Reviewed by Annabel
Being a child of the 60s and 70s, I grew up with thrillers. We read loads of them: my father still does, and I enjoy an occasional one too. From the age of about twelve in the early 70s, I devoured them, especially Alastair MacLean, Hammond Innes, Desmond Bagley, Ian Fleming et al; they were all on our shelves. It was MacLean I began with and I read them all up to Breakheart Pass, published in 1974, after which I turned to other genres. My favourites were three from the mid-1960s, though, Ice Station Zebra, When Eight Bells Toll and Where Eagles Dare published in 1967.
Those three books were filmed between 1967 and 1971, and it’s impossible to say whether I read the books first or saw the films on the television. It’s the film of Where Eagles Dare that I remember, and (alongside The Great Escape), have happily watched many times since. Having such fond memories of the movie, I have no desire to revisit the book which would surely disappoint, as Geoff Dyer says in his afterword to this superb longform essay on the much-loved film. Incidentally, given that Where Eagles Dare is such a classic film, I’ve assumed a vague familiarity with its premise and thus the rest of this review, like Dyer’s book does contain spoilers of sorts.
The plot in MacLean’s own screenplay is frankly ludicrous! A team of British soldiers plus one American are parachuted into snowy Bavaria where their mission is to get into the Schloss Adler – the castle perched on a rock, to extricate a captured British General who knows the plans for the second front, except the captive isn’t a real general – he’s a double. There are also double agents on the Brit’s team and the only way in and out of the Schloss is by helicopter or cable car.
The team is led by a booze-addled Richard Burton, who begrudged having to make lower class fare so he and ‘E’ could live their life of luxury. It wouldn’t be the same film without him, especially as after the team’s radio operator has his neck broken in the parachute drop (not an accident, and an early example of a ‘redshirt’ role), it’s Burton’s sonorous tones as Major John Smith that utter the iconic callsign, ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy’.
Burton’s right-hand man, Lt Schaffer, is Clint Eastwood, who is on the way up, fresh from all those spaghetti westerns. Apparently, he was paid $750,000 – surely an excellent fee back then.
Dyer’s essay starts at the beginning of the film as the team are flying over the alps getting ready to drop from an appropriated Junkers Ju-52, and works its way through the entire film. He comments on the classic moments and the classic phrases – ‘Sit down’ is uttered countless times and Dyer tells about most of them. He also points out the anachronisms, such as the featured helicopter not coming into service until 1946. Dyer is also frequently amazed at the equipment and clothing that comes from the seemingly bottomless rucksacks that the operatives carry.
Then there are the two girls. The minor part of Heidi, a local, is to get British agent Mary into the castle as a distraction secretary. Mary is played by Mary Ure, who gets third billing, an actress who had played alongside Burton in the film adaptation of Look Back in Anger ten years earlier. Mary had also jumped from the plane – unknown to the team other than Major Smith, she’d been hidden away.
Dyer builds in references to many other films, be they war movies, classics or not-so-classics, and quotes from many sources about the film including Clive James’ criticism and Burton’s own diaries; poets and playwrights from Rilke to Shakespeare get mentions too. This may be an erudite essay, but it never takes itself too seriously as from the first page to the last, Dyer’s love and enjoyment of the film comes through. He is particularly good when writing about Clint Eastwood’s near static facial expressions – comparing and contrasting:
But in terms of the non-manifestation of whatever is going on inside – or, possibly, the clear manifestation of an interior nothingness – Steve McQueen was the master. By comparison with McQueen, Eastwood was the Jim Carrey of his day, a virtuoso gymnast of the visage. …
It helps that McQueen’s face has no distinguishing features apart from the eyes; Eastwood is strikingly handsome, gorgeous, but he has that essential ability – especially important when playing the part of a cowboy or gunslinger – to be seen to be gazing into the middle distance even when doing up-close work such as obsessively lubing his Schmeisser.
Then a few pages later, I fell about laughing:
Back at the bar, he and Eastwood inhale a couple of cognacs before Burton slips off to the woodshed, leaving Eastwood to keep any eye on things, i.e. to squint. But he’s not just squinting, he’s squinting in German.
I haven’t even got to the iconic scenes involving the escape from the Schloss and the cable car fight yet, which Dyer dissects with the typical wit we’ve come to expect. Film criticism is rarely this fun.
Although Dyer states at the outset that he decided to concentrate on the film itself, its story and its characters rather than the technical challenges and the evolution of the film, at times, I would have welcomed some more commentary on these aspects. Also missing is any real mention of the soundtrack: the theme by Ron Goodwin with its ‘Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat’ machine gun motif and fugue-like development after the main melody sets the scene perfectly for the opening of the movie.
That said, I enjoyed every page of this engaging short book, polishing it off in one sitting and going online to order a copy of the film to view once again!
Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors and is an unashamed fan of Richard Burton’s voice and Clint Eastwood’s chiselled looks.
Geoff Dyer, ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’: On Where Eagles Dare (Penguin, 2018). 978-0141987620, 128pp., paperback original.
BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link)