The action films of Geoff Dyer’s youth gave him the impression that the Second World War was largely won by small bands of daredevil heroes carrying out covert do-or-die raids. Cockleshell Heroes, The Guns of Navarone and The Heroes of Telemark are all mainstays of the genre, but the ultimate exemplar is the beloved 1968 blockbuster Where Eagles Dare, directed by Brian G Hutton.
Alistair MacLean’s screenplay has a small band of Allied special forces operatives infiltrating an ‘impregnable’ Nazi fortress in the Bavarian Alps to rescue a captive American general in possession of crucial intelligence. There are double and triple crosses, thrilling action sequences and mayhem on a major scale. The film was a box-office hit and has been endlessly repeated on television. It’s a favourite of many, including Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino.
In Broadsword Calling Danny Boy – the title comes from the commandos’ radio call sign – Dyer sets out to describe what happens on screen, scene by scene, and reflect upon its meaning. It’s the sort of mission he has undertaken before, in Zona, his 2012 book about Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic art-house classic Stalker.
Where Eagles Dare is, of course, considerably less elevated in its artistic pretensions than Stalker, and the heart often sinks when a ‘serious’ critic descends from on high to scrutinise popular culture. Books that open, as this one does, with references to Martin Heidegger’s ontological thinking are usually