Enzo G. Castellari is not a director who I mention terribly much on this blog. It’s probably because the two main filone I tend to focus on, the giallo and horror film, are ones which he is not important in.
It was Castellari, after all, who was first offered the directors’ chair for Zombie and who recommended Fulci for the job, feeling that it horror wasn’t his thing, and who only made one comparatively unusual foray into the giallo, Cold Eyes of Fear, more a thriller than a mystery whose most giallo moment was a self-contained nightclub act.
A self-reflexive moment
There is no question, however, that when it comes to action films, Castellari is pretty much the man.
And, with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds currently reminding us of Castellari’s near namesake – and others Eurocult subjects beside, if such character names as “General Ed Fenech” and “Sgt Hugo Stiglitz” are anything to go by – what better time to (re)visit one of Castellari’s other contributions to the Euro-war cycle?
Though a bit more serious and less of a caper movie that Inglorious Bastards, Eagles Over London – or Battle of England, to translate the Italian – is nevertheless unmistakably Castellari, with plenty of fist fights, derring-do and explosions.
The story opens in Dunkirk, with the allies in retreat. Sent to look for stragglers, part of the detachment commanded by Captain Paul Stevens, finds a group of men from another British regiment, not realising that they are in fact Nazi agents in disguise.
With the advantage of surprise the Nazis, led by the sinister Major Krueger, kill all the detachment whilst suffering one casualty of their own, take their dog tags and pay books, and then split up, mingling amongst the rest of the retreating allied soldiers.
Wondering where his men have got to, Captain Stevens goes back to check, indicating to his loyal NCO, Sergeant Mulligan, that the bridge separating them from the advancing Nazi forces should be blown up regardless of whether he comes back in time or not.
Stevens finds the dead men and, hurrying back, saves one of the German agents, Martin, from being blown up along with the bridge.
Back in Blighty, Stevens offers Martin a place to stay, little realizing that Martin is in fact one of the saboteurs he is trying to root out before they can infiltrate the British radar defence system, vital to the country’s defence.
For his part Martin feels increasingly conflicted by his loyalties to the Fuhrer against those of the new friend who saved his life at risk to his own…
If the historical backdrop means that aspects of the eventual resolution have a sense of inevitability – it’s hopefully not giving too much away to say the British win both this cloak and dagger battle and the Battle of Britain – Castellari and his collaborators nevertheless succeed in keeping one guessing exactly what will happen between Stevens and Martin until the end, and in intertwining the smaller and larger scale narratives.
Similarly, if some of the antics of Stevens and company seem a bit far-fetched, suggesting that the war could have been won by them almost single-handed, the integration of levels of narrative conflict also means that you can well imagine the film being an extrapolation, Castellari style, from a real incident hidden in the secret archives or lost less the truth be known.
In this regard, the use of Winston Churchill’s speeches is also clever. If, “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few,” in explicit reference to the RAF, that the RAF’s ability to repel the Nazi blitzkrieg is presented as depending on the radar stations being kept operative adds another implicit layer of meaning, that this few in turn owed much to the efforts of the even fewer.
Another nice touch here is the depiction of Nazi overconfidence and infighting, that the saboteur’s mission is one which one leader has mounted on his own whereas another believes, like the (unseen) Fuhrer, that the British radar does not exist.
Obligatory control room scene; I recently visited a decommissioned nuclear bunker and saw one just like this, but smaller
While sticklers for historical accuracy will likely find much to fault in the film’s costumes, armaments and other props, this can be excused by the sheer scale of some of the set pieces relative to the film’s likely budget.
For Euro-cult fans, meanwhile, the all-star cast – Frederick Stafford as Stevens, Francisco Rabal as Martin, Luigi Pistilli as Kruger, Renzo Palmer, Ida Galli, Teresa Gimpera and Van Johnson among the name roles; George Rigaud and Edouardo Fajardo visible as British and Nazi officers – should override this, along with the inherent humour of seeing Italians and Spaniards playing Germans impersonating Englishmen and speaking the language with quasi-received pronunciation (non-)accents. (Indeed, the odd man out here is Van Johnson, the British air commander with a American accent.)
Both groups can surely appreciate Castellari’s direction, with some delightful if very of its time deployment of split screen, and particularly good use of screen space and depth in unexpected ways to impart visual interest to even the more mundane material.
He also paces the film nicely. Just as we begin to wonder what the role of two Free French Pilots is, for instance, other than allowing for some more international appeal and air battle sequences, one of them is murdered by a Nazi seeking a new identity, thereby bringing the main plot neatly to the fore.
Not surprisingly he’s weaker on the obligatory romantic subplot stuff. It’s characteristic that a love scene between Stafford and Galli – who is torn between Stevens and the air commander – takes place amidst the backdrop of an air raid and sees Castellari discretely pull the camera away to then show a building opposite explode as it is hit by a bomb.
Went the Day Well meets The Eagle Has Landed, Euro-style?