It's apparent in "The Eagle Has Landed," a melodrama about a German commando group assigned to kidnap Winston Churchill, that directro John Sturges hasn't lost the technique required to make action movies as attractive as he once did.
The British cinematographer, Anthony Richmond, who last worked on "The Man Who Fell to Earth," provides Sturges with the crisp, spacious, airt style of composition that distinguished his best pictures - Bad Day at Black Rock," "Escape from Fort Bravo," "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape."
Unfortunately, their visual craftsmanship and polish are compromised by the manifest tackiness of the story material. They deserve a dramatic pretext intelligent and suspenseful enough to rationalize their professionalism, which now functions only superficially. Sturges seems to lack the same fundamental creative authority and discretion Peter Hunt, another technically skilled action director, lacked on "Shout at the Devil."
"Eagle," now at six area thearters, flops around trying to sustain a premise that defies suspenseful elaboration from the outset. No one with his wits about him believes the conspirators will succeed in capturing or shooting Churchill. More to the point, who would want them to? We're asked to suspend disbelief for the sake of a gimmick that not only insults common sense and general knowledge but also betrays old loyalties and convictions.
Not so long ago a star of the caliber of Michael Caine would have been cast as the intrepid leader of a British commando unit trying to make things inconvenient for the Nazi war effort. In the upcoming movie version of "A Bridge Too Far" he'll resume such a role, along with many other stars, and it's likely that this reversion will pay enormous commercial dividends.
"Eagle" reflects the muddled, valueless notion of novelty and "ambiguity" that has undermined so many genre movies in recent year: We're expected to find the improbable, alienating sight of Caine as a German officer who gets the drop on Churchill not only credible but also thrilling.
Inventing a plot that would culminate in such a fanciful showdown without constantly breaking down has proved far beyond the abilities of novelist Jack Higgins and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz. If anything, they seem to contribute a sequence of events that begs the audience to be at once merciful and absentminded.
Having sampled the other new pictures released by Lord Lew Grade - "The Cassandra Crossing," Voyage of the Damned" and "The Domino Principle" - I was anticipating a disheveled scenario at "The Eagle Has Landed," which turned out to exceed expectations. Grade appears to be a pushover for stories with ludicrous ironic twists. With the exception of "Voyage," which is based on factual events, all these movies are resolved in ways calculated to make you feel resentful for ever stringing along with them.
The root of the problem may be an attempt to con several national markets at once. Germans may be expected to accept Caine's commandoes because they're allegedly Geman while British audiences accept them because they can be plausibly mistaken for British. Playing it both ways with the American market, the film introduces Larry Hagman as an incompetent Ranger officer who leads his men into disaster and then counters him with Treat Williams as the leader of an able Ranger detachment.
It's a wonder Sturges survives the opening scene, where Anthony Quayle as Admiral Canaris subjects the audience and fellow officer Robert Duvall, in eyepatch and artificial hand, to instant psychological profiles of Hitler and his inner circle. Beginning on a note of high preposterousness, the script never masters banal but plausible motivations. There's an elaborate attempt to show Caine as an anti-Nazi German in his first scene, but he's compelled to act fanatically in order to force the climax into position.
The premise might have worked if Caine's character had been contrived to stop well sorth of fanaticism, which doesn't suit the star anyway. Donald Sutherland is surprisingly amusing as a raffish Irish revolutionary in league with the Germans, and for an engaging reel or so it appears that this character might amount to something. Thirty years ago Deborah Kerr played an England-hating colleen saved by love and Trevor Howard from an irrevocable alliance with the Nazis in "The Adventures." A similar political-romantic conflict might have sustained "Eagle," where Sutherland falls for an English girl played by Jenny Agutter. In fact, there is no shortage of human interest possibilities, just a general inability to see and exploit them.