BATTLE OF THE EAGLES (1979)
Bekim Fehmiu, Velimir “Bata” Zivojinovic, Ljubisa Samardzic, Rados Bajic, Ljuba Tadic, Branko Djuric, Radko Polic, Branko Plesa, Jodranco Cevrevski, Suada Avdic, Zlata Petkovic, Peter Carsten and Demeter Bitenc.
Throughout the 1950s and into the 60s, 70s and even into the 80s, a slew of war films were produced in the former Yugoslavia, glorifying the heroism of the “Partisans” – civilians who turned out to fight a guerrilla war against the invading German forces. Hajrudin Krvavac, who’s generally only known in Eastern Europe, directed quite a few of these “partisan” stories; unfortunately, only a handful of them were ever exported to the rest of the Europe and the United States. “Battle of the Eagles” is a rare, low-budget look at the formation and exploits of the Partisan Air Force.
Marshal Tito decrees that a Partisan Air Force must be formed to combat the German Luftwaffe in the skies over Yugoslavia. A group of former pilots join forces with two small biplanes and begin raiding enemy bases and convoys; over the course of several months, more pilots and planes join the ranks, eventually forming a formidable air force. Maybe it’s history, or maybe it’s fable – whatever it is, it sure isn’t convincing, but a cast of great actors sure try to make it work.
The film opens strongly with a well-shot German air raid on defenseless partisans. The nuts and bolts of the plot come together almost immediately, and for a short while the audience is treated to a rather patriotic series of scenes. Then the action starts, and this title quickly becomes yet another low-budget, by-the-numbers adventure. All of the characters are familiar clichés: Major Dragan (played by a well-meaning Bekim Fehmiu) is our typical patriotic, heroic leading man. He blasts away at strafing planes with a machine-gun and even has an aerial duel with the villainous Klauberg (Radko Polic), a completely predictable and corny climax with an equally predictable outcome. The rest of the partisans are familiar: Ljubisa Samardzic (“The Battle of Neretva”) is a Zare, a hotshot playboy; Bata Zivojinovic (“Hell River”) is Voss, a veteran flyer who comes out of the woodwork now that his country needs him; and Rados Bajic (“The Day that Shook the World”) is Dalibor, a young messenger boy who moves up through the ranks, eventually becoming a seasoned combat pilot. The characters and their stories are familiar to any war fan, and Krvavac doesn’t try to build upon these stereotypes. The cast does a fair job, and despite the two-dimensional script, every player is engaging and fun to watch. Bajic, in particular, has some great moments – when he’s going to take his first flight as a gunner, and later, when he is forced to land a plane after the pilot is killed. The plot merely consists of a string of air raids against the Germans, and subsequent retaliatory acts.
Krvavac handles the action sequences competently with a mix of actual footage and miniature effects. Unfortunately, the miniatures are so cheap and false-looking that the transitions between actual aerial photography and toy planes are jarring and laughable. Some of the strafing and bombing scenes look shockingly real, while dogfights involving scale models, complete with action figure pilots, are just plain pathetic. Sometimes smoke puffs from the “machine-guns” are so big that the smoke engulfs the entire model plane. Worse, the editors often superimpose shots of fighters over real footage. Although the aircraft are usually in proper perspective, they’re surrounded by a distracting glow which hinders any attempt at realism. All of this action is set to an incredibly familiar and annoying score by Bojan Adamic.
“Battle of the Eagles” also suffers from a very poorly edited English-language release. To begin with, 28 minutes of footage is missing – cutting the film from 130 minutes to a mere 102. The missing segments were carelessly excised, and the cutting looks very sloppy. Music cues are abruptly cut off and scenes are abandoned before they are resolved. In the last third of the film, the story falls apart, and only some badly-needed action scenes can try to save it from total incomprehensibility. Then, there’s the dubbing… all of the scenes revolving around the Partisans are dubbed in English (rather poorly, however), yet several lengthy scenes remain in German, without the benefit of subtitles. The film might have made much more sense had the German-language sequences been excised instead of crucial scenes revolving around the Partisans.
On the plus side, Krvavac handles the outdoor footage quite well. There is never a moment where the audience feels like they’re on a soundstage. In particular, the German Luftwaffe bases are expansive, complete with dozens of Messerschmitt fighter planes and extras costumed in leather flying jackets. The scenery is fresh and green, and Krvavac isn’t afraid to shoot scenes with extremely wide angles or from far away simply to convey the scope of a battle or long trek. A German ambush of a partisan unit early on in the picture stands out, as does a sequence where Zare and Dalibor escape from an enemy base.
As it exists on home video, “Battle of the Eagles” is just another of many stories about the Yugoslav Partisan movement. There is nothing to set it apart from the rest of the crop, and the terrible special effects and drastic editing put it a notch below acceptable. Try to avoid this one unless you can find a full-length copy.
SGT. SLAUGHTER'S RATING: