The Eagle Has Landed is one of those big-budget ‘70s war movies—like A Bridge Too Far or The Longest Day or Tora! Tora! Tora!—that were tremendously successful at the time. Hell, I saw The Eagle Has Landed when I was 12 years old, and my mom wouldn’t let me see anything.
Like many of its ilk, this was based on a bestselling novel—this one by Jack Higgins—and boasted a stellar cast: Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall and an excellent Donald Pleasance, with plucky Jenny Agutter thrown in for a feminine touch, and a capable cast of supporting players. For all that, though, the war-epic genre hasn’t aged well. The Eagle Has Landed boasts some good performances and compelling moments, but it’s overlong, burdened with a ridiculous romance, and ultimately rather dull.
At its heart, the story is pure thriller gold: in the closing days of the war, with the Germans in retreat and defeat looming on every side, the Nazis hatch a desperate plan: to kidnap Winston Churchill and smuggle him back to Berlin, there to be used as a bargaining chip in a negotiated peace. To carry out this mission, a crack squad of paratroopers is called in, led by Michael Caine and abetted by a traitorous Irishman, Liam Devlin, played by Donald Sutherland. The villains duly get themselves into rural Britain, and the trap is laid.
This is where the problems begin with the film. The first 30 minutes of setup are engaging enough, but the film struggles with the fact that its protagonists are German soldiers and Irish traitors. The film thus goes to great lengths to portray Cain as a sympathetic German—the kind who is nice to Jews and loyal to his men—while Sutherland is an IRA man who eschews violence against civilians; his happy-go-lucky, poetry-spouting Oirishman is a man whose default expression is a shit-eating-grin that lets you know that, hey, he’s taking none of this too seriously (and neither should you). Sutherland is especially egregious in the movie, with his “Top o’ the morning to you!” and winking references to whiskey. Doubtless this is the script’s fault, but Sutherland plays the character as broadly as possible. When he falls in love with a local girl, and she with him, in the space of about 30 seconds of screen time, the whole affair seems ready to collapse under its own weight.
Much of this difficulty may come from its source material. A full-length novel can afford to throw a romance in with the World War II thriller stuff, but in a film it just comes off as rushed to the point of being ludicrous. Doubtless Higgins portrayed Devlin as a genuinely sinister Irish turncoat, as well—there were some, after all, who operated under the idea that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”—but on film, Devlin loses all power to frighten and is simply a Hollywood cliché. And Molly, the love interest, is vapid beyond words.
All that aside, there are some good moments. When the movie remembers that it wants to be a World War II thriller, it does so with gusto, as unexpected plot twists render the Axis mission increasingly hairy. Donald Pleasance is chilling as Heinrich Himmler, the SS commander who remains a behind-the-scenes puppet master. The final battle sequences, which see the commandos trapped behind enemy lines and fighting off an attack of fortuitously-stationed American commandos, manages some genuinely exciting set pieces. Ultimately, though, the action is too little and comes too late to salvage a movie which has spent the better part of two hours on setup: the whole things feels a bit anticlimactic.
Shout! Factory continues their fine, fine series of re-releases with this blu-ray DVD combo pack, which allows a viewer to watch a nicely restored, crisp blu-ray on a big screen or a handy DVD on a laptop or older machine. Extras abound, most of which will be of only tangential interest to many viewers, although the 20 minutes’ worth of contemporary (1970s) “on location” interviews with Caine, Sutherland and and director John Sturges are worth a look. Numerous other features look into details of the production, with the most interesting being a look at the village of Mapledurham, which was used for the location shooting of the movie.
In all, this is a supremely unmemorable film that somehow managed to be a big-budget success in 1976. The following summer, though, would bring Star Wars, the movie that would redefine what it meant to be a “blockbuster”. Seen in that light, movies like The Eagle Has Landed were already looking like dinosaurs: big, slow-moving and impressive to look at, but ultimately not very smart.