The 1970s films of Michael Caine: The Eagle Has Landed

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We continue our look at the 1970s filmography of one Sir Michael Caine – this time we’re talking about The Eagle Has Landed. 

The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.

Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…

Spoilers for The Eagle Has Landed lie ahead

The poster for The Eagle Has Landed, starring Michael Caine.

Directed by: John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Ice Station Zebra)

Tagline: In 1943 sixteen German paratroopers landed in England. In three days, they nearly won the war.

Other Featured Geezers: Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin, Robert Duvall as Colonel Max Radl, Jenny Agutter as Molly Prior, Donald Pleasence as Heinrich Himmler, Anthony Quayle as Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Jean Marsh as Joanna Grey, Larry Hagman as Colonel Clarence E. Pitts, Treat Williams as Captain Harry Clark.

Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Black Windmill
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Marseille Contract
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Wilby Conspiracy
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Romantic Englishwoman
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Peeper
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Harry And Walter Go To New York

What’s it all about, Alfie?: Based on the bestselling novel by Jack Higgins, it’s the height of World War II and German Colonel Max Radl (Robert Duvall) puts into motion an audacious plot to abduct Winston Churchill from his own homeland.

Radl recruits morally ambivalent IRA man Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland) and highly decorated, yet disgraced, German paratrooper Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) and his team of loyal men to infiltrate the quiet Norfolk coastal village where Churchill is due to stay. However, once in Blighty things don’t go quite to plan when they unexpectedly run into a nearby troop of US officers and Liam falls in love with a local girl.

Caine-ness: Caine is first billed in the opening titles, followed by Donald Sutherland and Robert Duvall, but all three men could claim to be the lead. Duvall, after kicking things off, has the least screentime (but to make up for that he does get to say the film’s title in a line of dialogue).

Caine plays Kurt Steiner, a German military hero who was educated in the UK (handily explaining why this German sounds suspiciously Cockney). He doesn’t go full German with his accent (like he tried in The Last Valley, proving that Caine should never go full German) but instead speaks with his normal accent with an occasional Germanic twinge.

Steiner was doing pretty well for himself, well respected and highly decorated, until his conscience got the better of him and he tried to save the life of a Jewish girl, an act which leaves him court martialled.

One of the first things that the audience sees Steiner do is deck an SS officer, reassuring us that although Caine is technically playing a Nazi, he still has limits (and he also thus gets his signature shouty pointy bit of Caine acting out of the way up top). Steiner may be pro-fascism, but he’s certainly not a fan of genocide. Honestly, he’s probably only in the Nazi party for the fashion (he rocks a leather trench coat).

Steiner may be attempting to kill Churchill but he still has honour and respect for life. When the mother of the child that was saved by one of Steiner’s men, an altruistic act that gave them away, says to Steiner “I’m grateful for the life of my child,” Steiner sincerely replies “So am I” – even though the saving of this innocent life ultimately leads to him losing his own.

It is certainly unusual to watch a mainstream Hollywood World War II film where all the Alist cast are portraying the Germans, and doing so somewhat sympathetically – although the film does go out of its way to stress these are definitely the milder wing of the party. However, there’s still an ickiness if you think about it too much.

Caine was offered the role of Liam Devlin but instead requested the role of Steiner as he didn’t want to play a member of the IRA. The role of Liam is more of a typical Caine character (a loveably cheeky chap albeit with an edge of violence). Liam also gets the generic romance subplot (the weakest part of the film) and is the only main character to survive (although Jack Higgins does retcon this and have Steiner also survive in his novel’s sequel; The Eagle Has Flown).

Although Caine would have certainly worked perfectly well as Liam, it’s refreshing to see him do something a little bit different as Steiner. He’s believable, and very likeable, as a tough yet level-headed military man with a deeply rooted sense of decency which helps you to engage with (and even at times root for) a character who on paper could be a harder sell.

Caine-nections *:

One strange coincidence, that will be of interest to no-one but myself (quite rightly), is that Caine is first introduced on-screen snoozing in a train carriage, with his hat covering his face, just like his mate Connery was in The Man Who Would Be King.

In the last film, Harry And Walter Go to New York, we had a little dog staring directly down the barrel of the lens. This time we get a human man (who really should know better).

A still from The Eagle Has Landed, with an arrow pointing to a man staring into the camera.

This is the second time that Caine has played a German after The Last Valley, which was also the last time he acted in a war film, with The Eagle Has Landed marking his sixth war film in total (Zulu, Play Dirty, Battle Of Britain, Too Late The Hero, The Last Valley).

Donald Pleasence once again pops up for a scene-stealing supporting turn as a weirdo, having also done so in Kidnapped (1971) as a weird Uncle and The Black Windmill (1974) as a weird M16 chief.

Donald Sutherland’s star had certainly risen since the last time he appeared alongside Caine in the role of Scientist at Computer” in Billion Dollar Brain (1967).

Lastly John Standing, who plays the vicar, was also in Zee And Co (1972). He has so far never released an autobiography called “I’m Still Standing” which is a terrible waste of a perfect title.

*I’m only counting from Caine’s first starring role in Zulu onwards.

Best Non-Caine Actor: Caine’s previous film, Harry And Walter Go To New York, had a deceptively impressive cast list which frustratingly failed to live up to its promise but The Eagle Has Landed’s stacked cast delivers (accents occasionally aside).

Robert Duvall in The Eagle Has Landed.

First there’s Robert Duvall looking the dictionary definition of sinister German colonel with his eyepatch and single black glove. How he lost his eye is unknown, but when he’s talking to his colleague Karl about pursuing their plot, after receiving promising intel, he says; “A wink from a pretty girl at a party rarely results in a climax, Karl. But a man is a fool not to push a suggestion as far as it will go.” So personally, I think it may have been the result of some sort of winking mishap (if so, serves him right, the dirty blighter).

Duvall goes all in on his German accent and does a pretty good job, certainly compared to Anthony Quayle as Admiral Wilhelm Canaris who doesn’t make the slightest effort and is cinema’s most resoundingly English German. He’s so English that I was initially a bit confused as to whether, within the narrative of the film, he was playing a British defector, but nope, Quayle clearly just couldn’t be arsed.

Donald Sutherland’s Liam Devlin is an IRA man exiled to Germany with somewhat shaky principles (he admits to only joining the plot for the money), an even shakier Irish accent, and the ability to calm dogs (which at first seems like simply a fun character quirk but pays off satisfyingly in the final act). He’s somewhat stereotyped, but Sutherland is fun and manages to be both charming and menacing with his wild-eyed dangerous stare. This is best demonstrated in the pub scene where, after the standoffish barman pours booze over him, Devlin brandishes his soaked thumb and tells him calmly, and sinisterly, to “suck it. The tension of the scene is then capped with the punchline of Devlin being thrown out the window (something which must happen to him often as his reaction is nonplussed).

Donald Sutherland in The Eagle Has Landed.

Jenny Agutter is unfortunately wasted as Devlin’s romantic interest. Their relationship is not earned and they have no real chemistry either. Their scenes together could easily be cut from the film

The other prominent female performer, Jean Marsh (as the local helping the Germans), fares much better in a small but complex role of a woman out for revenge also coming to terms with her betrayal of the place she’s long called home.

Larry Hagman seems to be having fun, and hams it up, as the oafish American army man stationed nearby who is desperate to see action despite being completely inexperienced and incompetent. His death scene (in which he’s shot in the head, drops his grenade, rolls down the stairs and then lands on it before it explodes) is both shockingly brutal and darkly comic.

Donald Pleasence is visually perfectly cast as Himmler, right down to the authentically terrible haircut. Interestingly Pleasence, who could be incredibly sinister even when technically playing a goodie (see the Halloween franchise), plays Himmler as fairly affable, mild mannered and, most bizarrely, from the Midlands. Himmler was unquestionably a thoroughly nasty piece of work but through Pleasence’s portrayal of him as a milquetoast bank manager type, we see the realistic “banality of evil.

I do think Himmler might be overdoing it a tad with the framed photos of Hitler though. If Adolf ever visited, I imagine it would end similarly to Alan Partridge at the home of his obsessed fan Jed. Speaking of sitcoms, the end credits are a Croft and Perry style “You Have Been Watching” montage and if I saw the below screenshot and was told it was from a tonally misjudged lost episode of AlloAlloI wouldn’t be surprised.

Donald Pleasence in The Eagle Has Landed. The actor is smiling, while text at the bottom of the frame reads 'Donald Pleasence as Himmler'.

A German strip troupe muster their courage before facing a hen party at the Bell & Dragon:

The central cast of The Eagle Has Landed stood outside a pub.

My Bleedin’ Thoughts: I’m not a big fan of war films, and this isn’t generally considered one of John Sturges best efforts (it was also his final movie), but to my surprise I had a really great time with The Eagle Has Landed.

Watching it in the run-up to Christmas may have helped. This style of old-school A-list Hollywood war movie always feel strangely festive (despite it having literally nothing to do with Christmas), probably helped by Sturges’ most loved work, The Great Escape, becoming a perennial yuletide offering on UK television schedules. It’s also a film that I’m certain my late father enjoyed (this type of filmmaking is catnip for dads of a certain age) and so, although I’d never seen it before, there was a strange comforting sense of nostalgia watching this.

It’s an all-round solidly made and thoroughly enjoyable movie with plenty of talent in front of, and behind, the camera with a witty script by Tom Mankiewicz (best known for Superman and a handful of 70’s Bond films including Diamonds Are Forever and Live And Let Die) and a rousing score by Mission Impossible theme composer Lalo Schifrin.

Apparently Sturges was past the point of caring when he made this film (which may explain why he let the cast get away with some of those accents), and freely admitted to only doing it to fund his expensive deep sea fishing habit (something which Caine later expressed deep annoyance with in his autobiography).

Sturges went AWOL during the editing and post production stages (probably to go fishing) leaving it to prolific and celebrated editor Anne V. Coates (Lawrence Of Arabia, Murder On The Orient Express, Erin Brockovich and Fifty Shades Of Grey – when she was 90!) to save the day. She did an excellent job as the film zips along at a good pace and the action scenes are tense and surprisingly savage in the way that they play out. If this is what Sturges made on an off day, I wonder what it could have been if he’d actually tried!

It’s also a pleasant film to look at with some beautiful location shooting in the quaint English countryside filled with waterwheels, vintage churches and plenty of cows (one of which breaks off from the herd and trots hurriedly after Donald Sutherland, probably to ask what really went on between him and Julie Christie during filming of Don’t Look Now).

A shot from The Eagle Has Landed. Donald Sutherland walks across a field, pursued by a cow.

Trivia (courtesy of IMDB): Stuntman Jim Dowdall plays the driver of an American jeep who is shot and crashes into a pond. Interestingly, he also plays the German soldier who shoots this jeep driver. So, he ends up shooting himself or, if so inclined, you can invent an elaborate tragic backstory involving twins separated at birth and cruelly pitted against each other in the field of war.

This was produced by David Niven Jr who, unsurprisingly, was the son of David Niven (senior).

The watermill where the girl gets rescued is on the cover of Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album.

In a 1976 interview with Photoplay Film Magazine, Caine claimed that the main reason he took this role was because he regretted turning down Where Eagles Dare (1968) after it became a hit. He was determined to never again turn down a WWII film with “Eagle” in the title.

David Bowie auditioned for a part in this movie. What particular role is unclear, but if it was the little girl who falls in the watermill that might explain why ultimately he didn’t get it.

Overall Thoughts: After the deep doldrums of Harry And Walter Go To New York, Caine bounced back with this rollicking good time. I loved it, it’s lots of fun, just try not to think too much about the fact that you’re rooting for the guys who want to kidnap Churchill.

Rating: 4 and a half Thumbs Up From Donald Sutherland out of 5.

Four and a half screenshots of Donald Sutherland doing a thumbs up in The Eagle Has Landed.




Where You Can Watch This: Plenty of options! This is currently streaming on Britbox and available digitally to rent through Apple TV or purchase through Amazon, as well as being on DVD and Blu-ray (it will also very likely be on the telly soon if you keep your eyes peeled).

Up Next: Caine plays a “financial wizard” called Doc and, according to the poster, gets to smoke some more cigars (I think I know why this role appealed to him), in the comedy crime thriller Silver Bears.

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