Broadsword Calling Danny Boy somehow manages to stay lively while talking us through the entire plot of the film.... Some of Dyer’s targets are well-worn, but he finds fresh routes of attack... The author is particularly good on the way “flesh wounds” that would be unbearably painful in real life are shrugged off like so many stubbed toes. Always at home to the high-brow, he wrestles in references to Friedrich Nietzsche, Martha Gellhorn and the Nazi kitsch of Polish painter Piotr Uklanski... The archness is occasionally exhausting. His odd suggestion that “until recently, the role of women in films was generally to swoon, scream, look threatened, be rescued, and, ideally, get their kit off” reads as if it’s missing a few pages of qualification. But Broadsword Danny Boy remains a delightful celebration of a martial pop culture that flourished between the Suez Crisis and the rise of Mrs Thatcher. File with your bound sets of Commando comics.
It’s a slip of a book — a witty and ironic essay, a jeu d’esprit, which comments on the film scene by scene. It’s not, however, a viewer’s guide, or a history of its making... Dyer has a lot of fun — he notes how Michael Hordern and Patrick Wymark try to out-enunciate each other in the briefing room... This long passage gives a good sense of Dyer’s convoluted, mock-academic style, a send-up of pseudiness. Well, I think that’s the case; it could also, like so much of the film plot, be a double bluff and he is actually an outrageous pseud... Ultimately, we know that Where Eagles Dare is a piece of gripping, stirring silliness — and that this book is in on the joke. Nonetheless, Dyer does leave a big thought lingering — those wet Sunday afternoons spent watching old war films have helped to shape our sense of self, our national memory.
The magpie eclecticism of Geoff Dyer is something to wonder at. His books are like party turns, each one different from the last while all bearing his distinctly puckish signature...Dyer makes for a droll guide, combining a scene-by-scene breakdown of the film’s silliness with gonzo riffs on its cultural legacy... In other words, this is less a work of film criticism than a jeu d’esprit, or even, as Dyer later admits, “a chapter from an autobiography”. Because it’s not the movie itself that holds him, or us, but its effectiveness as nostalgia, its throwback to a more innocent time when a man with a Schmeisser machine gun and a length of thin rope could seemingly win the war for Britain and be back home in time for tea.
It’s all highly entertaining, and a fine excuse to watch the movie again, even if it could have used a bit more research. Dyer says, for instance, that the producer hated screenwriter Alistair MacLean’s original “awful fucking title”, but doesn’t tell us what it was (Castle of Eagles). And he claims that a silenced handgun is “anachronistic-looking in relation to the second world war” and instead influenced by Bond movies. It’s not hard to find out that the British Special Operations Executive, as well as the American OSS, did in fact use a suppressed pistol, the Welrod.
Perhaps mere fact-checking is below the pay grade of the starry author who can issue a monograph on anything he likes. In any case, and to be fair, Dyer can’t help writing brilliant sentences even if he is not always trying very hard. “It’s all quiet in the noisy safety of the bullet-holed plane,” he writes, magically, near the end. And so it is.
Dyer may bandy around names like Friedrich Nietzsche and Adam Zagajewski, but he also discusses Airfix models and Action Man outfits. He is here to cheer, not sneer, and this is both an affectionate tribute to and a very funny critique of a film he never tires of rewatching... Throughout the book, Dyer gleefully highlights the film’s anachronisms, such as Eastwood’s ‘post-Elvis’ haircut and a type of helicopter that didn’t come into service until 1946. He raises an eyebrow at its implausibilities – just how does Burton know where in the castle the interrogation is happening? And he positively exults in pointing out the physical impossibilities: Eastwood’s mowing down of what seem like entire divisions of German troops with recoilless Schmeisser sub-machine guns; bottomless rucksacks that hold enough explosives to flatten the Alps... Broadsword Calling Danny Boy is a short, eccentric, hugely enjoyable work that succeeds admirably in capturing the daft exuberance of Where Eagles Dare.
Dyer admits that the film makes no claim to being high art and that the plot is sometimes preposterous — the rucksacks carried by Burton and Eastwood, he notes, appear to be bottomless, filled with endless supplies of explosives. But his brilliant descriptions of the film’s key scenes leave us in little doubt that the relentless action and the twists and turns of the plot are viscerally rewarding.
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Dyer’s wry humour is everywhere evident, as when he describes Eastwood’s trademark squint (“Eastwood has basically squinted his way through five decades of superstardom”), or when, as an aside, he wonders if the castle has a well-stocked stationery cupboard. “There is never a dull moment in Where Eagles Dare,” he writes, and nor is there in this book.
Without wishing to suggest that Dyer has given the film too little of his time, it is notable that he never touches on how much the director, Brian G Hutton, gets done through reaction shots – it might have been called How Faces Stare – or the skill with which he alternates scenes of languid exposition with long passages of silence, or just how much the drama of this overtly thespy film turns on moments of impersonation and performance... But Dyer’s use of irrational thinking is not interpretive or poetic. It is sardonic and parodic – he points out, for example, that you only hear about places being called impregnable once they’ve been impregnated against the odds, so that the word has become synonymous with “extremely vulnerable to infiltration and attack”... If we aren’t at all aware of a film’s generic context, we are probably watching the wrong movie. But if we concentrate too much on this knowledge, or begin to flaunt it, we risk becoming “mere pedants”, enemies of Eastwood’s reported on-set mantra: “Let’s not overthink this.”