This movie holds a very special place in my heart, because, when I first saw it, it was the first film I was taken to that was intended for adults and not kids. I remember my father explaining before we went that there might be some scenes of violence, which only served to heighten my already considerable expectations. For my part, I promised not to have nightmares or try to join the SS afterwards.
The lights went down, the curtains withdrew and that classic day for night shot of the Junkers Ju 52 over the Alps came into view, and those iconic drums began to that repetitive beat. Instantly I was transported to WWII. The crisp cold winter air caused me a sharp intake of breath and, armed to the teeth, I stepped out into star-filled night sky, listened for the rustle of parachute silk opening and waited for the inevitable crunch of fresh deep snow beneath me.
What an opening! The Ron Goodwin music in this movie is quite brilliant, with its Spandau Ballet motif, something that becomes synonymous with the bursts of machine pistols in the latter part of the film.
But soon one of the team is dead, and everyone is dressed as a Nazis! Not surprisingly, I found this initially all very pretty confusing, but soon growling Richard Burton steps forward and expositions his way into the driving seat of this story. He rapidly explains everything you need to know about who they are and what they’re there to do. Lovely.
Given the number of entirely amazing true stories from WWII, it does seem curious that they needed to make one up, but freed from the necessity for historical accuracy, Alastair MacLean’s imagination runs entirely riot, and cordially we’re invited along to experience his very best daring-do wet dream.
From a young boy’s perspective, Burton and Eastwood’s characters were living the high life. They got to do cool things like parachute into Austria, meet up with the gorgeous likes of Mary Elison (Mary Ure) and Heidi Schmidt (Ingrid Pitt), and then get to cause complete chaos with unlimited access to firearms and explosives. I mean, it doesn’t really get better than that, does it?
Given that the basic premise is basically a spy mole hunt, this is actually action packed for almost the entire running time of 151 minutes. The kinetic sequences are so tightly packed in places that the movie sports one of the shortest average shot lengths of any movie, with each lasting an average of just six seconds.
For me, the highlights of the movie are some particularly elegantly handled scenes. The one that stands out from the others is the pivotal part of the movie where Major Jonathan Smith (Richard Burton) smokes out the mole by convincing the Nazis that he’s a German intelligence operative, while entirely bewildering his associate Lt. Morris Schaffer (Eastwood). How this scene develops its hidden motive and its lethal conclusion is all beautifully paced. It even has some humour contained within it, where they wake Major Wilner (Guy Deghy) to confirm Burton’s character’s totally fake identity.
But what makes it work is the ensemble cast of superb Nazis imitators, who portray the ‘master-race’ in their most villainous. Interestingly, they cast almost exclusively real Germans, including Ferdy Mayne, who plays the Reichmarshal, Anton Diffring as Colonel Kramer and Victor Beaumont as Colonel Weissner. The only exceptions to that were English actor Derren Nesbitt (Major von Hapen), South African Olga Lowe as Lieutenant Anne-Marie Schwartz and the previously mentioned Hungarian born Guy Deghy.
But if you ask most people what the most memorable scene in this movie is, then I’d be surprised if the ‘cable car’ isn’t in the answer. Technically, there are two different sequences: the ride up and then the return journey. The ride up serves to underline the precarious nature of the cable car, and the horrendously long drop for anyone who chooses to leave it unexpectedly. This is really just a primer for the return, with the fight between the real German spies and the Allied ones on the roof of one of the cars.
In this I remember being quite shocked when Olaf Christiansen, played by seminal British actor Donald Houston, gets a pick-axe in the arm, resulting in copious blood loss. In fact, as war movies go, this has its gory moments, and the colour balance was worked to make for vibrantly bright claret.
From this point in the story, the dogs of war are well and truly off the leash as previously well madeplans to escape kick into action. What’s nice about what is effectively one long action chase sequence is that it all dovetails together rather nicely and, rather than appearing an almost unending sequence of set pieces, it all flows along, interrupted only by the minor pauses to reload.
It all ends exactly where it starts, on the Junkers, high above the snow-capped mountains. Except the person who leaves the aircraft this time doesn’t land so gently.
I know for some, Eastwood, in particular, this movie doesn’t hold positive memories. And the lovely Ingrid Pitt also found it a difficult movie to work on, as she’d experienced the Nazis for real when, as a child, she was sent to a concentration camp. But others like me, and apparently Steven Spielberg of all people, really love the entirely ‘boys own’ nature of the story and the imaginative action sequences it contains.
I left the cinema wanting to wear alpine camouflage, get me a girlfriend built like Ingrid Pitt and bag myself 100 Nazis scalps. Sadly, to this day much of that fantasy remains as such.
But occasionally, on a moonless night when the snow is gently falling, I’m still tempted to wander out into the night, find a quiet place deep in the woods where I won’t be easily disturbed, unpack my field radio, and send the signal ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy…. Broadsword calling Danny Boy’…