The Empty Balcony: Where Eagles Dare

Steven Spielberg once proclaimed 1968’s Where Eagles Dare his favorite war movie, partly because of its inherent unreality. One of the great movies of the, well, unrealistic era of war films, the great lesson of Where Eagles Dare is that when wielded by an American or a Brit, an MP-40 is the ultimate weapon of death.

It’s sometime in the winter of 1943/44. A plane carrying an American general has been shot down over Bavaria, its VIP passenger now in German hands in an isolated mountain castle. The general had been on his way to brief representatives of the Soviet Union on the coming invasion of Europe, so the general must be freed before the Germans can conduct a successful interrogation.

British MI6 assemble a team of commandos to infiltrate the castle and carry out a rescue mission. The team is led by Major Smith, a grizzled veteran of the war, played by Richard Burton. The sole American is Lieutenant Schaffer, played by Clint Eastwood, representing the Hollywood interests in the production team.

The rescuers parachute behind enemy lines wearing German uniforms and carrying a shitload of dynamite. But behind them on the plane, unseen until a dramatic reveal, is Mary (Mary Ure), an operative so secret only Major Smith is aware she’s part of the team.

On the ground things begin to go wrong quickly for the team, making it mostly a two man show of Burton and Eastwood, with occasional appearances from Mary and another female asset, Heidi (Ingrid Pitt).

At this point in the film, a viewer can be left wondering where it is headed. Despite all the misfortune befalling the team, there’s been a lot of exposition and not much else. That’s to be expected out of a film starring Richard Burton. Grim seriousness was his bread and butter, after all, not action.

Burton and Eastwood spend a long time making their way into the castle and setting up the final act. After a bizarre and overly complicated confrontation with the ranking officers of the castle (featuring twists and turns that are totally unnecessary), the film turns on the gas. What, up to that point, had been a moribund movie morphs into a rip-roaring action film.

The two protagonists become super-soldiers, mowing down wave upon wave of Germans as they struggle to complete their mission. It’s a mind-boggling turn in the film, and does its best to ruin a viewer’s suspension of disbelief. But it’s welcome.

The more extreme the situation becomes, and the more adept the heroes become at killing the bad guys, the more the film becomes worth watching. It’s an extraordinary transformation.

Burton is the star of Where Eagles Dare. It’s hard to picture Clint Eastwood taking a backseat to anyone, even in 1968, after he had a passel of starring roles in westerns to his name. But there it is. Burton’s Major Smith is in total control. Eastwood is the muscle, the loyal palooka whose greatest contribution to the film is a capacity for violence unrivalled in any other film Eastwood has been in. He mows down Nazis left and right with superhuman ability. There’s not much to say about the quality of his performance, as so much of it is spent looking down the barrel of a gun. That said, his able command of the violence makes the final act his, despite some aerial acrobatics by Burton’s stunt double.

I’m not quite sure what director Brian G. Hutton was trying to accomplish with this film, and I don’t think it matters. The impetus for the production originated with Burton. If he was after a star vehicle, that’s what he got. What audiences got was a pure Hollywood fantasy of World War II. Where Eagles Dare is worth the two and a half hour slog solely for that final act. It’s exciting, ridiculous, and totally fun. Yay war.

Oh, and there’s a helicopter. A fricking helicopter, in a World War II film. Amazing.