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26 September 2018

Geoff Dyer’s book about the war film Where Eagles Dare is about much more than just one movie

Dyer has always been a writer for whom talking about something properly and honestly means talking about a lot of other things as well.  

By Leo Robson

Of the two descriptions that Geoff Dyer provides near the end of his very typical and often tickling new book, “narrative inventory” is more accurate though less instructive than “a chapter from an autobiography”. Like Zona, his careering summary of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 work of philosophical science fiction   Stalker, Broadsword Calling Danny Boy is a study of a single film – the Second World War men-on-a-mission story Where Eagles Dare, which turns 50 years old in January – and again, the emphasis is on personal response and reminiscence.

At one point, Dyer explains that he is especially fond of one set-piece because it reminds him of the cover of the first novel by the film’s writer Alistair Maclean that he ever bought – it was The Guns of Navarone – and the film as a whole is really a sort of mass-culture madeleine, deployed to send the middle-aged author back to a 1960s childhood of Dunkirk fanaticism and Airfix perfectionism (the B-17 “Flying Fortress” was the best).

There’s certainly no critical agenda. Where Eagles Dare is neither a transcendent masterpiece demanding fresh hosannas or a film maudit in need of rescue, but a much-quoted, often-televised, frequently parodied popular classic. Dyer clearly admires the central performances from Richard Burton as the team leader and Clint Eastwood as his conscienceless sidekick, but he doesn’t say much about the film’s virtues, unless you count the references to “a smart little edit” and “a nice touch”.

Without wishing to suggest that Dyer has given the film too little of his time, it is notable that he never touches on how much the director, Brian G Hutton, gets done through reaction shots – it might have been called How Faces Stare – or the skill with which he alternates scenes of languid exposition with long passages of silence, or just how much the drama of this overtly thespy film turns on moments of impersonation and performance. When Dyer writes that Where Eagles Dare contains “some essence of what cinema means to me now” – now, not once-upon-a-time – we are left to guess what he means. (He takes some passing shots at art-house directors, for the crime of boring earnestness, but then his last and no less awestruck film book was about Tarkovsky.)

So Broadsword Calling Danny Boy is not so much “On Where Eagles Dare” as off Where Eagles Dare or in its rough vicinity. But then Dyer has always been a writer for whom talking about something properly and honestly means talking about a lot of other things as well – anything, really, that pops into his head and seems worth sharing. During one reverie, he imagines that the subject of discussion in a bar scene involving Burton’s female accomplice and a peroxide-blond Gestapo officer is the photographic project The Nazis, by the Polish artist Piotr Uklanski, in which the actor playing the Gestapo man is featured next to dozens of other actors – a concept that breaks not only the fourth wall but the space-time continuum.

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The critic Michael Wood, in his recent book The Habits of Distraction – a stirring and sometimes befuddling mixture of history lesson, conceptual rummage and critical case study – offers something like a manifesto for Dyer’s approach. It’s surprising that Wood doesn’t mention Dyer along the way, given that Wood is largely concerned with defending and exploring Walter Benjamin’s idea about the sort of receptive distraction that takes place when we are watching movies – and Dyer is close to being the laureate of the mindset that the book is promoting.

Dyer has said that he was tempted to give his study of DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, the subtitle “A Distraction” – the book’s second sentence uses the word twice as well as “distracted” – and his body of work has been reliant on the act of not noticing, not focusing, or what he calls trancing out. The overlap in viewpoint or philosophy is extensive. Wood observes that discourse means going here and there – when a reviewer talked about his grasshopper mind, he took it as a compliment. Dyer has talked about a detour being a kind of straight line. And the intellectual heroes they have in common – Benjamin, Nietzsche, Barthes and Theodor Adorno – all rejected the extended treatise in favour of the fragment, the aphorism, the diary entry while expressing themselves in the distracted form of reasoning known as paradoxical or, in the case of the Marxists Adorno and Benjamin, dialectical. (Wood and Dyer are alike – and not very far from alone – in having Adorno’s Minima Moralia as one of their desert island books.)

Read closely, though, Wood’s book could also be taken as a stern rebuke to the habits of Broadsword Calling Danny Boy. Wood wants us to liberate our minds so that we can derive as much as possible, including a lot of things we might previously have been missing, from all sort of works of art – there are pages on Finnegans Wake as well as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty. But Dyer’s use of irrational thinking is not interpretive or poetic. It is sardonic and parodic – he points out, for example, that you only hear about places being called impregnable once they’ve been impregnated against the odds, so that the word has become synonymous with “extremely vulnerable to infiltration and attack”.

A telling site of divergence in the uses of distraction is that whereas Dyer is writing about a film that “makes no claims to be a work of art”, Wood devotes some attention to another Clint Eastwood film, The Outlaw Josey Wales, which he considers “a masterpiece by any standard”. Wood believes that when we are watching films that belong to a familiar genre, such as the war movie or the Western, we should be distracted from “the particular case” and also from “a single, superior sense of irony”. In other words, for the distraction- loving critic, as opposed to the distraction-loving essayist or autobiographer, one of the main things to be distracted from is our own cleverness.

In this definition, Dyer isn’t distracted at all – a lot of his book is consumed with listing errors of logic and continuity, such as the characters’ “apparently bottomless” rucksacks and notebooks that should be sodden but remain legible. Wood, by contrast, argues that the bullets that always manage not to hit Josey Wales are just part of “the game”. If we aren’t at all aware of a film’s generic context, we are probably watching the wrong movie. But if we concentrate too much on this knowledge, or begin to flaunt it, we risk becoming “mere pedants”, enemies of Eastwood’s reported on-set mantra: “Let’s not overthink this.” l

Leo Robson is chief fiction critic of the New Statesman and a Man Booker Prize judge

Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: On Where Eagles Dare
Geoff Dyer
Penguin, 123pp, £7.99

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This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis