A WWII thriller and a staple on the Channel 7 four o’clock movie growing up, Steven Spielberg once named it as his all-time favorite war movie. I don’t know about that, but as a kid, I was pretty jazzed.
Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood lead a group of commandos dropped behind enemy lines in Bavaria – where the barmaids are buxom and the enemy plentiful – to kill an American general who has been captured by the Nazis. They must get to the general before the Germans extract critical information from him.
The picture is more than competent (though overlong at nearly 2.5 hours; in the 70s, on TV, it was cut to 90 minutes, and did not suffer for it). The movie is also smart, as much a whodunit as war thriller, and uber-violent to boot.
One major problem, however, is the setup. The American general is held in a castle fortress accessible only by cable car. Putting aside the suspension of belief necessary to accept ingress and egress, which is right and proper, the castle also houses hundreds of soldiers, heavy equipment, a barracks, a helicopter pad, a radio room, and enough ammo and explosives to blow itself up. All, of which, apparently, was ferried up in two cable cars that hold 8 people a piece.
Another problem is just a terrible cheat. In The Dirty Dozen, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, dressed as German officers, must mingle with the Nazis in the chateau they plan to blow up. The fact that only Bronson knows how to speak German amps up the dread, leaving Marvin to play it stern and taciturn whenever a real Nazi speaks to him at a pre-all-hell-breaks-loose soiree’. Quentin Tarantino does the same thing with Brad Pitt at the film premiere in Inglorious Basterds , though he plays a bit more comic. But Tarantino also utilizes the speaking of German, or, rather, the sign language of a German, to brilliant, suspenseful effect, when Michael Fassbender makes a critical error and is thus found out, which was presaged in The Great Escape:
But I digress.
Here, as Burton and Eastwood approach a checkpoint, where their papers are to be reviewed, you wonder which one is going to speak German. I assumed Burton. Then again, I never assumed Eastwood would sing in a musical, but Lord Almighty, that’s him singing Gold Fever in Paint Your Wagon:
So, who knows, right? Well, it turns out, neither of them speak German. Instead, they speak English LOUDLY, and the guards figure they don’t want to interrupt two German officers speaking loudly. Translated? Neither actor wanted to learn a little German, so we are left to believe that the guards heard German, even though we did not. Very lame.
On the plus side, Eastwood is Eastwood cool and he conservatively, single-handedly, kills at least 100 Nazis. At 10 years of age, I was sold. There’s also a fair amount on double-crosses (the picture is written by Alistair MacLean), and while I can’t prove it, I suspect Tarantino saw the picture and it informed his unparalleled French cellar bar shootout in Basterds.
On HBO Max.
P.S. After writing my suspicions about Tarantino, I Googled a bit and now claim semi-vindication. Tarantino has lauded the picture on numerous occasions, particularly during his promotion of Basterds.