“The Eagle Has Landed” is an action/adventure war movie released in 1976 It is firmly in the suicide mission subgenre. It was directed by John Sturges ("The Great Escape") and was his last film. It is based on the novel by Jack Higgins. It opens with a reference to Otto Skorzeny’s daring rescue of Mussolini from captivity. This inspires Hitler to try to capture “his greatest enemy” – Churchill.
The head of military intelligence, Admiral Canaris (Anthony Quayle), is assigned the task of implementing Hitler’s dream. He meets with an officer named Radl (Robert Duvall), but denigrates the whole fantasy and wants to just go through the motions. However, Himmler (Donald Pleasence) gets involved and green-lights the project. Radl warms to the possibilities when information arrives that Churchill will be visiting an isolated British village. Radl chooses a decorated war hero named Steiner (Michael Caine) to lead the mission.
|Steiner does not like Nazis|
We meet Steiner (the same Steiner who appears in "Cross of Iron") as he bucks authority by trying to save a Jewish woman from the S.S. Steiner is insubordinate, anti-Nazi, anti-brass, cynical, and worshiped by his men. He ends up getting court-martialed and he and his men are sent to a penal colony. Similar to the plot of “The Dirty Dozen”, they are promised forgiveness if they undertake the suicide mission. Radl also recruits an IRA operative named Devlin (Donald Sutherland) to participate. He considers himself an Irish patriot, not a traitor.
Devlin goes on ahead and makes contact with a sleeper agent, a woman named Gray. He also meets and charms a lass named Molly (Jenny Agutter) who inexplicably falls so hard and so quickly that she kills her beau when he is going to rat out Devlin. Granted, he was a lummox, but her treason for love is a bit too pat.
Steiner and his men parachute into England dressed as Polish soldiers. The sleepy villagers are welcoming and then grateful when one of the Germans saves the life of a local girl. Unfortunately, the gratefulness is short-lived as the incident results in discovery of their true identities. The populace is quickly rounded up and held hostage in the local church. One of the townspeople manages to escape and goes up the road to inform an American Rangers unit led by a buffoonish Colonel Pitt (Larry Hagman) His daddy must be a general. He looks at the situation as a chance for glory and disregards the sane Capt. Clark’s (Treat Williams) advice to go slow.
|a bazooka in a cemetery - shame|
Pitt does his Custer imitation resulting in a nicely staged fire-fight that features graphic wounds and lots of fireworks including some nifty bazooka work. It’s a disaster and Pitt can’t even defeat Mrs. Gray. His encounter with the spy has a twisted ending that almost compensates for the tomfoolery.
Capt. Clark arrives with reinforcements and a brain, so now the German’s are trapped with the hostages in the church. Steiner, being a human being, not a Nazi, releases the hostages. Molly shows him a secret passage out of the church so he can go kill Churchill (the things a British girl will do for an Irish spy she just met). Steiner’s crew offer to stay behind to delay the Rangers and provide us with more violence. Devlin also escapes.
|the last thing Churchill saw?|
Steiner, now disguised as an American, manages to get to Churchill. Does he win the war for Germany? Hey, if the Inglorious Basterds can kill Hitler, why not?
“The Eagle Has Landed” is not on a level with “Guns of Navarone” or “Where Eagles Dare”. It is even more implausible than most of the suicide mission subgenre. The romance that is thrown in is ridiculous as well. The acting is a strength. Caine ably fills James Coburn’s shoes as Steiner. He has a lot of charisma and it is easy to see why his superiors are enraged by him and his subordinates are willing to die for him. Paired with “Cross of Iron”, Steiner is one of the great anti-heroes of war movies. Quayle is good as Canaris and accurately portrays his disgust with Nazi schemes. Although the movie is pure imagination, Canaris was a leading figure in the resistance against Hitler and even collaborated with the Allies. His involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler cost him his life. Devlin is a nice addition and offers a different perspective. Sutherland plays him as a charming rogue. The one false note is Hagman as Pitt. The sudden injection of comic relief is a bit jarring in an otherwise serious movie.
The movie was filmed in an English village, so the setting is picturesque. The action set pieces are well done, but too brief. The weapons appear authentic except the bazooka is a later model.. The score is typical for this type of movie. It is satisfactory, but does not stand out like in “Where Eagles Dare”. The intrigue is also inferior to WED. It lacks real suspense. You know Steiner will not hurt the hostages, for instance. One questionable element is the introduction of American Rangers into a story that should have been limited to Germans and British. This seems to be a marketing decision to help with the box office. It is reminiscent of Sturges’ “The Great Escape” where three Americans characters were inaccurately added. Can’t the British defend their own Prime Minister? I suspect American’s would have been upset if a plot against FDR was foiled by British forces.
In conclusion, "The Eagle Has Landed" is entertaining, but certainly not one of the 100 Best War Movies. Kurt Steiner will have to be content with his "Cross of Iron" making the list. But then again, he probably would not give a damn about such a list.
Rating - 6/10
Here is my updated ranking of the great suicide mission movies:
2. Kelly’s Heroes
3. Inglorious Basterds
4. The Dirty Dozen
6. The Eagle Has Landed