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The Eagle Has Landed
Remind Me
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The Eagle Has Landed

The Eagle Has Landed (1976) was the last film directed by John Sturges, for many years one of Hollywood's most successful directors of action films (Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955; Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 1957; The Magnificent Seven, 1960; The Great Escape, 1963). At this point in his career, with more than 40 pictures under his belt, Sturges was no longer very enthusiastic about directing, a fact that was hammered home to leading actor Michael Caine during the production. At first Caine was thrilled to be working with an American director of Sturges's stature and with his reputation for no-nonsense professionalism. "He's inclined to think 'Take One," which I like," Caine told an interviewer at the time. In his autobiography, however, the actor revealed that Sturges admitted to him on the set that he only worked to earn enough money to go fishing.

"The moment the picture finished he took the money and went," Caine wrote in What's It All About (Random House, 1995), published shortly after Sturges's death. "[Producer] Jack Wiener later told me [Sturges] never came back for the editing nor for any of the other good post-production sessions that are where a director does some of his most important work. The picture wasn't bad, but I still get angry when I think of what it could have been with the right director. We had committed the old European sin of being impressed by someone just because he came from Hollywood."

The production was happier for Caine in other ways, however. After being away from home for considerable lengths of time for location shooting on his last two pictures, The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), he was delighted to be on location in Mapledurham, (doubling for World War II era Norfolk, England), just 15 minutes along the Thames from his own country home. And it was one of England's most beautiful summers to boot.

The storyline of The Eagle Has Landed follows Caine as Colonel Kurt Steiner, the commander of a group of German soldiers under orders from Himmler (Donald Pleasence, doing his stock Teutonic villain role). Col. Steiner is ordered to parachute into England with the intention of assassinating Winston Churchill. Like the similar The Day of the Jackal (1973), which followed a plot to murder French President Charles DeGaulle, the story had the disadvantage of trying to maintain suspense when the audience knew full well that Churchill was never killed by Germans or anyone else. Jackal got around the problem by following the intricacies of the plot with almost excruciating detail. Eagle's ace in the hole was provided by Sturges's handling of the action sequences, a quality he brought to the historically foregone conclusions of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Great Escape.

Caine had other upsides to making The Eagle Has Landed. He was happy to be working with both his old friend Donald Sutherland (a replacement for Richard Harris, as a Brit-hating Irishman who helps the Nazis) and an actor he didn't know well but admired, Robert Duvall. Caine found Duvall easy to work with, although he had heard stories about his short fuse, a trait he saw first hand when the production briefly moved to Cornwall, a coastal area of England famous for its seafood. The main cast was served fresh lobsters at lunch one day, but the one earmarked for Duvall was mistakenly given to someone else. "That's okay," Duvall said calmly, then walked over to the pub door and punched out the glass panel with his fist.

The Eagle Has Landed marked the fourth screen appearance for actor Treat Williams who would jump to starring role status in his next movie, Milos Forman's film adaptation of the stage musical Hair (1979). Also in the cast of The Eagle Has Landed is Larry Hagman, after his stint on the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie and shortly before achieving television immortality as J.R. Ewing on Dallas.

More than two decades later, Peter Murton, the production designer on The Eagle Has Landed returned to the quaint little location village for a documentary about the making of the picture and its effect on the lives of the villagers, The Eagle Has Landed Revisited: Invading Mapledurham (2007).

Director: John Sturges
Producers: David Niven, Jr., Jack Wiener
Screenplay: Tom Mankiewicz, based on the novel by Jack Higgins
Cinematography: Anthony Richmond
Editing: Anne V. Coates
Art Direction: Charles Bishop
Original Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Michael Caine (Col. Kurt Steiner), Donald Sutherland (Liam Devlin), Robert Duvall (Col. Max Radl), Jenny Agutter (Molly Prior), Donald Pleasence (Heinrich Himmler), Anthony Quayle (Adm. Canaris), Judy Geeson (Pamela), Treat Williams (Capt. Clark), Larry Hagman (Col. Pitts).
C-135m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon