Classic Cinema: Where Eagles Dare


IS there a more famous line in a war movie than: ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy?’

Alistair MacLean’s classic, directed in 1968 by Brian G Hutton and shot in Austria and Bavaria, is stirring stuff right from the start.

Starring Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and Mary Ure, (Ure and Burton had starred in Look Back in Anger in 1958), the film earned over $20m at the box office on a budget of just $7m and was arguably Maclean’s biggest hit.

Burton and Eastwood were already box office draws and Mary Ure, who had had some success on stage, had been married to John Osborne the playwright (author of Look Back in Anger) and she later married actor Robert Shaw.

Maclean’s life was almost as involved as one of the plots of his movies.

He was the son of a Christian pastor, and learned English as his second language after his mother tongue, Scottish Gaelic. He was born in Glasgow but spent much of his childhood and youth in Daviot, ten miles south of Inverness.

He joined the Royal Navy in 1941, serving in World War II with the ranks of Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Leading Torpedo Operator.

Beginning in 1943, he served on HMS Royalist, and saw action in 1943 in the Atlantic theatre, on two Arctic convoys and escorting carrier groups in operations against Tirpitz and other targets off the Norwegian coast.

In 1944, he and the ship served in the Mediterranean theatre, as part of the invasion of southern France and in helping to sink blockade runners off Crete and bombard Milos in the Aegean.

In 1945, MacLean saw action escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. After the Japanese surrender, Royalist helped evacuate liberated POWs from Changi Prison in Singapore.

MacLean was released from the Royal Navy in 1946. He then studied English at the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1953, and then worked as a school teacher.

While a university student, MacLean began writing short stories for extra income, winning a competition in 1954 with the maritime story "Dileas".

The publishing company Collins asked him for a novel and he responded with HMS Ulysses, based on his own war experiences, as well as credited insight from his brother Ian, a Master Mariner.

The novel was a great success and MacLean was soon able to devote himself entirely to writing war stories, spy stories and other adventures.


In the early 1960s, MacLean published two novels under the pseudonym "Ian Stuart" in order to prove that the popularity of his books was due to their content rather than his name on the cover.

They sold well, but MacLean made no attempt to change his writing style; his books eventually sold so well that he moved to Switzerland as a tax exile. From 1963–1966, he took a hiatus from writing to run a hotel business in England.

His later books were not as well received and he died in Munich in 1987. He is buried a few yards from Richard Burton in Céligny, Switzerland.

The title is from Act I, Scene III in William Shakespeare's Richard III: "The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch".

Eastwood received a reported salary of $800,000 and Burton almost twice that, but fans would argue such largesse is worth every penny.

The Nazis have captured an ‘American general’, Gen Carnaby and hold him secure in the high Schloss Adler in the Bavarian mountains.

Hoping to prize out of him the plans for the second front, Gen Carnaby insists he is not the man the Nazis think he is but actually an American Corporal, Cartwright Jones.

A team of commandos, led by Major John Smith (Richard Burton) and U.S. Army Ranger Lieutenant Schaeffer (Clint Eastwood), is briefed by Colonel Turner (Patrick Wymark) and Admiral Rolland (Michael Hordern) of MI6.

Their mission is to parachute in, infiltrate the castle, and rescue General Carnaby before the Germans can interrogate him. MI6 Agent Mary Elison (Mary Ure) accompanies the mission in secret, her presence known only to Major Smith.

Early in the mission, the two NCOs, MacPherson (Neil McCarthy) and radio operator Harrod (Brook Williams), are mysteriously killed; but Major Smith is unperturbed, keeping Lt. Schaffer as a close ally and secretly updating Rolland and Turner on developments by radio. The team has parachuted into a high Alpine pasture in a highly atmospheric start.

After seeming to give up and allowing themselves to be captured, Maj Smith and Schaffer, being officers, are separated from the three remaining members of the group — Thomas (William Squire), Berkeley (Peter Barkworth) and Christiansen (Donald Houston).

(Burton whistles a tune while in the gasthoff of Zum WIlden Hirsch (‘To the Wild Deer) in the ear of Ingrid Pitt to reveal that he is her contact. He later pretends to be Himmler’s brother when talking to a fellow officer in the heady atmosphere.)  

Smith and Schaffer kill their captors; blow up a supply depot, and prepare an escape route for later use before hitching a ride on a cable car—the only approach to the castle.

Mary, posing as a maid, had been brought into the castle by Heidi (Ingrid Pitt), a deep-cover MI6 agent working as a fetching barmaid in the nearby village; Major von Hapen (Derren Nesbitt), a Gestapo officer, (who could double for an Action Man model), becomes infatuated with her.

But cracks begin to show. When remarking that she went to university in Dusseldorf, Von Harpen who knows the town well, remarks that ‘I seem to recall the cathedral being on the other side of the square…’. Mary breaks into a slight glow on the forehead.

Carnaby's interrogation, carried out by General Rosemeyer (Ferdy Mayne) and Colonel Kramer (Anton Diffring), is underway when the three NCOs arrive and reveal themselves to be German double agents.

Smith and Schaffer intrude, but Smith then forces Schaeffer to disarm  - Smith calls him a second rate ‘punk’ - and claims he is Major Johann Schmidt of the SD, the intelligence branch of the SS.

He exposes the ‘true’ identity of "General Carnaby" — that of Cartwright Jones. He also claims that Thomas, Berkeley and Christiansen are British impostors.

To test them, Smith/Schmidt proposes they write down the names of their fellow agents/conspirators in Britain, to be compared to the personal list in his pocket (having discreetly divulged the name of Germany's top agent in Britain to Kramer, who silently affirms it).

After the three finish their lists in notebooks, Smith reveals his own to Kramer, which is in fact blank. From there, the tension builds and the action kicks off.

When Kramer realises he has been bluffed, Smith and Schaffer re-secure the room, the former finally revealing the mission's true objective: to uncover the identities of German spies operating in Britain. But more surprises are to follow and the twist at the end is one of the best in the movies.

There were actually three original endings to the film.  Maclean was commissioned to write the original script by the New York producer Elliot Kastner.

One major feature of the original script not featured in the film is the burgeoning relationship between Eastwood and Ure (Schaeffer and Heidi).

MacLean made up a script with a wedding ceremony between Schaffer and Heidi in the ending scene. Kastner did not like this scene at all and assigned director Brian G. Hutton to rewrite the ending scene.

The script was too long, Kastner thought –at  240 pages. To avoid a too long film, Kastner and Hutton managed to cut down the script to only 100 pages. They cut the romance between Eastwood and Ure (hardly hinted at in the new film) and changed the ending to the present one – which I won’t reveal here.

Perhaps the star of the film is the stirring music – and the infamous cable car scenes.

For any fans, a good website can be found here. and