Clint Eastwood has always been eager to demonstrate that he's capable of doing more than grim westerns and gritty cop dramas. For every The Outlaw Josie Wales or Sudden Impact, there's a Bird or Honkytonk Man. More often than not, his efforts to do something a little different have yielded positive results, but on occasion the director finds himself out of his depth. A prime example is the 1975 thriller The Eiger Sanction, which sees Eastwood attempting to serve up his own version of a James Bond movie.
I suppose it's easy enough to see why the movie was made. Everyone was attempting to mimic the James Bond franchise in the '60s and '70s, hoping to create the next big spy movie craze or at least to cash in on the popularity of the 007 flicks. The problem with The Eiger Sanction is that Eastwood's sensibilities as a director are completely wrong for a colorful, action-packed spy movie. Eastwood's relaxed style is often one of his best qualities, but in this case it leads to a movie that feels exasperatingly slack and aimless. This particularly applies to long exposition sequences featuring Eastwood's creepy-looking employer (Thayer David, Rocky) that seem to drag on endlessly.
It doesn't help that The Eiger Sanction boasts a plot that makes Roger Moore's Bond movies feel entirely credible in contrast. Eastwood plays Jonathan Hemlock, a former assassin who now spends his days teaching college classes. Alas, his old employers – a shadowy government organization called “C2” - are calling him back into action for one last job. They need him to kill someone who murdered one of C2's agents, but they're not entirely certain of the murderer's identity. What they do know is that A) the killer has a limp and B) the killer will be part of a climbing team ascending the north face of the Eiger. It just so happens that Hemlock is a professional mountain climber, so he's tasked with climbing the Eiger, sussing out the identity of the murderer and carrying out a hit.
The film contains endless logical deficiencies and absurd contrivances, chief among them the fact that Hemlock – supposedly C2's finest and most brilliant agent – has a tendency to overlook completely obvious evidence (like the fact that none of the climbers on the Eiger mission have a limp). The movie is so eager to deliver its obligatory quota of plot twists, sex scenes and set pieces that it doesn't really concern itself with how to find a credible path to any of those things.
Additionally, the movie is surprisingly offensive. I realize it's impossible to enjoy many old movies if you filter them through modern sensibilities, so I always try to take the era in which a film was made into account. That beloved '40s comedy probably has something racist in it, and that exciting '70s thriller probably doesn't treat its female characters with much dignity. That's just the reality of things. Even so, it's a little alarming to see just how much questionable material The Eiger Sanction stuffs into the mix, from multiple rape jokes to casual racism to not-so-casual sexism to appalling gay stereotypes (one of the film's villains is a lisping, limp-wristed socialite who has a pet dog named “Faggot”). In one scene, Eastwood makes a joke suggesting that a gay character has an “incurable disease but lack the courage to kill yourself.” There's another running gag involving that fact that a black woman's name is Jemima, giving Eastwood reason to toss out pancake-themed one-liners. This stuff occupies a sizable chunk of the movie – too much to overlook.
However, before we dismiss The Eiger Sanction as an alternately silly and offensive waste of time, let us admit that its mountain climbing sequences are nothing short of fantastic. Eastwood did most of his stunts himself, and it's genuinely nerve-wracking to see him dangling thousands of feet above the ground as he works his way up the Eiger (full disclosure: I have a crippling fear of heights, and this movie is awfully good at tapping into them). The film was shot on location, and the expansive mountain scenery Eastwood serves up is genuinely majestic (and aided considerably by a fine John Williams score – the only time the legendary composer worked on an Eastwood movie). Additionally, the film's midsection benefits from the playful chemistry between Eastwood and George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke), who plays the man responsible for getting Hemlock in shape to climb the mountain.
The Eiger Sanction marked the end of Eastwood's relationship with Universal Studios, as the actor blamed the studio for the film's poor box office reception. While I'm glad that Eastwood went on to form a vastly richer and more satisfying business relationship with Warner Bros., it's hard to blame anyone other than Eastwood for The Eiger Sanction's fate. Despite some terrific visuals, lovely music and a handful of effective suspense scenes, the film is sunk by its lethal combination of poor pacing, ugly jokes and nonsensical plotting. I admire the majority of Eastwood's work, but this is one of his weakest efforts behind the camera.
The Eiger Sanction
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Year: 1975