Released in 1976 The Eagle has Landed is an exceptional war movie, which is when you think about it a lot more than just a war film. Its plot at times moving into to the realms of a mystery. The story is about a supposed plan that the Nazi’s concocted to kidnap or even kill Winston Churchill in 1942. It takes place after a successful mission in which German paratroopers have rescued Mussolini, Hitler deciding that it would be the right time to attempt an abduction of the then British Prime minister.
Of course no such mission ever took place (at least we do not think so) with the film being based on the bestselling novel by author Jack Higgins. Michael Caine takes the part of a German officer Captain Kurt Steiner, who has been selected for the mission because he speaks perfect English, the German troops under his command are posing as Polish troops from the free Polish regiment who have been sent to Norfolk on manoeuvres by the British. At the same time enter IRA leader Donald Sutherland who has been awaiting the German’s arrival and has been busy laying the groundwork for their arrival as he is already in England.
The story can at times be a complex one, but the standard of acting, a solid screenplay and strong direction from acclaimed filmmaker John Sturges, ensures that the film was an entertaining as well as an engrossing one. It’s a film that will keep on giving each time that you sit down to watch it, providing that is you do not think too much about the credibility of the scenario that is unfolding on screen. The film hooks the audience right from the start, as we see the plan for the kidnap take shape.
One interesting factor which I picked up on was the German soldiers in the film are portrayed as decent people, professional soldiers and are just doing as they are told, defending their country and fighting the enemy, even if they all are not in agreement with the Nazi regime and Hitler, just the same as the allies were doing at the time, just following orders.
The film which was the last movie to be helmed by John Sturges, is a fitting tribute to this fine filmmaker, who’s other credits included The Magnificent Seven, Bad Day at Black Rock, and The Great Escape as well as so many more that are now considered classics.
The cast was also a strong one and included performances from well-respected actors such as Robert Duvall, Anthony Quayle, Jenny Agutter, Jean Marsh, Donald Pleasance, and a young Treat Williams. It was an interesting movie also because Sturges decided to cast well known British and American actors to portray Germans in the movie, and it worked. The only dubious performance being that of Larry Hagman, as Colonel Pitts, which is an appearance that I still cannot make up my mind about, was it intentionally comedic or was this how the actor played it, but there again maybe it is a good performance because this is probably how the British saw Americans back in the war years?
I think all the performances in the movie are in their own way outstanding, and totally believable, Caine I thought was marvellous, and Sutherland too acquitted himself admirably as Devlin, who oozed a quiet Irish charm, that was somewhat disconcerting.
It is a movie that offers more than a standard film about men who are literally on a suicide mission for their war effort and their beliefs, the piece’s pulp origins, and its tranquil country setting give it a quality and a presence that ensures the audience focuses fully upon the finer details as well as the obvious moments within the movie,and adding intrigue into this already interesting smorgasbord of events is the realisation that the central Nazi protagonist (Caine) is not in agreement with his overlords in Berlin on the killing of Jews. The storyline never asks the audience to feel sympathy with Steiner, but it is saying that not all people should be put into the same category simply because of their origins or their nationality.
The score for the movie was by Argentinian born composer Lalo Schifrin, who provided the storyline with a tense and suitably apprehensive soundtrack, which was slightly outside of what many had become accustomed to with the composers work for cinema, it was totally removed from his scores for the TV show Mission Impossible and also the opposite to the music he had penned for the Bruce Lee martial arts thriller Enter The Dragon and bared no resemblance to his earlier works such as Murderers Row, but it was however a score that supported and elevated the action on screen and created moods and atmospherics that assisted the already taught plot.
The soundtrack included a Morricone-esque whistling piece, that accompanies Sutherlands character and there were also some martial sounding undertones included, and effective use of cymbalom, but I see no real connection to the storyline with this style of orchestration?
The composer employing dark and hurried strings which are accompanied and punctuated by piano, woods, and timpani, to purvey a sense of drama and tension. There are moments within the score that the music has to it the kind of style and sound that we more readily associate with composer Roy Budd, this I think could be due to the orchestra being used could be the National Philharmonic. In the same year the composer penned the score for The Voyage of the Damned, as well as writing music for three popular television series, these being Starsky and Hutch, Petrocelli and Sandford and Son.
The Eagle Has Landed I have said before on occasion could have possibly been based upon the classic British war movie Went the Day Well (1942), or maybe Jack Higgins was inspired by the movie at some point? The storylines are similar, with German troops disguised as friendly soldiers, and the events being confined to a quiet rural setting. Both movies are tense and dramatic and have to them a sense of the mysterious as well as having a human side because of the way in which we see the communities react, plus there is an air of the unsure and apprehensive atmospherics in both productions. The feelings and unease of the village folk seeping into the central plot to create even more uncertainty. The plot for the movie is as follows.
Admiral Canaris, (Anthony Quayle) head of the Abwehr, is ordered by Adolf Hitler to make a feasibility study into capturing the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Canaris considers it a meaningless exercise that will soon be forgotten by the Führer, but he knows this will not be the case with Heinrich Himmler (Donald Pleasance). Canaris therefore orders staff officer Oberst Radl (Robert Duvall) to begin the study, to avoid being discredited. Radl receives intelligence from an Abwehr sleeper agent in England, saying Churchill will stay in a Norfolk village near the coast. After which he begins to see potential in the operation, which he code-names ‘Eagle’. Firstly, Radl recruits an agent, an IRA man named Liam Devlin (Donald Pleasance) who lectures at a Berlin university. Secondly, he selects Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) a highly decorated and experienced Fallschirmjäger officer, to lead the mission. However, while the Luftwaffe parachute troops are returning from the Eastern Front, Steiner unsuccessfully attempts to save the life of a Jewish girl who is trying to escape from the SS in occupied Poland. Steiner and his loyal men are court-martialled and sent to a penal unit on German-occupied Alderney, where their mission is to conduct near-suicidal human torpedo attacks against Allied shipping in the English Channel. Radl is summoned to a private meeting with Himmler, without Canaris’ knowledge. Himmler reveals he knows all about the operation, and gives Radl a letter, apparently signed by Hitler, to commence the operation. Radl flies to Alderney, where he recruits Steiner and his surviving men.
Operation Eagle involves the German commandos dressing as Polish paratroopers to infiltrate the village. They are to capture Churchill, with the help of Devlin, before making their escape by a captured motor torpedo boat. Once the operation is underway, Himmler retrieves the letter (signed by Hitler) that he had given to Radl and destroys it.
On arrival in the English village, the German paratroopers take up positions under the guise of conducting friendly military exercises. However, the deception is discovered when one of Steiner’s men rescues a young girl from certain death beneath the village waterwheel. The soldier dies, and the wheel brings up his mangled corpse. The villagers see he is wearing a German uniform underneath his Polish one, the reason for this being that Steiner had not wanted them executed as spies. Steiner’s men round up the villagers and hold them captive in the village church, but the vicar’s sister escapes and alerts a unit of nearby United States Army Rangers. Colonel Pitts, the Rangers’ inexperienced and rash commander, launches a poorly planned assault on the church, that results in heavy American casualties.
Pitts is later killed by the village’s sleeper Abwehr agent. It’s left to Pitts’ deputy commander to launch a second attack, this time successful. To delay the Americans, Steiner’s men sacrifice themselves to give Devlin, Steiner and his wounded second-in-command time to escape the church through a hidden passage. A local girl, who has fallen for the charming Devlin, helps them escape. At the waiting S-boat, Steiner orders his wounded second-in-command on board, but says he is staying behind to kill Churchill. On Alderney, Radl receives news that the operation has failed. He realises that Himmler hadn’t ever had Hitler’s permission for the mission. Radl is arrested and summarily executed by an SS firing squad under the pretext that he “Exceeded his orders to the point of treason”.
Back in England, Steiner succeeds in killing Churchill moments before being shot dead himself. It is then revealed that the victim was a body double, and that the real Churchill was on his way to the Tehran Conference. The torpedo boat is aground, at dead low tide, awaiting Steiner’s return. Meanwhile Devlin, evading capture, leaves a love letter for the local girl, before slipping away. The Eagle has Landed is one of those movies that never looses its appeal, remaining interesting and entertaining to even contemporary audiences.