BROADSWORD CALLING DANNY-BOY … the making of WHERE EAGLES DARE
This retrospective was commissioned and published by 'Film Review' magazine in 1998, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the release of the film. As specified by the brief, it is 3,000 words long.
1: “He came out with the shittiest fucking title you could imagine.”
Film Producer Elliot Kastner doesn’t do interviews, but will occasionally make exceptions to discuss ‘Where Eagles Dare’, a film which he was involved in from before the word ‘go’:
“I rang Alistair MacLean at his home in Surrey, and told him that I would really like to meet with him. He refused; he didn’t wanna meet without my telling him more details. So I told him: I wanted him to consider writing an original story, directly for the screen. There was a moment of silence, followed by ‘Hmm, nobody ever asked me that before.’”
Kastner, a native of Harlem and exponent of a typically dry New York sense of humour, was amused to be invited to MacLean’s house after lunch. “This was so he didn’t hafta spend any money feeding me. Well, he was Scottish.
Kastner is refreshingly candid about money: “I agreed to give him ten thousand pounds up front and an additional hundred thousand dollars when I had arranged the finance. The first ten grand being from my own money.”
“ 'So’ he said ‘What is it you want?’ ‘I want a team of five or six guys on a mission in the Second World War, facing enormous obstacles. I want a mystery. I want a sweaty, exciting adventure movie.’ That’s all I told him, just that.”
Inevitably, Kastner’s mind returns to the subject of money and what he considers his big mistake: “So, we made the business arrangement and ... shit, I even gave him ten percentage points of the profit. I tellya, to this day he and his estate collect money from ‘Where Eagles Dare’. Every February, they still get a cheque.”
Kastner found himself invited back to MacLean’s house some weeks later, for a progress report. “This time he invited me to lunch, well, I had given him ten grand. Anyway, after lunch, he took me into his study and showed me a globe. He gave me a magnifying glass and pointed to a spot in the Alps and said: ‘This is the Alder Schloss. This where it’s all going to happen.’ And that’s all he told me; he wasn’t a very demonstrative guy, but I could tell he was excited about it too!”
By this point, Kastner had brought his childhood friend Brian G. Hutton on-board as director; so, when the script was delivered, at a whopping 170 pages, the three of them worked on it and whittled it down to130 pages. “I never called another writer in, I stayed with Alistair and, with a lot of work, we got a screenplay that was absolutely delicious.”
Unfortunately, MacLean’s title didn’t leave such a sweet taste in the mouth; or, as a New Yorker might put it: “He came out with the shittiest fucking title you could imagine. I don’t even remember it, it was so bad, but I thought about this ‘Alder Schloss’ meaning ‘Eagles Castle’. That reminded me of a quote from ‘Richard III’, “Where eagles dare to perch”, so I snapped off the end and ‘Where Eagles Dare’ had a nice rhythm to it.”
Although Kastner had rapidly established a track-record of working with premier league talent (Paul Newman in 1966’s ‘Harper’ [‘Moving Target’ in the UK], Warren Beatty in 1967’s ‘Kaleidoscope’) he wanted Richard Burton for this one, and Burton was in a league of his own.
“I had enormous difficulties with his agent, a man called Hugh French, who was contemptuous of anything that didn’t come directly from the studio head offices. So I went round him. I chased Burton down to a Bistro near the Victory Studios in Nice.
“I did my tap dance with him, and he kinda agreed. Then I had another obstacle: I had to get him to go with a director who was totally unknown. We came through that okay, then I went through it all again with Clint Eastwood. They didn’t wanna pay $350,000 plus a percentage to a Spaghetti Western star.”
As it happened, Hutton would follow ‘Eagles’ a year later with ‘Kelly’s Heroes’, which also starred Eastwood, then quit the film business altogether. As for Kastner and Burton, they would work together again on ‘Villain’, ‘Equus’ and ‘Absolution’.
2: “The day I met Richard Burton, he set his dogs on me!”
Once he had the green light, it was time for Kastner to stop chasing, and for others to chase him. Ingrid Pitt crossed two continents to make certain of her place in the credits roll. “I was living in the States at the time, working on the TV show ‘Ironside’. Ralph Meeker rang up and asked if I wanted to join him in a poker game. Well, you don’t pass up any invite in Hollywood; so I played poker with him, John Wayne, Yakima Canutt and a few others.
“Yakima told me he was preparing for ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and urged me to speak to the director. So, the next day I got Brian Hutton on the blower, we met, I blew in his ear and all was well.
“Months later, I was having my hair washed when I got the call. I was needed ... immediately. I ran around the house, packing, with my hair dripping all over my clothes as I packed them.
“I arrived in Salzburg in the evening, was due on set next morning and didn’t have a costume to wear. However, Ever-Ready-Ingrid had foreseen that something like this might happen, so I had brought some things with me ... The waistcoat they found for me was loose and horrible, so I had to sit up all night on my bed, sewing the bloody thing.”
The next morning would be her first chance to meet Richard Burton, one of her screen idols: “I arrived and Brian wasn’t ready for me, so I had to go and sit in this lean-to and wait. “I went in, and suddenly these dogs rushed out of the dark at me, barking and biting at my ankles. I yelled ‘Call your dogs off!!’ Then, there he was, Richard Burton, my idol, with this huge fur wrapped around him, sitting by a fire. The day I met Richard Burton, he set his dogs on me!
“I got my revenge, though! In my first scene, I got to slap Richard. ‘You’re not really going to hit me are you?’ he pleaded. ‘Don’t be daft, I’m gonna hit you, take it like a man!’ I kept him on tenterhooks all morning, then when we did the take, I just missed him.”
Then there was another hold-up for Pitt, her costume was fine, now her hair needed altering: “Mary Ure insisted on being the only blonde in the film, so my hair had to be dyed, which eventually sent it all green and brittle. I should have just told her what she could do with her blonde hair, but it was my first big film, so I rather did as I was told.”
Peter Barkworth went along to audition for the role of a German spy: “Brian Hutton and I got on so well, he changed the nature of the character to an Englishman and the name to Barkley, to accommodate me. Unfortunately, after all that trouble, I only had five lines.”
One can be forgiven for asking why Kastner had cast actors like Burton, Barkworth and Michael Hordern in roles hardly befitting their abilities. “Well,” He explains: “Any actor worth his salt can bring something great to any material. The English have always been known for their pool of character actors, and we deliberately picked the best.”
Peter Barkworth remembers the day he, Burton, Eastwood and the others had to cross a bridge and saunter through a German check-point: “Now, gentlemen”, Brian Hutton had told them, “I want you all to look at those German guards and think ‘oh shit, what do we do now’. In fact, this is the Oh Shit Bridge!’’
“We laughed a lot on ‘The Oh Shit Bridge’ that day.” Barkworth confesses. “Brian and Richard were ribbing each other off camera, while Richard and Clint were ad-libbing the bits no one has bothered to write, on the bridge. By the time we finished work, we were all weak with laughing.”
Extracts from Barkworth’s film diary beautifully sum up the atmosphere on set: ‘January sixth, 1968: It’s extraordinary, we actors are given wooden boards to stand on, so our feet don’t get cold in the snow, chairs to sit on, capes to protect us from the bitter wind, and caravans to rest in. It is lovely, I enjoy being pampered very much.’
Summing this up, Barkworth adds: “During those first five or six weeks, I felt at the heart of something, like I was really working on a big film. That feeling soon departed when we got back to England to shoot the rest at MGM. That was just months of hanging around. In fact, all-told, it took me six months to say my five lines!”
3: “All the cattle for miles around spent the next week suffering from diarrhea!”
Veteran stunt-man, Alf Joint worked closely with Burton throughout, not only taking the falls, but, because of their striking physical similarity, literally doubling-up as the star’s on-screen stand-in. Spending so much time at the centre of the action afforded Joint plenty of opportunity to see Burton at his best, and his worst:
“You hear stories that Burton was inept; people talk of his suffering from vertigo and needing a hoist to help him climb walls, but this was just him being lazy. When his family visited, he was jumping of the cable-car and running around and showing off to his kids.”
But, on the other hand, Burton did like his drink: “I remember one time he went to Paris on a drinking spree with O’Toole, Harris and Trevor Howard, his usual drinking set. They set off on the Friday, promising that they’d be back on the Monday. They were carried off the plane on the Thursday.
“Because of that, Brian decided to use me as Richard’s double more extensively. I worked on three or four sets that Burton himself never even saw. It saved them a lot of money.”
One set Joint shouldn’t have seen, was the baronial hall, scene of Burton’s big monologue. “Of course,” Alf explains, “Burton had had a few, and, as he’s striding around, walks straight into the mantlepiece over the great fireplace, knocking himself out cold.
“After that it was, ‘Alf, get into uniform’, and we shot the rest of the scene from behind. I must have the most photographed shoulders in the business.”
One temperamental star can’t hold up a production the size of ‘Eagles’ by himself. If he really was doing it deliberately, Burton must have enlisted the help of Mother Nature. Alf Joint again: “Burton kept getting the blame for the shoot going on and on, but, at least during the location shoot, it was actually the drastic changes in the weather. For example: there was the jump out of the cable-car into the river. The first time we did it it didn’t work because the snow was gone, we’d been filming for so long it had turned Spring.
“They were up three nights covering the ground in commercial epsom salts and then, of course, there was a torrential downpour which washed all the salt into the river and all the cattle for miles around spent the next week suffering from diarrhea!”
Still, while the cast and crew were away from home far longer than planned, they managed to maintain a holiday atmosphere. Peter Barkworth’s diary recalls: ‘Long talks with Richard and the gang, led to an invitation to the Burtons’ for drinks and dinner. Elizabeth Taylor was visiting. She was wonderful, exquisitely dressed, a perfect, oh-so-relaxed hostess’.
‘Elizabeth told me that she had been lost as to what to feed us all, then thought of cold roast pork and chips! The best cold roast pork comes from The Salisbury in St Martin’s Lane, London; so she had sent her jet over to London that morning to collect a leg of pork.
‘We had that wonderful leg of pork, with french fries and a salad. Elizabeth advised me to spread some Heinz salad cream on a roll and make a sandwich of the whole lot, which I duly did and it was delicious.’
4: “I ended up hanging upside-down from the platform.”
Back in England, delays continued to dog the production, and presented Burton with yet more distractions; as Pitt remembers: “He used to invite us all to luncheons in a thatched barn in Borehamwood.
“Sometimes Robert Shaw would visit, or Peter O’Toole, and, inevitably, these luncheons would turn into marathon drinking sessions. I’d sit there, sipping a wine and feeling so guilty, I’d apologise to Elliott Kastner, but he’d say, ‘Don’t worry, we don’t need you, we need him’.” That’s New York diplomacy for you!
Continuing to fly in the face of received wisdom , Kastner had insisted on employing retired living legend Yakima Canutt as his stunt co-ordinator. He gets positively misty-eyed when recalling his collaboration with the man they called ‘Yak’: “My partners couldn’t unnerstand why I wanted to pull this old guy out of retirement, but it was because I knew he was the best. He forgot more than most young stunt-guys know.”
Yak’s major responsibility - the big showpiece stunt on ‘Where Eagles Dare’ - was organising the jump Alf Joint was to make from one moving cable-car to another. This was supposed to have been one of Canutt’s first jobs on the film, to be shot using a real cable-car. It ended-up being one of the last things shot, back in London, using a full-size model; as Joint explains:
“In Salzburg, Yakima asked me to go out and look at the cable-car with him. He explained that I had to jump from one to the other, while they were moving. I said ‘Do what?’ So, we climbed out on the roof of the cable car and I was explaining to him that there was no way this would work, when the other car passed by - whoomph - and was gone. Yak said ‘God. What was that?’ ‘Oh, that was just the cable-car you want me to leap onto.’
“Next Sunday, Plan B: He’s built this platform onto the side of the mountain, from which he wanted me to leap onto the passing cable-car. Fair enough; ‘Supposing I miss?’ I asked. It was a long way down. So they tied a rope to me.
“I leaped it and just made the cable-car. Problem was, they forgot to tell the guy in the control station to put the brakes on, so the car kept going and I was still tied to the platform. I ended up hanging upside-down from the platform. Yak whipped his lasso out, lassoed my leg and pulled me up; but I wasn’t too pleased.”
Consequently, all talk of doing the stunt on location stopped and plans were laid to build a full-size set, back at MGM. “When I actually did the job, it was against a front projected screen. I more or less dove off a small trampoline at the car as it came up, grabbed hold, and everything worked out alright.”
“Except ... when I did the dive, I hit the car with all my body weight and smacked my mouth into the safety bar. It saved me from sliding off and falling sixty-odd feet, but I lost three teeth.” Of course, it is only fitting that Joint’s most famous job should have made a permanent mark on him.
This same set provided Peter Barkworth with the climax of his part: the vicious fist-fight with Burton on the roof of the cable car, during which the two combatants never actually met: “They could only manage one shot per day, because it required such precise setting up. Then, if the camera was pointing at me, Richard wasn’t needed, so Alf Joint would stand in, with his back to the camera. We would swing one punch, and that would be that for another day. We had that ferocious fight, which took weeks to film, and never actually laid our eyes on each other, let alone our fists.”
While this second unit work was going on, Ingrid Pitt was still waiting around to finish off her first unit chores. “I wasn’t working very often, but I had to always be on call in case they changed the schedule (because Richard hadn’t shown up), so I sat in the Hilton Hotel for days and weeks on end. I must have read every book in the library. God it was boring. I tell you, sitting in that hotel, fending off the Arabs who kept sending me bloody roses, was horrendous.”
But there were moments when the camaraderie of the Salzburg shoot would return, usually thanks to Burton and Eastwood’s mischievousness: “Never more-so,” Pitt concludes, “Than after the last day of shooting. We were driving back from Borehamwood in Richard’s Rolls when Clint said to Richard ‘Shall we tell her now?’ I said ‘Tell her what?’ ‘Well, we had a bet over who would get you in the sack first, him or me!’ I thought that was very ... cute. Bloody actors.”
For Kastner, the problems of the shoot are now a dim and distant memory, a lot of water has flowed under The Oh Shit Bridge these past thirty years: “That film was a joy for me, from beginning to end,” He enthuses, “I was making the perfect meat and potatoes movie movie. The kinda movie I love, the kind that grabs an audience for two hours and sucks ‘em in! It was like a Michael Curtiz or John Huston film: ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’, rolled into one. Those were movie movies, and so was this.
“Everything about that movie was so tremendously satisfying, to relive those moments is delicious for me; that’s why I’ll talk about that film and no other. I just enjoy remembering it; you know what I mean!?”