Monday, January 24, 2005

Where Weasels Dare

A Welshman and a cowboy walk into a German bar...

Something from Saturday’s blizzard:

It’s Saturday night, and as the Brooklyn coterie can testify, the snow is falling once again. The 8 inches we got on Wednesday night will soon become at least a foot, and the thermometer reads 10 degrees. Sometimes it’s almost possible to think that coastal Maine is the dead ringer for the German Alps. All of which reminds me of my childhood (natch).

As a kid of 8 I moved to Gutersloh, FDR with my family thanks to my father being in the Royal Air Force. Unlike the flatter-than-flat Oceanic weather system coddled English region of East Anglia where I was born and grew up, Germany seemed like a mythical white Christmas from November to March, with snow, skiing, mountains, and spruce forests as far as the eye could see. Some of my favorite winter memories are rendered in the scenery of North Rhine Westphalia and the furthest east NATO base, with the backdrop of the Cold War and the Soviets “watching us watching you watching us”. Every TACEVAL* siren could signify the end of the world as we knew it, and it was in equal parts deathly exciting and nightmare inducing. It certainly triggered my interest in international relations.

The base where we lived had been Herman Goering’s headquarters during the Second World War. There was even a room in the turret of the spectacular Officers’ Mess that used to be his private drinking club; favored pilots would be invited to down schnapps with him and listen to his Ace claims from the First World War. Goering had stated, “If I lie, may the beams in the roof bend”. Skeptical Luftwaffe pilots of the 1939-45 vintage sawed through the beams, inserted pulleys, and bent them at will whenever the Reich marshal spoke. No record exists of whether or not they avoided Dachau for their gag.

I have such vivid memories of Germany, although they appear to be selective with the seasons. Most are recollections of winter, which may be a result of my ten years in the basso-Canadian state of Maine. My Dad and brother almost decapitating a young fraulein with a sled; a most excellent hot chocolate and whipped cream concoction bought for me at the Monhe Dam (617! Guy Gibson, you fantastic Nazi slayer, you) by a young civilian lawyer named Greville Janner brought in to defend someone at a Court Martial; Lindt chocolate and icy sidewalks; some douchebag named Marcus trying to beat me up at recess (I have never trusted a Marcus since); and trips to Winterberg to look in pre-pubescent wonder at the ski-jump and bob-sled run built for an Olympics that never came.

The other superfund of childhood memory is of course Christmas; a month past but no less vivid in this immigrant’s mind thanks to all the snow that renders my puritan kingdom in the monochrome of a black-and-white Santa movie. It’s falling now outside my window with an unnerving insistence and eerie silence.

So, snow makes me think of Germany, which makes me think of winter, which makes me think of Christmas. All of which adds up to the memory of watching the fantastic Where Eagles Dare, screened every year at Christmas in a fabulously twist-the-kinfe-in-the-Germans move by the British Forces Broadcasting Service.

Memories of Nazi tyranny are brought to vivid life by the invasion….of a movie company (from the MGM publicity film included on the DVD).

Where Eagles Dare tells the story of a team of 6 British commandos, an American Ranger, and a winsome English female agent on a seemingly suicidal mission to rescue a captured American General (and D-Day planner) from the fearsome Schloss Adler high in the Bavarian Alps. Nobody is quite who they seem, and a series of plots and counter-plots spin around a collection of derring-do stunts and lame blue screen shots. As with all 1960s war films, it is riddled with logical and historical inaccuracies, and like the best of the genre you really don’t care even on the thirtieth viewing.

“Its certainly unusual, to be wearing war uniforms as opposed to ponchos and Stetsons and so forth” Clint Eastwood.

While most of the cast fall into that great catalog of actors who never went anywhere, there were two bona fide stars that have an oddly compelling chemistry that at first glance shouldn’t work but does. The man with no name plays the US Ranger and Richard Burton is the team leader. They are hardly Martin and Lewis, but their repartee passes and Clint’s obvious believable action star status more than makes up for Burton being a little too portly and long in the tooth for an ace super spy. But there are some fabulous implausible moments.

First, Clint is obviously still coming off his spaghetti western roles (as reflected in his quote above). For a man facing down spandau gunners and stick grenade throwers, he stands tall in the doorway, blasting his MP-40 down the hallways of the castle as if he is chewing a cheroot and blasting away at Eli Wallach with a peacemaker. And while undercover as a Nazi soldier, Eastwood has to be the most un-German looking white man alive. Together with Burton, he also depicts one half of the most conspiratorial and devious looking “blending in” secret agent team ever to hoist a stein in a German Army bar.

The real champion of resolutely refusing to play any character other than himself however was Richard Burton. Overweight with a fantastic pompadour, he declaims his lines with no regard for the actual situation his character is in (“Broadsword calling Danny Boy”, the oft-repeated radio call sign to the controllers in London, is delivered with the diction of a reading of Under Milk Wood) and waddles through the action scenes like a 50 year old man jogging on the first day of a New Year’s resolution. There are so many scenes that had me breaking my covenant with suspended belief to giggle that if I were to list them all this entry would rival My Life by Bill Clinton for length, but one is illustrative of why Burton’s chutzpah in this role has to be seen to be believed.

Picture the scene: Burton is fleeing down a castle corridor with the remnants of his team and some prisoners. The German’s are right on his tail, spraying hot lead around the narrow passageway. In the real world we would be looking at perforated spies. Clint is shooting his machine gun single handed and unaimed, picking off Germans like flies (who die with the sixties “aieeeee” death scream). Just as the team slips through a heavy wooden door a high velocity 7.62mm bullet hits Burton’s hand. Again in reality, this shot would have our hero facing many months at Walter Reed and probably a prosthesis, but luckily for Burton this heavy round that can penetrate a 6ft thick oak tree just grazes his thumb. “Damn and blast!’ our erstwhile Welsh warrior exclaims, and then, from the pocket of his German ski trooper disguise pulls his handkerchief to wrap the wound. For me that encapsulates the wonderfully silly adventure of this movie; only in Burton’s world would it seem perfectly normal to think to pack a monogrammed snot rag on a super secret mission deep behind enemy lines.

So next time it snows, or if the gents out there score a bachelor weekend, I highly recommend grabbing a six pack of fine brews, plugging the speakers into the TV, and settling in for a night of Where Eagles Dare.

Broadsword calling Danny Boy- over and out. And scene.

(*TACEVAL: as you may have guessed, “Tactical Evaluation”: an exercise in which my father doffed Air Force blue for cammos, grabbed his Stirling 9mm, and effectively practiced committing suicide against Soviet Spetznatz commandos. As a rifleman, my Dad is a great engineer.)

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