Something of an over-reach for everyone concerned, Escape to Athena reunites many war movie veterans for an epic story that suffers from an erratic tone; elements of history, comedy and action are spot-welded together in a way that didn’t please many, although it still made the grade as a bank-holiday prime time movie on BBC 1 back in the 80’s. Even that must have been quite a stretch; with firing squads, brothels, strippers and Nazism, it’s an indigestible cocktail redeemed by action.
The subject retains a topical appeal; Greek art treasures are at stake, and as WWII comes to and end, most of the characters seem to treat the fade-out of hostilities as an opportunity to grab as much loot as possible, a mercenary attitude that treats Greek treasures as a super-market sweep. Today’s economies may well be based on such plunder, but Escape to Athena treats such sacrilege as a lark. A motely collection of stars Telly Savalas, David Niven, Sonny Bono, Richard Roundtree, Claudia Cardinale and more all fancy their chances, but Wehrmacht POW camp commandant Otto (Roger Moore, somehow) stands in their way. A visiting US vaudeville act (Elliot Gould and Hart to Hart’s Stephanie Powers) arrive to create a diversion by shedding her clothes, allowing a people’s rebellion against the German occupiers.
All war movies have moments of humour, but Escape to Athena spends so much time with Gould’s anachronistic wise-guy, it dishonours the idea of any WWII fidelity; there’s even a fourth-wall break where he meets William Holden, still in character from Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. The big-star cast all seem to be playing the wrong roles, and the mixture of deadly fighting and throwaway humour curdles continually. And yet Escape to Athena gets a three star award purely for the action; director George P Cosmatos went on to make the iconic action game-changer Rambo: First Blood Part Two and the mighty folly Cobra, and does well to unleash his inner helicopter pilot on some substantial action highlights. The best of which, a pursuit through the streets of Rhodes, was directed by the great Vic Armstrong, and is arguably the best motorcycle chase on film; for once, there’s not a bad shot in it, and it makes most of the stunt sequences on Moore’s Bond films look subdued in comparison, Live and Let Die’s boat chase aside.
Escape to Athena was a notable flop for producer Lew Grade, and that’s saying something in a career of huge, regular misfires. Despite sunny locations and endless cameos, it’s something of a lumpy pudding, redeemed only by the remarkable stunt-work and underlying warmth towards a cast seemingly caught mid-vacation. Otherwise, there’s a disco finale, a futuristic production design that looks like a sci-fi movie, with soldiers in mirrored visors, and an anything-goes pantomine feel that has to be seen to be believed.