An audacious effort to replicate the kind of big-scale Hollywood war epics made in the wake of the hugely successful The Longest Day (1962), Enzo G. Castellari's Eagles Over London (1969) outrageously attempts to cover much the same ground as Guy Hamilton's $13 million production of Battle of Britain for about one-tenth the cost. Released in its native Italy as La battaglia d'Inghilterra - translation: "The Battle of Britain" - exactly five days after the British epic's premiere, Eagles Over London is a remarkable achievement, at least from a production standpoint. What it lacks in time and money it more than compensates with ingenuity and imagination. It's not exactly a masterpiece but at times it's genuinely startling in its effectiveness overcoming budgetary obstacles, and it's no wonder the film was a smash hit on the European continent and helped establish the "Macaroni Combat" genre.
Severin's Blu-ray is Highly Recommended, but with some reservations. The transfer is okay but not as good as it should be, though the enthusiastic and informative supplements somewhat balance this out.
At Dunkirk, Captain Paul Stevens (Frederick Stafford) befriends Captain Martin (Francisco Rabal), who in fact is part of a band of spies that have murdered British troops, assumed their identities, and who during the chaotic retreat slip back into Britain unnoticed. They're on a mission to destroy the Allies' "advanced warning system" (i.e., radar) ahead of a Nazi land invasion.
In London, Stevens invites Martin to stay at his flat while Stevens, who coincidentally had discovered the murdered troops at Dunkirk, tries to convince Air Marshal George Taylor (Van Johnson) that Nazi spies may be infiltrating British defenses. Eventually Taylor charges Stevens with the task of ferreting them out just as the Blitz begins and the Battle of Britain commences. Meanwhile, Stevens renews his relationship with Meg (Ida Galli) while Martin, now less certain about his mission in the wake of his friendship with Stevens, confers with cold-blooded Nazi spy Major Krueger (Luigi Pistilli) and Shelia (Teresa Gimpera), a self-described Mata Hari working as a barmaid.
Unlike Spaghetti Westerns and giallo thrillers, the macaroni combat genre is only now being rediscovered in America, thanks in large measure to Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009), which in part is the director's tribute to that genre. It didn't even have a name until recently; the name "macaroni combat" seems derived from a series of Japanese DVDs of such pictures released several years ago. Despite the success of Eagles Over London most of the macaroni combat films that followed didn't aim for the same epicness. Instead, most were variations of Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967), such as Castellari's Inglorious Bastards (Quel maledetto treno blindato, 1978). The best films of this genre are often hugely entertaining, and are frequently much more cynical about America's role in World War II. This reviewer hasn't seen all that many examples, but greatly admires Tonino Ricci's Salt in the Wound (Il dito nella piaga , 1969), which features an amazing performance by Klaus Kinski - as an American G.I.!
Eagles Over London is more imitative of Hollywood blockbusters and hence less interesting and distinctive story-wise, and the casting of bland Frederick Stafford (Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz) doesn't help, but as a cheap film trying to be an epic, the picture is a resounding, unique success.
Actual resources seem to have been limited to five working Spitfires (or Spitfire-type fighters), a few tanks, and at most a couple of hundred costumed extras for the Dunkirk scenes. Beyond that, the film's huge scale is accomplished entirely through suggestion: a wide range of special effects of varying quality. There is what appears to be an extensive use of glass paintings (of distant naval vessels and fighter squadrons), elaborate miniatures, and forced-perspective sets often combining full-scale actors and settings with three-dimensional models and cardboard cutouts. Some of these effects are glaringly obvious, but others are so impressive most in the audience probably won't realize that what they're watching is an effect.
The glass shots are unusually good, in some ways better than similar shots in bigger films, such as the mattes of planes in flight in A Bridge Too Far (1977). Most impressive are shots done in the studio - sets of bomber cockpits where the actors inside full-scale sets hover over extremely elaborate miniatures of London and Berlin. Even in high-definition, the effect is seamless and startling. Except for some similarly staged footage in several Powell-Pressburger films, there may be nothing else in cinema quite like it.
Nearly as effective are shots of actors (including Johnson, at the climax) in the cockpit of their fighters, all full-scale sets, while in the background are miniatures on cables and what appear to be stationary cardboard cutouts of distant craft, flying in formation. The integration of all this generally is extremely effective.
The movie itself is less venturesome but Castellari infuses it with energy whenever possible. His battle scenes are well staged and exciting; he seems to like using multiple cameras of explosions and other action so that he can extend such footage in the editing. He makes inspired use of split-screen effects a la John Frankenheimer in Grand Prix and in other '60s films (The Boston Strangler, etc.). One nice effect comes at Dunkirk, with Castellari inter-cutting 4:3 "newsreel" footage with the newsreel cameraman in 'scope scenes, covering the melee. One dizzying assassination scene has Castellari circling two principals as the background madly swirls behind them, like the "Ecstasy of the Gold" sequence in Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
One over-the-top sequence has Stevens and Meg making love during the blitz, a sort of extension of the famous fireworks scene in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955). It's a showy set-piece: a blaze of primary color as outside Stevens's window the war (in an Eiji Tsuburaya-esque miniature set) lights up spectacularly.
For Americans new to the genre watching Eagles Over London may be a strange experience. Everything feels a bit off-kilter considering how most of the British and all of the German soldiers have Italian faces - faces especially familiar to fans of spaghetti Westerns. Luigi Pistilli, for instance, had a major role as Eli Wallach's estranged priest-brother in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, while Francisco Rabal appeared in all kinds of European productions, including Bu˝uel's Viridiana and Camus's The Holy Innocents. Many other prolific Euro-genre actors turn up, such as Argentinean George Rigaud (Horror Express) as a British general in one scene. Conversely, Italian Renzo Palmer is surprisingly authentic as a Cockney sergeant, and a dead ringer for Alan Hale (Sr.).
Video & Audio
Filmed in Techniscope, Severin's region-free Blu-ray of Eagles Over London should look fantastic but instead is just so-so. Colors are tepid and rather faded, and the image lacks the sharpness of other '60s-era high-def Techniscope transfers. The reasons for this are not known to this reviewer. Possibly Severin didn't have access to the original two-perf Techniscope camera negative and had to work with 'scope dupe elements. In any case what's on screen, while definitely a step up from a standard-def 16:9 enhanced DVD, isn't far removed from an extremely good standard-def transfer. Those expecting something on the level of, say, Blue Underground's The New York Ripper (also Techniscope) will be disappointed.
The English (only) Dolby 2.0 surround audio, adapted from the original mono, is okay, but nothing special. Stafford's and Johnson's own voices are heard on the soundtrack (Pistilli sounds like he's dubbed by Eric Pohlmann), and most though not all the cast mouths their dialogue in English anyway, so the lack of an Italian track is no great loss. One small glitch: On my PlayStation 3 (slim 120 GB), the pop-up menu wouldn't disappear on its own; after selecting an option I was required to press the menu button a second time to make the pop-up menu disappear.
Supplements include two featurettes hosted by genre fan Quentin Tarantino. In Eagles Over Los Angeles, Tarantino introduces director Castellari at a May 6, 2008 screening of the film at the Silent Movie theater. Tarantino gestures maniacally throughout, so comically that even Castellari can't resist making fun of him. At 71, the Italian - who speaks English throughout - looks great and has many interesting things to say about the film's production, including paying respects to the film's effects whiz, Emilio Ruiz del Rio. In the wake of the screening, the two sit down for A Conversation with Enzo Castellari and Quentin Tarantino, Part 2. The featurettes run 16:34 and 14:15, respectively.
Also included is a brief, deleted scene, in German with English subtitles, and in high-definition. Though showing signs of wear, it's sharper overall than the main feature. Also in high-def is a terrific trailer for this and Castellari's Inglorious Bastards, which at 1.85:1 has a slightly stronger transfer.
Despite the problematic transfer, Eagles Over London is enormous fun, a good introduction to a heretofore ignored genre worth rediscovering. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, part of AnimEigo's forthcoming Tora-san DVD boxed set, is available for pre-order, while his latest book, Japanese Cinema, is in bookstores now.