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Posted on May 25, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Impossible Mission Films

By Wyatt Kingseed

5.jpgWHERE EAGLES DARE.  Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood on a mission to rescue a downed American General held captive in a heavily guarded enemy castle in the Bavarian Alps. Like The Guns of Navarone, Alistair MacLean wrote the story. It is a lesser effort, but still has its share of excitement and suspense. 

Once again it’s the eve of D-Day, making the operation critical because the prisoner supposedly has full knowledge of the upcoming invasion. He must be saved before he cracks under interrogation. Major John Smith (Burton) leads a crack British commando team that includes an American Ranger (Eastwood) who wonders why he’s been ordered to join the operation. 

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Following the by-now well used formula of the genre, a member of the assault team dies at the outset after a parachute drop to immediately put the mission at risk. It’s apparent that an enemy agent is afoot, but who? You have to pay attention because the plot is packed with twists and turns in the form of double and triple-crosses. The film is more than a straight rescue story; it is really about spies and more closely resembles another Burton film—The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—than some of the others in this genre. By the end, Major Smith manages to unmask most of the German spies working in England.

Eastwood, who had built his career on Westerns, exchanges his poncho and six-guns for a military uniform and machine gun, but otherwise plays the same character as the “Man With No Name” from the Sergio Leone films. He’s cool under pressure and an incredibly deadly shot. Most of his time on screen is spent gunning down Germans. In one sequence he single-handily holds a squad of enemy soldiers at bay as they attack down a corridor of the castle. Wielding two machine guns simultaneously he sprays the corridor, dropping an extraordinary number of the enemy while he remains impervious to hand grenades, return fire, and flying shards of rock. His trademark sneer is visible behind the flashing barrels of his weapons, taking the scene over the top and into the realm of classic Eastwood.

Burton, the efficient leader, is properly courageous, intense, and stiffly British. His deep baritone seems out of place at times and better suited for a costume drama, but he seems to enjoy himself in one of his few ventures into the war film genre in his career. Featured in two exciting set pieces, it is clearly his movie. The first involves a sensational fight scene atop a moving cable car with two Nazis with the stunning Alps as a backdrop. Here, Burton makes good use of an ice ax. He later has a wild ride behind the steering wheel of a bus rigged with a snowplow. Between the two stars, they wipe out a few hundred Germans and effect one of the most improbable escapes in any action film. 

Director Brian Hutton does a good job with pacing and keeps the action moving at a steady clip. Besides the sequences already mentioned, Hutton sprinkles in a bunch of small moments, such as terrific jeep crashes during the final chase that have helped make this film a cult classic among action fans. Paul Strader deserves much of the credit as stunt coordinator. He had previously doubled for such actors as Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Johnny Weissmuller. Two years later Hutton would direct Eastwood in Kelly’s Heroes

6.jpgTHE EAGLE HAS LANDED. And one for the other side. In an adaptation of a best-selling novel by Jack Higgins, Michael Caine plays Kurt Steiner, a German colonel who commands a parachute unit with a history of successful commando operations. He is a decent man with allegiance to his men rather than the Third Reich. Early in the film he tries to save a Jewish girl on her way to a concentration camp. SS officers shoot the girl, prompting a heated argument between Steiner and the general in charge, resulting in his arrest for insubordination.

In the meantime, an SS squad stage a daring real-life rescue of Hitler’s chief ally, Italian President Benito Mussolini, held prisoner in an isolated mountain stronghold. Heinrich Himmler, played with quiet menace by Donald Pleasance, instructs underlings to devise a similar plan to abduct Winston Churchill. If successful, the Nazis can ransom the English Prime Minister to force a negotiated peace settlement to end the war. The task falls to Robert Duval, who recruits Steiner with the offer of redemption. 

The plan is audacious, but too improbable. That creates a problem for the viewer who knows from the outset that the mission will fail. Director John Sturges fails to build suspense to compensate—a difficult task at best—and despite a terrific cast, the story lacks enough action to hold much interest. 

Steiner and sixteen loyal men parachute unseen into England disguised as Polish soldiers, ostensibly on training maneuvers. Churchill is expected to visit the area soon on holiday. Aiding the mission is Donald Sutherland, a roguish IRA agent with a keen hatred for England. Once they nab their quarry, they plan to ferry Churchill across the Channel in a small, motorized craft, similar to a PT boat. How they could do that without a large Allied naval response on their tails is not explained.

Sturges’ previous action films included The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Ice Station Zebra. This is his last film and it is far from his best. In addition to the previously mentioned flaws, the pacing is inconsistent and the production values fail to match his previous work. The first half is somewhat intriguing, but Sturges fails to deliver once the Germans land in England. Larry Hagman makes an appearance as an obnoxious and inexperienced American officer, whose ridiculous attempt to capture Steiner comes off as comedic. Worse, an inexplicable love subplot between Sutherland and a local girl adds nothing of substance to the story. 
 
While most American films depict German soldiers as sadistic animals, this one casts them as honorable soldiers. To guard against being shot as spies if discovered, Steiner and his men wear their German uniforms beneath Polish ones. It is a bad move. When one soldier sacrifices his life to rescue a village girl and he is mangled on a waterwheel at a gristmill, his outer garment is shredded to reveal his real identity. Steiner and his men herd the entire village (all of about fifteen people) into the church where they await the arrival of both Churchill and the now informed local allied forces.

Churchill eventually appears on scene, though he is an actor and decoy for the real man who is on his way to Tehran for the Big Three Conference with Roosevelt and Stalin. That revelation is supposed to be a surprise to the viewer, but by the end you may not care.

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