The Eagle Has Landed is a 1976 British war film directed by John Sturges and starring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, and Robert Duvall.
Based on the 1975 novel The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins, the film is about a fictional German plot to kidnap Winston Churchill near the end of the Second World War. The Eagle Has Landed was Sturges' final film and was successful upon its release.
Admiral Canaris, head of German military intelligence, is ordered by Adolf Hitler to make a feasibility study into capturing the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Although Canaris considers it a meaningless exercise that will soon be forgotten by the Führer, he knows this will not be the case with Heinrich Himmler. He therefore orders one of his staff officers, Oberst Radl, to begin a study to avoid being possibly discredited.
After Radl receives intelligence from an Abwehr sleeper agent in England saying Churchill will stay in a Norfolk village seven miles from the coast after visiting a local airfield, he begins to see potential in the operation he code-names 'Eagle'. First he recruits an agent, an IRA man named Liam Devlin, who lectures at a Berlin university. Second he selects Kurt Steiner, a highly decorated and experienced Fallschirmjäger officer, to lead the mission. However, while the Luftwaffe parachute troops are returning from the Eastern Front, Steiner unsuccessfully attempts to save the life of a Jewish girl who is trying to escape from the SS in occupied Poland. He and his loyal men are all court-martialled and sent to a penal unit on German-occupied Alderney where their mission is to conduct near-suicidal human-torpedo attacks against Allied shipping in the English Channel.
Radl is summoned to a private meeting with Himmler without Canaris' knowledge. Reichsführer-SS Himmler reveals he knows all about the operation and gives Radl a letter apparently signed by Hitler to start the operations. Radl flies to Alderney where he recruits Steiner and his surviving men. The operation involves the German commandos dressing up as Polish paratroopers to infiltrate the village. They are then to capture Churchill with the help of Devlin before making their escape by a captured torpedo boat. However, once the operation starts, Himmler retrieves the letter (signed by Hitler) he gave to Radl and destroys it.
On arrival in the English village, the disguised German paratroopers take up positions under the guise of conducting military exercises. However, the ruse ends after a soldier dies rescuing a child from the village water wheel. Villagers see he is wearing his German uniform underneath his Polish one (Steiner did not want them executed as spies). When everyone is rounded up and put in the village church, the vicar's sister escapes and alerts a unit of United States Army Rangers.
Colonel Pitts, the Rangers’ inexperienced and rash commander, launches a poorly planned assault on the church that results in heavy American casualties. Pitts is later killed by the village's sleeper Abwehr agent, 'Starling.'. It's left to Pitts' deputy commander to reorganise and launch a second, successful attack. To delay the Americans, Steiner's men sacrifice themselves to give Devlin, Steiner and his wounded second-in-command time to escape through a hidden passage. A local girl, who has fallen for the charming Devlin, helps in the escape. At the waiting S-boat, Steiner puts his wounded second-in-command on board but says he is staying behind to kill Churchill.
On Alderney, after Radl receives news that the operation has failed, he orders his assistant Karl to immediately return to Berlin in order to seek the protection of Canaris because he now realises Himmler never had Hitler's permission for the mission. Subsequently Radl is arrested and summarily executed by an SS firing squad under the pretext that he "exceeded his orders to the point of treason".
Back in England, Steiner succeeds in killing Churchill moments before being shot dead. It is then revealed the victim was actually a double, as the real Churchill was on his way to the Tehran Conference. The torpedo boat is aground, at dead low-tide, waiting for Steiner in the inlet on the Norfolk coast. Meanwhile Devlin, evading capture, leaves a love letter for the local girl before slipping away.
- Michael Caine as Colonel (Oberst) Kurt Steiner
- Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin
- Robert Duvall as Colonel (Oberst) Radl
- Jenny Agutter as Molly Prior
- Donald Pleasence as Himmler
- Anthony Quayle as Admiral Canaris
- Jean Marsh as Joanna Grey
- Sven-Bertil Taube as Captain (Hauptmann) von Neustadt
- John Standing as Father Verecker
- Judy Geeson as Pamela
- Treat Williams as Captain Clark
- Larry Hagman as Colonel Pitts
- Siegfried Rauch as Hauptfeldwebel Brandt
- Michael Byrne as Karl
In October 1974 Paramount announced they had purchased the film rights to Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed in partnership with Jack Wiener, formerly an executive at Paramount. The book came out in 1975 and was a best seller, but the author had doubted whether anyone would be interested in making a film of the novel due to the fact that its protagonists were German soldiers. He was amazed that the rights were not only sold within a fortnight but that the film was brought to production so swiftly.
Michael Caine was originally offered the part of Devlin but did not want to play a member of the IRA, so asked if he could have the role of Steiner. Richard Harris was in line to play Devlin but ongoing comments he had made in support of the IRA drew threats to the film's producers, so he was forced to withdraw and Donald Sutherland was given the role.
In March 1976 the New York Times announced David Bowie would play a German Nazi in the film if his schedule could be worked out. Jean Marsh's role was originally offered to Deborah Kerr who turned it down.
Filming took place in 1976 over sixteen weeks. Tom Mankiewicz thought the script was the best he had ever written but felt "John Sturges, for some reason, had given up" and did a poor job. He said editor Anne V. Coates was the one who saved the movie and made it watchable.
Michael Caine had initially been excited at the prospect of working with Sturges. During shooting, Sturges told Caine that he only worked to earn enough money to go fishing. Caine wrote later in his autobiography: "The moment the picture finished he took the money and went. [Producer] Jack Wiener later told me [Sturges] never came back for the editing nor for any of the other good post-production sessions that are where a director does some of his most important work. The picture wasn't bad, but I still get angry when I think of what it could have been with the right director. We had committed the old European sin of being impressed by someone just because he came from Hollywood."
Cornwall was used to represent the Channel Islands, and Berkshire for East Anglia. The majority of the film, set in the fictional village of Studley Constable, was filmed at Mapledurham on the A4074 in Oxfordshire and features the village church, Mapledurham Watermill and Mapledurham House, which represented the manor house where Winston Churchill was taken. A fake waterwheel was added to the 15th century structure for the film. Mock buildings such as shops and a pub were constructed on site in Mapledurham while interiors were filmed at Twickenham Studios. The "Landsvoort Airfield" scenes were filmed at RAF St Mawgan, five miles from Newquay.
The sequence set in Alderney was filmed in Charlestown, near St Austell in Cornwall. Some of the filming took place at Rock in Cornwall. The railway station sequence where Steiner and his men make their first appearance was filmed in Rovaniemi, Finland. The parachuting scenes were carried out by members of the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) Parachute Display Team. The exit shots were filmed from a DC-3 at Dunkeswell Airfield in Devon. The landings onto the beach were filmed on Holkham Beach in Norfolk.
Release and home video
The original theatrical running time for the film was 135 minutes in Europe, while 12 minutes were cut by the distributors before its US release. The most significant plot element lost between the US and UK cut is an extended conversation between Joanna Grey, Steiner, and Devlin where Grey reveals she is an Afrikaner and is helping the Germans because her parents died in a British prison camp.
US and UK VHS cassettes had the 123 minute US cut. All DVDs and Blu-rays currently available worldwide now feature the original UK theatrical cut, which in DVD region 2 and 4 countries runs 130 minutes at 25fps (PAL speed). There are two exceptions:
- The first US (NTSC) DVD, from Artisan Entertainment, had some missing scenes reinstated for a runtime of 131 minutes. It has been superseded by a Shout! Factory Blu-ray/DVD dual format set, containing the UK theatrical cut and various extras.
- In 2004 Carlton Visual Entertainment in the UK released a two-disc Special Edition PAL DVD version which contains various extras and two versions of the film: the UK theatrical version and a newly-restored, extended 145 minute version, equating to 151 minutes at 24fps (film speed). Despite the packaging claiming otherwise, both versions have a 2.0 stereo surround soundtrack.
The extended version contains a number of scenes that were deleted even before the European cinema release:
- Alternative opening: originally the film was intended to start with Heinrich Himmler (Donald Pleasence) arriving at Schloss Hohenschwangau for a conference with Hitler, Canaris, Bormann and Goebbels. It precedes the scenes under the opening credits which are a long aerial shot of a staff car leaving the castle in question. The deleted scene explains why Schloss Hohenschwangau appears in the credits but does not appear in the film.
- Extended scene when Radl arrives at Abwehr headquarters; he discusses his health with a German Army doctor (played by Ferdy Mayne).
- Scene at a Berlin University where Liam Devlin is a lecturer.
- Scene in Landsvoort where Steiner and von Neustadt discuss the mission and its merits and consequences.
- Devlin's arrival at Studley Constable is now extended where he and Joanna Grey discuss their part in the mission.
- Devlin drives his motorbike through the centre of the village and on to the cottage, where he inspects the barn before returning to the village.
- Scene where Devlin reads poetry to Molly Prior.
- Extended scene in which Molly interrupts Devlin shortly after he receives the army vehicles.
- Scene on the boat at the end that shows the fate of von Neustadt. This scene is also visible in the Special Edition DVD stills gallery.
The film was a success, with Lew Grade saying "it made quite a lot of money". ITC made two more films with the same production team, Escape to Athena and Green Ice. It spent a week as the number one film in the UK (9 April 1977) and was the fifteenth most successful film of 1977.
In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called the film "a good old-fashioned adventure movie that is so stuffed with robust incidents and characters that you can relax and enjoy it without worrying whether it actually happened or even whether it's plausible." Canby singled out the writing and directing for praise:
Tom Mankiewicz's screenplay, based on a novel by Jack Higgins, is straightforward and efficient and even intentionally funny from time to time. Mr. Sturges ... obtains first-rate performances building the tension until the film's climactic sequence, which, as you might suspect, concludes with a plot twist. ... With so many failed suspense melodramas turning up these days, it's refreshing to see one made by people who know what they're about.