When the Nazis capture a high ranking American general whose transport plane had crashed in enemy territory, a crack team of commandoes is sent to pluck him out of the mountaintop redoubt where he is held prisoner. But when one of their number is killed in the parachute drop, it becomes clear they may have traitor in their midst and the mission may not have as clear an objective as it first seems.
A fine example of that war movie staple — the men on a mission caper, which could just as easily be dubbed the “MacLean” given most of them are based on Alistair MacLane’s popular boy’s own adventure novels that while trivialising the violent truths of warfare, tend to be an absolute hoot anyway. This one was even scripted by the author, and is so far-fetched its po-faced façade nearly cracks, and, more unusually, proves to be as dense and complicated as a spy story, where only poor befuddled Clint Eastwood seems to stick on the side of good.
The set-up has all it could possibly need to fire-up its brash formula of action, adventure and intrigue: a crack team of commandoes sent to pluck a captured general from, you got it, an impregnable Nazi fortress stuck on the stop of an icy mountain accessed only by a cable car. Imagine the possibilities! Brian G. Hutton does, and rustles up some unforgettable stuntwork — the spectacular leap between cable cars has enflamed schoolboy imaginations and be instantly recalled long into adult . As a mission movie it has a keen atmosphere and a striking cast: Richard Burton gets most of the juicy, Eastwood just looks great in a stolen Nazi uniform, while good salts like Michael Horden and Patrick Wymark and fetching Ingrid Pitt fill out the requisite host of characters.
Where the film has become so famously confusing is in its cacophony of subplots and reversals — Burton’s tricky major must swap sides fifteen times. Their quarry, the American general, has the plans for D-Day in his head that must not fall into German hands (is it easier to kill than rescue him?), then there is a rat in their camp (why-oh-why?), and what is sneaky Mary Ure doing parachuting in after the main team (apart from for some sexual tension)? All this requires reams of boggy exposition to be reeled off by Burton during a hilarious if pace-murdering sequence, and the real secret behind the whole mission just makes you want to throw bricks at the screen. You’ve had a rare old time getting there, though.
Classic War caper with a few too many plot contrivances but high on adventure.