Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Escape to Athena (1979)

Escape to Athena sounds less like a war movie and more like a travelogue, which is in itself quite apt given that the stars of this were clearly having a lovely holiday in Rhodes! And what a star studded cast Lew Grade assembled for this picture; Roger Moore, Telly Savalas, David Niven, Elliot Gould, Stefanie Powers, Richard Roundtree, Sonny Bono and Claudia Cardinale. As Powers herself said:

"The names had been needed to raise the money. Think about it. I was there to catch the TV audiences and younger men; Richard Roundtree to bring in the black movie-goers; Niv for the older generation; Rog 'cos he's handsome, and a very, very big star; Claudia was there to catch the older roving eyes; Elliot because, as he said, he was under contract; Sonny already owned most of Las Vegas but still desperately wanted to be an actor; and Telly - well, nobody quite knew why he was there except that the film was set in Greece"

So there you have it! As well as those names, there's also Anthony Valentine somewhat resurrecting his role of the ruthless Nazi from TV's Colditz, and Michael Sheard, who was already carving out a name for himself playing Nazis, this time portraying a comically randy sergeant! There's even some choreography from Hot Gossip and Strictly Come Dancing star Arlene Phillips and a closing disco track 'Keep Tomorrow For Me' from Heatwave, which accompanies the modern day (well, 1979) touristy conclusion!

Don't expect much of a balanced review for this one from me, I've loved it since I was a kid when it seemed to routinely crop up on TV at Christmas. It cropped up again on BBC2 on Saturday evening just after a lovely tribute to Roger Moore in Talking Pictures, making it feel like a traditional Christmas. And yes, I can see it's not really a good film, but it is a lot of fun, and sometimes that's all you really want for a couple of hours. I'd probably go so far as to say that this ranks as one of the best, if not the best, effort to break into cinema from Grade as well as one of the most fun pictures from journeyman director George Pan Cosmatos. Perhaps he should have made movies in and about his native Greece more often?

The plot concerns a POW camp on the fictional Greek island of Athena. The prisoners held within are a rag-tag bunch of people hand picked by the Austrian camp commandant Otto Hecht (Roger Moore) for their skills and talents. It is Hecht's duty to unearth and loot the treasures of occupied countries such as Greece for the Reich. So we have David Niven's previously interned archaeology professor, which makes a lot of sense, along with Richard Roundtree's circus performer (which doesn't) and Sonny Bono's Italian cook. But, as he's quick to point out; "I'm not really a cook. I'm actually a racing car driver. And sometimes I sing..." Whatever the reasoning, it seems to work out pretty well; Niven's wily Professor Blake keeps the dig going by reburying the treasures found on previous days, whilst Moore's Hecht squirrels away the most valuable finds for his own private pension.

Joining the camp are two USO performers who were shot down over the Aegean on their way to a show; Elliot Gould's vaudevillian Charlie and Stefanie Powers' Busby Berkeley-style showgirl Dottie Del Mar, who immediately catches the eye of Roger Moore. Meanwhile, the local Greek resistance, led by Telly Savalas' Zeno and his brothel madam squeeze Eleana (Cardinale) are incensed by SS Major Volkman (Valentine) whose sadism is seeing many innocent villagers shot for the slightest of reasons. They're also eagerly preparing for the Allied invasion and know that they must take over the U-boat fuel dump and liberate the incarcerated monks from the mountain top monastery which is said to hold great wealth. To do this, they decide to join forces with the camp mates and pave the way for victory. Needless to say, many of the camp's occupants - including the by now sympathetic Hecht - are eager to get their hands on these riches.

What - you didn't really expect Moore to play a Nazi did you?

Of course there's more going on at the monastery than Savalas' resistance leader has told them; the site is actually the nerve centre and launch pad for a terrifying looking, vast chemical missile which is wheeled out by troops dressed in black and wearing mirrored-glass helmets - the kind of figures that could only have come from Hitler's wet dream fantasies! - and must be stopped to ensure the invasion is a success. 

There's lots of really good things in Escape to Athena; for a start there's the wonderful cinematography of Gil Taylor, whose opening aerial sequence easily captures our attention and who provides a well-shot motorcycle chase between Anthony Valentine's SS officer and, weirdly, Elliot Gould, that places the camera beside the wheel and upon the handlebars. There's also Lalo Schifrin's beautiful toe-tapping Greek infused score and some thumpingly good recreations of hits from the bygone age such as 'When the Saints Go Marching In', and Stefanie Powers' striptease - which ensures the camp is taken over by the goodies and sees Michael Sheard's sergeant positively fit to burst! - is a particularly memorable moment too. Indeed Powers is really good here, and very eye-catching too, with her Betty Grable hairstyle, the tied off shirt and those teeny tiny shorts. 

Of the rest of the cast, Gould does his usual brash and eternally quipping shtick, before tapping into his latent heroism with the aforementioned motorbike chase (though why Savalas instructs a previously unproven Bob Hope style comic to chase and assassinate a cold blooded murderer rather than just do it himself is anyone's guess!) and a moment of Treasure of Sierra Madre style greed at the film's critical climax. Meanwhile David Niven, Roger Moore and Telly Savalas are...well, playing David Niven, Roger Moore and Telly Savalas, and there's nothing wrong with that! Moore gets to remind us that he's still James Bond by having a good fist fight with some Nazi frogmen before rescuing Powers who has sued her underwater skills to neutralise the U-boat fuel dump, whilst Niven is charm personified and his presence in the proceedings helps to remind the audience of the equally Greek-based The Guns of Navarone. It's also the better of the two films Niv and Moore appeared in together: The Sea Wolves has a better pedigree on paper, but it's ultimately an uneven and disappointing affair. Savalas gets to play the action man, of course, but he also gets to do a Greek folk dance (choreographed by the aforementioned Phillips) with Cardinale at the end which is rather sweet. His macho demeanour throughout the picture is also less heavy and imposing than some of his other films from this era, which makes for a more likeable presence. Sadly, Richard Roundtree and Sonny Bono get less to do, their appearance feeling at times like little more than extended cameos, which does little to remove the smell of stunt casting around Bono. The poor guy doesn't even get to sing at the camp show - he mimes to a record being all too noticeably played by Gould off stage. Which I guess pulls the rug from under the audience and is quite funny, but even so.

Speaking of cameos and funnies - look out for the in-joke when Gould spots none other than William Holden smoking a cigar and mooching round the camp; "Are you still here?" an astonished Gould asks, conjuring to mind Holden's performance in POW film Stalag 17. "Why not? It's not a bad life" he shrugs. This uncredited appearance was made possible when Holden decided to visit his lover Stefanie Powers on set and it's a lovely tongue-in-cheek film reference that sets the film's comedic, light-hearted stall out early. Because this really is a comic action adventure - granted, the film may show the assassinations of Greek villagers and partisans at the hands of a brutal SS, it may even ever so briefly allude in a rather unsettling manner to the Nazis intolerance of Gould's Jewishness, but this is far from some hardbitten WWII men on a mission adventure - it's a film where the good guys topple their Nazi captors with the aid of Stefanie Powers' tacky and ramshackle striptease and a dose of herbal laxatives! That said, some of the gags are a little overbearing; I could have done without Gould's remark about how "Twenty years from now, when the Germans are selling Volkswagens to the world..." because it just lifts us completely out of the film in a way that the Holden cameo risked doing but had enough goodwill behind it to be a funny passing delight. Of the negatives I'd say that the film is a little too flabby and overlong and that it's sometimes hard to get a true handle on the plot, but when you're in such good company it's sometimes easy to overlook these vagaries and the chance of it outstaying its welcome too much.

Escape to Athena is a film very much of its time, both in terms of tone and casting as well as production. It's endemic of how the experiences of war had, by that stage in cinema, become so filtered through to entertainment at its purest that it starts to resemble a starry, action packed pantomime - the end point of which would become 1981's Escape to Victory. It's the kind of film where Nazis are routinely shot from their positions atop rooftops, bell towers and sentry towers just to allow the stuntman to perform a swan dive and give the action sequences a bit of frisson. And a film where kids learn that not all German soldiers were Nazis, because even James Bond could be a German officer as long as he helps Kojak save the day and wins the affections of The Girl From UNCLE. In short, it's a lot of fun for those of us of a certain age.

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