Action, Adventure, Spy, War

Eagles Over London (1969)

0 Comments 29 August 2014

Eagles Over London CoverStudio: Severin
Theatrical Release: September 20, 1969 (Italy)
January, 1973 (USA
Blu Ray Release: October 13, 2009
Rating: Not Rated
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari

Review by Tim Bodzioney

In the 1960s,starting with The Guns of Navarone, there was a series of big budget, big star, American and British (sometimes co-productions) WWll war films. This series included movies such as The Longest Day, The Great Escape, In Harm’s Way, The Heroes of Telemark, Von Ryan’s Express, The Battle of the Bulge, The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, and culminated in 1969 with The Battle of Britain. Production of these movies continued with diminished results into the 1970s, ending with The Wild Geese, which was The Expendables of its era. These movies, like the Bond movies, were clearly targeted for and reflected the tastes of the WWll generation—primarily middle-aged men.

Most of these movies were financially successful and for that reason it’s surprising that it took so long for Italian producers to jump on the bandwagon. Eagles Over London, directed by Enzo G. Castellari, comes near the end of the line in 1969. Interestingly the movie was released the same year as The Battle of Britain, which covers similar terrain.

Eagles Over London begins with the evacuation of Dunkirk in the spring of 1940.  A group of Nazi agents seize the opportunity to steal the identities of dead English soldiers. Able to blend in undetected with the British army during the chaos of retreat, their intent is to gain entry into England and knock out England’s radar system prior to German air attacks.

With huge budgets and lavish production values, the American and British war movies tended to highlight spectacle over plot or character—this certainly was the case of The Battle of Britain. The result in that particular movie is an over-produced empty film that doesn’t leave much of an impression. Eagles Over London, lacking the budget of The Battle of Britain, wisely goes in the other direction.

A German soldier (Francisco Rabal, Nightmare City, Belle du Jour, Viridiana) steals the dog tags and papers of a British soldier named Martin Donovan. Shortly after the identity theft, the fake Donovan is saved from a bridge explosion by British Captain Paul Stevens (Frederick Stafford).   The two men bond over the rescue, with Stevens even offering Donovan lodging in his London flat. This deception is the center of the film’s story. During the Dunkirk evacuation Stevens stumbles upon a group of slain soldiers lacking identification. This leads him to suspect the German plot afoot. Once back in London he is unable to convince his commanding officers of the infiltration. He is unaware, however, that he is hosting one of the saboteurs.

The script by five credited writers, including Castellari, is fairly well structured. It relies on suspense. The script’s major flaw is its absence of memorable set pieces. The scene that comes closest takes place in a pub and involves the theft of the leading lady’s papers while British soldiers searching for the Nazis are checking papers. It’s an okay scene. Imagine this kind of scene in the hands of Hitchcock or Lang. As a matter of fact, Castellari seems to be channeling Hitchcock. There is a murder reminiscent of the one where John Vernon shoots Karin Dor in the same year’s Topaz, which is bizarrely crossed with the 360-degree camera movements of The Thomas Crown Affair.   There is a wacky late 60’s love scene that takes place during an air raid. Not quite the same as Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, but we get the picture.

Another Hitchcock connection is the leading man. Frederick Stafford was the hero in Hitchcock’s Topaz. Stafford is a bit of stick, and I’ve always read that the reason Hitchcock cast him was due to his unpleasant experience with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews on Torn Curtain. Hitchcock vowed to never work again with big stars. Stafford didn’t have much of a career, soon appearing in low-budget, Euro-exploitation fare (Werewolf Woman), and I’ve always suspected that his casting in this movie was due to his lead in Topaz. The producers probably figured that if Hitchcock used him that Stafford was destined for stardom. Little did they know.

Another strange bit of casting is aging American leading man Van Johnson as a British RAF Air Marshal. I can’t imagine what value they thought his name would bring other than possibly faking people into thinking it was an American production. Johnson’s early career at MGM was based on his wholesome, boy-next-door quality.   He had more range than most suspected when he later turned up in genre movies such as Battleground, Scene of the Crime, Bottom of the Bottle, and 23 Paces to Baker Street. Johnson holds his own with the ensemble cast led by Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny. He’s wonderful as Gene Kelly’s cynical sidekick in Minnelli’s Brigadoon. Late in his career he even pops up in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Johnson is one of those show business figures I’ve grown to appreciate. After being dismissed as a lightweight for years, he kept plugging away by conquering a severe case of stage fright to have a respectable post film star career in the theater that encompassed night clubs, dinner theater, summer stock, and eventually Broadway (La Cage aux Folles). During this time he also worked steadily in television. What I didn’t know was that Johnson spent over twenty years in European movies. In nearly 50 years he seems to have appeared in nearly every imaginable genre and worked with a few important directors (Brown, Fleming, Wellman, Hathaway, Dymytrk, LeRoy, and Minnelli) along the way. Talk about longevity. But by the time Eagles Over London was produced, his days as a leading man were at least a decade behind him. Johnson is not bad in the movie—he’s simply miscast. I doubt that Johnson’s name carried much marquee value in 1969.

Francisco Rabal is very good as the conflicted Donovan. His character is the film’s most interesting. Other familiar Euro-genre faces include leading lady Ida Galli, who is in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and in 1963 appears in movies by both Visconti (The Leopard) and Bava (The Whip and the Body)! Head Nazi is played by Luigi Pistilli, whose distinctive face was used in For a Few Dollars More; The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly; The Great Silence; and Bay of Blood. Renzo Palmer (Danger Diabolik, The Eroticist) as the cockney-sounding Irish sergeant seems to be imitating either Alan Hale or Victor McLaglen—depending on the scene. In fairness to Palmer, who is a good actor, he can’t be blamed for the dubbing performance.

Being an Italian movie you know there have to be even more rip-offs of other popular movies of the era. The scenes of the investigation of dead soldiers could be out of a giallo or krimi. The climax involving the sabotage of a British air command center could be The Dirty Dozen in reverse.

I’m not an expert on Italian war movies, but there is something fascinating about the few I have seen. There’s never any mention of the role Italy played in the war (other than the post-war Neo-Realist films). There are lots of French movies about the collaborators. In Italian war movies the villains are always Nazis and no mention is ever made of Italy. I find that kind of weird.

The Blu-Ray looks pretty good. In some scenes the colors are a tad faded and look worse during opticals, which is to be expected. In other scenes the color is fine. The sound is dubbed into English and in stereo. I had to turn it up a bit on my system. There is no Italian soundtrack on the disc. The two special features both include the participation of Quentin Tarrantino, looking sweaty and manic. For me, a little bit goes a long way. Proceed at your own risk.

Eagles Over London is no undiscovered masterpiece. It is better than some of the big-budgeted films it imitates. Enzo Castellari is a resourceful and imaginative director. As I stated above he knows how to work around limitations. Castellari cleverly uses whatever tricks he can conjure to make the film look bigger than it is. He employs the then fad of split screen photography. He generally uses it with stock footage to give the film a larger feel. The use of practical special effects along with matte shots also helps the film look higher budgeted than it is. It is the kind of movie however, that I wonder what the producers were thinking.  Most genre pictures can be done on the cheap and not be too obvious.  But you can’t fake epic.

Rating: ★★★☆☆




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