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Where Eagles Dare: In the WWII tradition



‘Where Eagles Dare’ (1968) is one of the most popular and successful films made with the backdrop of the World War II. In fact, the driving force behind it was actor, Richard Burton’s stepson, who wanted to see his stepfather in a good old-fashioned adventure movie. Burton, in severe need of a box office hit approached his old friend and producer, Elliott Kastner for ideas, who discussed it with the popular novelist, Alistair MacLean. At that time, most of MacLean’s novels had either been made into films or were in the process of being filmed. Kastner persuaded MacLean to write a new story. Six weeks later, MacLean delivered the script, at that time named ‘Castle of Eagles’. Kastner hated the title, and chose ‘Where Eagles Dare’ instead, borrowing it from a line in the Act I, Scene III in William Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’: “The world is grown so bad, that wrens make pray where eagles dare not perch”. Like virtually all of MacLean’s works, ‘Where Eagles Dare’ featured his trademark secret traitor, who must be unmasked by the end. MacLean later turned the script into a novel also entitled, ‘Where Eagles Dare’.

Interestingly, film critic, Vincent Canby, in ‘The New York Times’ review had quipped that the story of  ‘Where Eagles dare’ is so simple and familiar, it could have been conceived by anybody in the time it takes one to brush one’s teeth.

When the casting for the film began, Lee Marvin was considered for the role that ultimately went to Clint Eastwood. However, Marvin declined telling the producers they were about four years too late. Marvin had already starred in  the 1967 World War II action-adventure, ‘The Dirty Dozen’, which he hated. Although it made him a huge star, he did not want to return to the war movie. Burton, on the other hand wanted actor, Richard Egan to play the Eastwood role.

Although a relatively unknown director, Brian G Hutton was tapped to steer the picture from script to screen, the production involved some of the top moviemaking professionals of the time. They included Hollywood stuntman, Yakima Canutt, who as second-unit director shot most of the action scenes; British stuntman, Alf Joint, who doubled for Burton in such sequences as the fight on top of the cable car; award-winning conductor and composer, Ron Goodwin, who wrote the film score and future Oscar-nominee Arthur Ibbetson, who worked on the film’s cinematography.

One of Kastner’s difficult tasks was to secure permission to shoot in Schloss Hohenwerfen, a famous 11th century castle in Austria nestled on a peak in the Alps. Once that was achieved, the 300-plus production team arrived on location in Salzburg, Austria at the beginning of January 1968. Production began amid the dangers of blizzards, subzero temperatures, unpredictable high winds, slippery roads, avalanches and treacherous stunt work. Once the location shooting ended in July 1968, the production wrapped principle photography at the Elstree-based MGM British studios which closed shortly thereafter due to financial reasons.

Stunts formed an important aspect of ‘Where Eagles Dare’. Canutt, a veteran stunt performer since the silent era was adept at working with horses, chariots and fight sequences staged on terra firma. However, when he was signed for ‘Where Eagles Dare’ in the fall of 1967, he quickly found a whole new set of challenges facing him including parachute stunts, a fight sequence on top of a moving Alpine cable car and careening car chases on treacherous mountain roads. Canutt began pre-production in London by hiring a group of key stunt performers, who dominated most of the action sequences, much to the chagrin of Eastwood, who initially requested to perform his own stunts. However, since he was too valuable a property and the stunts in the film were much too dangerous, Eastwood was refused the permission. In retaliation, he nicknamed the production ‘Where Doubles Dare’. The actual on-location shooting that Canutt shot was then intercut with studio shots made at the MGM British studios. In fact, this is one of the first films to use front projection effect; specifically, this technology enabled filming of the scenes where the actors are on top of the cable car.

In the end however, all the risks paid off well at the box office as ‘Where Eagles Dare’ produced at a budget of $7.7 million was a huge popular hit with audiences after its March 1969 national release. It earned $21,000,000. Critics responded enthusiastically as well. Meanwhile, the original impetus for the project helped boost Burton’s previously sagging career, though some of the critics accused him of selling out. He also earned a considerable sum in royalties through television repeats and video sales. Furthermore, the film was a bright spot for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1969, at a time when the studio’s very future was gravely in question.

Interestingly by 1969, so many movies based on the factual as well as fictional incidents from the World War II were produced that in comparison ‘Where Eagles Dare’ looked like an anthology of scenes from movies ranging from ‘The Guns of Navarone’ (1961) to ‘The Great Escape’ (1963) and from ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ (1965) to ‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967). The audiences however did not seem to notice the flaw, giving a cult status to the film over the years.



Clint Eastwood was reluctant to receive second billing to Richard Burton, but agreed after being paid $800,000. Incidentally Burton received $1,200,000 for his role.

The ‘Schloss Adler’ – the Castle of the Eagles – is actually the ‘Schloss Hohenwerfen’ in Austria. At the time of filming, the castle was being used as a police training camp.

An accident during one of the action scenes in ‘Where Eagles Dare’ left producer, Elliott Kastner and director, Brian G Hutton badly burnt.

Clint Eastwood had a reputation for acting in violent films. He lived up to it in ‘Where Eagles Dare’, with his character killing more people – supposedly 73 – in this film than any other of his film.

Actress, Ingrid Pitt – born Ingoushka Petrov – was a Nazi concentration camp survivor, and with related haunting memories found filming very difficult, especially  with many of the cast members wearing World War II German army uniforms.

‘Where Eagles Dare’ is noted for the phrase “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” used by Richard Burton several times throughout.

The climax of the 1988 Hindi film, ‘Commando’ starring Mithun Chakraborty was lifted from ‘Where Eagles Dare’, while ‘Tahalka’ (1992) with Dharmendra in the lead was loosely based on it.



In the winter of 1943-44, US Army Brigadier General George Carnaby (Robert Beatty), a chief planner of the second front, is captured by the Germans when his aircraft is shot down en route to Crete. He is taken for interrogation to the Schloss Adler – the Castle of the Eagles – a fortress high in the Alps of Southern Bavaria. A team of Allied commandos, led by British Major John Smith (Richard Burton) and US Army Ranger Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) is briefed by Colonel Turner (Patrick Wymark) and Admiral Rolland (Michael Hordern) of MI6. Their mission is to parachute in, infiltrate the castle and rescue General Carnaby before his interrogation. MI6 Agent Mary Elison (Mary Ure) also accompanies the mission in secret, with her presence known only to Major Smith.

The international commando unit dressed in Nazi uniforms parachutes into the Bavarian Alps. After one of the commandos is found with his neck broken, Major Smith first rendezvouses with agent Mary and then with another agent, Heidi Schmidt (Ingrid Pitt), who by posing as a local barmaid, succeeds in getting Mary into the fortress by introducing her as a cousin. Following the murder of a second commando and the capture of three other men, which indicates a traitor in the team, Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer are forced to surrender. However, they escape and gain entry into the fortress by crouching on the roof of a cable car. Once there, Major Smith reveals to Lieutenant Schaffer that the captured Allied officer is really an actor, and that the real purpose of the mission is to discover the identity of German spies in England.

Meanwhile, the interrogation of Brigadier General Carnaby, who is supposed to be an actor, is undertaken by General Rosemeyer (Ferdy Mayne) and Colonel Kramer (Anton Diffring). Soon, Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer rescue the actor-imposter, with Major Smith tricking the three ‘captured’ commandos into exposing themselves as German agents. In the process, the names of the German spies in England, are revealed. Now that they have the vital information they were sent for, Major Smith, Lieutenant Schaffer, Mary, and the actor-imposter need to escape.

Having wired the fortress as well as certain locations in the village below the fortress, to explode at intervals, they make their way to a cable car. Once aboard, they outwit the Germans, reach the village, leap off the cable car and with the enemy still in hot pursuit make their way through a canal to a garage. There they commandeer a bus and drive to an airfield where a plane is arriving to take them back to England. Once they are in flight, Major Smith forces one of the mission’s organisers, Colonel Turner, who has come to pick them up, into confessing that he is a German agent. To prevent humiliation to Colonel Turner and his family, as well as a national scandal, Major Smith permits him to meet a more honourable death by allowing him to leap from the plane without a parachute.

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