George Clooney’s The Monuments Men is due to open wide this Friday, and there is already some ambivalent buzz regarding its possibly trying to have it’s cake and eat it too with regard to being an action-packed, all-star WWII picture and a thought-provoking one as well.
This is not the first time this has been attempted. In fact two Burt Lancaster vehicles, John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1965) and Sydney Pollack’s 1969 Castle Keep previously dealt with the WWII looted/destroyed art treasure theme, Clint Eastwood’s Kelly’s Heroes (1970) included the heist element, and in Escape To Athena (1979), starring Roger Moore, Telly Savalas, Sonny Bono, Fred Williamson — and like Kelly’s with a Lalo Schifrin score — it was art treasures and antiquities that were sought. (This time Greek).
But the all-star WWII art heist mashup really came together with The Eagle Has Landed (1976). Available to watch free via FilmOn’s VOD service, John Sturges’ last film flirts a bit with these themes, although mostly on a much more effervescent, existential level. The ‘art’ is poetry, music and acting. With a screenplay by noted writer/’script doctor’ Tom Mankiewicz (who had been involved in the scripting of most of the ’70s James Bond films up to that point) taken from a Jack Higgins novel, the film comes across as a reverse mash-up of the classic Guns of Navarone (1963), the more notorious all-star Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) set in the flat, staid English countryside.
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Robert Duvall is excellent as a battered and war-weary German intelligence officer (possibly based on Count van Stauffenburg, whom Tom Cruise would portray in his 2008 Valkyrie), who is sucked into a whimsical Nazi upper echelon urge to kidnap Winston Churchill much as they had rescued Benito Mussolini from the clutches of the advancing Allies in Italy.
Duvall’s character ends up recruiting a disgraced elite commando squad lead by Michael Caine, and an IRA lecturer played by Donald Sutherland (Caine had actually been offered this role but did not want to play an IRA man). When an improbable combination of circumstances occur, Duvall’s plan is put into effect, and events play out in a tragically lyrical way. Sutherland is a big part of the success of this, partly through his romance with the excellent and effortlessly sexy village girl Jenny Agutter (perhaps an inspiration for Kate Bush’s classic song ‘Night of the Swallow’). American comic-opera foils portrayed by the likes of Treat Williams, Larry Hagman (I Dream of Jeanie, J.R. from Dallas) and Jeff Conaway (Grease, Taxi) also contribute.
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Elements of this violent yet oddly understated film’s influence can be also be seen as early as the next year, in Sam Peckinpah’s Eastern-front nightmare Cross of Iron (1977), starring James Coburn and the just recently-deceased Maximillian Schell; the little heralded classic A Midnight Clear (1992) with its profound sense of loss; and ironically, even in Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-WWII tragi-comic mash-up Inglorious Basterds (2009).
The Eagle has Landed is available to watch free on demand via FilmOn:
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War is always on tap on the War Channel via FilmOn: