The Film: 4/5
Inspired by the Gran Sasso raid that resulted in Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini being rescued from Italy by German forces, Adolf Hitler instructs his high command to begin looking into plotting the kidnapping of Winston Churchill. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (Anthony Quayle) reluctantly assigns Oberst Max Radl (Robert Duvall) to plan the mission. Radl receives viable intelligence that Churchill intends to visit an airfield in the village of Studley Constable in Norfolk from Joanna Grey (Jean Marsh), a sleeper agent for the Germans who owns an estate in the countryside, and recruits two men of special merit with shaky allegiances to the cause: Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland), a soldier with the Irish Republican Army who is willing to put his university teaching position on hold for the sake of his steadfast hatred of the British; and Oberst Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine), a highly-decorated German commando and leader of a paratrooper unit currently imprisoned on a penal colony for attempting to help a Jewish teenager escape from Nazi captivity. Both accept the mission with conditions and reservations and Devlin is dropped into Studley Constable to masquerade as a marsh warder on Mrs. Grey's estate. Soon after, Steiner and his team arrive to carry out the mission, but since nothing ever goes according to plan they run into countless complications that puts obtaining their objective in doubt, including local girl Molly Prior (Jenny Agutter) who has fallen in love with Devlin, and the presence of a small battalion of U.S. Army Rangers lead by the egomaniacal Colonel Pitts (Larry Hagman) and the pragmatic Captain Clark (Treat Williams).
Give me a rousing wartime adventure with feats of derring-do and meaty performances from a cast of Hollywood heavyweights and you got yourself a friend for life. But The Eagle Has Landed is not your typical big-budget combat flick. This was the final film directed by John Sturges, the legendary craftsman who sat at the helm of grand cinematic adventures such as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape . He directed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday, and cast Spencer Tracy as a one-armed stranger battling an entire town in the 1955 classic Bad Day at Black Rock. Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who penned three James Bond adventures and helped streamline the unwieldy script for Superman: The Movie into the timeless masterpiece of comic book thrills we know it as today, was charged with adapting the 1975 best-selling novel by Jack Higgins into a coherent feature that would deliver the action and intrigue from the book without sacrificing the complexities and nuances of its principal characters. Having never read the Higgins novel I can't say if the movie lives to its promise or is a massive letdown. Being a huge fan of the grand silver screen adventures of the 50's and 60's, I was surprised by Eagle's complicated characterizations and high-tension storytelling and entertained by Mankiewicz's exuberantly witty script and the spirited performances. This movie gave me my fix.
In the past an American take on the story would have re-cast the hero roles with Yanks and made the Nazis the flat-out evil bastards history and the survivors of World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust have judged them accordingly to be. The Eagle Has Landed reminded me of Bryan Singer's 2008 historical drama Valkyrie in its decision to present men allied with the Nazis for little reason pertaining to their politics as sympathetic and even heroic in a sense. It's easy to forget that not all who wore the swastika of Hitler's destructive and hateful Third Reich shared their leader's opinions of a master race and supported his insane policies. They served in their nation's armed forces not as Nazis but as proud and loyal Germans. Some of them knew Hitler was taking Germany down a long and dark road to the future but kept any dissenting opinions to themselves out of fear of facing a firing squad.
Each of the important players in the plot to kidnap Churchill - an operation codenamed "Eagle" - have plausible reasons for wanting it carried out with great success: Radl (whose prominently displayed eye patch brought to mind one of the German officers behind the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler that inspired Valkyrie, Claus von Stauffenberg) wants nothing more than to serve his country and carry out the assignment to kidnap England's Prime Minister as ordered by his superiors, including Heinrich Himmler (Donald Pleasance at his most quietly unsettling); Steiner wants his rank restored and the lives of the men who serve under his command to be spared from imprisonment and execution; and both Devlin and Ms. Grey despise the British with a passion as they have both experienced the horrors of war and the deaths of those closest to them at the hands of King George the Sixth's finest. In a time of war when sides are chosen those who become our enemies don't do so because they are evil and hate us; most times, it's a lot more intricate than that.
The well-developed characters and the carefully unfolding plot (which often feels truncated, and is indeed for reasons I will explain in the Extras section) already make Eagle a far better film than the majority of its peers, but the enjoyable performances from a gifted cast of acting greats from the U.S. and Europe make it so memorable and fun. Michael Caine portrays the dedicated Col. Steiner with the same steely, emotionless precision and deadpan sense of humor he brought to his iconic roles of Harry Palmer and Jack Carter. These days of course he's best known as Batman's devoted butler Alfred Pennyworth, but Caine was always at his best during the earlier days of his career who couldn't abide martinets and bullshit and wore that very British disdain on his face. Steiner isn't one of his best performances though it stands head and shoulders over the paycheck-hoarding slop that consumed Caine's acting choices for most of the two decades following The Eagle Has Landed. As the dutiful Radl Robert Duvall is a model of professional strength and understated authority. He never overplays a scene when simple, detached acting gets the job done. Donald Sutherland has the most fun of three stars as the ebullient, charming Irish spy Devlin. Take out the "n" in his character's last name and then reverse the two letters at the end and you get a better idea of the haunted individual lurking beneath his cool exterior. Devlin is no more an evil man than his compatriots in the Eagle mission; he's a fallen angel looking for the right cause to justify his simmering fury towards the crown. Sutherland is a joy to behold in his every scene, always ready with a story about his uncle in Belfast or an appropriate Irish poem to charm Jenny Agutter's bewitched Molly. Her relationship with Devlin is the most heartfelt and believable in the film, even if it often suffers from the judicious editing process that saw a lot of good character moments deleted from the various cuts of The Eagle Has Landed that played all over the world.
Larry Hagman's performance as the arrogant, blustering Colonel Pitts at first seems hilariously out of place, but he could be seen as a parody of the chest-puffing, "We can win this bastard" attitude of modern American military might. Pitts is a buffoon of the highest order - or the lowest depending on your perspective - and Hagman at least has the good sense to play the character as stunningly self-important and unaware of how his troops view him as inept and a bit of a prick. As his polar opposite Captain Clark, Treat Williams delivers a commanding and calm turn and has a stand-out scene in the third act when he implores Steiner and his men to lay down their arms and surrender. The supporting cast is rounded out by brief but worthy performances from John Standing (V for Vendetta) as the resident priest of Studley Constable, Judy Geeson (The Lords of Salem) as his sister, Jean Marsh (Return to Oz) as Ms. Grey, and a barely recognizable Jeff Conaway (Grease) as one of Pitts' soldiers. Wolf Kahler, later to play the evil Nazi Colonel Dietrich in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, briefly shows up at the end as an anonymous Reich officer.
Sturges' astute and confident direction kicks the action powering forward without letting the pacing of crucial scenes drag, especially in the third act when the Eagle mission starts going downhill fast after one of Steiner's troops makes the fatal error of sacrificing his life to save a village girl from drowning. Despite its PG rating the film is often shockingly brutal, with plenty of exploding squibs, a few splashes of the red stuff, and explosions a-plenty. One killing is committed by a character you never thought would be capable of such a thing because you've gotten to know them well in the time leading up to the questionable action they take. The action sequences and gorgeous English countryside scenery are all filmed with brilliant clarity and scope by Anthony B. Richmond (The Indian Runner) and edited with great effect by Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia). The production design by Peter Murton (Superman II) has a terrific lived-in authenticity. Roy Whybrow (The Legend of Hell House) supervised the special effects in the gleeful orgy of combat violence from the movie's extended battle sequence. Lastly, the great Lalo Schifrin's score is understandably tense and adventurous, but there is a playful side to the music in the theme he wrote for the Devlin character that incorporates his jovial whistle.
The Eagle Has Landed was previously released on Region 1 DVD in August 2001 by Artisan Entertainment (now Lionsgate) with a passable transfer of the 123-minute U.S. theatrical cut. On Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray special edition the film is presented in a handsome 1080p high-definition transfer in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Any traces of print damage and excessive grain content has been almost completely removed without compromising the film's rich visuals. Details and colors are clear and brightened to maximum effect. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is the closest we get to a recreation of the original mono track that went out with the film's 35mm screenings back in the late 1970's. It's a real barn burner of a sound mix with the pulpy wit of Mankiewicz's dialogue singing loud and crystal clear and the Schifrin score performing with absolute crisp perfection. Even when the action gets loud there is no distortion in the audio. English subtitles are also included.
The 2001 U.S. DVD had a pretty scant selection of bonus features, but a few years later the English got a loaded two-disc Region 2 set with new and vintage interviews with members of the cast and crew and an extended version of the film with an additional 11 minutes of restored scenes. Shout! Factory didn't port over the longer cut of Eagle - though we do get the 134-minute European release version - but they did include on this special edition the informative supplements that have long eluded American fans of the movie with region-locked DVD and Blu-ray players.
"The Eagle Has Landed Revisited: Invading Mapledurham" (15 minutes) brings together production designer Peter Murton, Cinema Retro co-editor and publisher Dave Worrell, and supporting actor David Gilliam to reminisce about the making of the film while making a return journey to the village of Mapledurham in Oxfordshire where the bulk of principal photography took place. We see many of the major filming locations as they appear today and it's apparent that not much has changed.
"Tom Mankiewicz: Looking Back" (10 minutes) is an interview with the screenwriter conducted at his home in 2007 (he passed away in July 2010) that focuses on the arduous task of adapting Higgins' best-selling novel for the screen and figuring out which scenes needed to remain in the script and which were better suited to staying on the printed page.
"ATV Today on Vacation" (9 minutes), "Film Night Location Report" (5 minutes), and "On Location in Norfolk" (3 minutes) are all essentially the same thing - promotional shorts filmed during the production of Eagle for broadcast on British television. We get a decent amount of behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews with Sturges, Caine, Sutherland, Hagman, and Agutter. These are further supplemented by extended interviews with the director and his two male leads (26 minutes) also filmed during production that cover most of their professional careers rather than just making Eagle.
Closing out the extras is the original theatrical trailer (3 minutes). A DVD copy with a standard-definition presentation of the film and the accompanying bonus features is also included.
With a dark heart, nimble wit, and a refreshingly open mind, The Eagle Has Landed is one of the more memorable of the old-fashioned WWII adventure tales. The casting is spot-on with few missteps and John Sturges' direction in his final film is just as assured and professional as his finest features. While it would have been very welcome had Shout! Factory been able to get some contemporary perspective from stars Caine, Sutherland, and Duvall for the special features, the remarkable upgrade in the video and audio transfer is more than enough to make this top shelf slice of rousing action entertainment a must buy for fans of all-star epic thrill rides. Highly recommended.