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Book review: One man’s love for a truly awful movie

March 12, 2019

Let’s just get this out of the way as soon as possible. It is highly unlikely that “‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’: Watching ‘Where Eagles Dare,’” Geoff Dyer’s new book, resembles any book that anyone has ever come across.

It’s a sort of mash-up of mini-memoir and maxi-film-review. It is completely unjustifiable and delightfully apt. That’s its charm: it’s the strangest bird of a book you’re liable to take up anytime soon.

All that said, Dyer’s whatever-it-is is also going to afford you an embarrassment of belly laughs.

Ever had a movie that you will unashamedly watch — even watch pieces of — whenever you come across it? No matter how over-the-top it is? No matter how illogical it is? No matter how entertaining, even “magical,” it is even if for all the wrong reasons?

That’s basically Dyer’s relationship to “Where Eagles Dare,” a massive movie about World War II. It stars Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood (together for the only time!). It’s a film with lots of snow, lots of warplanes, lots of explosives, lots of killings, lots of Nazis, lots of everything, most especially a stocky Richard Burton’s incessant repetition of “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy,” his character’s radio call sign. And it is also the apotheosis of Dyer’s boyish attraction to the pulp novels of Alistair MacLean (think “The Guns of Navarone”) and their film incarnations.

In 2012, Dyer published a highly praised book about the film “Stalker,” Andrei Tarkovsky’s haunting bit of Russian science fiction. “Zona: A Book About a Film about a Journey to a Room” had as many advocates as Tarkovsky’s film.

And now comes that book’s second cousin twice-removed. “‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’: Watching ‘Where Eagles Dare’” is Dyer’s paean to a film that he really likes. “I’ve never grown out of the film,” he says in a very personal “Note” that ends the volume. Lucky for us that he hasn’t.

For Geoff Dyer is a keen observer of, well, the ludicrous. The film has, according to Dyer, no apparent logic. Rucksacks are too small to possibly hold everything that’s taken out of them. If there’s an escape to be made, do so by cable-car. If there are bridges, stop long enough to blow every one of them to smithereens. If a plane is needed to effect an escape, have it arrive from a British airstrip “at twice the speed of Concorde.”

Even the filmmakers themselves are subject to Dyer’s zealous scrutiny and rapier wit:

On Richard Burton’s paucity of physical prowess when scaling the heights of the nearest Schloss: “‘He had more wires on him than Pinocchio,’ recalls his stunt double.”On Clint Eastwood’s singular range as an actor: “Squinting is pretty much the limit of Eastwood’s facial range as an actor. Eastwood has basically squinted his way through five decades of superstardom.”On Brian G. Hutton, the film’s director: “Hutton’s stylistic signature as director lies in the absence of anything that might permit us to recognize him as an auteur. Apart from the stuntmen — and -woman — no one connected with the film is more undercover than its director.”

For Dyer, every bit of this makes “Where Eagles Dare” a film to revisit, even parts of, over and over.

The book is as sweetly touching as it is riotously funny and subversive. It is at once a loving tribute to the callowness of being young and a protracted plot summary of a film lacking any apparent lucidity. (I mean, these days in particular, allow yourself to wallow in the skewed logic of “Being an actor is one of the few professions that permits the wearing of a Nazi uniform with impunity.”)

Set aside a couple of hours (and a couple of hours more if you’re inclined to see the movie, too), pour yourself something other than tea, and give yourself over to “‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’: Watching ‘Where Eagles Dare.’” It is one of the drollest, most engaging reading experiences you will have this year.

Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English who taught many a film course over the years.