I was 12 in a time before there was streaming, before there was Blockbuster, when someone with a VCR in their home boasted playground status roughly equivalent to the captain of the football team combined with the kid whose parents ran a newsagent and could get you free sweets. So your favourite film was either one you had seen a single time in the cinema, or one you had seen on one of the three television channels. In practice it was likely to the latter, because they were the only ones you were able to see more than once.
Certain films retained their blockbuster status on TV. Even though they had been made years before, they were repeated frequently over public holidays. The Great Escape was one, but my favourite – the one that thrilled me to the bone – was Where Eagles Dare. I say it was my favourite film when I was 12, but it was my favourite film when I was 10 as well, and when the great film writer David Thomson asked me a few years ago to name my three favourite films, it was still one then. I’ve just rewatched it, and while I accept there are more emotionally rewarding movies, it was 155 minutes I didn’t begrudge.
It’s not that Where Eagles Dare was a family favourite, one we all sat down to watch together. My mother never much cared for action films; my dad fancied himself a bit of an arthouse buff – the films I recall watching with my family were the old seasons that BBC Two used to show: Hitchcock, Chabrol, Malle and so on. (I just tried thinking of sitting in the living room with my whole family, and the film that sprang to mind was Lacombe, Lucien. Pretentious, moi?) Maybe I loved Where Eagles Dare because it was mine, my solitary pleasure.
It’s hard to credit now, but when I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, the second world war was pretty much the heart of childhood entertainment: I am of the generation that grew up assuming “Schnell!” and “Achtung!” were pretty much the only words anyone from Germany ever spoke. I watched 633 Squadron and The Bridge at Remagen; I read novels by Sven Hassel; I played with Airfix Afrika Korps soldiers and built models of HMS Hood and the battleship Tirpitz; in the playground, we played the game simply known as “War”, in which everyone divided into English and German and pretended to shoot each other. (It was tacitly agreed that, whichever side you were on, the English got to win.) But Where Eagles Dare seemed to stand, somehow, above that. It was – and I use the word advisedly – classier than the competition.
Even when I was young, Where Eagles Dare looked different. Unlike so many shoot-’em-up-and-churn-’em-out war movies, it was filmed largely on location, in Austria and Bavaria. The Schloss Adler is a real castle; the Alpine village is a real village; the cable car to the castle is a real cable car. It had a brilliant theme tune by Ron Goodwin, over a brilliant opening-credits sequence of a Junkers Ju 52 flying through the Alps at night. It had a pair of proper A-list stars, in Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood (albeit the script required Burton to do little more than bark orders and Eastwood merely to shoot anyone who crossed his path). It had a screenplay by Alastair MacLean, then the king of adventure novelists. And it had stunts – the most daring stunts seen in movies when it was made in 1968, which still looked spectacular more than a decade later: the jump from the cable car, which was real, though to my mind not as thrilling as the sight of Burton and Eastwood (well, their stunt doubles) riding the roof of the car, the valley far beneath them, as they ascend to the Schloss Adler.
Where Eagles Dare is more than a war film, though. I’m not about to claim it’s a meditation on the human condition, because it plainly isn’t, but it skips across genres with a kind of abandon. At various times it is a heist movie (get into impregnable target, get goods, get out), an odd-couple movie (Burton and Eastwood are clearly a very odd couple, even if they don’t ever argue), a suspense movie (will the evil Gestapo major figure out that Mary Ure is One of Ours? Will she give the game away by mistake?) – and it has the brilliant and bonkers central sequence in which Burton bamboozles everyone by swapping sides again and again as he both explains and unravels the plot. That section has more in common with Sleuth than it does The Dirty Dozen.
By modern standards, it’s a leisurely film. The first shots are fired after 50 minutes; the first action sequence is after 59; it’s an hour and 24 minutes in before Burton reveals his multiple-cross; and only after that does the movie enter the period of maximum shooting. It depends on plot and scenario much more than it does on explosions, even though the last hour is constant explosions. It’s the kind of action film I still like, in which you don’t get a headache from constant gunfire.
It’s often terrible, too. The dialogue is cursory (“Some people have a sixth sense. He has a sixth, a seventh and an eighth. He’s our best agent”); poor Ingrid Pitt appears to have been cast as a pair of tits; it rather strains credulity that a group of men who, Eastwood apart, look more like a bank’s darts team than hardened killers have been sent to storm a Nazi fortress. But if you can’t suspend disbelief at the movies, where can you?
A few years ago I made my son sit down with me one half-term to watch Where Eagles Dare. He was the right age for it, I told him. He’d understand why I’d spent years telling him what a great film it was, how much more exciting it was than the things he liked. At the end I turned to him and explained how the stunts were real, how dangerous it all was, what a pioneering film it had been. “They should have used greenscreen,” he replied. “Might have actually made it interesting.”