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July 2010

Eagles Over London

cast: Frederick Stafford, Renzo Palmer, Van Johnson, Luigi Pistilli, and Ida Galli

director: Enzo G. Castellari

108 minutes (PG) 1969
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Eagles Over London

I have a pet theory. The theory is that, while it may well be most remembered for the cultural efflorescence of the 1960s and the economic depredations of the 1980s, the post-war baby boomer generation only really found its own voice when making films about the Second World War. Indeed, the baby boomer generation was the first generation in the 20th century not to have to fight a world war. For 50 years, the measure of masculinity lay in war stories told by fathers to sons, but when it came time for the baby boomers to tell their own stories to their own sons, they found that they had none to tell. None, at least, like the ones that their fathers once told them.

And so an obsession was born... an obsession with the Second World War that continues to this day. An obsession that speaks of the fears and moral character of a generation which - some might say - never got the chance to prove itself. Is it then any wonder that films like Pearl Harbour (2001), and U-571 (2000), sought to insert an American presence into a corner of the war fought mostly by the British? Is it any surprise that the likes of Saving Private Ryan should present war as an incredibly brutal but also kind of cool crucible for the purification of moral character? As I said... it is a theory, one dominated by war films made in America.

However, it is tempting to see a different culture's attitudes to war reflected in the works of their own post-war generation. Indeed, if American baby boomer films attempted to paint the Second World War as a romanticised moral touchstone, the Italian baby boomers took an altogether different approach by stressing the romantic and doing away with the moral hand-wringing almost entirely.

Eagles Over London (aka: La battaglia d'Inghilterra, previously released as Battle Command and Battle Squadron) is an Italian war film directed by the same man who brought us the original Inglorious Bastards (1977), a film that recently benefited from a sneaky DVD re-release with packaging eerily reminiscent of the posters advertising Quentin Tarantino's identically named but differently titled film Inglourious Basterds. Ostensibly, an action adventure story reminiscent of films like Operation Crossbow (1965), Eagles Over London uses the violence and style of Italian exploitation cinema to paint a picture of wartime Britain that is both unrecognisable and yet strangely alluring.

The film begins with the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to the beaches of Dunkirk. One of the commanders responsible for slowing the German advance and buying the British time to escape using their flotilla of tiny ships is Captain Paul Stevens (Frederick Stafford). A skilled tactician and insightful political presence, Stevens' cool is mirrored in the passionate countenance of his sergeant, a foul-mouthed and moustachioed working-class hero named Mulligan (Renzo Palmer). In a series of genuinely spectacular set-pieces, Stevens and Mulligan manage to slow the German advance and escape to London where they uncover a German plot to infiltrate the British military and sabotage the new-fangled RADAR stations that protect the British skies from the Luftwaffe.

With the action transferring from France to London, the film's emphasis shifts from war-fighting to political intrigue as Stevens has to convince an unsympathetic top brass that the flotilla may well have served as a Trojan horse for a number of German spies. This second act feels very much like a speed bump and features not only an unsuccessful attempt to create a degree of personal animosity between Stevens and the German commander (Luigi Pistilli) but also an insanely ambitious sequence in which the 'free French' are infiltrated by Nazis allowing them to express not only a degree of self-loathing but also a good portion of historically accurate Anglophobia. With too much to do and too little time in which to do it, the second act loses pace but is rendered quite intensely watchable by the way in which Castellari reinvents wartime London as a twisted reproduction of 1960s' Rome.

This reinvention of Britain begins with the film's protagonist. Instead of being the type of stiff upper-lipped former public schoolboy we have come to associate with the British officer class, Stafford's Captain Stevens is an embodiment of a decidedly Italian conception of masculinity. Stevens is an immaculately turned out man of action who effortlessly swaggers his way between kissing leggy blondes and punching perfidious Nazi spies.

However, what is remarkable about this film is the way in which Stevens' anachronistic masculinity seems to warp his immediate surroundings. Indeed, all of the female characters in Eagles Over London dress like Italian women from the 1960s, preferring kohl eye make-up and miniskirts to the flowery dresses and ruddy cheeks usually associated with the English rose. The same also applies to Castellari's depiction of the British top brass as a creaking gerontocracy who meet in the kind of gaudily decorated locales more likely to feature in Renaissance palazzos than the cabinet war rooms.

When American baby boomers decided to make films about the Second World War they exaggerated the importance of their countrymen and airbrushed out those who fought in the colours of the British Empire. Conversely, when Italian baby boomers came to make films about the war, they happily featured British people. It is just that the British people they featured looked almost exactly like Italians.

As delicious as it may be, this anachronistic silliness subsides towards the end as the film's final act sees Eagles Over London returning to its two-fisted comfort zone with Stevens and Mulligan leading a bunch of soldiers into an intense pitched battle with a battalion of German spies intent upon crippling British air defences. As with the opening act, the action scenes at the climax of the film are beautifully shot. Castellari has an eye for action as he splices together wonderfully choreographed action set-pieces with stock footage and psychedelic imagery using all manner of weird lighting and split-screen effects to create a real sense of tension and excitement. This is not only a fun film and an amusing film; it is also an exquisitely well-made film.

The DVD comes with two interviews featuring Castellari, and a decidedly sweaty and paunchy looking Quentin Tarantino. Neither interview is particularly insightful as they effectively boil down to QT waving his arms around and proclaiming the film to be 'awesome' before handing the mic over to Castellari who waves his arms around with a good deal of self-deprecating humility. While the interviews are not particularly interesting, the amount of arm-waving going on is hypnotic. If you watch the interviews speeded up they come to resemble a tai-chi class.

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