Though 1968 wasn't exactly a "more innocent time," a war movie could still be escapist fare, provided it was set during World War I or II. That's generally not the case today (with Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds a notable exception that proves the rule), but in 1968, Where Eagles Dare was a straight-ahead, old-school action movie for war-espionage junkies. Written by master-of-the-form Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone), Where Eagles Dare oddly but successfully paired Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood as fellow Allied commandos infiltrating a Nazi stronghold in the Bavarian Alps.
The Schloss Adler, a.k.a. "The Castle of the Eagles" (because "only an eagle can get to it"), is the HQ of the German Secret Service in Southern Bavaria; as such, it's where the Nazis have taken a prize prisoner, a captured American general (Robert Beatty) with sensitive information about Allied troop movements. But not is all as it seems: mere minutes after the paratroopers land in the Alps, miles from civilization, Major John Smith (Burton) sneaks off for some secret nookie—err, a secret field debriefing?—with beautiful embedded double agent Mary Ellison (Mary Ure, Burton's co-star from Look Back in Anger). As a German officer says of one of the film's later-breaking twists, "This is preposterous!" Certainly the film resembles that remark, but it's all part of the escapist fun. It's quickly apparent that the team has a traitor in its midst, which brands the mission as all but suicidal.
MacLean doesn't let logic get in the way of a good action sequence, as when the heroes drag prisoners with them when attempting a narrow escape. The choice defies logic, but allows for an exciting cable car action sequence. Director Brian G. Hutton (Kelly's Heroes) directs with a workmanlike efficiency that, to modern tastes, can be plodding at times (at 155 minutes, the film could have stood to lose some weight), but there's a methodology at work as the slow first half lays the groundwork for a more propulsive second half. Too much of the joint business of Major Smith and Lt. Schaeffer (Eastwood) is carried out in professional silence, but when they sling a bit of banter, it affords the film some welcome levity.
What's most memorable about Where Eagles Dare, aside from its full-bore behind-enemy-lines action, is MacLean's treatment of what initially seems like a standard-issue daring-mission adventure; almost immediately, the plot expectations set by the film-opening stiff-upper-lip briefing by British officers mutate, and the challenges only become more baffling (at least for Schaeffer, who's kept humorously a step behind Smith) until it's time for unequivocal fist-fighting and explosions. Since there's nothing consequential here, Burton and Eastwood could have played these roles in their sleep (and let's face it, they pretty much do), but it's a novelty to see acting-legend Burton play against rising star Eastwood, fresh from his spaghetti-western fame.
Warner continues its double-feature line with the "Action Double Feature" of Kelly's Heroes and Where Eagles Dare. Each film gets its own disc, maximizing disc space for the feature presentations. Where Eagles Dare looks good in its high-def debut: it's a film-like transfer that's clean and sharp, marred only by the occasional distraction of wavering color (a symptom of the available film elements, I presume). Warner goes all out with the audio, providing a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix that doesn't offer much in the rear channels but ably and clearly presents the soundtrack in what can be considered a definitive lossless fashion.
Of course, Kelly's Heroes is the best "bonus feature" to Where Eagles Dare, but Warner has included a couple of other extras. Of primary importance is "On Location: Where Eagles Dare" (12:37, SD), a vintage featurette with behind-the-scenes footage as well as brief interview clips of Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton, Ingrid Pitt, and Mary Ure. Also on hand is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:20, SD).
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