When it’s on: Monday, 21 December (10.30 am)
I’ve never been a great fan of Second World War movies made as action adventure, I guess because as a History student I tend to believe it’s a subject that ought to be treated more seriously. I don’t want to sound like a killjoy and, when they’re done well, as in the classic Where Eagles Dare, these films can be very good fun, however I far prefer titles like Saving Private Ryan, or the British entries from the 1950s that show the consequences and emotional toll that being involved in warfare can take on people. All the same, there was clearly a market for this sort of fare, inspired by countless comic books and boys’ own yarns, and it took an arch entertainment figure like Sir Lew Grade to finance the likes of Escape to Athena, which offered thrills, exotic locations and an all-star line-up.
Filmed entirely on the Greek island of Rhodes, it’s a fantastic looking film. The opening and closing shots allow director George Cosmatos to serve up sweeping shots of the topography, the buildings clinging to mountainsides, monasteries built atop high plateaus, all framed by gorgeous seas and endless blue skies. Lovely. But that’s the highlight, the script having a sense of going through the motions and largely wasting its ensemble cast. And what a cast! As was the tradition in these films, Escape to Athena features a galaxy of stars, led by Roger Moore who at the time was at the height of his James Bond pomp. Fancying a change of roles after years playing heroes, Moore signed up on the basis that he would be a German commandant, however the screenplay made him an Austrian and a sympathetic Nazi, a former antiques dealer who is only present in Greece to excavate his prison camp for buried treasure. Once Stefanie Powers’s dancer arrives, his thoughts quickly turn to wooing her, and he soon throws in his lot with the freedom fighters and prisoners after they have taken over. It would be nice to say that the role brings out a tougher edge in Moore, whose playing of 007 came with a cheeky raised eyebrow, but in truth his German accent is pretty terrible (the standard dropping of German words like ‘und’ into his sentences is about all it amounts to) and he has little air of authority. Far more believable is Michael Sheard as his Sergeant, another Nazi part for the actor who was a ‘go to guy’ for fascist roles and only cast because the producers failed to recruit a bigger star, and even his austere playing collapses over the course of the picture.
On the side of the angels, Telly Savalas is probably the highlight. Playing Zeno, a former monk who has since shacked up with Claudia Cardinale’s brothel madame and head of the local resistance movement, there’s a sense of purpose to him that’s largely missing elsewhere. He gets some good action scenes, though the best one goes to Elliott Gould who enjoys a motorbike chase through the narrow back streets of the Greek town that’s breathtakingly shot. Gould’s role is a strange one. Oscillating between action hero and fey comic relief, spewing out a string of wisecracks, it’s as though his part was two separate ones and at some stage they were merged into his. David Niven plays an archaeologist who’s now a prisoner of war and planning his escape. By this stage nearly 70, he featured in a project that was being produced by his son, David Niven Jr, and was clearly too old for the part, perhaps also beginning to show signs of the motor neurone disease that would be the end of him a few years later. Richard Roundtree and Sonny Bono are fellow star names who add to the roster of prisoners. None are especially well characterised, the latter two especially being handed a few action scenes each but otherwise given little to do. The biggest waste is Cardinale, capable of demonstrating endless levels of emotion and sensuousness and yet existing here solely to provide a moll for Savalas.
The story is largely about people on the make. Moore’s Otto Hecht is happy enough to sit out the war in his benevolently run camp, sending the ‘finds’ his prisoners dig up to his sister in Switzerland whilst avoiding the close attentions of the local SS officer, played by the late Anthony Valentine in sadistic Colditz mode. Knowing that Allied forces are on their way, Zeno leads an assault on the POW camp to take it over, which involves Hecht switching sides rather than be killed, and then the liberators turn their attention to the local monastery atop Mount Athena. The former prisoners go because Zeno persuades them that the building is stuffed with Byzantine antiques, but the reality is it’s a German garrison that contains a V-2 rocket. The mission turns into one of rescue, freeing the monks who are trapped there and stopping the missile from being launched.
As the action ramps up in these later scenes, Escape to Athena becomes a better film, though it’s the usual business of production line Nazis being decimated by gun toting heroes. But it takes a long time getting there, the first half focusing more on comedy, especially from the leaden Gould who nevertheless gets a great in-joke moment with William Holden, putting in a lovely little cameo that references his role in Stalag 17 (Holden was hanging around the set as he was married to Powers at the time). It sank both critically and at the box office, audience’s tastes no longer in tune with war films played as light adventure yarns, and its seventies roots are betrayed by a closing shot that depicts the town in modern times before the credits roll and a Heatwave song – nothing wrong with the tune, but it’s hopelessly out of place here – plays. There’s some fun to be had in Escape to Athena, and the sense that it’s trying its best to please the viewer is there, but all told it’s a bit of a limp experience. Despite that, the Greek influenced score by Lalo Schifrin is nice, and the photography’s a winner, suggesting the cast and crew were assembled with the promise of a fine shoot on sun-kissed Rhodes. It all looks rather voluptuous on the Blu-Ray I watched.
Escape to Athena: **