Eagle's Wing

Director: Anthony Harvey
Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston, Harvey Keitel

Several times in my past reviews I have written for this web site, I have expressed my desire to someday direct my own movie. At the same time I wrote that wish, I confidently stated that I could take on any film genre and make my movie a good example of that film genre, ranging from kung fu chopsocky to serious art drama. But recently, I realized that there is one type of movie that I would have a serious problem tackling, and that would be animated movies. For starters, I cannot for the life of me draw very well, so what I would sketch for my animators to bring to life would be downright ugly. This realization of mine made me realize a couple of things. First, I might not be as talented a potential movie director I previously thought I would be - there have to be other film genres I would find difficulty with. Second, with a little more thought I realized that with every film director, there are some genres they would find extremely hard to impossible to pull off. Take Woody Allen for instance. He has certainly made a name for himself with the films he has made. Though a closer look at his resume will reveal that all the movies he has directed have been comedies, serious dramas, or a mix between comedy and seriousness. To date, he has not dabbled in genres such as horror or giant monster films. There is a reason for that, of course - Allen seems to understand comedies and straight dramas very well, and does not seem to understand other genres. Nothing wrong with that - nobody is perfect, and they say that you should take your strengths and work with what you know if you want to be successful. But to be honest, if Allen were to make a slasher movie, my curiosity would be so strong that I would be first in line to see the movie on opening day. And I suspect that the final gross of the movie would beat the grosses of some of his most recent movies.

Thinking about it some more, it is not just individual directors who seem to find it difficult to tackle certain movie genres, but countries as a whole. Take Canada, for instance. Due to the fact most Canadian films rely on government funding, it is hard to get support to make "fun" movies. Because of this lack of support for commercial filmmakers, the few "fun" movies that get funded tend to not be very good, like the comedy Men With Brooms and the caper movie Foolproof. In England the situation is somewhat better - they do make more commercial films - but even then some kinds of genres seem out of reach for British filmmakers, such as action-oriented genres. In his autobiography What's It All About?, British actor Michael Caine had this to say about his movie The Fourth Protocol, a British production: "We wound up with a wordy action movie which, although it was quite a good picture and did fair business, never had the speed or pace of the best American action movies. I remember an American once saying to me that the Americans made moving pictures and the British made talking pictures and I agree with him. Part of the failure of the British film industry to make any impact on the world market has been due to this failing. A lot of British films are not even talking pictures, they are photographed radio. Also, if you're going to have a talking picture, the talk had better be brilliant a la Woody Allen, for that's the only way you'll get away with it. We do produce moving picture directors, but they flee to Hollywood where they can join up with moving picture writers. Ridley Scott and his brother Tony, Adrian Lyne and Alan Parker spring to mind. It's difficult to do in England and I'm living proof of it."

I do think that Caine was being a little hard on the British film industry with that statement. Even when he wrote that statement in the early 1990s, there had been some moving British films made, like the James Bond films. And in recent years, there have been British movies like Attack The Eagle's WingBlock and Kingsman: The Secret Service that move just as well as Hollywood product. Still, for the most part Caine is correct - even today, British filmmakers seem to have problems tackling action-oriented genres. One such genre is the western. How many westerns made by British filmmakers can you name? Off the top of my head, all I can think of are three - the comedy Carry On Cowboy, the kiddie western The Phantom Kid, and Eagle's Wing. The first two were pretty bad in my opinion, so when I sat down to watch Eagle's Wing recently, my hopes were not very high. The events of the movie take place in the American southwest during the age of the cowboy. A man by the name of Pike (Sheen, That Championship Season) makes a living as a trapper with his partner Henry (Keitel, Wrong Turn At Tahoe). One day, Henry is killed by hostile Indians, and the now-alone Pike is soon desperate enough to steal an Indian chief's prized horse (named "Eagle's Wing") when he accidentally comes across the chief's funeral ceremony. Nearby around this time, an Indian by the name of White Bull (Waterston, Who Killed Mary What's 'er Name?) attacks a stagecoach and takes a white woman by the name of Judith (Caroline Langrishe, Lovejoy) hostage. Eventually, White Bull's path crosses with Pike's, and when White Bull eventually manages to get hold of Eagle's Wing and take off with the horse, Pike begins a relentless pursuit to get back the horse that he has grown fond of.

Although I mentioned in the previous paragraph that British filmmakers have made some moving films over the years, more likely than not at this point you have some doubts that the British filmmakers behind Eagle's Wing were unable to pull off a kind of moving film that is soooo American in tone. After all, the typical American western is packed with action. So I guess to immediately quench your curiosity the first thing I should discuss about this movie is its action sequences. I feel I should mention that the other movies in the career of director Anthony Harvey (They Might Be Giants) were all comedies and serious dramas - another unpromising sign. But as it turns out, the action sequences in the movie are neither overly good nor bad. On the negative side, the action sequences aren't particularly exciting - you don't really feel that the characters for the most part part are really struggling to keep alive as they battle their opponents. Some viewers might also be disappointed that the action sequences in the movie are not only few in number, most of them also last much shorter in length than typical action scenes in Hollywood westerns. But at the same time, the action in Eagle's Wing is not without merit. There is often a slight sloppy feeling to the choreography that makes the action come across as more realistic than usual, even if it lacks a hard and grab by the throat edge. Also, director Harvey avoids sensationalizing the action. He not only more often than not just steps back and let the action unfold in a fashion that feels natural and realistic, he also for the most part not adding crutches like music over the action.

I think there are some viewers who are tired of hyperkinetic action (western or otherwise) that may appreciate the more down to earth action in this movie. While I admit some viewers might think otherwise, I do think at the same time they'll see other aspects of Harvey's direction that are worthy of merit. The general feel of the movie, for one thing. In this western, there is a real feeling of a wild and untamed world. There's only one (brief) scene that takes place in what could be considered civilization; the rest of the movie takes place in what many could be considered a wasteland. You feel the dirt and sand in the air, precious little plant life is seen, and it's a world where dark clouds and fog sometimes come to play. It's not surprising then that in this desolate world, Harvey also puts in a sombre and sometimes downright sad edge. While occasionally there is a little joy, like when the character of Pike gets his hands on that precious horse and dreams of nothing but good things happening to him from now, most of the movie is one struggle after another with all of the characters. There is fighting, of course, but also struggles with other things such as foreign languages (there are no subtitles at any point in the movie.) While Harvey deserves most of the credit for Eagle's Wing's biting feel, some credit also has to go to music composer Marc Wilkinson (The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu). Not only does he wisely keep quiet for the most part when there is action, when he does dare to add a few notes to the backdrop, his music feels appropriately restrained and downbeat - quite unlike music from American or Italian westerns, but in a good way. And as the cinematographer, Billy Williams (Gandhi) manages the delicate balance of capturing this bleak world while at the same attracting the audience's eye to keep them transfixed enough to be curious as to what new bleakness will be presented next.

However, while the look and feel of Eagle's Wing is strong, there is all the same a strong feeling of dissatisfaction with the package. One big problem with the movie are the characters. Now, I am not placing any of the blame for this on the cast - all the actors in the movie do their best with what they are given. The problem is that quite often they are not given enough to work with. For example, take Sam Waterston's White Bull character. Not only does he remain almost completely silent through the entire movie, we even have to wait until the closing credits of the movie to find out what his character's name is. As a result, it's really hard to figure out what makes this character tick. It's even worse for the character of Judith. While she spends most of the movie as White Bull's captive, at the end of the movie you'll realize that her presence (as well as the presence of a subplot about a rescue party pursuing her) was completely unnecessary and could have easily been cut out. But it's not just the character construction that makes the script weak. There are several characters that simply disappear with no explanation, like Judith's brother. But worse than that is that the movie ends not only on a note that feels unfinished, but failing to have made a point on just what the purpose of this western was. I honestly don't know if this western was made to entertain, enlighten, or make some kind of statement. To be fair to Eagle's Wing, the version of the movie I saw was the American version, which was cut by over ten minutes. So it's possible some explanation got removed in the process. But all the same I got the feeling that the uncut version would still suffer from an underwritten script. Don't get me wrong - there is merit in this British movie that makes it move. It's just that the movie as a whole moves in a way that often makes for a very bumpy ride.

(Posted January 9, 2021)

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See also: Bad Company, The Stalking Moon, The Wild Rovers