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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

EAGLES OVER LONDON -- DVD review by porfle

The Italian WWII epic EAGLES OVER LONDON, aka La battaglia d'Inghilterra (1969) is making its American debut on DVD thanks to a renewed interest in director Enzo G. Castellari (THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS) which is due mainly to his enthusiastic admirer Quentin Tarantino. I haven't seen Castellari's original version of the QT remake of BASTARDS, but EAGLES would seem to be a good example of the kind of "macaroni combat" filmmaking that might get uber-fanboy Tarantino's geeky juices flowing.

Strangely, EAGLES has the look and feel of a big-budgeted low-budget film, if that makes any sense. There's the usual bad dubbing and sound effects common to many Italian films of the era. Shaky hand-held camerawork (back when it wasn't supposed to look like that), extras staring into the camera, and way too many bad zooms (which Castellari himself winces at now) give the film an unpolished look at times.

Yet the scenes being shot are often epic in scale, and Castellari's direction is consistently stylish and inventive. The Allied evacuation of Dunkirk at the beginning of the movie is grand, with sweeping shots of thousands of soldiers and refugees (way before you could easily trick up crowds like this with CGI) lining the roads and swarming the beaches to be picked up by boats for the trip to England. When a trio of enemy fighter planes begins strafing them, it's like something out of THE LONGEST DAY. Back in England, the sequence showing these crowds of soldiers and displaced civilians arriving and congregating en masse are impressive.

Part of this crowd consists of German soldiers who have stolen uniforms and identification from British and French war casualties and are planning to sabotage England's air defense for the upcoming German invasion. The leader of these spies, Maj. Krueger, is played by Luigi Pistilli, whom most of you will recognize as Tuco's brother, Father Pablo Ramirez, in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. His second-in-command, Martin (Francisco Rabal) is less of a zealot and inadvertently forms a friendship with Captain Paul Stevens (Frederick Stafford) which will become a problem when the shooting starts.

Van Johnson, the typical big-name Hollywood star chosen by Castellari to head the cast, plays Air Marshal George Taylor, who is Captain Stevens' romantic rival for the affections of the lovely Meg (Ida Galli as "Evelyn Stewart"). The film's main comedy relief character, Sgt. Donald Mulligan (Renzo Palmer), is one of those short, scrappy types who is alternately amusing and irritating.

While several of the expository scenes are a bit dull, much of EAGLES OVER LONDON is action-packed. The opening scene of Stevens and company ambushing a convoy of Nazi tanks (followed by a massive bridge demolition) is just the first of many fierce gun battles that occur during the film. The explosive sabotage of a British early-warning radar station and the bullet-riddled takeover of their communications control center are similarly exciting sequences which Castellari stages very well. Even a hot-blooded lovemaking scene with Captain Stevens and Meg takes place during a nocturnal air raid of London, with the strobe-lit lovers locked in feverish embrace as bombs explode, buildings crumble, and citizens flee in terror all around them. Pretty cool!

What really distinguishes this film more than anything, however, are the exhilarating aerial combat sequences which take place during the climactic Battle of Britain. Swarms of planes fill the sky. Footage of actual bombers and fighter planes, including real-life stock footage imaginatively integrated via split-screen, is combined with excellent studio SPFX shots. The latter cleverly combine full-sized cockpit mock-ups with model planes flying around them in shots that are so cool that it doesn't even matter when they look fake. Bombing runs are depicted using similarly impressive models of the cityscape from high above, illuminated by explosions and floodlights. Before it's over, venerable Van Johnson even gets to leap into a fighter plane and kick some enemy butt himself. Castellari's sure handling of these scenes is nothing short of breathtaking.

The DVD from Severin Films is in 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, both of which are good. Extras include "A Conversation with Enzo Castellari and Quentin Tarantino Part 2" and "Eagles Over Los Angeles", which takes place at a screening of the film that is introduced by the two directors. There's also a very brief deleted scene and some awesome trailers for both this film and THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (which I can't wait to see).

While not as slickly-produced as similar WWII epics such as THE DIRTY DOZEN and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, EAGLES OVER LONDON is still a remarkable achievement that's loaded with eye-filling spectacle and entertainment value. It took me a couple of viewings to fully appreciate it, but now I'm ready to watch it again.

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