Back to college for my screenwriting MA course [featuring guest speaker Ian Rankin today!], so it's time for another delve into the archives with an entry about the films of Michael Caine...
THE EAGLE HAS LANDED (1976)
Cast: Michael Caine (Colonel Steiner), Donald Sutherland (Liam Devlin), Robert Duvall (Colonel Radl), Jenny Agutter (Molly), Donald Pleasence (Himmler), Anthony Quayle (Admiral Canaris), Jean Marsh (Joanna Grey), Sven-Bertil Taube (Captain von Neustadt), John Standing (Father Verecker), Judy Geeson (Pamela), Treat Williams (Captain Clark), Larry Hagman (Colonel Pitts).
Crew: John Sturges (director), Jack Wiener and David Niven Jr (producers), Tom Mankiewicz (writer), Lalo Schifrin (music), Anthony Richmond (cinematography), Anne V Coates (editor), Peter Murton (production design).
Synopsis: In 1943 Adolf Hitler commissions a feasibility study into kidnapping British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Colonel Radl believes the task may be possible after learning Churchill is to visit a small Norfolk village. Radl selects an IRA dissident, Liam Devlin, to parachute into England to make preparations. For the kidnapping Radl selects a disgraced war hero, Colonel Steiner, and his squad of 16 paratroopers. The insurgents enter the village posing as Polish troops. But their true identities are discovered when one of the Germans dies saving a local child from drowning. Steiner and his men take the villagers hostage in the church. The priest’s sister escapes and alerts a nearby company of American troops. The foolhardy leader, Colonel Pitts, leads a disastrous attack against the church. Steiner escapes the church but his men volunteer to stay behind, giving him more time. They all die in the next attack. That night Steiner finds Churchill and assassinates the British leader, before being gunned down himself. But the real Churchill is at a secret meeting in Persia – the man Steiner killed was a variety artist pretending to be Churchill. Radl is executed by firing squad for the mission’s failure…
The Eagle Has Landed began life as a best-selling novel by Jack Higgins, claiming its story had some basis in reality. The book was quickly optioned for the cinema with Tom Mankiewicz adapting it for the big screen. US director John Sturges was attached to the project, having previously helmed such classic films as Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963).
The leading role of Colonel Kurt Steiner went to Caine, who developed several different variations of accent for his performance. ‘At first we thought that Steiner should have a German accent when he’s in Germany and an English accent when he comes to England,’ the actor told Photoplay Film Monthly in 1976. ‘But then we decided that the German characters wouldn’t have an accent when they’re talking amongst themselves, because they wouldn’t sound foreign to each other. So I used a clipped military accent for the scenes when Steiner’s giving orders to his men in German.’
One of Caine’s reasons for accepting the part was a chance to be directed by Sturges. ‘I’ve never worked with John before but I admire his work very much,’ the actor said. The film also reunited him with Donald Sutherland. ‘Donald’s an old mate. We first worked together years ago on an early episode of Dixon of Dock Green.’ Sutherland had also made a brief appearance in the third Harry Palmer film, Billion Dollar Brain (1967).
The Eagle Has Landed was shot over twelve weeks in the summer of 1976. For the first week the production went to Rovaniemi in Finland, the biggest town on the Arctic Circle. Caine had sworn off ever returning to Finland after the making of Billion Dollar Brain, but went back for Sturges. That was followed by a week in Cornwall, which doubled the Channel Islands. The bulk of filming took place in a Berkshire village, Mapledurham. Among the extras was a young Ray Winstone, who co-starred with Caine in Last Orders (2001) quarter of a century later.
The film was released across Britain with an A rating at the end of 1976, receiving harsh reviews from many critics. It reached America early in 1977, rated a PG. The film proved to be the swan-song of Sturges’ career. The Eagle Has Landed was first released on VHS in 1986, reclassified as a 15 in the UK. A budget price DVD version was issued in Britain during 2000, but this full-screen edition suffers from poor picture quality and cannot be recommended. A widescreen DVD is available in the US. [Update: various special editions and widescreen version have since appeared on DVD in both territories, with or without extra footage.]
Reviews: ‘The film manages the remarkable feat of being both far-fetched and dull at the same time. Caine, Sutherland and a host of stalwart British character actors go through their paces with unblenching professionalism.’ – Financial Times
‘Since most moviegoers probably know that German forces did not kidnap Winston Churchill during World War II The Eagle Has Landed is in the unenviable position of being a thriller without thrills.’ – Newsweek
Verdict: The Eagle Has Landed could have been lifted straight from the pages of war comics like Battle Picture Weekly or Commando. More mature minds will reject it as fanciful nonsense. The mission must fail because history tells you the Nazis did not kidnap Churchill, thus limiting any suspense. The film’s pace feels too languid for a thriller, while an attempt to develop a romantic subplot is cursory at best. But Caine succeeds in making his character sympathetic, aided by a clever variation of accent and manner. Your enjoyment will depend upon how far you are willing to suspend your disbelief.