The Eagle Has Landed: Book Review
The Eagle Has Landed, written by Jack Higgins and published in 1975, was a massive bestseller and critics generally regard it as a classic of the spy thriller genre.
The Eagle Has Landed: Title
The title references one of the defining moments of the novel, when Steiner broadcasts the message ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ back to Germany. Referencing a defining moment in the title is a classic title generation technique.
“The Eagle Has Landed” was also a very well-known phrase at the time, as it was the first phrase spoken on the moon after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed there in July, 1969. An allusion to a well-known phrase works well in a title.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
The Eagle Has Landed: Logline
During World War Two, a unit of German paratroopers and an Irish revolutionary infiltrate England, trying to kidnap Churchill. When their cover story is blown they try to complete their mission against impossible odds.
(For more on loglines see The Killogator Logline Formula)
The Eagle Has Landed: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. The major ones are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the 1970s. Jack Higgins is researching a Norfolk churchyard for a magazine article. He discovers a mass grave with a headstone that says:
Here lies Lieutenant-Colonel Kurt Steiner and 13 German paratroopers, killed in action on the 6th November 1943.
The vicar and the locals become angry when Higgins asks about the headstone, but he bribes one to tell him who Kurt Steiner was. He gets the answer, “He was the German lad who came here with his men to shoot Mr. Churchill…”
Now it’s 1943. Inspired by Otto Skorzeny’s daring rescue of Mussolini, Hitler has the idea of kidnapping British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Oberst Radl examines the possibility. He thinks it’s impossible until he reads a report from a German spy, Joanna Grey, which says that Churchill plans to weekend near the Norfolk coast.
Radl devises a plan to drop a unit of Fallschirmjäger paratroopers into Norfolk. They will drop one night and kidnap Churchill the next. The German Navy will then extract them by boat.
Radl plans to disguise the Fallschirmjäger as a unit of Polish paratroopers. They will need an English-speaking officer to avoid arousing suspicion. Radl hears of a veteran Fallschirmjäger, Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Steiner, who speaks perfect English because he spent his childhood in London. But Steiner is now in a penal unit, because he and his men tried to stop SS troops killing a Jewish girl in Warsaw. Now they are making suicide attacks on shipping in the English Channel. Radl has Steiner and his men reassigned to his command.
Radl also recruits an IRA member, Liam Devlin. Devlin infiltrates England, contacts Mrs. Grey and gets a job as a marsh warden. He also becomes romantically involved with a local girl, Molly Prior.
The local bully is jealous and tries to attack Molly, but Devlin defends her. Devlin also buys an army truck and a jeep on the black-market to transport Steiner and his men. The black-marketeers try to double cross Devlin and he shoots two of them. One dies of his wounds and this draws the attention of the Police Special Branch, who start searching for Devlin.
The Eagle Lands
Steiner and his men parachute into Norfolk, where they’re met by Devlin and Mrs. Grey. They spend the day in the village, having duped the locals. A child from the village falls into the millrace and the current carries her away. One of Steiner’s men rescues her, but he’s crushed by the water wheel, revealing his German uniform. The villagers realise who the ‘Polish’ paratroopers really are…
Steiner’s men [blackout]round up the locals, but one escapes and alerts a unit of the US Army camped nearby. The Americans make a foolhardy attack and the battle-hardened Fallschirmjäger massacre them. More American troops arrive. Outnumbered, Steiner’s men make a last stand at the church.[/blackout]
Molly [blackout] helps Steiner and Devlin escape from the church. Devlin heads to the coast to be picked up by the German navy, but stops at his cottage on the way. The Special Branch detectives are waiting, but he shoots them, wades out to sea, meets the ship and escapes.[/blackout]
Steiner [blackout]steals a dispatch rider’s motorbike and infiltrates the house where Churchill is staying. He reaches Churchill, but hesitates to kill him. The guards shoot Steiner, killing him.[/blackout]
Back in the 1970s, [blackout]Higgins meets the vicar again. He tells Higgins that, in fact, at the time of Steiner’s attack, Churchill was in Tehran. The man Steiner nearly killed was a double and Steiner’s sacrifice was futile.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
The Eagle Has Landed: Analysis
The Eagle Has Landed is a daring novel attempting a tough trick. That it succeeds triumphantly is a testament to a great thriller writer.
This success starts from a great high concept and then builds on it. The novel is relatively slow-paced until the Fallschirmjäger land in England, but the tension develops steadily. Once in England, the pace accelerates for an action-packed last quarter. The final twist is stunning on a first read.
There are two major problems that Jack Higgins overcame:
The first problem is that, as with The Day of the Jackal, we know the ending before we start. The Germans didn’t kidnap Winston Churchill during World War Two, so Steiner must fail. It’s just a question of how.
Second, the reader is being asked to accept a Nazi soldier and an IRA terrorist as sympathetic protagonists.
In The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth solved the problem by making the story into a ‘howdunit’. The vital key that Jack Higgins used to solve these issues was to make the varied cast of characters vivid and sympathetic.
Making difficult characters sympathetic
Higgins gets around the problem of making the protagonists sympathetic in two clever ways.
First, Higgins has an eye for character in a way that Alistair Maclean, for example, never had. He uses that skill to make Steiner and Devlin as sympathetic as possible to the reader. In fact, to a modern eye, he potentially even goes too far, as anti-heroes are much more mainstream than they used to be.
Steiner and his men are professional soldiers, not Nazis. They are in a penal unit, after attempting to stop an SS unit killing a Jewish girl. Steiner himself has an old-fashioned code of honour, and his father is an anti-Nazi who the Gestapo have imprisoned. He also has no negative personal characteristics at all. His men love him. Women love him. He’s thoughtful, charming and strong. He inspires instant respect in everyone he meets.
Devlin is a more complex character than Steiner, possibly because Higgins based him on an actual person: Frank Ryan, an IRA man who fought on the Republican side in Spain and spent the war in Germany.
Devlin is a ruthless IRA terrorist, but he’s also charming, funny and full of self-doubt. He falls for a local girl and defends her against a local thug and would-be rapist. He outwits the unpleasant, double-crossing black-marketeers. This is a classic device to make an anti-hero sympathetic: he’s not as bad as the characters he’s pitted against.
The Eagle Has Landed has a Mission plot (see Spy Novel Plots).
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
The plot has several unusual aspects, though:
- There are dual Protagonists, Steiner and Devlin, both of whom are antiheroes.
- There’s no single main Antagonist.
- Although there are antagonistic minor characters, such as the black marketeers, the main antagonist is just the British and American military.
- Churchill is a Personified MacGuffin, as the entire story is about the attempt to kidnap him, but he has no direct role in the plot.
As story theorists from Aristotle onwards have said, the goal of tragedy is catharsis: the creation of powerful emotion in the reader.
In The Eagle Has Landed Higgins details the mission preparations as Radl brings the team together, and all the characters on the team are likeable. This builds the reader’s empathy and involvement in the plot, but they know it must fail. This creates the classic dichotomy of tragedy. Because of their sympathy, the reader wants Steiner to carry the plot out somehow, or at least survive, but feels the inevitable approaching, creating an emotional response.
The second element of tragedy is that the character’s own flaws bring about their demise. Steiner and his men fail because they are too nice. If they hadn’t saved the local girl, they would not have blown their cover and the mission might have been a success. If they didn’t let the villagers they were holding as hostages go, they might have escaped. In the end, Steiner fails because he’s not ruthless enough.
So, The Eagle Has Landed has all the critical elements of a tragedy, and that’s a big part of its success.
Is The Eagle Has Landed true?
The Eagle Has Landed opens with this Author’s Note:
At precisely one o’clock on the morning of Saturday 6 November 1943, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS and Chief of State Police, received a simple message. The Eagle has landed. It meant that a small force of German paratroops were at that moment safely in England and poised to snatch the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, from the Norfolk country house near the sea, where he was spending a quiet weekend. This book is an attempt to recreate the events surrounding that astonishing exploit. At least fifty per cent of it is documented historical fact. The reader must decide for himself how much of the rest is a matter of speculation, or fiction…
Higgins framed the novel with chapters from his own point of view, where he makes further claims about the witnesses he’s met and the documents he’s examined that prove the story is true. There are also two maps of ‘Studley Constable’, the Norfolk village where most of the story takes place.
This authenticity convinces many people that the story is true.
“At least fifty per cent of it is documented historical fact.”
Let’s just be clear here – The Eagle Has Landed is not even remotely true. Jack Higgins is simply using the false document technique to add authenticity to his story.
He goes to such lengths to claim authenticity because people are more likely to accept a fantastical story if they think it’s true. This is a common trait in spy thrillers – an aura of authenticity helps maintain the suspension of disbelief.
In fact, there were no German spies in England during World War Two – they were all picked up by MI5. And they would have picked up any spy operating their transmitter from their bedroom twice weekly in no time, so Mrs. Grey’s part of the story is pure fiction.
And would Germany really send such a small force – only just over a dozen soldiers? Similar British raids, like the Bruneval raid, comprised a minimum of a company – over a hundred soldiers.
Even Studley Constable does not actually exist.
The Eagle Has Landed – The True Story
The only elements of truth in The Eagle has Landed are:
- The Soviets claimed to have foiled a plot to assassinate Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference. The plot involved German spies preparing the way for a paratroop landing.
- After the war, Otto Skorzeny, who the Soviets said was behind the plan, claimed it never existed and the story was Soviet propaganda.
- Higgins based Devlin on a genuine IRA man, Frank Ryan.
- Ryan organised various stillborn plots to supply the IRA with German money and weapons, one of which was called Operation Sea Eagle.
- Nothing ever came of the planned operations, and Ryan died in Germany in 1944.
- Churchill didn’t have a double, but he had a vocal impersonator, Norman Shelley, who may have recorded some of Churchill’s speeches for radio broadcast.
- British general, Bernard Montgomery, had a double.
The Eagle Has Landed: Alternative Cover
The swooping eagle is the emblem of the Fallschirmjäger. It’s shown here in a closeup of their badge. The red, white and black colour scheme is also reminiscent of Nazi Germany without the cliché of including a swastika.
The Eagle Has Landed: My Verdict
Fully deserving of its status as a classic covert operations thriller. A must read.
The Eagle Has Landed: The Movie
The Eagle Has Landed was filmed in 1976, directed by John Sturges and starring Michael Caine as Steiner, Donald Sutherland as Devlin, Robert Duvall as Radl and Jenny Agutter as Molly.
The movie didn’t work for me.
Michael Caine is badly miscast as Steiner. Robert Duvall has a good go at his role, as do the supporting cast playing various Nazis. Donald Sutherland and Jenny Agutter are okay, although the movie cuts the romance sub-plot down dramatically. Sutherland also looks nothing like the short, dark Devlin described in the book. Larry Hagman has a disastrous comic turn as Colonel Pitts, the incompetent American commander who gets his butt kicked by Steiner and his Fallschirmjäger.
Caine himself has said the movie disappointed him. He claimed John Sturges was not really interested in making the movie and failed to edit it effectively. In fact, The Eagle Has Landed was Sturges’ last film.
Here’s the trailer:
The Eagle Has Flown: The Sequel
The Eagle Has Flown relies on a retcon to get the plot going, as Steiner was clearly dead at the end of The Eagle has Landed:
The second bullet caught him in the heart, killing him instantly.
But at the start of The Eagle has Flown, Higgins resurrects Steiner. Apparently, he was ‘very lucky’ that the bullets didn’t kill him. It’s hard to get over such implausibility, but if you can live with it, then the novel is a solid enough thriller, though nothing like as good as The Eagle Has Landed. The plot concerns an attempt, sponsored by Himmler for nefarious reasons, to rescue Steiner, who is being held in the Tower of London. Devlin also returns.
Jack Higgins wrote two other novels centred on the character of Liam Devlin, Touch the Devil and Confessional, both set when Devlin is a much older man. Devlin also makes cameo appearances in some of Higgins’ other thrillers.
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I’m not linking to the movie or The Eagle Has Flown, as I don’t recommend them.
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