Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The Eagle Has Landed (1976) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th May, 2020

The Eagle Has Landed 1With feature films, as with the theatre, a degree of suspension of disbelief is needed. That is particularly true in what one might call the genre of “what if” movies, which site the action in a specific time and place, with fictional characters mixed in with real historical figures. Jack Higgins’ classic wartime thriller novel, The Eagle Has Landed, was an obvious candidate for this type of film, with its clever central plot of a German attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill at a time when the Nazis were clearly losing the war, in the hope of using that trump card to extract favourable peace terms. Director John Sturges picks up the ball and runs with it confidently (movie available on BBCiPlayer for the next four weeks).

The Eagle Has Landed 3 The kidnap attempt would be made during Churchill’s visit to an isolated village in Norfolk (actually picturesque Mapledurham in Oxfordshire was used as the set). The man in principle master-minding the operation is Heinrich Himmler (beautifully played with a most sinister little smile by Donald Pleasance) but the lead operator will be a much-decorated but insubordinate officer (a conveniently blond, dashing and cheeky Michael Caine). In order for the audience to feel some empathy for this Nazi commando, in an implausible early scene he attempts to rescue a Jewish girl from a transport of Jews being taken by train from the Warsaw Ghetto to a concentration camp.

The Eagle Has Landed 2Such compassion and underlying niceness (also demonstrated by one soldier who plays Bach expertly on the village church organ) will prove to be the expedition’s undoing. In the meantime, though, there are nearly two-and-a-half hours of action-packed manoeuvres. There is a bit of heavy-handed comedy to relieve the tension, for example the blundering behaviour of a completely unbelievable idiot US colonel (Larry Hagman). But the film is actually hijacked by the Canadian Donald Sutherland, who puts in an unforgettable performance as an Irish Republican who has been enlisted to the operation by the Nazis. Inevitably there has to be a love interest, to appeal to a transatlantic audience, and he is the unexpected beneficiary. But this relationship is not allowed to distract too much from the action which builds to a crescendo, all against the gorgeous backdrop of the village. By now verisimilitude has largely gone out the window, but does it matter? Not if you like action films, especially war films. So if you do, suspend your disbelief and wallow in it.

One Response to “The Eagle Has Landed (1976) ****”

  1. Phil Beesley said

    “But the film is actually hijacked by the Canadian Donald Sutherland, who puts in an unforgettable performance as an Irish Republican…”

    One’s ranking of the film might rely on plausibility of the characters. Donald Sutherland was as plausible as a haystack in December.

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