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BOOK VERSUS FILM: Where Eagles Dare

    Now restrictions are being lifted, who fancies a trip to a Bavarian castle? It’s time for a new Book Versus Film, and today we’re looking at something a bit different: a book that was conceived as a film, but published 18 months before opening night.

    So, grab your parachute and snow camouflage, and let’s sneak into one of Alistair MacLean’s most celebrated war-time thrillers, to ask that vital question: why is Broadsword calling Danny Boy?

    The Story

    High in the Alps sits the Schloss Adler, a castle that is the headquarters of the German SS in southern Bavaria, and a prison for American General Carnaby, recently captured architect of the second front. The British launch a hastily assembled rescue mission – allegedly to stop Carnaby revealing all about the forthcoming D-Day landings – but this is actually a ruse, for Carnaby is not whom he appears to be. And nor are several members of the rescue team…

    The Book

    By the mid-1960s, Scottish author Alistair MacLean was so disillusioned being a bestseller that he decided to run a hotel instead. He had reluctantly started writing again when American producer Elliot Kastner rang him. He told Kastner most of his books were already optioned, but the producer wanted him to write an original adventure for the screen, something the author had never been asked to do before. With that, his career as a hotelier was over.

    The criteria was simple: a “sweaty, exciting adventure movie”, with five or six protagonists on a dangerous mission during World War Two, and any female characters given something to actually do rather than being “arm-pieces”, as was often the case. MacLean’s imagination conjured up a mission so impossible Tom Cruise would think twice about accepting it, and wrote the screenplay in six weeks. But he wasn’t ready to say goodbye to his new roster of characters just yet, so it’s fortunate he retained the book rights to Castle of Eagles – or, as it soon became known, Where Eagles Dare.

    The Characters

    Mission leader John Smith is a cool-headed, somewhat detached Brit, and on the page he avoids killing whenever possible, which leads to some significant differences between book and film. After being arrested in a village, Smith tricks his captors into giving him a gun, steals their car but leaves them alive (they’re not so lucky in the film). Later, during the story’s key scene in the castle’s hall, where we learn the real mission is to identify all German spies in Britain – for ‘General Carnaby’ is an actor, and the MacGuffin to unmask the traitors – Smith drugs the German officers, and even places pillows under their heads (they’re shot in the film, killing all the major protagonists with almost an hour still to go). Most interestingly, as they flee the castle Smith disappears, to save a German they tied up earlier, who would otherwise die in the fire that has since started (this doesn’t even appear in the film). It’s an interesting facet, and explains why he wants to take the traitors home alive – something the film keeps, but which seems at odds with their more violent leader.

    Smith’s number two is US Army Ranger Morris Schaffer. He often has lots to say, likes referring to himself in the third person, and frequently makes jokes, to varying degrees of success – but where Schaffer really struggles is his ‘romance’ with Bavarian agent Heidi. Despite being in constant danger, he can think of little else but her from the moment they meet. He’s soon planning their wedding. Maybe dinner and a movie first, Morris? MacLean admitted he struggled writing female characters and sexual tension, and here it shows.

    The other romance is between Smith and fellow MI6 agent Mary Ellison. Their backstory stretches back several years, as undercover agents in Italy, and though Smith seems ambivalent, by the end he wants to marry her once they return to England (some sources say the film was to end with Schaffer and Heidi getting married instead.) Although it is Mary who gets the men into the castle, in the book she is often prone to despair, and seems out of her depth.

    As for the protagonists, the Germans barely feature. The senior officers are Reichsmarschall Rosemeyer, Colonel Kramer – the most cunning officer going by his introduction, though he never gets to show it – and Gestapo Captain von Brauchitsch, who does show some cunning (he holds Mary’s hand as they share a drink, but rather than trying to woo her he is checking her pulse to see if she’s lying). The double-agents – a MacLean staple – are little more than names on pages, and we never understand why they turned traitor. As even Rosemeyer disapproves of their duplicity, we’re left with the impression MacLean feels they don’t deserve a motive.

    Told mostly from Smith’s third-person point of view, with some surprisingly long sentences – uncommon for an action-adventure – and enough dialogue adverbs to give Stephen King nightmares, Where Eagles Dare is a perfect example of MacLean’s strengths and weaknesses. The characters are perfunctory, the dialogue can be inadvertently hilarious (“Deucedly sorry and all that, chaps…”) but the plotting and tension are superb, the attention to detail is engrossing, and the foreshadowing is fantastic (this line from the beginning: ‘“I know very well what you are,” Smith said quietly.’ is actually spoken to one of the traitors). MacLean also had a wry sense of humour: Mary uses the alias ‘Maria Schenk’, and at one point Smith fabricates a plot to assassinate Hitler; in the 2008 film Valkyrie, we learn of a real plot to assassinate Hitler, by German officer Claus Philipp Maria Justinian Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. This may be a coincidence, but I doubt it.


    MacLean once said he did not enjoy writing books, and churned them out in “35 days flat – just to get the darned thing finished”, so he wasted no time turning his screenplay into a novel. Published in July 1967 to largely positive reviews, it is possibly second only to The Guns of Navarone for recognisability factor today. Not bad for a book he had no interest in writing until a Hollywood producer came along.

    MacLean may not have seen himself as a natural writer but many others did. His first novel, HMS Ulysses, inspired by his World War Two experiences on board HMS Royalist, is considered one of the greatest novels about navy ships, and there’s little doubt he tells a story that doesn’t let go until the final page. But can his first screenplay keep pace?

    The Film

    When Elliott Kastner decided to make a Second World War thriller, he had two names in mind. The first was Alistair MacLean, the second was Richard Burton. MacLean was lured by the idea of writing an original film, and Burton was intrigued at the thought of making something his kids could enjoy. Once he had both signed up, and the script’s title changed (Kastner’s sole contribution, from Shakespeare’s Richard III:The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.”) only then did he speak to the studios.  A bidding war began, with MGM the eventual winners, allowing Kastner to hire old schoolfriend Brian G Hutton as director, and setting the budget at $6.2million.

    Cast and Character Changes

    Joining Burton as Smith were Mary Ure playing Mary Ellison and Ingrid Pitt as Heidi, but the most significant signing story-wise was Clint Eastwood as Schaffer. Eastwood called the script “all exposition and complications”, but agreed to play the part providing much of his dialogue be given to Burton. This makes Schaffer a brooding, more intelligent presence, devoid of the wisecracks, the third-person references, and that ‘romance’ with Heidi.

    Mary is a more capable agent, less dependent on Smith, and undaunted by her mission infiltrating the castle. Now it is clear to see why Smith relies on her. Their relationship is just one facet here, and in the film it does not define her (a fate Heidi also suffers from in the book: she gathers all the intel about the area and smuggles everything they need into the castle – including Mary – but is memorable only for Schaffer’s obsession with her).

    There is one other significant character change: Captain von Brauchitsch becomes Major von Hapen, and is repositioned as the film’s primary villain. As with other cinematic Gestapo agents (Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Toht) von Hapen puts everyone on edge. From his first introduction, meeting Rosemeyer – in a scene not in the book – von Hapen exudes menace; even the cable-car operator bricks it when he discovers whom he has kept waiting on the phone when the Major rings for a car. Played with steely eyed glee by Derren Nesbitt, it’s surprising von Hapen’s role wasn’t further expanded, perhaps leading the chase at the end, because he is easily the best of the antagonists.

    As this point it would be remiss of me not to mention how the Allied team were all chosen because they are fluent German speakers, yet every German character speaks perfect English throughout – barring a few shouted orders, and two soldiers having a chinwag – so this necessary skill, which the book similarly squanders, is completely redundant. (A slight lie: John Smith manages two words: “Johann Schmidt”. Go on, guess.)

    Changes to the Story

    The book packs in more danger at the beginning, when the team arrives by plane in the Bavarian Alps (they’re flying dangerously close to the mountains at night, then must abseil down one) but the film streamlines this to get to the main theme, epitomised by one telling change: the plane in the book is a Lancaster bomber, but in the film it is a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju-52, and whilst the men on board are in German uniform we soon discover by flashback that they are Allied agents: because nothing is what it first seems.

    Where scenes are changed, it’s usually to up the body-count – the book is far less violent – but a few also ratchet up the tension. In the book, Smith escapes one cable-car onto another by climbing the pylon and dropping down; in the film he leaps between the two. But perhaps the biggest change as far as the action is concerned comes with the final escape.

    The team steal a bus, and in the book they take a bizarre detour through German barracks, trying to blag their way out before being discovered and chased by a tank, until they blow up a bridge (as per the film) and reach the airfield. The film does away with the barracks scene, and is much better for it – otherwise Ron Goodwin’s glorious score would have to segue into the Benny Hill theme for a mad few minutes.


    Where Eagles Dare received a Royal gala premiere in January 1969. Reviews were very positive – a typical quote, from Variety: It’s more of a saga of cool, calculated courage, than any glorification of war.” – though some complained the mission-within-a-mission, and double-agent / triple-agent scenes were confusing. (I wonder how old Christopher Nolan was when he first saw this…) Many feared it would struggle at the box-office due to a growing anti-war movement, especially with Vietnam, but the film was a huge success.

    It’s Steven Spielberg’s favourite war film, and is rightly considered a classic. Where Eagles Dare goes at such an unrelenting pace there’s no time to spot the logic gaps (during two radio conversations, the speakers begin with codenames but then use people’s real names); it’s peppered with improbabilities (Eastwood firing two submachine guns simultaneously, without any recoil), and inaccuracies (don’t mention the helicopter) but that adds to the charm. Also, it gave us the genre’s most famous quote, with “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” cropping up as a song by German house/trance DJ Tomcraft, a line in a Matt Smith Doctor Who episode, and elsewhere.

    And the Winner is …

    Despite the book coming first, and many assuming the film was an adaptation, today it’s the film that most people remember – assuming the book to be a novelisation instead. Neither is strictly accurate. MacLean created the story’s template then reworked it in prose form before filming had even started, so both were effectively born together. As far as book/film timelines are concerned, these two are twins. But do we love one more than the other?

    The book wins out when it comes to detail, and of course the story is free of budgetary and time constraints. The suspense is superb, but some characters don’t work as well, and you aren’t as invested in their fate. The film looks spectacular in a way the book never could, but it also smooths the character wrinkles, focuses more on that central theme of deception, and avoids a fumbled last act by jettisoning the barracks escape. Therefore, the film is the winner.

    And that’s Broadsword, over and out!

    BIO: Nick Jackson loves books, films, and writing – so writing about books and films is how he gets his kicks. No, he doesn’t get out much. He would like to thank Richard “Danny Boy” Banks for suggesting this mission.


    3 thoughts on “BOOK VERSUS FILM: Where Eagles Dare”

    1. This is an excellent review which pretty much nails all aspects of the story and the film. As a kid I was an avid reader of all his novels and they were great back then (way back then /koff/). The film though was fantastic, starting with the JU-52 over the mountains to Holst, genius. Eastwood and Burton superb, Ure superb. Loved it.
      Thoroughly enjoyed this review and felt it was bang on in all respects, about the book and the film, balanced and fair, but interesting and informative.
      Thank you.

    2. Average film & average book but both worth the effort of reading or watching particularly on a wet afternoon. A very familiar film bringing back memories of cinemas and usherettes and Pearl & Dean adverts (when we had cinemas etc. – REAL cinemas that is). Darren Nesbit was outstanding and more should have been made of him in this film. As a boy I hated him!

      Well worth watching (but who were the stuntman riding the cable cars?)

    3. Great review. One of my favorite movies. It is both a war movie and a spy movie. Long ago I stopped trying to decide whether I like the book version or movie version better; each format does things the other cannot. This story is one such example. Both the movie and the book are great on their own. Both the movie and the book are in my collection. I watch the movie several times a year (like today, for example).

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