Reading Sanctum #6

Where Eagles Dare

by Alistair MacleAn

I was a freshmen in Brooklyn Tech High School when one of my Guyanese friends, Virginand Deepoo, (yeah, that’s his name, and he received a lot of crap for it; sorry about that, buddy) was reading a book in class. I knew him from Middle School so I initiated a conversation about the book he was reading.

It was Where Eagles Dare. The cover is the same cover, I display above. It engaged me, and I wanted details. What was it about? Who was Alistair Maclean and how come I’d never heard of him?

Alistair Maclean started writing books in the 1950’s and finished his career in the 1980’s shortly before his death. Where Eagles Dare came out in 1967, one year before the movie, the screenplay of which he wrote simultaneous to the book. Maclean was friends with Richard Burton (they are buried very close to each other in the same cemetery) and it is rumored that Burton had asked Maclean to write a screenplay for him. He has children and his kids wanted to see him in something where he doesn’t die in the end. Where Eagles Dare is the result of that discussion. Consequently, the movie is very similar to the book.

Actors Richard Burton and Mary Ure with Alistair Maclean on the set of Where Eagles Dare

The plot is really quite audacious, if you think about it. A troop of seven supposedly unremarkable soldiers, parachute into an occupied portion of the Austrian Alps dressed as German soldiers. Their mission is to rescue an Allied General that is the architect of D-Day. If he talks, the invasion will have to be delayed a full year. His plane crashed on the way to organizing the European contingent. He has been taken to the Gestapo headquarters housed in an impregnable castle on an inaccessible mountain top. The only way to reach the castle is via aerial gondola.

The soldiers seem to have been randomly selected until Smith tells, Mary, a special envoy, that one of these characters is suspected of being a double agent. He is secretly attempting to root out the operative who is sending essential intelligence to the Nazis. The supposed General that they are penetrating the alpine castle to rescue is really an American actor that they must grab before the Gestapo discover that he is merely a red herring to discover a double agent.

This is an action, adventure, espionage, thriller set during World War II, that doesn’t really have a lot of characterization. There are a few flashbacks, but those are largely expository in order to communicate the purposes of the mission. They are quick and useful, IMHO (In My Humble Opinion). Where it skimps on characterization, it spends on description of the setting and action scenes. That is very helpful, because there are a lot of action scenes in various environments. I found it very cinematic, and even though I saw the movie a long time ago, I could see Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton as the story unfolded.

This is a genre book which means it’s not for everyone, and to make the assumption that anyone could read it and enjoy it would be both a grave injustice to the book and the author.

There are scenes that are thrillingly iconic. There is a fight scene that takes place atop a moving aerial gondola that is masterful. It is claustrophobic while agitating an individual’s fear of heights. It still caused my heart to race and despite knowing how it would turn out, I felt swept along. There is also the destruction of a vehicle depot that is really quite explosive. (Yeah, I couldn’t resist the pun. The Beard isn’t the only one that can be silly.)

So don’t forget that this is an action, adventure, espionage, thriller with very little characterization, set during World War II just before D-Day in the Austrian Alpine area. The set pieces are remarkable. Maclean was doubly motivated because he was writing the screenplay for a friend. The movie was made in 1969, and although I love the movie, I know some of the green screen effects don’t hold up well, but I’m not recommending the movie, I’m recommending the book with a strong 5 Grey Geeks. Remember my caveats and you will not go wrong. 

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