Directed by Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, Vonetta McGee, Jack Cassidy, Thayer David, Brenda Venus, Jean-Pierre Bernard, Reiner Schoene, Michael Grimm, Gregory Walcott, Frank Redmond
Music by John Williams
Based on the Novel by Trevanian
SANCTION: A violation of the law, to enforce the law.
I’ll start by saying I am a big fan of Clint Eastwood, but sadly his forays into spy films, The Eiger Sanction and Firefox haven’t been Clint’s grandest moments. Never-the-less, they are still enjoyable in their way.
The Eiger Sanction starts with Agent Wormwood picking up a microfilm on a bridge in Zurich. Upon returning to his apartment, two men burst into his room attempting to retrieve the film. Wormwood swallows the film, but one of the assailants, armed with a switchblade, cuts it from his throat before he can get it down.
Meanwhile, in the United States, ex C2 agent, now an art historian, Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is lecturing a group of students. Upon returning to his office, he finds Pope (Gregory Walcott) sitting at his desk. Pope is a low level C2 agent with delusions of being a hard man. He has been sent to bring Hemlock to C2 headquarters. But Hemlock doesn’t feel too obliging. You see he has retired. Pope insists. Hemlock physically removes Pope from his office (in the usual Eastwood manner).
Afterward, Hemlock is notified that a Pissaro painting is available on the black market. Hemlock is not only an art historian but an avid collector, and has acquired a substantial collection through his black market contacts.
Soon after, ‘Dragon’ (Thayer David), the head of C2 is on the phone and convinces Hemlock to come in. ‘Dragon’ is an albino who has to stay in specially modified rooms dark rooms. Hemlock describes ‘Dragon’ in the film as: ”…a bloodless freak who can’t stand light or cold.” Not only is he physically grotesque, but his methods of coercion are equally reprehensible. He blackmails Hemlock into performing a sanction (assassination) by threatening to inform the IRS about Hemlock’s collection of paintings. Hemlock accepts the mission on the proviso that he receives a letter from the IRS stating that his collection is legal. It is agreed, and Hemlock is sent off to Zurich to kill one of the men who killed Agent Wormwood.
Hemlock completes his mission and returns home. It is not long before ‘Dragon’ is once again chasing his services. This time, ‘Dragon’ gives Hemlock a little more information. Agent Wormwood was in fact Henri Bach, an old friend of Hemlock’s. Hemlock has already liquidated one of the killers, ‘Dragon’ wants him to sanction the other. But they still do not know who the target is. All they have ascertained is that the second killer is a mountain climber and will be climbing the Eiger in the summer, as part of a good will climb involving France, Germany, Austria and the United States.
Hemlock is not only a super cool assassin, and art historian, but he is also a very good mountain climber. That makes him the logical choice for this mission. Hemlock agrees and starts training for the climb.
Well that’s a brief look at the plot, and you can see it’s all good old fashioned espionage fun. So it’s not the plot that let’s the film down. It’s the tone. In his book, The Screen Greats: Clint Eastwood, Alan Frank had this to say about The Eiger Sanction:
‘The Eiger Sanction (1975) was a disappointingly thin and routine spy thriller, with nothing to differentiate it from the dozens of similar that had been produced to cash in on the success of the James Bond movies.’ Frank is close to the mark in his assessment but probably had never read the Trevanian novel on which the film was based. By the mid seventies, the Bond imitators had moved from being mere carbon copies, but to parody. The Eiger Sanction was supposed to be a parody of the Bond movies or their ilk. For example, as mentioned in the film, the head of C2 is ‘Dragon’. But in the film his first name, which is ‘Yurassis’, is never mentioned. Yep ‘Yurassis Dragon’ (say it out aloud). Sure, it’s juvenile humour, but that is what The Eiger Sanction is, or should be about – taking all the Bondian set-pieces and clichés and poking fun at them. Richard Schickel in his biography Clint Eastwood said: ‘A send-up of sorts was perhaps intended, but that is not entirely clear…’
Two elements of the movies that do work well are the music by John Williams (would you expect anything less?), and the cinematography. This definitely a film that should be watched in widescreen. The panoramic vistas are breathtaking, especially in Monument valley, where Hemlock conducts his training for the Eiger climb.
So The Eiger Sanction is a disappointment, but not for what is does, but for what it doesn’t do. Because I am an Eastwood fan, I do tend to cut this film a little bit of slack. I enjoy it, but it is an ‘Eastwood film’. What I mean by that, is Eastwood doesn’t try to make Hemlock a character. It is Eastwood being Eastwood (or at least seventies style Eastwood, before he started branching out). If you have enjoyed The Gauntlet or The Enforcer you will probably find this entertaining. If you are looking to expand your spy film collection, this film is interesting but not really satisfying.