Escape to Athena (1979)

When it’s on: Monday, 21 December (10.30 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

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: **

On her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

When it’s on: Saturday, 30 June (2.20 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The one that doesn’t have Sean Connery in it turns out to be one of the best entries in the Bond series. On her Majesty’s Secret Service feels like the black sheep of the Broccoli-Saltzman family, basically because it starred George Lazenby, appearing in his sole Bond flick and – Diamonds are Forever aside (which, in fairness, is where it belongs) – splitting the Connery-Moore eras.

Worse still, a leaner box office return than previous films experienced pretty much did for Lazenby. By then, he’d already resigned on the advice of his agent, who suggested Bond was an anachronism in the era of Easy Rider. This made him an easy target for those within the production who were looking for someone to blame. Rather unfairly cited in a number of anecdotes as taking advantage of his new-found ‘big time’ status, the Aussie’s stint was viewed as a disaster and had a line drawn firmly beneath it once Connery was persuaded (with lots of money) to return to active duty. So much for the actor and so much indeed for the film, which was treated like the Bond we’d all rather forget about for some years after.

But missing it for this reason would be a huge mistake. The meaningless thrills of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice were set aside in favour of an attempt to return 007 to his literary roots. Peter Hunt, who’d edited the first three films and served as second unit director on the next two, finally made the step up to the big chair with an agenda to try something different. This meant a film that followed the book more closely than before and a Bond who showed distinctly human qualities, not least falling in love and getting married. There’s a noteworthy lack of gadgetry, meaning he has to rely on his wits and skills in times of peril. The action mostly takes place in the Swiss Alps. Blofeld’s (Telly Savalas) lair seems to be on the roof of the world, in reality a revolving restaurant in the Bernese Oberland. But this is an Ernst Stavro with the kind of balls utterly lacking in the insipid performance of You Only Live Twice’s Donald Pleasance. Savalas is dynamic and charismatic, capable of making people follow him in his wicked schemes through sheer force of personality, whilst Pleasance just appeared a bit creepy.

The film features one of my favourite action sequences in any Bond film. Finally escaping from Blofeld, 007 has to ski his way all the way down to the village below, an amazing sequence of stunt work and brilliant photography that called on the skills of ski racer Willie Bogner Jr and cameraman Johnny Jordan, who shot from a parachute harness that was suspended from a helicopter. Making it to the foot of the slope, Bond tries to elude his pursuers by blending in with the townspeople, only to suffer increased nerves and paranoia as they close in. For a moment, all he can do is sit down and wait it out, utterly defeated. It doesn’t last, but there’s a refreshing sense of Bond as a human being, one with limits that may be beyond yours and mine but finite all the same. It’s the hint of vulnerability that Connery rarely showed, particularly in his later films, and it works.

Throw in his declaration of love to Tracy (Diana Rigg) and the charm he has to use to get any girl, and it becomes clear this is a very different Bond to the ‘other fellow.’ Whilst Rigg is in fine form as a feisty heiress who’s worth the chase, it’s mostly down to Lazenby, who came to the project as a blank canvas and was willing to be shaped by Hunt into the Bond the director wanted. His is a sensitive portrayal, almost naive in its openness, and it makes for a great change. Hunt wanted to persist with him and make Diamonds are Forever together, beginning the film with the tragic event that closes On her Majesty’s Secret Service. But Lazenby was already gone and Connery had signed up, which ended the associations with the franchise of both actor and director.

What a shame, given the promising direction this one had in mind for Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It’s been suggested that On her Majesty’s Secret Service might have been the best Bond of them all had Connery taken the lead role rather than Lazenby. I prefer to wonder at what Diamonds are Forever might have been if Lazenby had stayed…

On her Majesty’s Secret Service: *****