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The Eagle Has Landed

****
1976

‘…a rattling good tale that deserves a place in the roll-call of populist war movies…’

I doubt the same tradition exists so pervasively outside of the UK, also NASA fans may demur, but even some nearly 80 years since the end of WWII, Brits will often use the phrase The Eagle Has Landed in common conversation to indicate that some or indeed any kind of significant event has occurred. Just landed at Stanstead Airport? Got the drinks in for a party? Got the cat safely to the vet? The phrase The Eagle Has Landed is a catch-all suitable for any occasion, synonymous for getting the job done with not too many hitches.

Yet The Eagle Has Landed is a much more complex bird that the title might suggest. Jack Higgins’ book was a mid-70’s bestseller, with 50 million copies sold, and his mix of fictional documents presented as fact was quickly optioned as a big-budget, all-star feature film, much to the author’s surprise. Higgins didn’t expect this treatment, largely because The Eagle Has Landed is about an WWII espionage attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill circa 1943, so most of the central characters are German spies, and Higgins’ now-it-can-be-told fantasy doesn’t offer the kind of straight-up heroism that made household rituals out of watching of The Great Escape, The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare every single Christmas. In this respect, veteran director John Sturges’ The Eagle has Landed has a more modern bent, looking back to Fred Zinnermann’s 1973 The Day of the Jackal, which features an amoral character attempting to commit a crime that we know before the opening credits is destined to fail.

But The Eagle Has Landed, currently looking resplendent in a widescreen print on the BBC iplayer, but also unfashionable enough to have multiple copies for free on YouTube, is still a rattling good tale that deserves a place in the roll-call of populist war movies. There’s all sorts going on here, from Sturgess directing Treat Williams as a cocky US soldier to Jenny Agutter blasting away with a shotgun and Larry Hagman cutting around in a jeep like Buford T Justice. Michael Caine is the admirable, ‘Good German’ Col Steiner, who takes time off from his hobby of rescuing innocent children to don a stylish black leather jacket and lead a doomed mission into deepest, darkest Norfolk, with Robert Duvall’s trench-coat and eyepatch boss taking his orders directly from a largely deskbound Himmler (Donald Pleasence). Wide-eyed and orange of hair, Donald Sutherland plays Devlin, the IRA man sent across to Blighty to prepare the way for Steiner’s paratroopers, and even the secondary cast are wildly over-qualified; Return to Oz’s Wicked Witch Jean Marsh makes a memorable quisling, and there’s roles for Anthony Quayle, Judy Geeson, Michael Byrne, Maurice Roeves and more. Even David Bowie was announced as having a role in this, but he’s nowhere to be seen here.

‘I no longer control events, they control me,’ Steiner laments as his mission falls apart when one of his men unwisely attempts to save a drowning girl and gets caught in the wheel of a mill, exposing his German uniform under his clothes. The Eagle Has Landed has something of the mid-70’s disaster movie mindset in which the characters are part of an ongoing historical event which leaves them powerless to avoid their fate. John Standing’s local priest evokes memories of the classic Went The Day Well? but while The Eagle Has Landed is a much more even-handed, international ‘something-for-everyone’ production, it’s still a classic war film and its goodies and baddies scenario still feels satisfying, even if you’re only invited to play as the German invaders rather than the British resistance.

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  1. My mind is blown. My grandpa used to say “the eagle has landed” but I always thought it had something to do with the U.S. landing on the moon. This changes everything!

  2. I have to disagree with you on this one. I did watch it over Christmas on iPlayer, partly because I remembered the production which used Mapledurham Village as the main location shoot just outside Reading where I was working in 1976. The opening of the film is promising and Caine is good but the narrative falls apart somewhat in the latter stages. I note that Caine is said to have been surprised that Sturges wasn’t present for the post-production and even the brilliant Anne Coates couldn’t produce a satisfactory cut. Your proof reader seems missing on this one and you offer a classic Freudian slip. ‘Sgt Steiner’ is a reference to James Coburn’s magnificent character in Peckinpah’s ‘Cross of Iron’. Caine plays Colonel Steiner based on a real commander of German parachutists. ‘Day of the Jackal’ is an interesting comparison but a superior film in every way.

    • You are correct on all counts; only rewatched this last night, and making the corrections will keep me busy today. I’ll fix Steiner’s rank, but I did think there was a connection with Cross of Iron and Breakthrough in that all three Steiners portrayed are admirable professionals who are set against the nature of the Reich. I was aware of Caine’s complaints, and my understanding was the Coates rescued this film in the edit. But I would argue that in the era of Zero Dark Thirty, we have a stronger understanding of the ‘mission’ movie and are more prepared to skip having a conventional hero and instead portray all the working parts of the mission in isolation; it’s notable how few scenes feature the main characters in the orbit of the others. I’ll seek out the 152 minute cut and see if it resolves any of the problems you accurately describe, but maybe it’s a mix of sentiment and a spft spot for Sturgess, but I did feel that this hung together as never before for me; I suspect it’s also been edited for tv in the horrible pan-and-scan days of old. Informed comment as always, so a good new year to you!

      • I’m remembering that Star Wars and Raiders were seen as the return of the hero. Jackal and Eagle both have amoral anti-heroes at their centre.

      • Didn’t know there was one. Sometimes the longer improves the picture – Kingdom of Heaven – but sometimes it adds little or nothing at all as with American Gangster.

          • Some trivia for you. It was bought pre-publication for Paramount before Lew Grade/ITC stepped in but it was released by Columbia in the U.S. In first run Columbia demanded a minimum 4-6 week run beginning with a 70/30 box office split. (They wanted 90/10 for Fun with Dick and Jane). In France the title was changed to “The Eagle Has Flown Off.” Original pre-launch poster was pretty interesting too. I’ll email it to you.

            • Keen to see it. See the discussion on the title elsewhere in the comments! This must have been one of Lew’s few moneymakers….that’s great intel about the split, I’ve generally found that kind of info hard to find…

              • Variety was pretty good about digging up the dirt on box office shenanigans. My favourite is the story about how cinemas used to be able to hold onto advance ticket sales until Hollywood got wise to it and as a counter measure demanded upfront guarantees which almost bankrupted exhibitors.

                • That is news to me. But the internal deals, how many week an exhibitor would have to provide, supported by how much advertising in a how-big auditorium, there’s a lot of docs that are hard to see.

    • This was easily the best watch I’ve ever had of this film, the 4th I think. Much better than when it was STV’s Noxing Day movie in 1980-something. It’s not perfect, but the cast and direction get it over the line even if the narrative does seem lacking in places.

      • Good to know when a film improves on watching. I have often enjoyed a movie more second time around when I’m not so bothered with the story elements and can concentrate on acting and direction. I might well give it another go.

        • If your swithering, then the only two words you need to remember is John Sturges. One of the great, iconic, blockbuster delivery mechanisms. This isn’t as rousing as his best, but it’s still a good film that that mud 70’s moral ambivalence is there in heaps…I do think Jackal is a big influence…

    • This did seem a bit more dry and starchy than I expected as a nipper, but it looks mint in 2023, and I think YOu should review it! Plentiful copies on Youtube if you can’t hack the iplayer…

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