Monday, 19 November 2012


After a year of blogging, I decided I’d pull back on the usual level of repetition. Time to repeat other things, instead. Listening to Alistair Cooke for more years than I care to mention, I took note of the level of repetition in his weekly radio shows. And I repeatedly peppered my blog with phrases geared to helping writers. I did so as a matter of policy.
   This, though, is not a blog set down exclusively for writers. I could sculpt in that direction, by curating links to handy articles. Rambling, generating waffle, takes far less time than sifting the internet looking to share crumbs of gold from the digital pan.
   While other bloggers toil at prospecting in the data-stream, I sit by the campfire jawing away. Links to handy articles are golden. My blog posts are 90% hot air. I must think of readers as well as writers. With that in mind, it’s time to state the bleedin’ obvious. If you watched a movie, a TV show, or a play…if you read a rather annoying piece of blurb…if you thumbed through a comic book…
   Someone, somewhere, somewhen, somehow wrote it.
   How we respond to different types of fiction is irrelevant. Provided that we do respond. Even no response is a form of response. It doesn’t matter if you like a movie or dislike it. Plenty of people worked on it. You may be able to point the finger of blame at one person if you hate a movie. And that person may indeed be the writer.
   Occasionally, you’ll find yourself wrapped up in a story. To the extent that you overlook flaws, imperfections, hazy moments…and outright blunders. Sometimes blunders in fiction will set you thinking. If you spot them.
   Here’s one. Wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch. That’s a line from King Richard III, by noted action movie author William Shakespeare. You’ll find the quote in the third scene of the first act. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is making a point about places where eagles dare not perch.
   This text was truncated and became the title of a movie written by Alistair MacLean. Where Eagles Dare. The original meaning was cast aside. WHERE EAGLES DARE NOT. That is by the by. There are many glitches in the movie. I needn’t list them here. Save one.
   I thought I’d pull the story apart, concerning this one point, to see if I could provide a rough date for the secret mission which carries the burden of the plot. There’s a glitch. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched the movie. Hell, I’ve read the book more than once. Is the movie a great adaptation of the book?
   The book was based on the movie – not the other way round.
   Is the story any good? I am reminded of Treasure Island, in the sense that the story is utter nonsense from start to finish. That’s no fault. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve watched Where Eagles Dare.
   True, I’ve often questioned the inclusion of a helicopter in the story. The German Navy used helicopters, though not the American one featured in the film. MacLean wisely sticks to calling the mechanical beast a helicopter in his book, and just about gets away with it.
   Yes, I regularly bemoan the massive explosions accompanying fragmentation grenades in the movie world. The level of heroism put on display in many a war movie is often enough to earn the participants a fistful of Victoria Crosses, with whistles and bells attached. (That medal is mentioned sarcastically in MacLean’s book.)
   Does any of that matter, if I sit and absorb a mad story? No. Countless times I’ve watched that movie. It had to be pointed out to me that there’s a very peculiar item on the list of things that don’t quite tally. Something rather obvious.
   Now the movie is no historical document – except in the sense that it is a historical document of the movie-making process of the time. Where Eagles Dare was not constructed by Barbara Tuchman, William L. Shirer, or Anthony Beevor.
   I will not give away the deeper layers of plotting which make this mad story of interest. It is worth looking at the war-torn premise. We are in the murky depths of World War Two. The American General Carnaby is on a TOP SECRET mission.
   He’s headed for a rendezvous with his Russian counterparts. The topic under discussion at the meeting is OVERLORD: a complex scheme for the invasion of Normandy. Plans are in need of finalisation. Unfortunately, Carnaby’s aeroplane crashes – he is captured. Shortly thereafter, he is moved to an impregnable castle. The stage is set for a rescue mission. Enter our heroes.
   In reality, no such mission would go ahead. Allied forces would simply alter the invasion plan, and plant disinformation about Carnaby to minimise the damage and misdirect the enemy. (The enemy wouldn’t accept Carnaby at face-value. Why would so senior a planner be allowed to fly by a rather curious route across hotly-contested airspace…unless a double-bluff? They’d tie themselves in knots, thinking it over.)
   A rescue mission incorporating assassination of General Carnaby is the likeliest option. Something similar is proposed in the opening stages of the story – why not just flatten the castle with Carnaby in it?
   Well, that would make for a very short movie.
   When is the story set? Putting a time on the mission is tricky. Though not that tricky. The Americans are involved as allies and General Eisenhower’s name is invoked. In the movie, the phrase Second Front is used. OVERLORD is mentioned by name in the book.
   Critically, the main characters are warned that General Carnaby’s rescue is paramount. His exposure as a keeper of invasion secrets would push back plans for the second front, destroying any hope of an invasion this year.
   Historically, OVERLORD took place in 1944. We’ll be generous, and say that’s when the movie is set. Indicators? There are several. The accidental rehearsal for a Normandy invasion took place in August 1942, with the raid on Dieppe.
   This was no return to the continent, as envisioned at Churchill’s Casablanca summit in January 1943, but the Dieppe Raid was a start. Lessons had to be learned. They were learned the hard way. Heavily-defended ports may be attacked – but (short of neutron bombing) they are almost impossible to seize intact. The use of the target is at an end the moment the target is hit.
   Clearly, it is better to seize a piece of coastline and turn that into a port. By March 1943, the planning process was firming up. Come September 1943, the plans for portable harbours were approved. General Eisenhower was given command of OVERLORD in December 1943.
   Eisenhower took up position in January 1944. In that month, COSSAC – responsible for planning OVERLORD – made way for SHAEF. The SHAEF organisation is mentioned at the start of Where Eagles Dare.
   So the mission couldn’t occur before January 1944.
   OVERLORD went ahead at the start of June that year. Plans for OVERLORD were in flux right until implementation. How late in the day might the story happen? Not too late in the day. The mission occurs in snow.
   Without factoring in phases of the moon, weather, and availability of aircraft, we can be generous and assign a January/February timeline to Where Eagles Dare. The movie makes a point of the drop-zone’s wintry slopes being devoid of humanity from October through to April.
   Smith is the man of action. He leads his men from the drop-zone to the objective. With many a detour. Much of the action is implausible, though this is no fault in fiction. Book readers and movie viewers can get all they want of real life simply by wandering around not doing very much. Entertainment should be more entertaining than that.
   Countless times I’ve seen the film, and read the book. A major criticism of the movie is that radio messages are transmitted in clear speech. There is no encryption of messages. That’s done purely for the movies, to save time. There are concessions to encryption and encoding in the book.
   Insecure exposition concerning General Carnaby is also included in the story for convenience. “Why is this man so damned important?” A question asked at the briefing must go unanswered in real life. It’s poor security to explain General Carnaby’s importance to anyone in a position to be captured and interrogated on the mission to rescue him. However, the movie’s viewers must have the plot explained to them.
   So-called blunders like that are there to prod the story along. They are common. Consider the structural weirdness of having everyone in a multilingual movie speak one language. We know Smith suddenly speaks German as he enters into casual conversation when crossing a bridge, even though the only language moviegoers hear is English. Solution? We just put up with this movie convention. The movie must undergo dubbing and/or subtitling for foreign markets.
   Blunders. Movie conventions. Outright anachronisms. I haven’t mentioned the one that had to be pointed out to me. General Carnaby’s rendezvous with the Russians is set for the island of Crete. Bear in mind that the story can’t occur before January 1944.
   Crete was seized by German paratroop forces in 1941. That set me thinking. This is an Alistair MacLean story. Suppose Carnaby’s mission went ahead. He’d have conducted a covert landing on Crete, met resistance operatives, and made for the Russian rendezvous. All under the hateful gaze of enemy forces. Blunder? Hell no. What an Alistair MacLean story that would have made.


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