Where Eagles Dare (1968)

By an odd coincidence, all my entertainment (admittedly quite limited) over the past week has been related in some way or the other to Nazi Germany. I watch almost no TV, but I’ve recently been getting a lot of laughs out of the farcical British comedy series, ’Allo Allo. And, the book I’m currently reading is Robert Harris’s Fatherland, set in an alternate 1964, where Germany has won World War II—and Hitler reigns.

So why not make it a hat trick, I thought. Let’s watch a WWII film.

Therefore, this. Where Eagles Dare was one of the first war films I ever watched, and till this day, it remains one of my favourite films. When it comes to action/adventure films set in WWII, this one tops my list.

Scripted by the inimitable Alistair MacLean (one of my favourites when it comes to adventure stories), the film gets off to a flying start. Literally, as a Junkers piloted by a Brit, carrying a team of British (and one American) commandos flies over the snowy mountains of Bavaria, towards the Schloss Adler—‘The Castle of Eagles’, regional headquarters of the SS.

No dialogue happens in this brief scene, as the camera pans across the seven men who sit huddled in the plane, waiting.

Instead, we switch back in time a few hours, to see why they’re in the plane in the first place. The scene now moves to Britain, where these same men are being briefed by Admiral Rolland (Michael Hordern) and Colonel Turner (Patrick Wymark).

Among the men are Major Smith (Richard Burton), Sgt Harrod (Brook Williams), Sgt MacPherson (Neil McCarthy), Christiansen (Donald Houston), Berkeley (Peter Barkworth), Thomas (William Squire)—and the lone American, Lt Schaffer (Clint Eastwood). All seven are fluent in German and expert in combat—which is why they’ve been selected for this mission.

The mission is to parachute into Bavaria, enter the Schloss Adler, and rescue a certain American officer, General Carnaby. Carnaby is a key man in the planning of the Second Front, and was on his way to the Middle East for discussions with his Russian counterparts when his plane was brought down within a few miles of the Schloss Adler.

Carnaby has been taken prisoner by the Germans and is now in the Schloss Adler, waiting to be interrogated. If the Germans are able to make him talk—which they will, no doubt about it—there might be no Second Front in the near future. The war will drag on.

Switch back to the present, and Smith, Schaffer, and the five other men are given the go-ahead by the pilot. They parachute out, and shortly after, a crew member helps a woman out of her hiding place in the plane, and she parachutes out too.

Down below, the men land in a snowy clearing and make their way to where three large cylinders containing their ammunition, weapons, etc have been dropped simultaneously. It’s while they’re getting everything together that Smith realises that their radio operator, Sgt Harrod, is missing—and when they go looking, they find Harrod dead, his neck broken.

Smith sends the others back to their work, while he checks the radio (and takes the code diary for the radio, from Harrod’s tunic pocket).
Before leaving, Smith checks the back of Harrod’s neck—and finds a dark bruise. He sweeps away the snow under Harrod’s neck, and finds only more snow. No rock, nothing hard that could have accidentally killed Harrod.

Smith joins the other men, who’ve now reached their interim destination—a small barn that’s deserted during the winter. They’re settling in when Smith says that he’d forgotten to take the code diary from Harrod’s body. He’ll go back and fetch it; it won’t take more than an hour.

Where he does go is next door—to another barn, where he meets the woman who had parachuted down separately. This is Smith’s sweetheart and colleague, Mary (Mary Ure).

Smith hurriedly informs Mary that Harrod has been murdered.
He then gives her instructions: in the valley below is the small town of Werfen, where there’s a gasthaus named Zum Wilden Hirsch. Behind it is a wood shed; Mary is to meet him there the next evening.

The next morning, along with Schaffer, Smith goes downhill to take a closer look at the Schloss Adler, a daunting building indeed:

…and, while Schaffer’s gone to lead the other men down from their shelter, Smith uses the radio to call Admiral Rolland and Colonel Turner. (His radio call sign, “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” is almost iconic in war film history). Harrod’s death is duly reported, and upsets both the senior officers back home. Rolland wonders aloud (after Smith’s signed off) who will be next. Smith himself?

When Schaffer rejoins Smith, we learn a bit more about Werfen. It is the headquarters of the Wehrmacht’s Alpenkorps, and hundreds of soldiers of the corps pass through Werfen daily. Smith, Schaffer, and their men, disguised as men of the Alpenkorps, will easily disappear in the crowd.

It does seem quite easy. Smith and Schaffer, dressed as Alpenkorps officers, and Christiansen, Berkeley, Thomas and MacPherson, dressed as soldiers, slip into town without anybody being any the wiser.

They make their way to Zum Wilden Hirsch, where Smith proceeds to get to ‘know’ the local barmaid, Heidi (Ingrid Pitt—who had, in real life, spent three years in a concentration camp).

Subterfuge again, though Schaffer, looking on, doesn’t know it. Neither do the Germans around. Smith has used his brief embrace of Heidi to tell her to come to the woodshed behind Zum Wilden Hirsch in a few minutes’ time.

…and, soon after, Smith leaves the gasthaus and goes to the woodshed, where Mary is already waiting.

He updates her on the identity she is to assume: Maria Schenk, cousin of Heidi, who has arranged a job for Mary as a staffer at the Schloss Adler. Maria is supposed to be from Dusseldorf, and had to leave her last job because of TB. Smith hands over the forged identity papers for Maria Schenk.
And Mary, no fool, comments that MI6 have been really fast setting all this up. After all, General Carnaby’s plane came down only last morning…

Then comes one of those twists that make Where Eagles Dare such a satisfying watch. Oh, yes, says Smith. General Carnaby’s plane did go down just the previous morning, riddled with machine gun holes. “British machine gun holes. But what the hell; a hole is a hole, is a hole, is what I say.”

It turns out the American general the Germans have caught isn’t a general at all; he’s a corporal named Cartwright Jones (Robert Beatty) who used to be an actor but is the spitting image of the real general. This is his best part till date.

The plan is to get Jones out of Schloss Adler before the Germans realise whom they’ve actually caught. That’s why Smith & Co. need to hurry—before Jones cracks under pressure.

Heidi arrives during this conversation, and Smith introduces her to Maria: Heidi, he tells her, has been British Intelligence’s ablest agent in Bavaria since 1941. And what a disguise!

On his way back to the gasthaus, Smith makes an unsettling find: MacPherson, shot dead, lying in a snowy alley. The second man to be killed. Somebody in Werfen knows that these men are not Alpenkorps soldiers. In fact, since Harrod was killed on the mountain—far away from Werfen, just as he landed—it seems the threat is not just from Werfen, but from somewhere much closer.

Smith gets back to the gasthaus and tells Schaffer what he’s found. They’re still talking when the main door opens, and Mary—Maria Schenk, now—makes a dramatic entry. Heidi puts up an equally good performance as the delighted cousin, and there’s an affectionate ‘reunion’ between the two women.

Into this meeting comes barging in Major von Hapen (Derren Nesbitt) of the Gestapo, eager to be introduced to the lovely newcomer.

He even insists he’ll accompany ‘Maria’ on the cable car to Schloss Adler, as soon as she’s ready to leave. Heidi says she’ll come along too.

Heidi takes Mary up to her own room at the Zum Wilden Hirsch—and, down in the bar room, Smith and his team receive a nasty shock. Armoured cars come screeching to a halt outside the gasthaus, and a hard-eyed SS officer enters, saying they’ve received news of five deserters—two officers and three men of the Alpenkorps—who have been traced to this gasthaus. Everybody is to stay put; one by one, each will be checked.

And Smith, instead of trying to sneak his men out, or pull a bluff, beckons to Schaffer, Christiansen, Berkeley and Thomas. They follow him to the SS officer, and Smith surrenders, saying that they’re the ones he’s looking for.
Just like that.

Christiansen, Berkeley and Thomas are hustled away for questioning, and the officers, Smith and Schaffer, are made to sit in the SS officer’s own car. He gets in, too, along with armed guards, and the car sets off for Schloss Adler.

…and Mary, accompanied by Heidi and von Hapen, is on the cable car, also bound for Schloss Adler.

The mission seems to have been nipped in the bud. But this is just about one-third into the story—there’s lots more to come, as the plot twists and turns with blinding rapidity, increasing the suspense. Is this mission just what Smith had told Mary it was—a rescue operation to get Cartwright Jones out of the Schloss Adler before the Germans realise they’ve got a dud general? Or is there more?

On the battered cover of my copy of the novel, Richard Burton is quoted as having called Where Eagles Dare “a humdinger”. I agree completely. It doesn’t get better than this.

What I liked about this film:

Unlike even other war espionage/adventure films like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, or The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare is adventure all through, undiluted by grey characters, philosophising on the bleakness and horror of war, or even anything approaching chinks in the armour when it comes to the good guys. It’s all smart, thoroughly intriguing storyline (with some amazing plot twists); great acting; excellent direction (Brian G Hutton, though the stunts were directed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt); and a fantastic score (Ron Goodwin).  Even the landscapes—it was filmed in Austria—are gorgeous.

And Clint Eastwood? Yum.

What I didn’t like:

There’s nothing I actually dislike about Where Eagles Dare, though I do wish their haircuts had been better. Clint Eastwood’s hair, especially, looks completely 60s, not 40s. And certainly not the hair of a military officer, at any rate.

Little bit of trivia:

Although Clint Eastwood is almost synonymous with the ‘killer’ image from all the Westerns he starred in, it’s Where Eagles Dare that claims the position for his highest body count in any film: supposedly 73.

Interestingly, Eastwood occasionally referred to the film as ‘Where Doubles Dare’, because so much of the work was actually done by doubles, and not the actors themselves (especially in the case of Richard Burton). In one scene where both Smith and Schaffer climb a rope up a high wall, Burton’s character arrives at the top and comes in through a window, barely out of breath. Shortly after, Schaffer hauls himself up, and is panting hard—a result of Eastwood’s having actually climbed the rope, while Burton used a crane to have himself deposited at the window.

Comparisons, comparisons:

I usually do this section when I’m comparing a book-based film to its book version, so I’ll do it here, too. And for once, happily—since this is one film that’s very faithful to the book, because MacLean wrote both the novel and the screenplay simultaneously. There are a few minor differences in characters (for example, in the Schloss Adler, the commanding officer’s female secretary in the film is a stern-faced, stiff-lipped middle-aged woman; in the book, she’s a beautiful but vicious blonde). The plot with its brilliant twists and turns, the major characters, and the breakneck pace of the book, however remain the same.

My only grouse is with the character of Schaffer. Schaffer, in the book, is a combat expert (as he is in the film too), but he’s also a thoroughly likeable man, with a good sense of humour. And he’s a romantic at heart. Clint Eastwood, as Schaffer, is—well, Eastwood. Tough and taciturn, though he does have a couple of funny lines, like this one:

Smith: “Lieutenant, in the next 15 minutes, we have to create enough confusion to get out of here alive.”
Schaffer: “Major, right now you’ve got me about as confused as I ever hope to be.”

Schaffer has dialogues similar to that every now and then through the book, which makes it just that little bit more appealing to me.

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33 thoughts on “Where Eagles Dare (1968)

  1. Madhu ji,
    Thanks for reviving my memories of this film from the 60s.
    I was an addict of War books and War films and remember having seen many war films like-I was an American Spy,Operation Pacific,The Desert Rats,Stalag-17,From here to Eternity,The last 10 days of Hitler,Attack,Bridge on the River kwai,The man who never was,The bridge,The Longest Day,The one that got away etc etc.
    The list will be too long.
    I like your style of discussing the film and the screenshots enhance the interest value.
    Thanks again for a wonderful note on this film.
    -Arunkumar Deshmukh

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this, Arunji! And thank you for mentioning so many great films – I’ve seen quite a few of these, but some I’d only heard of (and a couple I hadn’t even heard of). Now I have some recommendations I will look out for. Thank you!

  2. One of my favourite MacLeans. I think you’d earlier discussed good movie versions of books; this would I think have qualified quite handsomely, along with Guns of Navarone, another MacLean favourite. Excellent review, as always.

    • Yes, this would certainly have qualified as a great film version of the book. But I think it’s a sort of chicken-and-egg thing, here: after all, both novel and screenplay were written at the same time (in six weeks! MacLean was unbelievable). Whatever, it’s one of the few films that I love almost as much as I love the book.

      It’s been eons since I watched The Guns of Navarone (slightly less since I read it), but if I remember correctly, there were quite a few changes in the film version, weren’t there? I recall not really liking the film much, Peck and Quinn notwithstanding.

  3. Finally you reviewed my all time favourite Where Eagles Dare. There is absolutely nothing that I donot like about the film, everytime I see it, I discover something new, something I missed out earlier and the action scenes are excellent, I can just go on and on about this film.

    • Shilpi, I was thinking of you when I decided to watch Where Eagles Dare! You see, I remembered that you’d once posted a comment on this blog, telling me how much you liked this film, and I’d thought, “Shilpi’s a girl after my own heart!” So… I too can watch this film again and again, and go on loving it even more with each viewing. And that scene in the large dining hall… brilliant! :-)

  4. Thank you for bringing back my memories to sixties. So many war and adventure movies. Guns of Navarone, The longest day,The great escape, pearl harbor ( charlton Hesten starer)Tubroke(rock Hudson )the battle of Briton etc.
    We enjoyed this movie viewing repeatedly the dare devil action of Burton and Clint Eastwood . Actually the title should have been Where eagles dare not?

    • Ah, well – they did dare to enter the ‘Castle of the Eagles’, so the name is apt enough. Incidentally, the actual quote is from Shakespeare’s Richard III:

      “The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.”

  5. Madhu, one of my favourite MacLeans, until we were given that as our non-detailed texts. Oh god, if someone wants kids to hate books, they should promptly make them textbooks. I remember watching the film when I was in college and loving it. Time for a rewatch perhaps. :) Thanks for the review – refreshed my memory of the book so vividly.

    • Which class were you in when you had to study Where Eagles Dare, Anu? Thank goodness, I never had it as a textbook – I only studied, as books, The Guide (which was okay), Far From the Madding Crowd, Arms and the Man and Julius Caesar in school – and loved them. It might have been because they were the original, unabridged versions. I guess if I’d had to read a non-detailed version, I might’ve hated it too.

      I do hope you eventually got to read the original Where Eagles Dare. Total humdinger.

      • 11th. It was our ‘General English’ ‘non-detailed’ – oh, we had the whole book, never fear – original and unabridged. But have you had a Mallu teacher stand there and *murder* a perfectly decent book in a thick (and flat) Mallu accent?? And how the devil do you actually explain a book such as Where Eagles Dare??

        She would walk in, open the book, call out the page number, and start reading. Then, she would begin to explain the perfectly understandable sentences (it’s not like MacLean was writing such high-flown prose.). By which time, a few of us would be pulling our hair out in frenzy. The rest played the fool. She destroyed that book! She had absolutely no expression in her voice, didn’t make the slightest attempt to even instil some interest in what she was reading, and was a horrible teacher anyway. I still remember one dialogue – I think it was Smith (?) who says You’re pointing that gun at me, aren’t you? and she reads it out like she is saying You’re going to give me tea, aren’t you? There was no inflexion, no change in expression, nothing. Aaargh!

        I loved the book – thankfully, I had read it cover to cover before I even entered college. (We had it as Plus1 and Plus2 – not 11th and 12th.) It’s time to read it again, but pick that book up and her expressionless, joyless voice rings in my ears! Did I say Aaaargh? Aaaaaaargh!

        • “And how the devil do you actually explain a book such as Where Eagles Dare??

          Too true. How?

          LOL, by the way, at your description of your teacher’s method of teaching – I can imagine what a ghastly experience that might have been. We used to have a history teacher whose method of teaching was similar – only. instead of reading the chapter out aloud herself, she’d get one of the students to do it. And sit at her desk and snooze in the meantime. One of the few times I remember her actually reading something out herself was when she read something about Italian fascism, and referred to Il Duce as “second deuce”. :-D

          The one good thing that came of that year (it was Class XII) was that all of us were so terrified we’d flunk that we put in a lot of effort studying history on our own – and most of the class got good marks in the Board exams.

  6. I too join the crowd of those who think this is one of the best WW2 action films. Each winter, especially when there has been a recent snowfall; this is one of the best films to watch Clint is uber-cool, Richard Burton is better than his role in “Kilopatra” (trying to bring Dharmendra in here). The cable-car scenes are truly magnificent, the final chase is excellent; a little far-fetched sometimes, but entertaining Hollywood Masala.
    Thanks for a great review, now have to go find my DVD :)

    • You put it brilliantly, Samir. Clint is uber-cool, the cable car scenes are fantastic – and the chase in the post bus is excellent (I always wait with bated breath when they get off to rig the bridge – even though I know what’s coming!) Burton always does strike me as looking too out of shape (huffing and puffing through a good bit of the film), but still… he rules in that scene in the huge dining hall.

      Go find the DVD and watch it again. :-)

  7. WED belongs to an era of our college days, where we would gleefully bunk our “Workshop” or “Drawing – Shops” to go for such movies. We would have to make teams to take our chances in rotation.
    Some of us would re-read the book after seeing the movie and would hold ‘discussion – forum’ at the night-reading sessions as a means to relax from the preparations for the examinations.
    Incidentally, I got to see ‘Night of The Generals’ last week.

    • I saw Night of the Generals about when I first saw Where Eagles Dare, back in the mid-80s. Haven’t seen it since then, but I remember liking it a lot! Thank you for reminding me of it – I must watch it again.

  8. “Do me a favor, will you? Next time you have one of these things, keep it an all-British operation” !!!!!

    Reading this review, I wanna watch this movie one more time !!!

    • And how about the scene in the dining hall? :-)

      Schaffer: “‘Second-rate punk’, huh?”
      Smith: “All I could think of on the spur of the moment.”
      Schaffer: “Thanks, that makes it even worse!”

  9. What a pity, that it not a natural history film! ;-)
    Jokes apart, your review makes me want to watch it. Lovely review once again Madhu!
    You had me confused for a moment with Maria Schenk, I mistook her for Maria Schell!

  10. This is surely the first ‘Clint’ film I ever saw on TV longtime back. Then I watched number of westerns* starring Clint Eastwood and liked them. But I didn’t realise that ‘Schaffer’ and ‘Man with no name’ is the same guy!! (don’t know how that sounds) I saw Clint’s many films but never revisited this. Need to remedy it. Thanks for the review.
    *I like Feroz and Sanjay Khan’s westerns. Don’t care for the other versions including a certain blockbuster.

    • Yes, I’m pretty sure Where Eagles Dare was the first Eastwood film I saw too. I’ve seen quite a few of his westerns as well – in fact, I remember sitting up till late at night to watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly because it starred Lt Schaffer! :-)

      The only Feroz Khan ‘western’ I’ve seen (and that too only in part) is Kaala Sona. Did Sanjay Khan do that type of film too? Any recommendations?

      I didn’t mind Sholay. I don’t go gaga about it like most people seem to, but I don’t dislike it either.

      • Sanjay Khan did ‘Chandi Sona’ and ‘Abdullah’, the latter has Raj Kapoor in the title role.
        Feroz Khan’s ‘Khote Sikkay (1974)’ , even though it borrows a lot from the west, has the likes of Ranjeet,Sudhir etc. in sympathetic roles.
        That reminded me of ‘Pratiggya’ with the ‘Jat Yamla pagla’ song. It seems Ajit plays the same role that he played in Khote Sikkay.
        Maybe it is Dharam in the ‘western’ avatar which puts me off.

        • I have to add – One common link in all these bollywood westerns was Danny Denzongpa. He seemed to pop up in most of them. Also the original choice for Gabbar which I can’t believe as he was the second lead in numerous 70s films mostly starring Shashi Kapoor,Feroz Khan or Vinod Khanna.

        • Thanks! Will look out for the films you’ve suggested. By the way, talking of Dharam in the ‘Western’ avatar, have you seen the Dharam-Karan Kapoor starrer Zalzala? A rip-off of MacKenna’s Gold, which I remember seeing when it was shown on TV years ago… I hated it even back then.

          I remember Danny being in Kaala Sona too. One of his earliest films, from what I recall. He was paired with Farida Jalal.

  11. ‘Where Eagles Dare’ is one of my favorite books and films too. And I agree completely about the portrayal of Schaffer’s character. Another funny line from the book : When Smith saves Schaffer by grabbing his hand on the roof of the cable car station, Schaffer says something like (don’t remember the exact words) – “If you ever need a favor like lending you a cab fare…”. Struck me as uproarious.
    Excellent summarization!

    • Ah, yes, I remember that one too. Delightful. I also like that bit about Schaffar goes on and on about how much he hates horses – and it eventually emerges, right at the end, that it’s because he “falls off them. Everywhere.”

      Now the temptation to re-read the book is building up – if only I could find the time!

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