Director John Sturges’ final feature is a handsome production that fumbles and stumbles in unexpected ways. Michael Caine and especially Donald Sutherland lead an impossible commando mission to kidnap Winston Churchill right from English soil. Tom Mankiewicz’s dialogue is witty but the tone is all over the place. We don’t know whether it’s the script, the direction or the editing that muffs so many potential bravura moments. On the other hand, every scene with Sutherland and Jenny Agutter is gold. [Imprint] gives us both a theatrical cut and a more satisfying extended cut.
The Eagle Has Landed
Region Free Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint] 193
1976 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 135 + 151 min. / Street Date December 28, 2023 / Available from / au 69.95
Starring: Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Jenny Agutter, Donald Pleasence, Anthony Quayle, Jean Marsh, Sven-Bertil Taube, John Standing, Judy Geeson, Treat Williams, Larry Hagman, Joachim Hansen, David Gilliam, Siegfried Rauch, Wolf Kahler, Roy Marsden, Ferdy Mayne.
Cinematography: Anthony Richmond
Production Designer: Peter Murton
Art Director: Charles Bishop
Film Editor: Anne V. Coates
Original Music: Lalo Schifrin
Written by Tom Mankiewicz from the novel by Jack Higgins
Produced by Jack Wiener, David Niven Jr.
Directed by John Sturges
Massive multi-character action epics didn’t disappear in the 1970s, but they did lose momentum. The Eagle Has Landed is a World War II ‘what if’ combat fantasy in line with pop novelist Alistair MacLean’s stock in trade. This impressive two-disc Blu-ray offers two separate versions of the film, neither of which was apparently what American moviegoers saw on screens in 1976. If our information is correct, the original theatrical cut was 11 minutes shorter than the shorter cut shown here. We watched the much longer extended cut. It isn’t promoted as a premiere, but the 2013 Shout Factory disc appears to have been a shorter version.
Although sometimes listed otherwise, [Imprint’s] disc is Region Free.
It’s not about Apollo 11.
Studios usually want one version of a show, if only to keep inventory-keeping simple and sane. The history of Eagle suggests that the filmmakers couldn’t make up their minds about much more than that, from square one forward. One studio apparently withdrew its finances because the story presents the German insurgents as positive, motivated heroes. The final product doesn’t change that. Mankiewicz sketches some of his characters quite well, and his incidental and expository dialogues are excellent. But he was the main creative talent responsible for turning James Bond into a comedian — he can’t resist awful comic relief with a clownish American commander.
Some roles are glaringly miscast. Nobody insists that every part be played by someone with the correct national identity, or that correct languages be used with subtitles — Fred Zinnemann’s excellent The Day of the Jackal is a terrific success, even with every Frenchman speaking in English. But a couple of the casting decisions just take us out of the picture . . . Quentin Tarantino surely had movies like The Eagle Has Landed in mind when concocting his purposely artificial war movie satire/fantasy Inglourious Basterds.
The Extended version viewed begins with text titles telling us that half of what we’re seeing is true to history. The true half can’t be more than the fact that there was a war going on. In 1943 the Reich is already beginning to lose, and Hitler’s close associates are finding it difficult to follow his increasingly demented instructions. Hitler tells the SS chief Heinrich Himmler (Donald Pleasance of The Great Escape) to have commandos kidnap Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Intelligence chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (Anthony Quayle of Ice Cold in Alex) wants to stall until the Führer has forgotten his crackpot kidnap idea, so Himmler assigns Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall) to do a feasibility study. The ‘covering one’s tail’ exercise becomes a real mission when Radl discovers that Churchill’s itinerary has scheduled a tour of the English coastline . . . where a small group of paratroops could indeed grab him. Himmler gives Radl the okay to proceed in secret.
Radl springs 12 commandos from special detention to do the job. They’re led by Col. Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine), whose insubordination in Poland earned death sentences for his entire paratroop unit. Already established in the target English town is the Nazi agent Joanna Grey (Jean Marsh of Unearthly Stranger), whose parents were anti-Brit Boers. Steiner’s closest aide is Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland), an I.R.A. patriot helping the Germans in anticipation of a united Ireland after an English defeat.
The commandos arrive disguised as Free Polish troops on maneuvers. The unsuspecting locals include Father Vereker (John Standing of King Rat) and his daughter Pamela (Judy Geeson of 10 Rillington Place). A company of American Rangers are stationed not far away, led by the emotional Col. Clarence E. Pitts (Larry Hagman of Fail Safe), and his much more competent assistant Captain Harry Clark (Treat Williams of 1941).
The resourceful Liam Devlin makes no mistakes but can’t stop a frisky local, 19-year-old Molly Prior (Jenny Agutter) from falling in love with him. She almost catches Liam hiding stolen vehicles and reporting to Col. Radl on his wireless; in keeping Molly occupied he falls in love himself. The Germans and English traitors seem to have things well in hand — where will the caper go wrong?
Escapist impossible-mission thrillers like Where Eagles Dare charm us with bright characters, fun casting and entertainingly outrageous action set pieces. The Eagle Has Landed is more realistic, yet some of its characters don’t seem to believe what they’re doing. It ought to generate a lot more suspense.
The cast certainly has marquee value. The celebrated Anthony Quayle is stuck in a fairly minor role, as a not-too-convincing German. On the other hand Donald Pleasance is superb as Heinrich Himmler, a bureaucrat-rat without equal. → Yet clumsy direction and editing muffs the reveal of Himmler’s big double-cross of Robert Duvall’s character.
The excellent but woefully miscast Robert Duvall sticks out like a sore thumb. His Col. Radl has an eyepatch and gloved hand, making him look like a Nazi in a Mel Brooks movie. Duvall is of course not at all bad — Mankiewicz’s script gives everybody good dialogue to say and good business to perform. But we never really believe Col. Radl on the simple action-thriller level that the story requires.
Michael Caine’s Wehrmacht officer carries the movie against all odds. His Col. Steiner begins as an un-accented German. He then assumes the part of an English officer, with an accent shift, and then masquerades briefly as a Yank GI, altering his voice once more. Caine’s performance is of course quite good, but must strain his skills (shouting at a general, etc.) to maintain credibility.
The least ruthless-when-cornered enemy Germans ever.
Caine must have been concerned about his screen image, as his combat commander is established as a ‘nice German’ and is not shown personally harming a single English or American enemy. In an egregious act of Protecting the Star, the screenplay has Caine’s Steiner rescue an escaping Jewish prisoner. He then threatens an SS general, knowing he’ll be arrested and sentenced to death. Later on during the raid, he prioritizes the safety of one child over his mission. Steiner and his paratroops have 4 or 5 successful paratroop raids on their record, yet seem above the ugly realities of combat in the German army. Perhaps they’re from the branch of the Wehrmacht that later became The Peace Corps.
After nicely setting up the daring mission (in the long version, at least) Eagle doesn’t maximize the story’s potential for excitement. The infiltration of the English town feels too casual. The misstep that puts the mission in jeopardy dissipates the tension, and the subsequent counterattack by Larry Hagman’s clumsy Colonel Pitts becomes a slaughter that leaves us rooting for the wrong team. One character discovers that Donald Sutherland is a traitor — but then disappears for most of a reel. We’re left wondering what they’re up to, and worrying that we missed something. The brave woman played by Judy Geeson is positively heroic in her actions — almost all of which are kept off-screen.
In the most blatant example of amateurish storytelling, 30 seconds are devoted early on to establish a tunnel between the church and Father Vereker’s house. Hmmmm — do you think that tunnel might become vital during the battle? It really didn’t need to be shown until the last second, at which point the audience would have applauded the cleverness of Judy Geeson’s heroine.
The German insurgents perform most of Eagle’s heroic, self-sacrificing, above-the-call-of-duty acts. Were the filmmakers instructed to make the story villain-free, so as to insure its marketability in Germany? Caine’s kidnap squad is always humane and honorable; they cover the entire Boy Scout credo save for Thrifty, Clean and Reverent. Eagle even lets Caine’s Steiner succeed in his mission — before the heavy foot of irony intrudes.
I would imagine that German audiences would love this movie, in the same way that Japanese audiences reportedly enjoyed the Pearl Harbor docudrama Tora! Tora! Tora! — in both shows the sneaky aggressors are courageous, bold, and resourceful.
The Eagle Has Landed can’t help but entertain — Michael Caine is always a safe bet. We also have Donald Pleasance to enjoy, along with a nice turn from Jean Marsh. This was Treat Williams’ third movie. His Captain Clark is the only competent armed defender, and he does great considering that his Rangers are up against such an experienced enemy. But John Sturges’ direction doesn’t build up Captain Clark’s valor. Even in the ‘ironic’ denoument, the Captain needs everything to be explained to him.
Sutherland and Agutter can do no wrong.
The real reason I’ll watch the show again is to see the excellent work of Donald Sutherland and Jenny Agutter. Even in the rush of incident, their scenes are tender and convincing, atypical qualities for a Tom Mankiewicz script. Sutherland’s Liam Devlin is no fanatic. He has a poet’s heart but also a total commitment to the I.R.A.. The charming spy has a grin for every occasion, whether joking with Colonel Radl or ingratiating himself with the English locals.
Agutter establishes her ‘ready for the right guy’ attitude right from the get-go, and the script and direction play their mutual seduction with admirable skill. Is the dialogue from the book? Theirs is the only relationship given enough time to build to something. The distraction of an irate local creep doesn’t distract — it gives Donald Sutherland an opportunity to pull off a well-staged fisticuffs scene. Only Sutherland and Donald Pleasance find a perfect fit with the amusing-serious tone of the escapist WW2 caper genre.
Biographer Glenn Lovell points out lapses in John Sturges’ attention to detail, a complaint lodged against much of his work after The Great Escape. The filming was very slow, and when told to fix the problem Sturges reportedly dropped script pages. We believe a story told by editor Anne V. Coates — when the time came to edit Donald Pleasance’s double-cross of Robert Duvall, Coates found that no reaction shot of Duvall had been filmed, leaving no payoff to his entire character arc.
We also wonder if the lack of tension in the film’s final act should be blamed on the direction, or on decisions in the editing room. When time is of the essence, the action slows for character bits, expressions of loyalty, etc.. We don’t see all the continuity problems others have, but there’s a howler at the finale. A rather poor matte painting shows the German escape boat run aground in an ebb tide. Maybe that garbled telegram was supposed to explain what happened to the escapees — again off screen — but it didn’t seem very clear on a first pass.
It’s unfair to judge The Eagle Has Landed by ‘what could have been’ when it’s better than so many other clichéd wartime thrillers. It isn’t aways satisfying, but it is more mature than most. Its intended audience would likely not have complained. The interesting cast gives it their best, even if we can’t fathom anybody thinking that Robert Duvall’s one-eyed German would work on screen.
Viavision [Imprint]’s Region Free Blu-ray of The Eagle Has Landed is a very good HD video master from ITC Entertainment. Colors are fine and the scan sharp enough to show one or two shots where the focus seems soft. Lalo Schifrin’s music score feels rather generic behind the titles but helps a lot elsewhere, as with Jenny Agutter’s horse ride through the forest.
As explained above, two full versions are present, each on its own disc and with separate extras. We mostly watched the Extended Cut. Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin contribute one commentary, and actor Treat Williams joins C. Courtney Joyner and Phoef Sutton for another. Williams is gracious and candid, explaining that Michael Caine ‘taught him how to play a leading man.’
Kim Newman’s overview is a keeper, along with the spirited discussion of John Sturges by Daniel Kremer, Michael Schlesinger and Nat Segalof. Tom Mankiewicz’s file interview featurette is the source for much of the trivia found on the IMDB. We revisit the locations in other extras; in one we are accompanied by Production Designer Peter Murton.
Some precursors to The Eagle Has Landed get mentioned along the way, mainly Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well?, which was filmed during the war and is quite violent. It surely inspired Jack Higgins’ novel — similar English impersonators attempt to establish a German beachhead in a country town, leading to a number of parallel situations. The theme of patriotic Irish spies siding with Germany against England isn’t new either. Long before Eye of the Needle (with Donald Sutherland as another I.R.A. subversive) there was Deborah Kerr in I See a Dark Stranger and Stephen Boyd in The Man Who Never Was.
It still seems strange that the most honorable characters in The Eagle Has Landed are the German invaders and their crafty Irish accomplice.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Eagle Has Landed
Region Free Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good + / –
Disc One — Theatrical Cut
New audio commentary by Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin
New lecture by Kim Newman
A Magnificent Cinema, a new discussion on John Sturges with Daniel Kremer, Michael Schlesinger and Nat Segalof
Actors and Action making-of featurette
The Sets and the Props making-of featurette
Disc Two — Extended Cut
New audio commentary by C. Courtney Joyner, Phoef Sutton and actor Treat Williams
Featurett The Eagle Has Landed Revisited
Tom Mankiewicz interview Looking Back
ATV Today on Location — vintage featurette
Film Night — Location Report
On Location in Norfolk
On Location Interviews
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in two keep cases in extra heavy pop top box
Reviewed: January 4, 2023
Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson