors, for their part, bring a bunch of underwritten clichés to life in efforts a film that sees a predominantly British and American cast playing Germans speaking English among one another with bad German accents (except for Sutherland, of course, who does a bad Irish accent, and Caine, whose character studied in England and therefore doesn’t have an accent at all, which of course only makes sense if you actually assume these Nazi – and yes, sorry, Wehrmacht soldiers were Nazis too, just ask their victims – are indeed talking English among each other), and who are incapable of pronouncing German names like “Hans” with even minor correctness probably doesn’t even want, far less warrants. Duvall is particularly good here, bringing a mix of irony and subtlety to his role that I’m quite sure wasn’t in the script. The only negative stand-out among the cast is Larry Hagman as a US Colonel in a performance that is actually as bad as the script deserves.

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