During my sojourn in Barcelona last month, I made a day-trip to Montserrat, a many-peaked mountain in the city’s hinterland that’s home to Santa Maria de Montserrat, a gorgeous Benedictine abbey. The mountain also boasts some spectacular and weird-looking rock formations, towering above the abbey, and a network of walking trails that follow the ridges between the peaks and offer fantastic views. There’s a number of stunning attractions at Monserrat, then, but I must admit that the feature that made me most excited appeared at the beginning of the visit. To get from the local railway station to the abbey, near the mountaintop, you have to ride in – yes! – a cable car.
Put a male of my age and from my part of the world inside a cable car and he’ll immediately start reliving boyhood fantasies about being a World War II Allied commando trying to penetrate some Alpine castle that’s become an SS headquarters and is accessible only by an aerial cable system. He’ll be inside one cabin, dangling thousands of feet over some vertiginously deep Alpine ravine, while another cabin is approaching from the opposite direction packed with hostile German soldiers. He’ll be shooting at them with an imaginary machine gun and making duh-duh-duh-duh-duh noises, while imaginary German soldiers are falling wounded out of the other cabin, plunging to their doom and screaming, “Aaaaargh!” (According to the World War II-themed comics I read as a kid, that was the main difference between German soldiers and Japanese soldiers. One lot went “Aaaaargh!” when they got shot, while the other lot went “Aieeeee!”)
For this you can blame Alistair Maclean. Brought up in the 1920s as the son of a church minister in the Scottish Highlands – he was a native Gaelic-speaker and spoke English as a second language – Maclean served in the Royal Navy during World War II and saw action in the Atlantic, Arctic, Mediterranean and Far East. After the war, he started turning his experiences into fiction and wrote well-received novels like HMS Ulysses. Later, however, perhaps realising that a growing part of his readership was too young to have actually experienced World War II, was less interested in gritty realism and was more interested in slap-bang adventure, he made his stories faster, flashier and pulpier. Accordingly, 1967’s Where Eagles Dare, a World War II story about a band of commandos led by a British officer and his American sidekick, Major John Smith and US Army Ranger Lieutenant Morris Schaffer, attempting to rescue a captured Allied general from the Schloss Adler, a castle high in the Bavarian Alps that is equipped with – yes! – a cable car, was little more than a string of action set-pieces. The only thing that spiced it up slightly was some intrigue involving agents and double agents, and double-crossing and triple-crossing, that Maclean had obviously borrowed from the spy genre.
If Where Eagles Dare-the-novel sounds cinematic, it’s because MacLean wrote it at the same time that he wrote the screenplay of Where Eagles Dare-the-movie, which was released the following year, in 1968. It also got a re-release in the mid-1970s, when I was starting to discover the joys of my nearest fleapit cinema, and by the following decade it was popping up regularly on TV. Playing Schaffer and Smith were the up-and-coming Clint Eastwood and the mighty Richard Burton, whose life had several similarities to that of Alastair Maclean – both men ended up living as tax exiles in Switzerland, both had a fondness for the bottle that eventually helped to kill them, and both are now buried in the Vieux Cemetery in Celigny.
Though the movie version of Where Eagles Dare has an impressive cast, it’s the action sequences that stay in the viewer’s mind. This is particularly so with the sequence involving the – yes! – cable car system that connects the Schloss Adler with the world below, when Burton leaps from the roof of one cabin, across an abyss and onto the top of another cabin passing in the other direction, just before the first cabin blows up. The jump was performed by legendary stunt man Alf Joint, whose feats appear too in the James Bond, Superman and Star Wars movies. When I was nine years old, I saw a profile of Alf Joint on a TV news programme and was so impressed that I spent the next six months telling everyone that I was going to be a stunt man when I grew up. At the time I was eating about three Twix bars and half-a-dozen bags of crisps a day and was shaped like one of those then-popular space hoppers, so people took this claim with a large pinch of salt.
Despite the excellence of Where Eagles Dare’s stunts, and despite Eastwood and Burton, I suspect that filmgoers in 1968 who paused outside the cinemas long enough beforehand to take in the film’s poster might have been slightly disappointed by the film itself. This is because the poster was designed by Frank McCarthy, surely the greatest film-poster artist of all time when it came to war / adventure movies. McCarthy had the ability to capture all of a movie’s big action sequences in a single, adrenalin-drenched tableau. The characters were depicted in taut-and-sweaty action poses, guns invariably blazing, whilst the surfaces tilted at crazy angles beneath them and explosions went off around them like turbo-charged fireworks. Here’s what he promised cinema-goers who were queuing to see Where Eagles Dare:
McCarthy, in fact, did posters for some of the greatest war movies of the 1960s – The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, Von Ryan’s Express, titles that are guaranteed to make blokes of a certain age (including, no doubt, Quentin Tarantino) go misty-eyed with nostalgia. Here are a few more of his posters, although my favourite one (after Where Eagles Dare) is actually for a lesser-known movie, 1968’s The Mercenaries. In that poster, the action takes place on the roof of a train, which is only slightly less thrilling than on the roof of – yes! – a cable car.
A good number of Frank McCarthy’s film posters can be viewed online at http://www.conancompletist.com/darkofthesun/McCarthy_the_list.html. Meanwhile, here’s a link to a fan website devoted to Where Eagles Dare: http://www.whereeaglesdare.com/.