March 2021

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

DIRECTOR: John Sturges


Michael Caine,  Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Jenny Agutter, Donald Pleasence, Larry Hagman, Treat Williams, Jean Marsh, Anthony Quayle, John Standing, Sven Bertil-Taube, Siegfried Rauch, Michael Byrne, Joachim Hansen, Maurice Roeves, Wolf Kahler


The Eagle Has Landed is not your typical war movie. Those looking for a more serious meditation on the costs of war should look elsewhere. Based on the book by espionage and international intrigue writer Jack Higgins, The Eagle Has Landed is intended as suspense-thriller escapism, but, while mildly entertaining in a goofy sort of way and with some bright spots, isn’t quite the twisty-turny potboiler it aspires to be.

November 1943: Inspired by the German paratrooper commando raid that rescued his deposed ally Mussolini, Hitler orders a “feasibility study” on another commando raid to kidnap Winston Churchill. German Intelligence Chief Admiral Canaris (Anthony Quayle) and his subordinate Colonel Max Radl (Robert Duvall, sporting an eyepatch and a missing arm) expect it to be merely one of Hitler’s fanciful, soon-forgotten whims, and intend to go through the perfunctory motions before declaring it unfeasible, but SS Chief Heinrich Himmler (Donald Pleasence, well-cast) gets wind of it and pushes it through as a surprise gift for Hitler. To carry out this potential suicide mission, Radl turns to a man with nothing to lose: decorated paratrooper Colonel Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine), now relegated to a penal colony and facing a court martial for attempting to save a Jewish woman during the razing of the Warsaw Ghetto. Steiner and his men will disguise themselves as Polish soldiers and infiltrate the small English village where Churchill will be spending a weekend on vacation. Helping to prepare their way are IRA agent Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland), allied with the Germans against the British, and a local collaborator, Joanna Gray (Jean Marsh). Of course, nothing quite goes according to plan.

The Eagle Has Landed is interesting in that it reverses the typical format of a WWII escapist adventure by having the Germans and an IRA agent as the main characters and essentially our more-or-less heroes (or anti-heroes, at least). Of course, this necessitates steps to be taken to make them reasonably sympathetic to the audience. There’s a bit of throwaway exposition about how Devlin ditched the IRA when it resorted to bombing civilians (“my fight’s with the bloody British Empire”, Sutherland drawls in his none-too-convincing Irish accent), and we see Steiner’s train stop in Warsaw, where his assistance of a Jew runs him afoul of an SS General (Joachim Hansen).  One might argue, for a rather campy and lightweight lark such as this, touching however briefly on the Holocaust provides a little tonal whiplash, but it serves the movie’s purpose of drawing a clear line between who it considers Nazis versus “good Germans”. The movie starts out well enough, albeit a little slowly, spending time on character establishment and the planning of the operation. The most glaring handicap is the dull romance between Devlin and a young English girl (Jenny Agutter) he meets in the village, which brings the already fitful pacing to a halt. Not only is their romance not credible (Sutherland comes across like a creepy uncle compared to the girlish Agutter, and after one poetry reading beneath a tree, she’s head-over-heels enough to aid and abet him and the Germans), it’s also boring and eats up too much screentime. Things pick up when a local American unit catches on to the situation, with Larry Hagman as a bumbling officer, and Treat Williams as his more competent subordinate. But while Hagman is fun to watch in a stereotypical “loud, dumb American cowboy” kind of way, his comic relief also makes the movie tonally schizophrenic, like it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a twisty thriller or an action-comedy. Veering from glimpses of the Warsaw Ghetto to Larry Hagman’s gung-ho Texan shtick makes it hard or impossible for the movie to settle into a certain tone. Along the way, there’s just too many implausibilities. Steiner and his men wear their German uniforms beneath their Polish uniforms; the reason given is that this allows them to quickly shed their Polish uniforms and be captured, if the mission fails, in their own uniforms, requiring them to be treated as prisoners of war (an enemy soldier captured wearing civilian clothes or a false uniform is not required by the rules of war to be recognized as a POW and can legally be executed on the spot), but this also allows a conveniently easy plot complication to expose them for who and what they really are. It’s never explained why Joanna Gray is helping the Germans, a failing of the movie, not the book, which went into lengthy detail which the movie omits about her origins as a South African Boer whose family died in a British concentration camp during the Boer War of the 1880s. From the movie, one would assume she was British, making her assistance of the Germans seem motiveless and unexplained. The original point of the plan is to abduct Churchill and ransom him in exchange for peace negotiations, but SPOILER WARNING the climax has Steiner heading to Churchill’s vacation house to shoot him, as if the movie forgot about that itself by the end. Finally, Churchill had his own large country estate where he spent his leisure time, and the idea that the Prime Minister of a nation at war would spent a weekend vacation in this random little hamlet is a bit implausible.

The acting is spotty, not helped by miscastings in some major roles.  Michael Caine has one voice and is sticking with it, making him a little far-fetched as a German officer, though Caine’s performance is decent if one can get past the accent.  The movie throws out a half-assed excuse that Steiner was educated in England and learned the language perfectly, but this doesn’t really explain why he still sounds like Michael Caine when he’s with his fellow Germans (then again, one could argue that, since in real life they wouldn’t really be speaking English among themselves in the first place, nitpicking their accents is a little silly).  Donald Sutherland isn’t much more convincing as an Irishman than Caine is as a German, and comes off more like a creepy lech than the charming rogue Devlin is meant to be (Sutherland replaced the original casting, Richard Harris, after Harris generated controversy by attending an IRA fundraiser).  More effective is Robert Duvall (although, running the gamut of German accents, while Caine isn’t trying at all, Duvall is trying too hard), who has the perfect stoic demeanor as Radl, a professional military man who carries out his duty with a single-minded purposefulness and keeps his real feelings mostly to himself.  No matter what happens, Radl’s calm bearing doesn’t crack, he just accepts it and carries on.  Overdone German accent aside, Duvall seems at home in his role in a way several other cast members (most glaringly Sutherland) don’t.  Of the supporting cast, easily the most intriguing is Donald Pleasence as Himmler, despite only appearing in a few scenes scattered around. Pleasence plays the outwardly unimposing, mousy SS chief with pitch-perfect understatement; Himmler looks and acts like a dorky glorified pencil-pusher, but his veiled threats and “bug under a microscope” stare lends him a vaguely unsettling undertone (not to mention how much Pleasence looks like Himmler, with minimal makeup). In smaller roles, Anthony Quayle is the anti-Hitler Admiral Canaris (the real Canaris was eventually arrested and executed for his involvement in plots against Hitler), John Standing is the village priest, Sven Bertil-Taube and Siegfried Rauch are two of Steiner’s closest subordinates, Michael Byrne is Radl’s aid, a young Maurice Roeves and Wolf Kahler show up briefly as a British and SS officer, respectively, and familiar war movie face Joachim Hansen has one scene as SS General Jurgen Stroop, crusher of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who doesn’t take kindly to Steiner’s interference.

The biggest flaw is not how long the movie takes to set up the action, it’s that it never builds up enough momentum for the pay-off, and the movie is never as tense or suspenseful as it should be. That said, the movie is worth checking out if you’re into 1970s WWII adventure flicks and are maybe a little bored on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It’s moderately entertaining in a slightly goofy way, and Donald Pleasence is quite possibly the best onscreen Himmler. It’s a mildly diverting war escapist action flick, but not an enduring classic.