The Eagle Has Landed, John Sturges (1976)

The 1970’s were so weirdly ambivalent, so antic and so self-loathing at the same time. The Eagle Has Landed was the last film Sturges directed, and it has the sort of freewheeling playfulness you might expect from someone who’s already chiseled his name in stone and don’t need to prove nothing to nobody. Let’s get this out of the way up front: The movie’s about a bunch of Nazi paratroopers out to kidnap or murder Winston Churchill in the waning days of the war, and they’re the heroes. Michael Caine, as the leader of this sort of Big Red One-esque band, establishes his bona fides as a good Nazi the very first time we see him, by standing up to some stormtrooper goons and extending the life of a doomed Jewish girl by about thirty seconds. Our hero may be a Nazi, and not a very effective counter to the final solution, but he is also, we’re intended to believe, anti-establishment, and that, in 1976, seems to have been enough to qualify him as a good guy. Indeed there are a lot of Nazis in here who the film portrays as both despising Hitler but also faithful to their comrades, and so sort of perversely moral. Like I said, it’s weird.

The whole thing reminds me a lot of MASH, another movie where everyone seems to hate the war and have no idea how to fight one, but when the shit hits the fan, everyone starts acting like they were born to be soliders. Here Larry Hagman plays a comically hawkish frustrated colonel a lot like Frank Burns, and Donald Sutherland’s here too, playing a rake who believes in nothing but a drink and a shapely ankle until the instant the going gets rough and suddenly he’s the steely eyed crack shot who saves the day and runs up the flag. I’d also suggest that the true believer Jean Marsh is not unlike Margaret Houlihan.

Loping open-ended nonsense, a total mess as a war thriller and as a satire, and pretty fun. If only because of how totally confusing it is as a cultural milestone. Have there been any American movies before or after the 1970’s in which Nazi paratroopers, following orders, have been the protagonists? I would doubt it.

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