From busty blondes throwing themselves at the leading man, to stereotyped gay villains and lingering shots of the stars in some vertigo-inducing and frighteningly dangerous-looking actual locations, The Eiger Sanction is the very definition of unreconstructed male fantasy. Ostensibly a cold war spy thriller with the irony of the Connery Bonds, suffused with the Man With No Name’s trademark amorality, Clint Eastwood’s fourth film as director is as ill-fitting in the twenty-first century as its apparent sexism, racism and homophobia would suggest – but none the less fun for that. It’s a product of its time, being the approximate mid-point between Where Eagles Dare and Escape from Alcatraz.
Eastwood plays Professor Jonathan Hemlock, a retired mountaineer and government assassin now teaching classical art, while acquiring it on the black market; when Hemlock’s old friend Henri Baq is assassinated, Hemlock is coerced out of retirement by his albino ex-boss Dragon, joining an expedition up the north face of the Eiger in order to identify and “sanction” the second of two men responsible.
A huge chunk of the first half of the film – we don’t get to the Eiger until well beyond the hour mark – is taken up with Hemlock’s training at the Arizona desert resort hotel of another old friend Ben Bowman (Kennedy), where essentially the same story plays out twice, Hemlock identifying and deciding upon a course of action while simultaneously attempting an insurmountable peak. It’s the resolution he arrives at in Arizona that necessitates him thereafter travelling to Switzerland at all, Hemlock being a typically Eastwood character, deliberately making things more difficult for himself than they need be. Eastwood is just as terse as elsewhere in his career, balancing the dry humour of his 1970s films with the impassive qualities he brought to the earlier Sergio Leone movies.
What’s interesting is that as a director, Eastwood takes the script (based upon the 1972 novel by Rod Whitaker, writing as Trevanian) and underplays Hemlock’s personability while simultaneously making him popular and venerating his talents – much as Eastwood himself has always earned respect by his antipathy towards compromise, becoming hugely likeable despite his generally demure exterior. There’s almost a sense of hero worship in the way he depicts a man so driven as to undertake an unnecessarily Herculean task with the aim of performing a simple act of retribution, as if the means would in some way justify the ends.
With its swift bursts of fisticuffs, languorous focus on unforgiving landscapes, and contemporary comedic non-sequiturs, the unrestored non-anamorphic widescreen print on the review disc is the perfect metaphor for the non-revisionist content on display. Not one of Eastwood’s classics, The Eiger Sanction is nevertheless a paradigm of the actor’s 1970s work.
THE EIGER SANCTION / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: CLINT EASTWOOD / SCREENPLAY: HAL DRESNER, WARREN MURPHY, ROD WHITAKER / STARRING: CLINT EASTWOOD, GEORGE KENNEDY, VONETTA McGEE, JACK CASSIDY / RELEASE DATE: 11TH APRIL