RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES!
By Lee Pfeiffer
The release of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds has thrust Enzo G. Castellari, the director of the Italian WWII pic that inspired it, back into the spotlight. This has resulted in a re-examination of his work, which has been relegated to cult status outside of his native Italy. Severin Films, which is fast becoming a major source of first-class presentations of otherwise neglected films, is honoring Castellari with the U.S. home Blu-ray edition of the director's 1969 WWII adventure Eagles Over London. Even fans of Castellari's Inglorious Bastards (note the spelling difference for the Tarantino version), probably are unfamiliar with this ambitious, relatively big budget 1969 film that was a hit in Italy, but was virtually unseen in America or England. Thanks to Severin, and Tarantino, who continues to champion Castellari's work, the movie can finally be seen and judged by English-language audiences. The film is highly impressive on all levels and one realizes the frustration that Castellari must have felt in having his achievement virtually unseen outside of mainland Europe.
The most surprising aspect of the production is the sweeping combat sequences, particularly the stunning recreation of the British defeat at Dunkirk. Castellari fills this opening scene with literally a cast of thousands and the bombardment of the helpless Brits is very effectively staged. The story itself is quite intriguing, combining elements of espionage, romance and the fury of battle. One of the weakest links is the casting of Europe's version of Mount Rushmore, Frederick Stafford, in the lead role. The ruggedly handsome French superstar doesn't ruin the film, but his emotionless performance is overshadowed by virtually every other actor. The central plot concerns a group of German saboteurs who use the chaos of the Dunkirk retreat to murder British soldiers, assume their identities and penetrate London. Here, they stage devastating attacks on high security complexes even as the Brits frantically seek to stop them. Stafford is involved romantically with sexy Evelyn Stewart, who, in turn, is torn between Stafford and Van Johnson (miscast as the only British air commander with a completely American accent.) The love triangle shtick is fortunately just window-dressing, as the espionage elements are suspenseful and thoroughly engrossing. (Stafford doesn't suspect that best friend and fellow officer Renzo Palmer is actually the leader of the spy ring.)
Although lavish production values were expended on the Dunkirk sequence, the film's budget limitations become obvious in the scenes depicting the Luftwaffe attacks over London. Here, Castellari gets top marks for creatively incorporating real battle footage, miniatures and close-ups to rather effectively convey the chaos in the skies.Several sub-plots center on the efforts of the Nazi infiltrators to avoid detection. (The group is lead by Sergio Leone stock company veteran Luigi Pistilli). The gun battles between the saboteurs and the Brits are suspenseful and very effectively staged. If you can get past the patchwork casting, which often resembles a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, you'll find the film to be impressive on virtually every level.
As usual, Severin Films has included some interesting bonus features including a recent conversation between Tarantino and Castellari, who sheds some fascinating insights on how B-list American actors found new careers in the Italian cinema. Another bonus feature is a crudely shot, but highly enjoyable recording of Tarantino introducing a screening of Eagles in an L.A. art house with Castellari in attendance. The chat between the two on stage is as revealing as it is enjoyable, with even the director expressing frustration at having cast Stafford in the lead role. Curiously, the film was known as The Battle of Britain in Italy, but the title was changed in other markets to avoid confusion with Harry Saltzman's epic movie that not only bore the same name, but was released the same year! Other extras include trailers for this film and Inglorious Bastards.Anyone with an appreciation of Italian cinema will find this a worthwhile addition to their library.