Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Where Eagles Dare... to Blow ---- Up

I have no idea how I never managed to see Where Eagles Dare, the 1968 World War II action pic. I've enjoyed a lot of these genre movies in the past - The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape... I can't say how I overlooked it, only that I watched it and am so happy I did. Since this is a such a famous action film, I can review it differently, run straight through the usual info....

Where Eagles Dare is exciting, intense, and fun. The action sequences are inspired, and have a great use of practical effects combined with miniatures. It's impossible not to be pulled in, whether Burton and Eastwood are sneaking around, stealthily knifing people, or whether they're climbing walls, planting bombs, and engaged in prolonged gun fights. This picture shows do much prep, the mechanics of how the best soldiers tackle nearly-impossible missions; it should qualify as a heist flick.

This film's cast is really down to Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton. The film opens with beautiful shots of Bavarian/Austrian mountains, where a plane crashes. Soon, we're in a room with a handful of men. Seven top soldiers, all hand-picked from different units, are being sent deep into Nazi territory to rescue a general who crashed in the beginning sequence.

Burton is the steely English genius who leads this vital mission. In many ways, Burton is sort of a more actorly Bruce Willis here : he brings an unusual charisma to a terse, tough character. It's odd that he has a romantic subplot, as he's vividly cold while on duty; it's hard to see why Mary Ure's female spy would fall for him, much less go into the field with him. At times, he's as human as a statue.

It's worth making this psychological point, as mind games are a theme here. Clint Eastwood plays an Army Ranger, the only American in a British op. His character is effective, obedient, and efficient. He's up-front yet guarded with Burton, projecting a friendliness that makes him seem younger. It's interesting, then, to watch him quietly murder Nazis with as much emotion as a cat; and sometimes make wry jokes after.

But the amazing thing is that this is also a smart movie that seems incredibly ahead of its time. Like The Usual Suspects, WED soon establishes this tone that tells the audience that there's something else going on. I think it's even sweeter here because the movie clues you in without actually telling you what for a long time. I never expected a 44 year-old film to be so crafty, or to handle this type of material so well.

For the audience, the first realization comes when Burton's team parachutes into Bavaria. Two men die right away, and when Richard makes radio contact with his superiors, he makes clear that they were murdered. From that moment on, you look at every scene with suspicion, and it only makes the movie more enjoyable and engaging.

And it's not just friendliness or pity at all that makes me think about the subtext here. We're cheering for men who shoot women, take hostages then risk their lives as distraction. Hell, Clint is struggling at one point and Burton looks and acts like he couldn't give a damn.

Another surprise for me was how much this movie has been imitated since its release. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the entire castle sequence obviously drew inspiration from WED. I'm also pretty certain John Williams used sections of its score when he composed the music for Spielberg's pic. By the end, my brain had a list of homages including the first episode of Danger 5: The Diamond Girls, the sweet web gem I wrote about in Dec. The Austrian beer house is dead-on - just compare!

It's a real pleasure to see young Clint; it's a bonus that he's not the main lead. His style, and what he projects, is very fresh and different from the image and cliches that've clung to him over all these years.

It's one of the real problems with success : some stars take off so well that they miss out on minor roles, some of which are more interesting, fun, or challenging than the primary parts. I sure love Nic Cage's work before The Rock turned him into... well actually, into a photo-negative of Bruce Willis.

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole picture. The quiet parts were excellent, but the real highlight, of course, is where everything kicks into high gear. Burton approaches a room, ready to quietly murder a Nazi radio operator. He pauses as his enemy switches to a musical broadcast. You get the feeling that Burton wants to pass this job off to Eastwood, the younger man.

When he's told to do it, Clint approaches the man with the ruthlessness we've seen for an hour-+. Yet as he tiptoes closer, he too looks conflicted about his intended victim. Then all hell breaks loose, and the two men are navigating their way through impossible odds. Clint is holed up in a corridor, mowing down at least a dozen men. Burton is in a nearby room, making the final preparations for their amazing escape plan.

They mow through 89 German troops, according to this youtube vid.

The dialogue is spare and to-the-point. There's no wasted space here, and I'm really happy that the screenwriters knew how to tell a good joke:
"Second rate punk," huh?
All I could think of on the spur of the moment.
Thanks, that makes it even worse.

I only mentioned the two leading roles here, but everyone is good. I like the various Nazi officers and their interactions, and I really like Mary Ure as the lone female in the Allied commando team. She played her role very well, and it's a nice recognition of the important part played by many women in fighting the Axis. Where Eagles Dare was great fun, and modern in many ways I had not expected.

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