Director, John Sturges officially retired from making movies with The Eagle Has Landed (1976); a smash hit based on Jack Higgins’ novel of the same name. In his impeccable career, it is a fair assessment that Sturges’ métier was the action film; in later years, specifically focused on espionage/thrillers set during WWII. The Eagle Has Landed certainly sent Sturges out on a high note. Famed movie critic, Vincent Canby, almost as infamous for his snarky putdowns as much as his legitimate critiquing, praised Sturges for his first-rate built up tension, calling The Eagle Has Landed “a good old-fashioned adventure…so stuffed with robust incidents…you can relax and enjoy it without worrying whether it’s plausible.” Indeed, there is much to recommend the production, including Sturges’ taciturn direction. More on this in a moment. Tom Mankiewicz's screenplay faithfully borrows the best elements from Higgins’ quick-witted/sure-footed novel. It’s a rare screenwriter who can resist the opportunity for embellishment (improving on an author’s work) and thus, and in general, badly bungle a straightforward translation from print media to screen adaptation.
Mankiewicz is, undeniably the exception to this rule and why not? His father, Joseph Mankiewicz remains justly celebrated as the two-time/back to back Academy Award-winning director/writer of A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950); peerless examples of the elder Mankiewicz’s prowess in both fields of artistic expression. As they used to say, ‘it’s in the genes’ and Tom Mankiewicz had certainly proven this by 1975. Mankiewicz’s recent flourish of success as the writer of three James Bond pictures (Diamonds Are Forever 1971, Live and Let Die 1973, The Man With The Golden Gun 1974) was encouraging to producers, David Niven Jr. and Jack Wiener, who hired him to adapt the novel. And to The Eagle Has Landed, Mankiewicz brings a certain erudite panache and cadence. In hindsight, The Eagle Has Landed is almost as richly satisfying as a character study as it remains a justly celebrated and action-packed adventure yarn; almost farcical at times; particularly Larry Hagman’s ridiculously befuddled Colonel Pitts, who, at one point astutely points out to a subordinate officer, while frenetically passing the buck, that “If anything happens to Churchill they’re going to hang you from Big Ben by your balls!” while leaving the fate of his own scrotum in limbo.
The Eagle Has Landed is equally blessed to have a distinguished cast. It’s always difficult, if not impossible, to tell a WWII story where the audience is expected to reside in its sympathies with the Nazis instead of the allies. Part of this film’s genius is that the Nazis are played most obviously by well-established British and American actors; Michael Caine, as decorated Colonel Steiner; Robert Duval (Colonel Radl), Anthony Quayle (Admiral Canaris) and Donald Pleasance (Himmler). Add to this mix, Donald Sutherland as the embittered Irish rebel, Liam Devlin – so anti-British he would rather see the European hemisphere engulfed in flames, simply to serve a more personal vendetta – and The Eagle Has Landed is already well on its way to becoming a memorable, if decidedly fanciful, shaggy-dog story. Passionate people make passionate films, and Sturges is, perhaps, the most passionate player of them all – or rather, was for a time in the mid to late 1960’s. That passion seems to have waned somewhat by the time he agreed to helm The Eagle Has Landed. Nevertheless, Sturges keeps the mood, tempo and arc of the story at a critical breakneck pace almost from the moment Radl is summoned into Himmler’s confidence to begin hatching a plan to kidnap British Prime Minister Winston Churchill under Hitler’s direct orders.
Author, Jack Higgins was inspired by certain real life events that took place during WWII; chiefly, a plot concocted by the Nazi High Command to have Republican Irish co-conspirators assassinate the Prime Minister. Although history since has suggested none of this was ever taken too seriously, the reality is Churchill did suspect a plot afoot against his life and, on occasion had a body double and a voice impersonator to read some of his most famous and rousing speeches over the airwaves while he was safely tucked miles away. Where history left off is where Higgin’s artistic license kicked into high gear. As a novel, The Eagle Has Landed proved exceptionally clever at blurring fact with fiction; the film, arguably, even more so, since it presents all this exceptional hooliganism as high art with a distinct pedigree and authority for feigning authenticity.
In its preliminary stages, The Eagle Has Landed underwent several cast changes; chiefly Michael Caine, who had originally been slated for the part of Devlin, but became quite nervous at the prospect of a Brit playing an IRA agent – and a thoroughly malicious one to boot. Richard Harris, who had cheerfully stepped into the part at Sturges’ behest, developed cold feet too after reading Mankiewicz’s first draft. At last, Sturges approached Donald Sutherland as a third substitute. For his part, Sturges would have preferred to get out of directing the project altogether. Indeed, both Tom Mankiewicz and Michael Caine would later recall how their director’s verve for the project inexplicably cooled almost from the moment the film began to shoot, Caine suggesting in his autobiography that the picture was largely salvaged in the eleventh hour of the editing process by cutter extraordinaire, Anne V. Coates who “made it watchable”.
There is, perhaps, truth to this. For all its’ intrigues, The Eagle Has Landed is nevertheless very unlike Sturges’ other similarly themed masterworks. There is a pedestrian quality to the angles Sturges and cameraman, Anthony B. Richmond have chosen for certain pivotal sequences; Sturges framing his action in relative long shot with the actor’s moving within frame and doing most of the heavy lifting themselves, but without the benefit of more effective staging techniques. Coverage is minimal at best, particularly during dramatic scenes. Still, what matters is the script and the performances given. These are peerless and prove the movie’s salvation. The other blessing bestowed on the production is, of course, its exemplary use of locations; Cornwall for the Channel Islands, and Berkshire for East Anglia. But the set piece, shot at the implausible pastoral, Mapledurham, is the most rewarding.
On a limited budget, production designer, Peter Murton manages a minor miracle, building several shops and houses full scale, including a 15th century water wheel adjacent the actual structure and blown up for the movie’s climactic showdown between the Allied Forces, led by gutsy Captain Clark (Treat Williams) and Colonel Steiner and his hostage-taking Nazis. Explosive charges were also skillfully rigged inside the town’s well preserved church, including its bell tower; its original stained glass windows gingerly replaced with reasonable facsimiles to be blown out, shot at or otherwise smashed to bits. These elements of full scale action would later be combined with seamless interiors recreations, filmed entirely on sound stages at Twickenham Studios.
The Eagle Has Landed opens with rare footage of Benito Mussolini’s rescue by German paratroopers; presumably the impetus for Hitler’s fascination with a plot to similarly send in a select group of airmen to capture Winston Churchill and thus hold him as hostage until Britain surrenders. It’s a last ditch effort on Hitler’s part to stem the inevitable defeat of the Third Reich. Hitler is desperate for victory, ordering Admiral Canaris, via Himmler, to do a feasibility study on this kidnap scenario. But how does one conduct such a study – especially in complete secrecy? Fearing Himmler is trying to discredit him, the Admiral falls back on a time-honored principle; passing the buck – placing his full investigative authority in one of his best officers, the patch-eyed Oberst Radl. When the pair is informed by an underling officer, Karl (Michael Byrne) that their central intelligence has decoded a message about Churchill retiring for a respite to the essentially remote village of Studley Constable in Norfolk, Radl admits the plausibility of such an absurd plan of action. Putting together a crackerjack team to pursue this plan, Radl becomes even more intrigued after he learns one of their sleeper agents, Joanna Grey (Jean Marsh) is already in place.
Code named ‘eagle’, the plan will proceed at once; Radl convinced that ‘synchronicity’ equates to destiny and Himmler, placing his full authority, backed by Hitler, in Radl without Canaris’ complicity or even his knowledge. It is a dangerous undertaking, fraught with potential failure and even less alluring in its repercussions should anything go wrong. Radl recruits Liam Devlin with confidence. Devlin harbors an innate hatred for the British. Radl has less success convincing himself of running the idea past highly decorated, but conflicted anti-Nazi, Fallschirmjäger officer, Oberst Kurt Steiner. Steiner is a loyalist to the principles that once ruled Germany’s Armed Forces. He has no use for Nazi thug cruelty. While returning from the Eastern Front with a loyal troop of his men, Steiner intervenes in the S.S. roundup of Jews being loaded into box cars en route from the ghettos to the nearest concentration camp. When one of the teenage Jews (Léonie Thelen) attempts a daring escape, only to be recaptured by S.S.-Obergruppenführer (Joachim Hansen), Steiner intervenes, placing the young girl on an eastbound train already departing. Alas, a crack shot from one of the Nazi soldiers kills the girl and Steiner challenges a superior officer to explain the senselessness of murdering the innocent and defenseless. His admonishment is observed as treason to the state and Steiner is all but sentenced to be court-martialed, and presumably executed, when the call is made to have him brought in to helm the kidnapping mission.
Rather than face a firing squad, Steiner and his men transfer to a penal unit on the Channel Island of Alderney, waging high risk attacks against English convoys. After some prodding, Radl convinces Steiner and his men to partake in their miraculous venture. But Devlin incites a minor riot amongst the new recruits by being his usual obnoxious self. They toss him through the shuttered window of a nearby pub. Devlin is more mildly amused than sore – both figuratively and literally. Before long, Steiner, Devlin and the rest of the recruits are parachuting over Studley Constable from a captured C-47, camouflaged with Allied markings. Posing as Polish paratroopers, as few can speak English, Steiner and his men begin their trek into town, quite unaware of a U.S. military garrison only a few hundred miles up the road.
In Germany, Radl receives word that the first part of their plan has gone off without a hitch, proudly relaying this message to Himmler who immediately destroys the document authorizing Radl’s complete authorization. Hence, if anything goes wrong from this moment forward, it will be Radl’s head on the chopping block – not Himmler’s. In Studley Constable, Steiner and his men move into position, Steiner making contact with Joanna Grey and faking a cordial, if strained, détente with Captain Clark, who unexpectedly arrives in town to visit his girlfriend, Pamela (Judy Geeson). Steiner also befriends the local cleric, Father Verecker (John Standing). Meanwhile, Devlin meets Molly Prior (Jenny Agutter); an impressionable girl who misperceives Devlin as her viable escape from an abusive boyfriend, George Wilde (Tim Barlow). Molly and Devlin quickly fall in love. After cryptically forewarning the girl of his dishonorable intensions to no avail, Devlin’s initial thought is to have his way with the girl, then dispose of her when she is of no use to him.
Alas, it’s all too perfect to remain status quo. When one of the local village children accidentally falls into the moat, one of Steiner’s men, Traumer (George Leech) jumps in to save the drowning girl from being crushed beneath a water wheel. The girl is saved, but Traumer dies in her place, his body brought up from the waters with its uniform torn open to reveal a German uniform beneath it. Steiner takes the villagers hostage, corralling them into the church. Pamela escapes. Unaware Joanna is a sleeper agent, Pamela races to her house to forewarn of the Nazi invasion. Confronted by the truth, Joanna wounds Pamela in the arm; the girl managing to steal Joanna’s car and make it to the U.S. Army Rangers base where she informs Clark and his superior, Colonel Pitts of the plot afoot right under their noses.
Inexperienced and glory-seeking, Pitts prefers to handle the matter internally, much to Clark’s chagrin. Arriving at Joanna’s home with only one other soldier, Pitts is almost immediately murdered before his second can shoot Joanna dead. Clark orders Steiner to release the hostages. Realizing he must buy as much time as possible to see their plan through, Steiner agrees to surrender the townsfolk, barricading himself and his men inside the church. Clark now organizes an aggressive assault on the church; Steiner and his men firing back in an all-out war against the American contingent. Casualties are incurred on both sides. At some point, Steiner’s men agree to sacrifice themselves while Devlin, Steiner and his wounded second-in-command Neustadt (Sven-Bertil Taube) escape through a series of underground tunnels with Molly’s aid. By now, Devlin and Molly have developed an unexpected mutual love for each other.
Steiner and his cohorts make it to the launch where their escape boat is waiting. But at the last possible moment, Steiner pulls back from this ‘easy out’ – informing of his intensions to pursue Churchill on his own. Receiving radioed messages of the plan’s immanent failure, Radl orders his assistant, Karl to return to Germany at once. It will spare his life. For Radl is now under arrest, presumably for treason, and summarily executed by a firing squad with Himmler already distancing himself from this debacle. Back in Studley Constable, Steiner manages to avoid capture and sneak up to the manor house where Churchill is staying. Indeed, it would appear he has outfoxed even the Americans who, under Clark’s command, are too late to realize an assassin is in their midst.
Churchill steps onto the balcony with a stiff drink firmly in hand. Defenseless, he is confronted and gunned down by Steiner who, moments later, is shot dead by Clark. Clark is beside himself, grappling with the enormity of the situation. But Major Corcoran (Maurice Roëves) is unnerved, calmly explaining to Clark the incident never occurred. Moreover, the man lying dead on the patio is not Churchill, presently attending the Tehran Conference, but one George Fowler (Leigh Dilley), a gifted impersonator who assumed the part of the Prime Minister with full comprehension of the ramifications to his own safety beforehand. Knowing only bloodshed and tears can come from their association Devlin quietly evades capture, leaving a lyrical love letter for Molly to discover before disappearing into the night.
As WWII cinema fiction, The Eagle Has Landed is immensely satisfying in much the same way 1961’s The Guns of Navarone managed to retain its air of believability with an impeachable straightforward approach to its narrative and impregnably entertaining façade. Herein, the cast deserves the honors, selling their fanciful wares, moreover, with an air of ‘factual’ legitimacy. There’s just enough authenticity attached to this bizarre exercise to make it seem genuine and marginally plausible; even more passion expended by Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland in their respective roles. Interestingly, Caine doesn’t attempt a German accent; forgivable, and far better than the alternative; affecting a laughably bad one, as co-star Robert Duvall does with hideously disconcerting results. Donald Sutherland’s Irish brogue is spot on, and Treat Williams and Larry Hagman have considerable fun playing the traditionally ‘ugly American’ blunderers, who daftly avert total catastrophe in spite of themselves. The Eagle Has Landed may not be director, John Sturges’ finest hour, but it passes the mustard as an intelligently wrought and deftly executed action/adventure movie. Good, if not great, it deserves a second chance on home video.
Shout! Factory provides just such an opportunity in this mostly pleasing 1080p transfer derived from archived elements preserved by ITV Studios. Like the movie itself, the results are good, if not great. Color fidelity is generally solid, although there are a few instances where flesh tones become unstable, waffling between ruddy orange and soft pink. On the whole, these moments are brief and do not distract. But they are present and accounted for nonetheless. Contrast is solid throughout and film grain is natural. Light speckling does not distract as much as the telecines wobble in a few very brief scenes. Colors, on the whole, are less than robust and infrequently, downright pale. Apart from a few softly focused moments, the overall impression is razor-sharp and crystal clear with fine detail looking spectacular.
The 2.0 DTS audio is remarkably subtle with excellent fidelity, Lalo Schifrin’s thrilling score sounding exceptionally solid for a mono mix. Extras are fairly unimpressive; a vintage ‘reflection’ on the making of the film; a much too short and truncated featurette that returns to Mapledurham to see how things have changed – or rather, have remained practically the same since the movie was made; another featurette with the late (and sorely missed) Tom Mankiewicz, musing about his contributions, and finally, a trio of vintage shorts, plus the original theatrical trailer. Again, good, but not great extras. Bottom line: The Eagle Has Landed is solidly crafted entertainment. In a league with other movies of its ilk it doesn’t quite rise like cream to achieve A-list status. Then again, it isn’t all that far behind the pack either. Enjoy the movie and buy this disc with confidence. Good stuff all around!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)