Where Eagles Dare: Book Review
Where Eagles Dare was written by Alistair Maclean and published in 1967. A critical and commercial success, it is generally regarded as a classic of the spy thriller genre.
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering the title of Where Eagles Dare comes from Shakespeare’s Richard III:
The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.
Where Eagles Dare: Logline
During World War Two a team of British spies attempt to rescue an American general from an impregnable castle in the German Alps but, when they discover there are double agents in the group, the team must discover who the traitors are and then escape against enormous odds.
Where Eagles Dare: Plot Summary
It’s early in 1944 and General George Carnaby, one of the planners of D-Day, is shot down over occupied Europe. The Germans capture him and take him to the Schloss Adler, the Bavarian SS headquarters. The Schloss Adler is on top of a mountain, with only a cable car for access, and so practically impregnable.
Colonel Turner and Admiral Rolland of MI6 assemble a team to rescue the general. The leader is British Major John Smith. The other members of the team are MI6 agents, except for Morris Schaffer who is in the American OSS.
The British team parachute into Germany, near the Schloss Adler. On landing they discover the radio operator with his neck broken. Smith realises that it wasn’t an accident, so there must be a double agent on the team. Smith backtracks to meet with another MI6 agent, Mary Elison, who is following them, unknown to the rest of the team.
The British team infiltrates the village below the castle and Smith introduces Mary to Heidi, another British agent posing as a barmaid. Mary and Heidi travel on the cable car to the Schloss Adler.
German troops surround the bar and capture the British team. Smith and Schaffer escape, cause a diversion by setting fire to the train station, and then travel to the Schloss Adler on the roof of the cable car. When they get near the castle they jump onto the roof, and Mary helps them climb in through a window. Schaffer disables the German’s helicopter, and Smith cuts the telephone lines to isolate the castle.
Smith and Schaffer sneak into the hall of the Schloss Adler, where they find General Carnaby being interrogated by a German general. The other three members of the British team arrive and reveal that they are all double agents.
Entering the hall, Smith disarms Schaffer and tells the Germans that in fact he is the double agent, General Carnaby is not really a general and the three supposed double-agents are impostors, who are really there to kidnap the German General.
Smith invites the Germans to contact his superiors to prove that he is really a double agent. They do so, and are convinced. He suggests the three impostors should prove they are genuine German agents by writing down the names of Germany’s top agent in Britain and all the German spies they know, which he will compare with a list in his possession. The three write their lists with Smith looking on and scoffing.
When they finish, Smith reveals his list. It is blank. Smith is a triple agent and has tricked the double agents into revealing most of Germany’s spies.
Schaffer holds all the Germans at gunpoint. One of the Germans gets the upper hand again, but then Mary comes to the rescue.
Smith drugs all the Germans and announces he is taking the three double agents back to Britain to be hung as traitors. Schaffer sets explosives as diversions. Smith destroys the radio so the castle can’t call for reinforcements from the village, and the group head to the cable car. Whilst getting down from the roof of the castle to the cable car station though, the traitors manage to overpower Schaffer and use the cable car to escape…
Smith jumps from the roof of the castle to the roof of the cable car. He fights one of the traitors on the roof of the cable car and is nearly shot but one of the cable car supports hits the traitor sending him to his death. Smith sets an explosive charge and then swaps to the other cable car. The explosion kills the remaining traitors.
Smith returns to the cable car station, where Schaffer has bolted the two steel doors, keeping them safe for a while. Smith, Schaffer, Mary and Carnaby ride the cable car back down to the village. They jump out into the snow when the Germans finally break down the cable car station doors and stop their descent. On the mountain, the explosions have set the castle on fire and it has turned into an inferno.
They meet Heidi and head to the airfield in the post-bus. German soldiers and a tank chase them, but they manage to escape by blowing up a rickety bridge. They reach the airfield, where Colonel Turner is waiting for them with a plane to take them to Britain.
In the air, Smith reveals the name of Germany’s top agent – as confirmed by the traitors – Colonel Turner. Smith explains the mission’s real objective: to unmask the double agents, firstly the minor agents on the rescue team and, more importantly, Colonel Turner himself, who Admiral Rolland already suspected. Smith, Mary and Schaffer had been called in to unmask Colonel Turner because they were the only people Admiral Roland could trust.
Colonel Turner tries to shoot Smith, but his gun has been deactivated. He commits suicide by jumping out of the plane without a parachute.
Where Eagles Dare: Analysis
Where Eagles Dare is really all about the twists and the action. It has a roller coaster plot, centred on the seemingly impossible mission, and with the twists coming at regular intervals. This all combines to keep the reader turning the pages, desperate to find out ‘what happens next’.
Alistair Maclean’s writing is as brisk and efficient as ever, with little in the way of literary flourish. He does though tend to overuse adverbs, particularly in dialogue: For example this exchange:
“We both prefer French wine,’ said Smith apologetically .
“Our top agent in the Mediterranean,’ said Kramer wonderingly . “And I’ve never heard of you”.
“Maybe that’s why he is what he is,’ said Rosemeyer dryly .
“I’ve been lucky,’ said Smith briskly .
As in Ice Station Zebra, the characters in Where Eagles Dare are thin. Alistair Maclean reuses his usual stock characters: the cold, unflappable British hero, Smith; the tough, wisecracking American sidekick, Schaffer; and the weak but beautiful woman, Mary, who seems a bit more nervous than you might expect in a supposed top MI6 agent. The supporting characters, including all the Germans, are given no real characterisation at all; they are just extras. This kind of shorthand in writing and characterisation can possibly be put down to the fact that Alistair Maclean wrote the book very quickly and at the same time as the film script.
On the plus side, the writing is punchy, the pace is high, and the twists make sense within the logic of the book. Further, Alistair Maclean is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of all time when it comes to a tense action scene. Inevitably, any book primarily driven by a roller coaster plot suffers from familiarity after a few reads, but even having read the book and seen the movie multiple times, the fight on top of the cable car is still one of the most gripping scenes ever written.
Where Eagles Dare: Alternative Cover
The heart of the novel is the Schloss Adler. My cover tries to give a sense of its inaccessibility, brooding on top of the mountain.
Where Eagles Dare: My Verdict
One of the best action-centred, roller coaster rides of a spy novel ever written. Should be on every aficionado’s bookshelf.
Where Eagles Dare: The Movie
Where Eagles Dare was filmed in 1968, starring Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and Mary Ure. It was directed by Brian G. Hutton.
Because of the way Alistair Maclean wrote the movie simultaneously with the novel, it is almost identical. The movie is more violent, with the heroes engaging in more gun fights and killing more Germans – the body count approaches a hundred. It has even been claimed that Clint Eastwood kills more people in Where Eagles Dare than any other of his films. In contrast, in the novel Smith relies on tricking people, knocking them out, and tying them up. He even backtracks to save a tied up German who is going to burn to death in the castle.
The violence does open up a plot hole – why does Smith try to take the traitors back instead of killing them? In the book it is because he doesn’t like killing people. He says “I’m not an executioner.” But in the film he has already killed several people with no remorse.
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Here’s the movie trailer
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