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The World War II spy film, Where Eagles Dare (1969), came about because the film's star, Richard Burton, was in severe need of a box office hit. After appearing in three box office duds in a row, he decided to change his approach to selecting projects. Urged by his children to play a "real hero," Burton looked up his old friend producer Elliot Kastner for some suggestions. Kastner, in turn, appealed to famed adventure novelist Alistair MacLean, who had previously written the source novel for 1961's The Guns of Navarone, a film Burton cited as the desired model for his next picture. MacLean eventually wrote an original screenplay in just six weeks that he later turned into a novel entitled Where Eagles Dare.
Relatively unknown director Brian G. Hutton was tapped to steer the picture from script to screen. One of producer Elliot Kastner's duties was to secure permission to shoot in Schloss Hohenwerfen, a famous 11th-century castle in Austria nestled on a peak in the Alps. 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 stuntwork. Once the location shooting was finished five months later, the production wrapped principle photography at the Elstree-based MGM British studios, which closed shortly thereafter due to financial reasons.
Another major player in the production of Where Eagles Dare was famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, who was hired to coordinate and direct the hair-raising action sequences. Canutt, a veteran stunt performer since the silent era, eventually retired from performing stunts and went into the very important business of designing and directing key action sequences, such as the famous chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959) and the battle scenes in Spartacus (1960). Adept at working with horses, chariots, and fight sequences staged on terra firma, Canutt signed on with the production of Where Eagles Dare in the fall of 1967 and quickly found a whole new set of challenges facing him: 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: Joe Powell, Eddie Powell, Peter Brace, Jimmy Thong, Jackie Cooper, Doug Robison, Terry York, Alf Joint, and Gillian Aldam. These stunt performers dominated most of the action sequences, much to the chagrin of Clint Eastwood, who initially requested to perform his own stunts. Because he was too valuable a property and the stunts in Where Eagles Dare much too dangerous, Eastwood nicknamed the production "Where Doubles Dare." Of course, even Eastwood must have thought twice about hanging off a moving cable car hundreds of feet in the air, as did his own stunt double, Eddie Powell. The actual on-location shooting that Canutt shot was then intercut with studio shots made at the MGM British studios.
In the end, the personal risks paid off well at the box office as Where Eagles Dare was a huge popular hit with audiences after the March 1969 national release. Critics responded enthusiastically as well. In a December 11, 1968 review, Variety wrote that "Where Eagles Dare is so good for its genre that one must go back to The Great Escape (1963) for a worthy comparison." Interestingly enough, Clint Eastwood, whose reputation for screen violence is well known thanks to his trilogy of spaghetti Westerns with director Sergio Leone, kills more people in this film than in any other Eastwood character in a single film to date. Meanwhile, the original impetus for the project helped boost Richard Burton's previously sagging career, though some of the critics accused him of selling out. A March 28, 1969 review in Time lamented that "it is a little melancholy to see Richard Burton reduced to playing cardboard parts like this one, but he at least manages to look as if he's having a good time." For the most part though, Where Eagles Dare was a bright spot for MGM in 1969, at a time when the studio's very future was gravely in question.
Director: Brian G. Hutton
Producer: Elliott Kastner, Denis Holt
Screenplay: Alistair MacLean
Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson
Editor: John Jympson
Art Direction: Peter Mullins
Music: Ron Goodwin
Cast: Richard Burton (Maj. John Smith), Clint Eastwood (Lt. Morris Pimpennel Schaffer), Mary Ure (Mary Ellison), Patrick Wymark (Col. Wyatt Turner), Michael Hordern (Vice Admiral Rolland).
C-156m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee