Friday, January 26, 2007

The sheds of war

A film critic whose name escapes me once observed that one's memory of a movie is often curiously reshot by some auteur of the cerebellum, and when viewing it a second time, a scene or scenes you thought you saw are missing, or the images in them are in different parts of the film.

This may be some kind of faulty compression device, or perhaps the brain needs defragging, but at at any rate, the observation was resoundingly validated when I saw Where Eagles Dare on DVD this week, more than 30 years after the first viewing in a cinema. I remembered it as a cracking good action-adventure with a couple of great sequences vivid in memory after all this time.

This time around, although the film is visually pristine and the sound remastered in DD5.1, I became irritatedly aware of Alistair McLean's wordy script, with leaden dialogue and ridiculously improbable plot twists. However, McLean was tops at action writing and my memory of those scenes turned out to be pretty accurate.

The plot basically revolves around a mission to rescue a captured American general who knows the plans for the D-Day landings, before he can be forced to spill the beans. He is being held in an awesome Alpine schloss that seems to grow from the unassailable peak of a mountain. (This place actually exists, I discovered.) The only access is via helicopter (apparently fairly novel then) or cable-car.

The film revolves around the daring rescue bid, involving spies posing as pretty frauleins, a German admiral (Michael Hordern) complete with monocle, SS brutes, mission infiltrators, a plot within the plot, double and triple crosses (almost Goon Show-like in their improbability). And sheds. Lots of very handy sheds in the Bavarian Alps. Need to change into German uniform? Shed just round the corner guv. Shed for a secret romantic rendezvous, for hiding from the Nazis, assembling bombs ...

However, the action sequences are superb for their time. The best is probably the fight on top of a cable car traversing a dizzy drop. I won't spoil it for those unfamiliar with the film.

The performances are uneven, although Richard Burton is steely as the mission leader, and a youthful looking Clint Eastwood, fresh from the saddle, stamps his trademark laconic menace on the US Army Ranger on a mission of his own (little do they know the little that he knows). Anton Diffring, who looks like a poster boy for the Hitler Youth, plays the brutal SS officer -- a role he was condemned to repeat in many other films.

It's a shame the director and producers didn't have a go at trimming the fat of McLean's script (apparently they were extremely respectful). Great wodges of exposition may work in a novel, but they kill the suspense here.

What did occur to me was that this is one of those rare films crying out for a remake. It could be spectacular.

Where Eagles Dare is one of a trio of war movies in this box set: the others are The Dirty Dozen and Kelly's Heroes. That is excellent value; all are remastered in DD5.1 and look great.

Update: I forgot to mention that one of the gnadige frauleinen is played by Hammer House of Horror favourite Ingrid Pitt. I almost didn't recognise her with her clothes on. She was great in Countess Dracula, roughly (very) based on Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who, legend has it, bathed in the blood of virgins. And got her kit off at a moment's notice, apparently.

I think I am going to look for Von Ryan's Express next.



Blogger Wyndham said...

Isn't Tarantino's latest opus going to be a Where Eagles Dare/ Dirty Dozen style WWII team action-movie. It's been a long time since we've enjoyed gratuitous sten gun action in gun-emplacements i nthe movies.

And yes, Ingrid Pitt's name in the credits was always going to cause a strange sensation in a young boy's underpants because she was always bound to get her chest out in a movie, even an adaptation of Ibsen.

11:55 AM  
Blogger DavetheF said...

I didn't know about the Tarantino. Very retro but welcome. I recently found a new Modesty Blaise movie produced by Tarantino (and backed by the Weinsteins). It's lo-budget, which is a shame, but true to the original strip. Tarantino is a fan and I was hoping he'd do a big budget Modesty next.

Ingrid Pitt: Ach, du himmel!

8:26 PM  

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