WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968)
“Do me a favor, will you? Next time you have one of these things, keep it an all-British operation.” – Lt. Morris Schaffer
The third film Eastwood released in 1968 was the only one in which he was not the primary lead. It’s also possibly the best of the three. The film began specifically as a vehicle for its primary star, Richard Burton, who was looking for a stronger candidate to have a hit film. The film was a calculated attempt to earn a box office hit and allow Burton to perform in a piece with a broader appeal. Lee Marvin was approached to play opposite Burton, but he turned it down because he’d just recently completed The Dirty Dozen. The script was then sent to Eastwood, whose star was shining brightly thanks to the Leone films. Originally Eastwood didn’t care for the script, but the amount he was offered for the role quieted any quibbles he was carrying.
Writer Alistair MacLean had established a reputation for himself as a solid thriller craftsman whose bestselling books frequently translated into hit films. He was commissioned to craft a new story, largely with an eye towards being a Richard Burton vehicle. The result was Where Eagles Dare, a wartime covert-rescue thriller in which an elite team (who had never worked together before) must infiltrate a secluded castle stronghold and extract a captured American General. Although the mission is direct, its chances of success are very slim, and it quickly becomes clear that the mission is not as simple as it seems (and neither are the men on it).
Although Eastwood is not the primary headliner on this film, his presence is invaluable to why it works so well. Richard Burton, whose acting background was largely based in live stage work, adeptly handles the language when exposition or revelations become too wordy. Meanwhile, Eastwood (who, again, was not a fan of the script and actually asked for some of his lines to be given to Burton) spends his time largely letting his steely squint speak for him (a quality he’s come to nearly perfect thanks to his work with Leone). Burton and Eastwood were given much liberty to help craft their own characters for this film and the result is a highly watchable, frequently thrilling wartime spy classic.
The script itself, despite Eastwood’s irritations, is skillfully crafted, although it frequently suffers from a certain pedestrian bluntness when it’s delivering key pieces of exposition or explanation. This simplicity is offset, however, by a handful of genuinely surprising plot twists. Having never seen this film and knowing very little from cultural awareness allowed me to experience these twists with unjaded eyes and I found them to be very effective. From the onset of the narrative mission, one of the team is killed in a way that was intended to appear accidental. Since the individuals have not worked together before, suspicions begin to abound, not only about who on the team might be a traitor, but also about why they might truly have been sent on the mission at all. With each new revelation, the stakes and advantages shift; and I dare any first-time viewer to accurately guess what surprise will come next.
Most of the action sequences are focused on the last half of the film, and some of them are quite suspenseful. There are two sequences involving struggles atop a miles-high cable car that are very tense. It is also probably worth noting that, possibly because of the wartime setting, Eastwood’s character kills more people in this film than he does in any future film in which he stars (including some of his more brutal westerns). The sequences feel somewhat dated for the most part, but any astute viewer entering the film with an understanding of late-60s sensibilities should find themselves in for quite a treat.
As for this entry in Eastwood’s overall filmography, it made me wonder why he didn’t take on more secondary or supporting roles. No one would question his charisma or talent as a leading man, he’d already well proven those by this point. But he really thrives as a supporting character (although, true, he’s practically a co-lead in this film). His capacity to influence a scene in which he’s not directly leading the action is highlighted in this under-discussed gem. If you’re a fan of covert mission stories, or of wartime thrillers in general, you should give some time for Where Eagles Dare.
Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.