I have a soft spot for 1960s and 1970s adventure films set during the Second World War. You know the kind: big ensemble cast, some daring mission or other that needs to be undertaken with little or no chance of survival for the soldiers in question, and usually there’s lots of heroic derring-do to enjoy. Some of them have aged very well: The Guns Of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen spring to mind, and I’ve watched both within the past five years. Some of them haven’t aged well at all, and that’s the case for John Sturges’ final film The Eagle Has Landed, though it’s still far better than the worst dregs thrown-up by the genre (and by the same production company). Sturges was rightly respected going into this project, having helmed big hits like Bad Day At Black Rock, Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape during a long, impressive career. Indeed the notable names who signed up for what would turn out to be his last film – Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Jenny Agutter, Donald Pleasance – must have hoped that the veteran director was lining up yet another cracker. Sadly Sturges was only in it for one last paycheck, and confessed as much on-set to Caine, telling his lead actor that he only took the job to pay for a fishing trip. Reports suggest Sturges left as soon as filming wrapped, and had no involvement in post-production, leaving Editor Anne V. Coates to salvage the movie. Actually the film Coates helped to put together is structurally fine, even though it’s a little light on action until the grand finale (which is hardly her fault), and proved popular both with critics and the general public at the time of release. The plot – a bunch of German soldiers led by Caine’s General parachute into a sleepy Norfolk village to try and kidnap Winston Churchill – is paper-thin, and the premise is established within the first two minutes by an eyepatch-sporting Nazi (played by Robert Duvall, of all people). What follows is a slightly tedious 90-minute build-up in which the undercover German soldiers are joined in England by an IRA-supporting Irish academic (Donald Sutherland) and Jean Marsh’s sleeper agent; together they attempt to carry out the abduction after their cover is blown and a company of American soldiers stationed nearby is alerted to their presence.
Tom Mankiewicz’s screenplay is largely faithful to Jack Higgins’ original novel but the film is completely undermined by poor writing and some very dodgy performances (I’m looking at you, Sutherland, but Caine is poor here too). Part of the problem stems from the way the main protagonists have been ‘softened’ to make the characters and their actions more palatable to English-speaking audiences: Caine is a ‘nice’ Nazi – we first see him saving the life of a Jewish woman, who is shot by someone else seconds later anway – and Sutherland is the kind of IRA supporter who you could take home to meet the parents—a bit cheeky, drinks a lot of whiskey, prefers poetry to violence, seems to genuinely like English people. (It really doesn’t help matters that it’s one of the worst cases of an Oirish stereotype you’ll ever see in a movie.) It’s no surprise that these two actors struggled with their parts in light of Sturges’ own lack of interest in the film, though. Sadly it seems like the director couldn’t be bothered to ensure his cast followed a uniform accent policy, either. Even though everyone speaks English throughout the film some actors make an effort to adopt the accent relating to their character’s nationality, and some do not. During the one scene involving all three stars – Duvall, Caine and Sutherland – it means you have to watch an Englishman playing a German with an English accent, an American playing a German with a German accent and an American playing an Irishman with an accent that veers from full-on ‘Ah, t’be sure, t’be sure’ to some weird mid-Atlantic drawl. It’s possible that 1970s audiences didn’t care a jot and just wanted to be entertained with a few shootouts and a spot of implausible romance, but there’s no two ways about it: it sounds terrible today. It’s left, somewhat bizarrely, for two American actors in minor pre-fame roles to save the day: Larry Hagman and Treat Williams restore an air of slight respectability during the final act, and Caine’s performance also improves, but it’s too late to save the film. Even Lalo Schifrin’s score reflects the dourness of the piece, and has an air of ‘will this do?’ about it. Oh for something like this instead.
Directed by: John Sturges.
Written by: Tom Mankiewicz. Based on The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins.
Starring: Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Jenny Agutter, Donald Pleasance, Anthony Quayle, Jean Marsh, Larry Hagman, Treat Williams.
Cinematography: Anthony B. Richmond.
Editing: Anne V. Coates.
Music: Lalo Schifrin.
Running Time: 115 minutes.