Ladies and gentlemen, I have to admit that my gast has been well and truly flabbered. I remember watching films like Escape To Athena in my youth; in fact I have vague recollections of watching Escape To Athena itself as a young ankle-biter, and what’s more I recall that I enjoyed it immensely. So it was with a certain degree of anticipation that I settled down and decided to give this old ’70s war flick another viewing yesterday evening. 24 hours later my jaw is still trailing along the floor.
It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly is so bad about this film, simply because there is just so much that is wrong with it, but perhaps we should begin with the most obvious: the casting. Escape To Athena is a fairly straightforward adventure caper set on an unnamed Greek island, which is occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War. The action takes place mainly in and near to a German prisoner of war camp, which has been set up in order to loot priceless Greek artifacts, and various members of the captured Allied Forces and Greek resistance battle the enemy to escape, liberate the island and hopefully help themselves to a few priceless antiques in the process.
The cast is … well, frankly, it’s incredible. And not in a good way, either. It’s as if someone just plucked eight or nine names at random and threw them all together, paying no attention whatsoever to the requirements of the roles. There must be a story to this, as Irene Lamb, the casting agent in question, had a great deal of experience; she was partly responsible for successfully putting together the largely excellent casts of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Get Carter, The Eagle Has Landed and Force 10 From Navarone, among others. Perhaps her work on the latter two ensured she got the job here. In summary Escape To Athena contains the following actors, with their roles in brackets:
Roger Moore (Major Otto Hecht, an Austrian officer cleverly disguised as a British man with a plummy accent and a wandering eyebrow);
David Niven (Professor Blake, a British archaeology expert);
Telly Savalas (Zeno, a Greek freedom fighter who magically fires semi-automatic machine guns at the sky yet still manages to hit German targets on the ground);
Stefanie Powers (Dottie Del Mar, an American stripper who is required to do little other than show off her legs every now and again);
Claudia Cardinale (Eleana, a prostitute who is required to do little other than show off her legs every now and again);
Sonny Bono (Bruno Rotelli, an Italian POW / chef on an extended holiday from Cher);
Richard Roundtree (Nat Judson, an American POW who, from what I could gather, is John Shaft Versus The Germans);
Elliott Gould (Charlie Dane, a camp entertainer who is bizarrely listed in the opening credits with a scrawled signature rather than the same font as the rest of the cast); and
Michael Sheard (the jawohling Sergeant Mann; Sheard will be better know to Americans as Darth Vader’s lackey Admiral Ozzell in The Empire Strikes Back, but will forever be cherished by British audiences for his years on TV as draconian teacher – and toupee-sporting scourge of Danny Kendall – Mr Bronson in Grange Hill).
Sometimes you can add a bunch of wildly different ingredients to a pot and you end up with an amazing soup or stew a couple of hours later. Unfortunately, though, that’s cooking, and this is filmmaking. The actors – half of whom seem to be going through the motions – clash wildly with each other, a rudderless bunch that probably suffer collectively from not knowing whether they’ve signed up for a straightly-played adventure film or a camp comedy. Savalas, Roundtree and Sheard seem to think they’re in the former. Gould, Bono, Cardinale and Powers are convinced they’re in the latter. Moore and Niven are caught between the two options, so try gamely to cover both bases.
Apologies for labouring the point, but some of the casting decisions are baffling. Who on earth thought Roger Moore would make a good German officer (albeit one that switches sides to the Allies)? This is a man whose acting range basically covers upper class British spy (James Bond), upper class British spy (The Saint) and … er … well, he was OK in The Cannonball Run, I guess.
While Savalas at least puts in some effort, Niven looks like he has turned up in order to enjoy a short holiday in the sun, and could have phoned in his performance. Powers and Gould, playing a couple of entertainers who turn up on the island after the plane carrying them crashes into the sea (though bizarrely they are bone dry, without as much as a scratch on them, have all their luggage in tow and show zero signs of trauma), may have been told to ham it up at every available opportunity, because that’s exactly what they do. It offers scant light relief – the film is light enough anyway – and at times it is frankly ridiculous. At one point, on a motorbike, Gould’s character chases a German officer through the narrow streets of the island. Every time the camera rests on Gould, he gurns and pulls silly faces, as though he has sat on a wasp. It’s as bad as seeing Frank Spencer appear in The French Connection‘s chase scenes.
What kind of film the writer / director, George Cosmatos (notable films include the risible Rambo: First Blood Part II and the much, much better early 90s wild west movie Tombstone), and the rest of the crew were trying to make is anyone’s guess. It looks like they decided to copy several ideas from successful war films from the previous decade in the hope of striking gold themselves. Escape To Athena rips off The Guns Of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Inside Out and Kelly’s Heroes, to name a few, stealing elements like the plot, the tone, the cast members and the music from them randomly like a pissed, scattershot magpie.
Lalo Schifrin – who also wrote the soundtrack to Kelly’s Heroes – was enlisted to help here, but his repetition of jaunty, bouncy brass funk is nowhere near as memorable as his score for the earlier film. While Schifrin attempted to match the light tone of the movie here, it merely reminded me (and made me feel glad) that a cultural shift took place with regard to war films made during the next two decades, and the seriousness of war was reflected in works like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan to name but a few, rather than these trite, late ’70s, big cast, boy’s own adventures. In recent years, weirdly, Inglorious Basterds is the film that most closely resembles the tone of Escape To Athena. Not that I’m completely dead against war films that also manage to be fun and entertainingly light; for pure cheese enjoyment the football-related Escape To Victory – made a couple of years later – knocks Escape To Athena out of the proverbial ballpark, despite its own faults (Stallone goalkeeper etc. etc.).
Cosmatos seems to have little or no interest in his female characters, and clearly sees them as having no value other than being for decorative use; the roles for women here are both demeaning and damning, and serve only to remind us of the very worst traits of 70s sexism. As well as the fact the two main female cast members play a prostitute and a stripper, the female extras are all prostitutes too. There are no other women in this particular war or on this particular island. (That all said, if the camera tends to linger on one actor’s backside a little too often, it’s neither that of Powers or Cardinale … but actually Elliott Gould’s jolly wobbler. Roger Moore, given top billing as a genuine screen heartthrob and action hero at the time, may well have raised an intrigued eyebrow at the first screening.)
This attempt at a British blockbuster – is that even a term? – is muddled pap that falls completely flat on all fronts. As a war film the action scenes are both forgettable and woefully unbelievable. (Characters regularly hold machine guns with one hand while spraying bullets in all manner of directions, but seem to hit their targets more often than not. A plot twist regarding a stash of V-2 bombs – presumably included to make the actions of the principal cast members seem more heroic – is a dreary add-on to the final act.) As a comedy, it is even less successful; Gould’s hammy clowning about is clearly meant to offer light relief, but the action / adventure side of things is so light anyway there’s really no need. The film also relies on a few weak sight gags; on one background wall the words “Fuck Germans” are daubed in white paint. As the camera pans by a German officer stands in front of the letter “u”. That’s the level here.
Fittingly, there is an extremely cack-handed ending, which shows the same island town 30 years after the war: it’s a bustling, liberated place where children run through the square and crowds of tourists arrive by bus to visit the local museum. Thank heavens for the Moore / Savalas / Roundtree / Bono / Cardinale / Gould / Powers multinational axis! When the credits do eventually begin to roll, the bizarre song choice playing is “Keep Tomorrow For Me” by the late ’70s disco act Heatwave. Even after the story has ended, Cosmatos still manages to make my jaw drop even lower.
In its defence, Escape To Athena does include some lovely establishing shots of the island (it was filmed on Rhodes), presumably taken onboard a very steady helicopter, and at least a couple of the actors (Moore, Savalas) try, despite their limitations. But that’s about all I can think to say positively. There are few original ideas on show here, and those that are can mostly be filed in a bin marked “terrible”. In a film that is over 2 hours long, albeit one cut by 25 minutes by the time it was released in the US, that’s very unimpressive.
Unfortunately I was watching the original, uncut version.
Directed by: George P. Cosmatos
Written by: George P. Cosmatos, Edward Anhalt, Richard Lochte
Starring: Roger Moore, Telly Savalas, David Niven, Stefanie Powers, Elliott Gould
Running Time: 125 Minutes