Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Alistair MacLean is one of those authors whose works were begging to be adapted to the silver screen, something he helped realize with his screenwriting talents. Where Eagles Dare is likely his most acclaimed work, following the story of Major Smith and his tiny group of commandos, parachuted behind enemy lines to break a general out of a Nazi fortress in the mountains. However, the mission is just a cover, and a much more insidious game is being played by both sides.
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Alistair MacLean Breaks into the Hyenas’ Den
The battlefronts are where history tends to turn its eyes in times of war, overshadowing in the process the smaller battles which allowed victory to be achieved in the bigger ones. This is especially true for intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies, whose grandest exploits are bound to remain shrouded in darkness. In his classic bestseller of the 60s Where Eagles Dare (turned into a movie by the same name), Alistair MacLean takes us on a ride through one little battle fought behind enemy lines.
The story takes little time to get going, introducing us to the rag-tag crew of misfits being hurried deep into German territory under the cover of night. They are to be parachuted into the mountains so they might infiltrate the nearby Nazi encampment, centred on the Schloss Adler, a fortress built on a jutting piece of rock surrounded by a deep valley.
Inside the Schloss Adler, only accessible by a questionably-secured cable car from the village below, is the target of the men’s mission: the American general Carnaby Jones, whose plane recently crash-landed in the area, leading to his capture by the Germans. Although they’re somewhat unclear on how, the men have to break him out in the course of the night.
However, things take a turn for the worse as they land on the mountain and one of the crewmen is found murdered after being separated from the others. Major Smith, the leader of the group, understands it can only mean one thing: there is a traitor among them, and possibly even more than one.
As a matter of fact, Major Smith knows quite a lot of things the others don’t, such as the true purpose of the mission he’s on. Though his own commander doesn’t even believe in his chances, Smith trudges onward through increasingly-dangerous scenarios and becomes enrolled in a game of traitors and double-crosses, with both his success and survival being far from guaranteed.
The Cinematic Experience of Where Eagles Dare
While books and movies do inherently exist in their own separate realms (due to the obvious differences between them), there is a certain amount of overlap between the two experiences, something I personally believe has been increasing the past few decades. However, it’s quite rare, in my experience at least, to come across a book like Where Eagles Dare, where we’re offered the type of experience I could only qualify as cinematic.
Doubtlessly, Alistair MacLean‘s proficiency as a screenwriter has influenced his writing to a large degree, and from what I understand, the screenplay and novelization for this book were being created in parallel. In other words, this is about as close as I remember being to the concept of reading a movie in the form of a novel.
How exactly does this translate to the writing in more practical terms? To begin with, the pace is noticeably frantic with new dangers and developments appearing virtually every couple of pages. The entire story takes place over the course of a single night, and virtually every minute of it carries some form of turbulence preventing us from ever feeling any kind of comfort.
Second, this also means Alistair MacLean doesn’t focus much on character or world-building. While he does have an unquestionable talent for describing the scenery, I wouldn’t really call his characters profound in any way. Like in many fast-paced espionage thrillers (both books and movies), they have a few clearly-defined character traits and their main purpose is utilitarian: to move the story along.
There are also numerous scenes in this book which, I believe, were written primarily with the idea of transplanting them onto the movie screen. I’m especially thinking of the two scenes where our heroes make judicious use of the cable car to both reach and leave the castle. They are likely two of the most tense and nail-biting scenes I’ve read in a very long time, a quality which bleeds over into the rest of the action.
Intelligence as a Weapon
Many espionage thrillers place a bit too much of a focus, in my opinion at least, on the physical prowess of its heroes and all the acrobatic feats they can achieve. There is definitely a time and place for it (which MacLean knows and follows wisely), but I’ve always found myself infinitely more fascinated by feats of intelligence and quick-thinking, which are Major Smith’s primary tools.
Virtually every single situation he finds himself in forces him to use his brain in order to deceive and outsmart his opponents, and there’s no shortage of variety in terms of the challenges he faces in this regard. From impersonating high-ranking officers and misleading lower-ranked troops to escaping a seemingly hopeless siege, we get to see him use every ounce of his resourcefulness, and of course, a small bit of luck for good measure.
Another aspect of Where Eagles Dare which kept me glued to the pages until the end is the complex game of cat-and-mouse being played behind the scenes. Without giving too many spoilers, we become privy to the true purpose of the mission relatively early on, which also turns the story into a bit of a mystery, one challenging the reader to make the correct deductions about the few characters under suspicion.
The ending is probably one of the better one’s I’ve had the pleasure of reading recently, stringing you along just until the point you think everything is over, and then giving one final, powerful twist for the send-off. In my opinion, Alistair MacLean is one of the best writers of the 20th century in terms of his ability to mislead the reader and pleasantly surprise them with unexpected turns which remain congruent with the rest of the story and its internal logic.
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There is one final aspect I’d like to turn my attention to for a moment, and it’s the author’s portrayal of the Nazi soldiers and commanders. While he does naturally make portray them as the bad guys, he does go out of his way to remind us of their humanity on numerous occasions, and from an intellectual point of view, he shows their best as being equal to the British best. Ultimately, the end up feeling like real people rather than the caricatures they’re so often turned into.
The Final Verdict
Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean is a prime example of a cinematic espionage thriller perfectly laid out in the form of a novel. It has everything from fast-paced and intelligent action to mystery and even bits of well-placed comedy to round the whole thing off.
If you enjoy World War II stories about small units of commandos performing highly-important missions by primarily using their own intellectual acuity, then you’ll probably end up swallowing this book in a session or two.
Alister Stuart MacLean
(April 21, 1922 – February 2, 1987)
Alistair Stuart MacLean was a Scottish novelist who published many thrillers and adventure stories over the course of his lifetime, in addition to also being a screenwriter and producer. Among his many works are the classics Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, both of which were turned into widely-acclaimed movies in the 1960s.