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Warners is backing up its Clint Eastwood celebratory promotions with new Blu-rays of the Eastwood film catalog, which include a couple of Dirty Harry titles already available in a boxed set: Heartbreak Ridge, Absolute Power, The Rookie and a double bill of The Enforcer & Sudden Impact. A fifth release is a bargain double disc of Kelly's Heroes & Where Eagles Dare, two of Clint Eastwood's biggest hits after his return from his career-making European success with Sergio Leone. This pair of epic-length WW2 tales falls into the general subgenre of "escapist war adventures" that's a particular Savant hobby horse subject -- I've always been fascinated at how the sober semi-factual "how I won the war" sagas of the 1950s morphed into all-purpose entertainment with "fun" combat and comic relief.
Where Eagles Dare is from 1968; we knew it was coming when ads in Playboy showed Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in Nazi uniforms in a beer hall, being served by the buxom Ingrid Pitt in a low-cut peasant top. Originally released in 70mm, Where Eagles Dare is an expensive English production filmed in rich color high in some German mountains. Most of the action takes place in dark, snowy landscapes and in a feudal castle that could have come from a fairy tale. With Burton and Eastwood along for the ride, it was a great date picture.
Author and screenwriter Alistair MacLean reworks many details from his big success The Guns of Navarone: that film's far-fetched commando mission is stretched to the breaking point in a new plot that confects to have six English spy-saboteurs parachute into the mountains, and somehow foil multiple levels of German security to gain entrance to a highly fortified Bavarian "Castle of the Eagles".
The castle is supposed to be headquarters for Wehrmacht intelligence, although not much German intelligence is on display because our heroes are able to wander about undisturbed, often dragging sacks of ropes and explosives. They hitch a ride on a cable car, climb all over the ramparts without being spotted, and then wander the halls of said castle to their heart's content. All of this was more acceptable in 1968 due to the proliferation of spy movies and TV shows like Mission: Impossible, in which secret agents are able to slip in and out of heavily fortified strongholds with a smirk on their lips, taking time off to kiss girls.
Richard Burton slouches through the part, often being doubled in action scenes or just random shots that required him to stand around in the snow too long. Clint Eastwood plays his silent-but-alert Ranger escort sidekick toting a machine pistol. It's a nice match, as Burton gets the fancy speeches while Eastwood holds up his end with a raised eyebrow and some well-placed (and nicely low-key) punch lines. Mary Ure (Sons and Lovers) is an amorous agent present to help with nicely-timed ropes and the like; Hammer icon Ingrid Pitt flashes her chest, tries out her throaty laugh and exits the film early. Perennial Nazis Anton Diffring and Ferdy Mayne get to act shocked and ineffectual when sharpie agent Burton invades their castle. The most impressive bad guy is a preening Gestapo creep played by Derren Nesbitt, an English actor who is a spitting image for one of those carved wooden puppets in the Thunderbirds show. With his blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and purple lips, Nesbitt reeks of Prussian villainy just by standing still.
Where Eagles Dare is a very literal action show -- Burton and company take half an hour to set up all the booby traps and hidden vehicles that will allow them to escape, and sure enough, none of their hidden-in-plain-sight bombs are spotted before it is time to use them. After such a big build-up, audiences waited patiently for Clint to start shooting up the castle with his German machine gun. He fires enough rounds to fill four or five rücksacks, not just the one or two that he carries. Eastwood is so nonchalant about shooting guns that we never questioned his ability to massacre a hundred or so enemy foes in close quarters without receiving a scratch. The poor Nazis have serious equipment problems: their grenades are so poorly fused that Clint always has time to toss them back where they came from, almost as in a Road Runner cartoon.
The full last half hour of the film is an elaborate escape, with explosions, cable car stunts and other wild events staged by stunt maestro Yakima Canutt. MacLean dispenses with any pretense to realism when our heroes are able to perform ridiculous feats, like leaping from one cable car to another, or dropping eight stories into a freezing river and pulling themselves out while wearing heavy winter clothes. I remember the audience laughing out loud yet not being bothered, which is the defining element of the escapist war movie. We aren't supposed to believe anything like this could really happen.
The central payoff scene happens back in the castle, when Burton and his sidekick Eastwood break in on a Nazi meeting. The two ranking German officers and a bunch of agents pretending to be captured English commandos are attempting to ferret information from an Allied General, who won't cooperate. Burton pulls a series of con-job tricks any policeman familiar with bunko games would recognize. He fools the Germans into buying his version of the truth without really identifying himself. Part of the deception includes lying to Eastwood, surrendering to the Germans and then tricking them into putting him back in command. As played by Burton it's all great fun, and certainly preferable to the whiney moralizing injected into The Guns of Navarone. This faux-sophistication flattered 1968 action audiences into thinking that they were witnessing high-class oratory and smart screenwriting. It certainly is unexpected and clever enough to distinguish Where Eagles Dare from fifty other boring 'secret mission' tales.
I finally spotted the big mistake in MacLean's overly plotted narrative. The German generals place a radio call to Italy to get another German officer to vouch for Burton's identity as a German spy. Not five minutes before Burton and Eastwood killed the radio operator and a helicopter pilot in the radio room. Who placed the call, and if anybody did, how come they didn't see the corpses and issue an alarm? 1
Where Eagles Dare needs a lot of expository speechifying -- can't leave any loopholes in this Swiss-cheese espionage tale -- and a cute nihilistic touch: the heroes are so exhausted from performing forty straight hours of impossible physical feats that they just collapse into sleep.
Warner's Blu-ray of Where Eagles Dare has rich color and fine detail, and all those snowy exteriors look great. As colors are subdued in the overcast exteriors, and the castle interiors lack bright colors, it's not a disc that impresses with its looks. Optical scenes are understandably grainy, but this is the first video version in which the red titles don't bleed all over the screen. Ron Goodwin's repetitive martial score (which runs counterpoint to the tongue-in-cheek tone) is bright and clear. A trailer is included, along with a location featurette that covers the snowbound filming and dotes on readily available cast members, like Ingrid Pitt.
After seeing bits and pieces broadcast in lousy TV prints for 30 years, I had Kelly's Heroes tagged as the weak sister of these two pictures. Now I've changed my mind. The more entertaining of the two movies, this big-scale combat comedy is perhaps the first escapist war movie to take everything as a big joke from start to finish. Nobody worries about anachronisms (a contemporary hippie as a tank commander?) or even good taste: a scarred SS Panzer officer, once you get past all that Heilin' Hitler stuff, is just plain folks.
Troy Kennedy Martin's script is long and talky, or should I say screamy, as everybody except Clint Eastwood shouts continually. The movie falls into the general category of "football movie" in that it takes three hours to watch and goes down better with beer and pretzels. There's lots of shooting and cussing and talk about broads, although we see almost no women.
Instead, we get a G.I. Joe version of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, with a pack of greedy soldiers using a 3-day respite to sprint thirty miles behind German lines and liberate a bank full of gold bullion. It's a caper plain and simple. There's no discussion whatsoever about where the gold came from: anyone with an imagination can imagine his own holocaust-inflected story.
Kelly (Clint Eastwood, having a great time) puts together a mercenary army, bribing other soldiers to arrange a needed artillery barrage, etc. Sgt Big Joe (Telly Savalas) reluctantly agrees to lead his platoon of greedy dogfaces, while supply Sgt. Crapgame (Don Rickles) provides supplies and insists on going along to protect his investment. Completing the roundup of contemporary war movie notables is Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, a scene-stealer from The Dirty Dozen. Sutherland plays tank commander Sgt. Oddball, a blissed-out hipster in shoulder length hair and German insignia who subscribes to a New-Age mantra of shirking frontline duty. But Oddball is as mercenary as any of his cohorts, and volunteers his three Sherman tanks for a share of the loot.
Thus is set in action a rambling narrative with a strong impetus (get that gold) slowed down by a character-driven sprawl that gives every star plenty of screen time to ham it up. Heck, even minor characters get comedy moments. Savalas shouts and shows concern for his men. He and Eastwood enjoy rolling their eyes in disbelief at Sutherland's off-the-wall antics. Sutherland was clearly encouraged to goose his part, and has a ball making coy faces and yodeling "forward ho" cavalry commands. His Oddball takes a break in the middle of combat for wine and cheese. This Gonzo attitude toward WW2 heroism must have amused John Milius to no end, as the writer worked Sutherland's habit of playing music in battle into Apocalypse Now.
Although the story sags a bit in the middle -- an episode in a minefield is a good excuse to go admire the bathroom wallpaper for a few minutes -- Kelly's Heroes is fun from beginning to end. It's easy to enjoy the supporting infantrymen, some of whom became bigger names. Stuart Margolin is a worrywart, Jeff Morris and Harry Dean Stanton good ol' Southern boys and Perry Lopez a skirt hound. If "Gutowski" looks familiar, it turns out that he's Richard Davalos from East of Eden. Gavin McLeod gets fairly high billing (and mention on the Blu-ray box) for his role as Sutherland's mechanic, Moriarty. McLeod plays him as gay, maybe; Sutherland's Oddball keeps griping Moriarty for annoying him with "negative waves."
Where Eagles Dare director Brian G. Hutton returns to helm a production given carte blanche to blow up half of rural Yugoslavia. The second-unit work by Andrew Marton (Ben-Hur, Crack in the World, 55 Days at Peking) is even better. The creative action scenes are blocked out clearly, especially a concluding duel between Sutherland's measly Sherman tank and a trio of more powerful German Tiger tanks. Unlike the same year's Patton, somebody on the film took the trouble to mock up impressive German hardware.
Carroll O'Connor enlivens the last third as the excitable General Colt. Hearing that unidentified forces under his command (our thieves) have made a dramatic breakthrough, Colt races forward to award them all medals. Kelly's group has left behind a large contingent to build a pontoon bridge over a river. When Colt catches up they have sickened looks on their faces -- it means they'll be getting lousy medals instead of their share in the loot from the robbery. One year away from his big role in TV's All in the Family, O'Connor overacts his role shamelessly, knowing he has only a few minutes to make his mark. He flashes double V for Victory signs, which may or may not be a slam aimed at then-President Nixon.
The finish is a takeoff on a Sergio Leone western, complete with ersatz Ennio Morricone music from composer Lalo Schifrin. Eastwood and Savalas snarl and perform a gunslinger walk to face off with their German opponent. Sutherland joins in but cannot quite summon up the same level of swagger - perhaps the spoofy context can't support any more levels of comedy. Don Rickles sits this final action out, having been wounded in the leg. He shows up only in couple shots more, making me wonder if the filming ran over-schedule. Rickles might have been written out of the show so he could head back for a previous commitment, perhaps in Vegas.
Kelly's Heroes eventually became a Memorial Day perennial - prime fare for sons and dads to supposedly bond over. Warners' Blu-ray is a dazzler that looks even better than Where Eagles Dare; cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa's unfussy camerawork seems more elegant as well. The beefy soundtrack includes several iterations of the Mike Curb / Lalo Schifrin pop song Burning Bridges, which received considerable radio play in 1970. With its believable action scenes and fewer iffy special effects Kelly's Heroes comes off as the better-made picture.
The subtitles are generally good, but Eastwood's line "Sitzen Sie" is mis-titled, "Sit and see". The Blu-rays carry language tracks for Spanish and French as well as a longer list of subtitle choices. A funny original trailer does a good job of representing the film's smart-aleck spoofery.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kelly's Heroes & Where Eagles Dare Blu-ray rates:
1. Helicopter pilot? Yes, a very 1960s helicopter shows up in Where Eagles Dare and executes an impressive landing in the confined courtyard of the castle. Somebody says that it is a 'new toy', or something. Secret German weapon or flagrant anachronism? Does this threaten the film's status as not being 100% authentic? --- ummmmm, could be!
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T'was Ever Thus.