Archive for The Eagle Has Landed

The Taking of Studley Constable

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2015 by dcairns

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One could wish that author Jack Higgins had invented a Norfolk village with a less silly name than Studley Constable as the setting for his war adventure The Eagle Has Landed, or that Tom Mankiewicz, adapting it, had switched the location to somewhere with more dignity. Scratby, perhaps, or East Runton.

The John Sturges movie based on the book must have seemed a bit old-fashioned in 1976, but as I recall there was a certain market for that kind of thing at the time, as an alternative to the prevailing direction of Hollywood cinema — the IMDb’s list of ten “most popular” films for that year doesn’t feature a lot of romance — things tend to end as they do for Kong and Dwan, or Travis and Betsy, or Sissy Spacek and bucket guy — making Jenny Agutter and Donald Sutherland — the English rose and the ungulate Casanova — the screen’s sexiest couple of ’76. She even consented to do clothed scenes, but only because they were essential to the plot.

They genuinely are good together. Sutherland plays one of those sympathetic IRA men beloved of Hollywood (in a film crowded with sympathetic Nazis), and Agutter is twenty-five playing “almost nineteen,” a village girl smitten with the romantic newcomer. And she sells it. I don’t know if that was a difficult task — maybe she just defocussed her eyes and imagined chocolate eclairs — but she seems to be spectacularly interested in everything that dribble of a face is doing. Fiona finds Sutherland devilishly attractive, in a deeply weird way. The scene where he orders a bartender to suck his thumb had her all a-tremble.

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While Sutherland has never really mastered an accent in a film, and essays an extreme and wonky brogue here,  he does have fun in the role, grinning satanically and boozing a lot. He’s the only one with good dialogue. And he’s the best Irish Nazi since Stephen Boyd in THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS. Michael Caine (Jewish Nazi) tries to talk in a slightly clipped way suggestive of being German, and Robert Duvall (another no-hoper when it comes to accents, except for a rather good blue-collar New York which I was surprised to discover wasn’t his native idiom) lays it on thick, though not as badly as he would playing Watson in THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION the same year. I would love to see a movie where Sutherland does his FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY English, and Duvall does his Watson, but I think I should go mad watching it.

Caine has a line near the end about no longer driving events but being driven by them, and it’s very apt indeed, but it could apply to everything that happens in this movie from the start. Plot dictates every move, and people keep shifting out of character to allow the plot to get done. Jenny Agutter becomes a murderer — WHAT? Larry Hagman (very amusing) is at least set up as a knucklehead desperate for glory, but that’s an example of a character being machine-tooled and dropped into position to fulfill a narrative function. Spectacular accidents occur in order to move things along more briskly.

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The whole thing is swiped from …WENT THE DAY WELL? which is a much better movie. Higgins even began his novel in a post-war English graveyard, like Cavalcanti’s film, though fortunately the movie dispenses with this pilfered prologue. What Higgins added is the Churchill kidnap plot, which makes it high-concept, and the idea of the Germans as heroes, which is dicey at best. Proving that Caine’s character isn’t anti-semitic in an introductory scene smacks of special pleading, and the efforts to make Duvall’s Colonel likable count for nothing — he would have been just as effective as a bastard, since what the audience cares about is What Will Happen? We aren’t, after all, rooting for the Nazis to win, we are merely concerned by a scheme.

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Higgins reports (in his foreword to the book) that he did encounter resistance to the idea of Nazis as leads, but says that his dealings with German soldiers in the fifties had made it clear to him that “most of them were just like us.” That should worry you, Jack!

Studley Constable (that name!) cemetery is full of gravestones that wobble when anyone touches them.

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The real studly constable (right).

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