Intertwining themes of World War II in Where Eagles Dare

Where Eagles Dare, a classic film from 1966, is based on the theme of World War II. Alistair Stuart MacLean has written the novel, having the same name as the film. The film’s adaptation was based on the same literary piece, with a few tweaks here and there. Alistair MacLean also wrote the screenplay for the movie, with Brian G. Hutton being the director. The film hit the box office two years after the release of the novel. The novel, along with the film, were both huge successes.

Where Eagles Dare (1968) - Film poster
Where Eagles Dare (1968) – Film poster

A real dazzler of thriller, with vivid action, fine set pieces of suspense, and a virtuoso display of startling plot twists

NEW YORK TIMES on Where Eagles Dare

Few notes about the author and the director

Alistair Stuart MacLean was a 20th-century Scottish novelist. He is one of the best-selling fiction authors of all time. He is the author of twenty-nine novels, and all of them were world bestsellers. All of his works were popular thrillers and adventure stories. Many of his notable works were adapted as films like Where Eagles Dare itself. MacLean has also written the screenplay for few films. Apart from Where Eagles Dare, he has also written the novel and screenplay of Puppet on a Chain, Where Eight Bells Toll, and Breakheart Pass.

Alistair MacLean
Alistair MacLean – One of the best-selling fiction authors of all time

Brian George Hutton was an American actor and film director. The action flicks Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes are among his major credits. After the release of Night Watch in 1973, Hutton took a seven-year hiatus from filmmaking due to a lack of passion. He returned to filmmaking for a brief period in 1980, directing The First Deadly Sin and High Road to China. In the 1980s, Hutton stopped making films entirely and went into real estate. The film was shot on location in Austria and Bavaria.

Brian G. Hutton
Brian G. Hutton – An actor and a director

It wasn’t something I wanted to do to begin with – not my life’s work… When I finished the second Elizabeth Taylor picture I thought, ‘Well, what am I wasting my life doing this for?’ I mean, a gorilla could have made those movies. All I had to do was yell ‘Action’ and ‘Cut-Print’ because everybody was doing what they had to do anyway.

Brian G. Hutton, after the release of Night Watch

Where Eagles Dare‘s World War II subject

The film itself is a World War II action movie with the filming taking place in Austria and Bavaria. The nitty-gritty aspect of the film along with other small elements contributes to the thematic design.

Gist of the main story (Spoiler Alert)

One winter night, seven men and a woman, part of a team of British Special Forces, land themselves on a mountainside in wartime Germany. Their target: an ostensibly impenetrable Alpine stronghold known as the Castle of Eagles or Eagle’s Castle, which serves as the German Secret Service’s headquarters. Their mission: to save an American general who has crashed before Nazi interrogators and to make him disclose the secret about their D-day plans. However, such a risky expedition was never going to be easy; tensions quickly rise as team members disappear, and the true goal proves to be far more difficult than anticipated.

Alpine Corps uniforms

The Alpine Corps were also called the Alpenkorps. During World War I, the Imperial German Army established the Alpenkorps, a makeshift mountain unit of division strength. The Allies of Germany considered it to be one of the best in the German Army. It was active from 1914 till 1919. The Alpine Corps had a significant role in the film, contributing to the World War theme.

All the members of the rescue team were experts at survival behind enemy lines. Secrecy and stealth were the most important thing for the mission to succeed. Mingling with the German Army was a part of their mission. The American general was imprisoned within the Eagle’s Castle, and there were military barracks nearby. The military barracks were no ordinary military barracks as they were the training headquarters of the Alpine Corps. The rescue team was dressed in the uniform of the German Alpine Corps.

Where Eagles Dare - German Alpine Corps uniform
From left, Clint Eastwood playing the role of Lt. Schaffer, and on beside him Richard Burton as Jonathan Smith; both dressed in the uniform of the German Alpine Corps.
The Nazi salute

The Nazi salute, also known as the Hitler salute or the Sieg Heil, is a welcome gesture employed in Nazi Germany. The salute is made by straightening the right arm from the neck and extending it into the air. The Nazi Party, whose leader was Adolf Hitler, adopted this salute in the 1930s. The main intention of the salute was to prove Hitler’s devotion and to honor Germany.

The flag of Nazi Germany featured a red flag with a Swastika on a white disc. Swastika being the principal symbol of the Nazis, the party’s flag, badge, and armband all included this symbol. These elements are visible throughout the film.

Where Eagles Dare - The Nazi Salute
Derren Nesbitt performs the Nazi salute as Major von Hapen.

Major von Hapen (from the image above) was a Gestapo Major. The Gestapo was Nazi Germany’s and Germany-occupied Europe’s official secret police.

Junkers Ju 52 scene

Junkers Ju 52 is a transport aircraft. The German aviation company Junkers developed and produced the Junkers Ju 52. Germany acquires thousands of Ju 52s as a mainstay of military transport after Nazi Germany rose to power. Between 1931 and 1952, the Ju 52 was in production. In a civilian capacity, it served as a passenger and freight carrier for over 12 airlines. Large numbers served in a military capacity, flying on nearly all the fronts of World War II as troop and freight transport; it was also briefly utilized as a bomber. Hitler also used a Ju 52 as his personal transport, which was called Immelmann II.

A Junkers Ju 52 was there as a transport for the rescue team in both the opening and closing scenes of the film. The airfield, from which the team made their escape, was also having Ju 52s. It also had the symbol of Nazis on it, the Swastika.

Where Eagles Dare -Junkers Ju 52
The opening scene of the film – Junkers Ju 52 used as a transport by the rescue team
The Castle of Eagles

The Castle of Eagles was also called the Eagle’s Castle or Schloß Adler (pronounced as Schloss Adler) in the film. The castle shots of the film took place in the Festung Hohenwerfen in Werfen, Austria. Hohenwerfen Castle is a medieval rock castle in the Salzach valley, 40 kilometers south of Salzburg, perched on a 623-meter cliff overlooking the Austrian market town of Werfen. The Berchtesgaden Alps and the neighboring Tennen Mountains surround the castle. Archbishops of Salzburg built the castle in the 11th century. During World War II, the castle served as a Nazi education camp. After the war, the Austrian rural police utilized it as a training center until 1987. The castle currently functions as a museum, and it’s a hotspot for tourists.

In the film, the Castle of Eagles was the headquarters of the German Secret Service. The Mosquito (a British aircraft introduced during World War II) crash-landed 10 miles away from the castle. The American general who was inside that aircraft was then taken for interrogation to the castle. The castle was well-named because only an eagle can get into it, and it was only accessible by cable car (ropeway). The main objective of the rescue team was to infiltrate the castle and extract the American general.

Hohenwerfen Castle, in Werfen, Austria
Hohenwerfen Castle, in Werfen, Austria
The MP 40 and the Luger pistol

Heinrich Vollmer invented the MP 40, or Maschinenpistole 40, a 9mm German submachine gun, in 1938 in Nazi Germany. The MP 40 was also referred to as the Schmeisser by the Allied troops. This weapon was the infantryman’s standard weapon of choice, and the majority of the German soldiers carried this weapon. The Axis countries utilized it throughout Word War II.

The MP 40 submachine gun used by Clint Eastwood in the film
The MP 40 submachine gun used by Clint Eastwood in the film

The Luger is a semi-automatic pistol. Georg Luger invented this weapon. It is well-known for its wide usage by Germany during World War I and World War II. The Luger and the MP 40 both were seen in the film. The rescue team, as well as the German troops, carried these weapons.

The Luger pistol used by Derren Nesbitt in film
The Luger pistol used by Derren Nesbitt in film


Through the plot of Where Eagles Dare, director Brian G. Hutton effectively depicts the interwoven themes of World War II. The narrative is so engrossing, it will keep the audience’s attention until the very end. This gripping World War II thriller is full of spectacular action sequences and surprising turns, making it a modern classic. Being a reader of the novel, I can vouch for the same. With just minimal changes, the primary story’s fundamental plot was preserved. The novel by Alistair MacLean is less violent than the film, which is the only notable variation between the two. Where Eagles Dare was a box office success in 1966, and audiences will appreciate it again now, which is the film’s ultimate charm.

Further Reading:

Sagnik Sengupta

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