The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
The Eagle Has Landed was veteran director John Sturges' final movie, whose body of work includes such classics as Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. Based on the bestselling book by Jack Higgins and adapted by Tom Mankiewicz, the film is a curious beast. It’s an in-depth character driven drama you would expect from such a veteran director, with the succinct and violent action scenes that were prevalent during the seventies. Although the phrase “they don’t make them like that anymore” is somewhat of a cliché, it is quite apt in the case of The Eagle Has Landed. Many of the crew as well as the producers hailed from the golden age of Hollywood.
The plot involving a unit of Germans infiltrating a coastal village in the guise of Polish soldiers is somewhat reminiscent of Went the Day Well? After the successful rescue of Mussolini, Col.Max Radl (Robert Duvall) is asked to prepare a feasibility study on kidnapping Winston Churchill. Chance intelligence indicates that Churchill will spend a weekend in the Norfolk village of Studley Constable, only a few miles from a deserted stretch of coastline. Suddenly a wild plan made for political reasons, becomes a viable operation. Col.Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) and his crack unit of Paratroopers are subsequently parachuted into Norfolk to carry out the mission, aided by IRA sympathiser Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland). They are also assisted by Joanna Grey (Jean Marsh), a German sleeper agent.
Like so many movies of the time, the emphasis is primarily on the plot and the central characters. In the international cut of the movie, we come to understand the full motives of Caine, Sutherland and Marsh. Larry Hagman provides an enjoyable cameo as Col. Pitt, a US officer desperate to see action before being side-lined by politics and the end of the war. Tom Mankiewicz’s screenplay dispenses with the framingstory set in the present featuring an aged Devlin as well as some other less pertinent characters from the original book. The action sequences featured in the second half of the movie and are efficient and credible. The production also takes full advantage of the village of Mapledurham and the surrounding estate, which doubles for the fictitious Studley Constable.
After filming finished in late summer 1976, director John Sturges effectively abdicated his responsibility for the movies post production. Editor Anne V. Coates however managed to fashion a respectable movie from the rough cut, which ran 145 minutes. However the producers wanted a leaner cut with a focus on the action, so the theatrical release was edited further to 135 minutes. This version is the most commonly available and has recently been released on Blu-ray in the US. The longer cut features some interesting additional scenes, several of which bolster the weakest element of the film, namely the romance between Molly Prior (Jenny Agutter) and Devlin.
Watching The Eagle Has Landed, highlights the difference between the depiction of violence during the seventies and how it is portrayed today. Ratings were more flexible and less delineated that they are today. The Eagle Has Landed was a movie that was intended for a wide audience. Yet in contains a fair amount of bullet hits and squib effects that would push it beyond a PG-13 rating these days. The recent Blu-ray release shows the incidental violence quite clearly. In one scene towards the end of the movie, a US Ranger is shot in the arm and the actor next to him is sprayed in the face by stage blood. Nowadays, studios are far more mindful of exactly what can and cannot be depicted for each respective rating and there is a huge amount of creative horse-trading with the MPAA and BBFC with regard to content.
As World War II becomes an increasingly remote event, I am curious as to how such movies as The Eagle Has Landed are perceived by contemporary audiences. Does this period in history have any more significance to today’s viewer, beyond being a convenient plot MacGuffin? Jack Higgins story as well as the movie adaptation hails from a time where the war was very much part of the publics memory. It provided a common experience that was frequently used to explore tales of courage and adventure. The concept of Churchill being assassinated and the impact it would have upon history would have chimed with viewers. However since the seventies, the war movie as a genre has declined. More recent explorations of the subject seem to be couched in far more political terms. If The Eagle Has Landed was made today it may be interpreted in a very different fashion.