Monday, June 20, 2016
The Eagle Has Landed: Review
I've pretty much decided that nearly all of my favorite war movies* (not that war movies is my favorite genre...) have either Michael Caine or Donald Sutherland in them...and sometimes both. I've seen a fair number in my day...particularly World War II and/or John Wayne war movies due to my dad's television-viewing interests when I was growing up. I didn't see The Eagle Has Landed until long after leaving home sometime in the mid to late 1990s, I believe. I was on a Donald Sutherland binge that had taken me from The Great Train Robbery to Kelly's Heroes to The Eagle Has Landed (with, possibly, a few other stops along the way). Now that I have read the book upon which the film was based I find, if memory serves, that the movie doesn't veer too far from the original material--but I think another viewing may be in order just to be sure.
The Eagle Has Landed (1975) by Jack Higgins presents the reader with the premise that on November 6, 1943 a group of German paratroopers land in Norfolk where the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is rumored to be headed for a weekend's relaxation at a country house near Studley Constable. The mission? To kidnap Churchill if at all possible and to kill him if it's not. The central story is framed with more recent events. Higgins inserts himself into the narrative and describes how he discovered the story while in a Studley Constable graveyard, looking for the grave of a sea captain by the name of Charles Gascigne. He uncovers a concealed grave containing thirteen German paratroopers. What on earth are those men doing in an English graveyard. The villagers won't talk to him--and are even quite menacing when they tell him to move along and not come back. But Higgins is used to asking awkward questions and following leads into dangerous territory when he catches the scent of a story. After a year's research, he puts together the tale described in the book.
When Hitler's men manage to free his ally Benito Mussolini and bring him to Germany, Hitler is inspired to demand that a similar operation be developed to kidnap his enemy Churchill. With Himmler's enthusiastic support of the plan, he orders Admiral Wilhelm Canaris to investigate the possibility and Canaris gives the task to Oberst Radl--asking him to make it look good (to keep the Fuhrer happy) but to be ready with good reasons why it won't work. The further Radl digs into the plan, the more convinced he becomes that it really could work. But when he submits his final study to Canaris, he's told to forget it--unless asked for it.
He's asked sooner than anticipated--by Himmler himself, who is delighted with the findings and gives Radl the power necessary to put together a team. He brings together Liam Devlin, an IRA radical who is willing to do just about anything in the cause against England, and the disgraced Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Steiner and his crack team of paratroopers to prepare to land in England. Meanwhile, in Studley Constable, a bitter woman by the name of Joanna Grey, an Afrikaner woman and longtime counter-intelligence agent, has been sending information about Churchill's schedule, the terrain for the landing, and other details that makes it seem that every little thing is working together to ensure success....
This is an action-packed book and it moves fairly quickly to the finish--especially when you consider how much of the book is spent on the build-up. We follow the plan from its inception through the gathering of Devlin and Steiner to the training and preparation of the paratrooper team and their landing in Norfolk. What keeps the story from dragging is the way that Higgins brings his characters to life. Despite the fact that we know we shouldn't be rooting for the Germans and those who are working for them, Higgins makes these men (and woman) very real and complex. Just as the villagers learn (once "The Eagle is Blown" and they know that Germans are among them), German men can be just as human as they are--they can make sacrifices and choose to do good even when in the midst of performing duties that make them the enemy. As one of the characters says of Steiner towards the end of the book: Whatever else may be said, he was a fine soldier and a brave man. And so he was. ★★★★ for a fine read. I would (if I were rating it) give the movie five stars--simply because the actors bring the characters even more fully to life.
*Two notable exceptions to this maxim are The Bridge on the River Kwai and Gettysburg.
This counts for the "Bird" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.