On a spring break vacation with my family to Maui, Hawaii in 1977, I found myself terribly sunburned after my first day playing in the surf on Napili Beach. Confined to wearing a t-shirt and pajamas pants to cover my lobster red thighs, I went into the hotel's gift shop to find a book to read, preferably in the shade or my hotel room. I remember being intrigued by the titles in the shop which included Robin Cook's Coma, Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic, and Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed. I ended up choosing Raise the Titanic which I enjoyed very much (and have never seen the film version). Like authors Robert Ludlum or Ken Follett (two of my favorite authors as a teenager who also had books in the gift shop), Jack Higgins wrote thrillers, often set in World War II, that I never read and still haven't. So for Higgins best known novel, I've done the opposite and chose to watch the film version of Higgins THE EAGLE HAS LANDED (1976) instead of reading the book first.
THE EAGLE IS LANDED is directed by John Sturges, the legendary director of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). Surprisingly, EAGLE would be the last film Sturges would direct although he lived until 1992. He treats the film like his previous epics, unveiling the plot slowly and methodically but it doesn't carry the dramatic effect that say THE GREAT ESCAPE had as that film was based on a true WWII mass POW escape while EAGLE is a work of fiction. The action sequences are typical of war action films from the 1960's and early 70's. Nicely staged but a little too rehearsed and perfect. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and BAND OF BROTHERS battles scenes have raised the bar immensely from the days of THE DIRTY DOZEN (1969) or THE EAGLE HAS LANDED. But Sturges knows how to film production value and he gets the most out of a fighter plane landing on an airstrip, a seaport on a Norwegian island, trains and train station (in Finland posing as Poland) and the English village that Churchill plans to visit.
Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz adapted the Jack Higgins novel. Mankiewicz had become a hot commodity after his screenplays for the James Bond films LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974). Mankiewicz writes good, catchy dialogue but the characters in EAGLE are broad and over the top and a little too glib for a war movie.
THE EAGLE HAS LANDED begins with news footage of a real life rescue mission in September 1943 known as the Gran Sasso Raid where German paratroopers rescued Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from a high mountain ski resort where he was held by his Italian captors. Brimming with confidence after the Mussolini rescue, Higgins novel postulates that Hitler wanted to kidnap Winston Churchill to use as a bargaining chip as the war nears its end. Admiral Canaris (Anthony Quayle) assigns the one-eyed Colonel Max Radl (Robert Duvall), veteran from the Russian front, to do a feasibility study on whether this plan could succeed. Both know Hitler will soon forget about it but Heinrich Himmler (Donald Pleasence) will not. An intelligence report Radl receives mentions that Churchill is to visit a war factory in England in a month and stay at a small English village called Studley-Constable for the night. Radl sees an opportunity and goes over Canaris's authority to make it happen.
Radl enlists Colonel Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine), a decorated and brilliant German paratrooper with the 12th Parachute Attachment to pull off the kidnapping. But Steiner and his squad have just been sent to a Norwegian penal colony to be court martialed by the German SS after Steiner tries to help a Jewish girl escape at a Polish train station. Steiner is a patriot but he's no Nazi. Also enlisted by Radl is Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland), an ex-IRA soldier with no love for the English. Radl pulls strings to get Steiner temporarily pardoned and he and Devlin meet Steiner on the Norwegian island to work out the mission.
Devlin is dropped into England first by plane and hooks up with a local spy Joanna Grey (Jean Marsh). Devlin's cover is as the new marsh warden (like a game warden). Devlin quickly gets the lay of the village, meeting the town's vicar Father Verecker (John Standing) as well as the pretty Molly Prior (Jenny Agutter) who takes to the Irish newcomer quite quickly. Next, Steiner and his men disguised as Polish paratroopers are dropped along the coast, their transport a captured English plane. Steiner's team's code name is Eagle.
The locals are excited by the arrival of the paratroopers who claim to be an advance team for Churchill's visit. Steiner's first obstacle arrives when Captain Harry Clark (Treat Williams), an American Ranger shows up. His unit is headquartered eight miles up the road in an English manor. Steiner and Devlin's intelligence did not warn them of this. After Clark leaves, the Germans race around the village, practicing maneuvers. A young girl watching them falls into a pond near a mill. One of the Germans jumps in and saves her but he's crushed by the mill's water wheel, exposing his German uniform under the Polish white suit. Steiner and his men herd the rest of the villagers into the church.
Hiding in the church are Molly and the vicar's sister Pamela (Judy Geeson) who sneak out to warn the Americans. Pamela makes it to the American headquarters. In charge is Colonel Clarence E. Pitts (Larry Hagman), anxious for some action, who without alerting the English, takes his Rangers to fight the Germans. When Captain Clark finds out Pitts plan, he finds and stops Churchill's convoy from going to the town. The Germans stall Pitts and his men giving Steiner and Devlin time to escape. Steiner's kidnap plan has turned into a suicide mission. EAGLE ends with a nice twist at the end as Steiner, disguised as an American soldier, goes after Churchill solo.
One theme that Sturges/Mankiewicz get across very well in THE EAGLE HAS LANDED is desperation. As a whole, the German high command is desperate for some kind of good news as they realize the war is lost. That Radl and Himmler even attempt to kidnap Churchill so late in the war is ludicrous but the paranoia of Hitler has infected everyone. Radl's plan is suicidal from the beginning. Steiner and his team accept the suicide mission, desperate to get off their island prison, Steiner desperate to regain his honor. Even Colonel Pitts, the desk bound American, is desperate for combat, about to be sent packing back to the United States without ever firing his gun. His subordinates are happy to sit out the remainder of the war in the beautiful English countryside but the German plot will give Pitts his opportunity for battle. Pitts will get more action than he bargains for.
Actors Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, and Donald Sutherland were some of the best actors working in the 1970's, at the heights of their careers and yet I find them badly miscast in this war film. Canadian actor Sutherland as Devlin goes way over the top with his Irish accent, almost sounding like the leprechaun from the Lucky Charms commercials. American actor Robert Duvall looks the part as the veteran Radl, with the bald head and eye patch but his German accent is fair at best. And English actor Caine starts out with an German accent until the plot reveals he went to college in London and speaks English perfectly, which gives him the liberty to throw out his German accent once he and his parachute team land in England. I just couldn't believe Caine as a German. Only Donald Pleasence as Heinrich Himmler looks and plays his character correctly, insulated in his Nazi office from the inevitable, fanatical until the end. Pleasence worked with director Sturges in THE GREAT ESCAPE.
Colonel Pitts played by Larry Hagman (TV's I DREAM OF JEANNIE and DALLAS fame) has a great time as the redneck, amped up desk general who's in over his head when the Germans take over the nearby town. Pitts is similar to a character that writer Mankiewicz would introduce in the James Bond film LIVE AND LET DIE (1973), a redneck sheriff named J.W. Pepper (played with great relish by Clifton James). And Treat Williams, in one of his first roles, brings a nice intensity as American soldier Captain Clark. Clark should really be running the show but he defers to the buffoonish Colonel Pitts until Pitts makes a fatal decision. Also look for actor Jeff Conaway (GREASE and TV'S TAXI) as an American Ranger.
1976 represents a watershed time as a group of acclaimed veteran directors would make some of their last films. THE EAGLE HAS LANDED would be Sturges last film. Other prestigious directors last films at this time included Alfred Hitchcock's FAMILY PLOT (1976), Robert Wise's THE HINDENBURG (1975), Richard Brooks' LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977), Fred Zinnemann's JULIA (1977), and Billy Wilder's FEDORA (1978). A new breed of young hotshot directors were just starting to make a name for themselves at this time and would take filmmaking to the next level. Names like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Brian DePalma.
John Sturges was famous for his western and war films. THE EAGLE HAS LANDED, although not nearly on par as Sturges THE GREAT ESCAPE, is an entertaining what-if movie that if not for some misguided casting, might have been better received. But all parties involved give it their best effort and it shows in its production value.