“listen very carefully, GENTLEMEN – the treasures of Athena are the property of the Greek people!.”
Telly Savalas: Zeno (Escape to Athena)
I am on a quest to watch some Roger Moore cult classics which are not Bond films. So, when someone told me about a 1970’s film that is a World War II adventure, with ludicrous lashings of comedy and a host of 1970’s stars, well, I had to give it a watch!
Escape To Athena is a war film set somewhere in Greece during 1944. The war is ending, and the Nazis are on a quest to dig up and steal valuable Greek antiquities and the men at Stalag VII Z P.O.W camp are plotting to retake the town.
Edward Anhalt and Richard S. Lochte wrote a screenplay from a story by George P. Cosmatos (famous for directing Rambo Part II and Cobra). The 1970’s produced a golden age of war films such as Tora Tora Tora, A Bridge to Far and The Eagle Has Landed, to name a few. Escape From Athena attempts to cash in on this genre’s popularity at the time.
Within the first 10 minutes, I could tell this was not going to be a traditional war film, as it shows Nazis holding control of Athena, executions conducted in view of the town folk, undercover resistance – disguised with the fakest beard on film. Just as you think this is going to be a gritty war film, Cosmatos switches to panoramic Greek vistas, accompanied by an instrumental version of ‘The Saints Go Marching In’! Escape to Athena then changes gear into some sort of action-comedy hybrid that introduces Major Otto Hecht (Rodger Moore), a corrupt officer running an underground operation, stealing Greek Antiquities for his retirement fund. Quickly after Hecht is introduced, resistance fighter Zeno (Telly Savalas) tells us that there is a submarine refuelling dept that needs to be taken out. Then Charlie Dane (Elliott Gould) and Dottie Del Mar (Stefanie Powers) turn up after their plane was shot down over the pacific. What I found odd is the pair just look like they have got off a holiday jet, rather than the horrific experience of being shot down! Mr Dane and Ms Del Mar go on to provide ‘comedy’ moments that make the Carry-On films look like masterpieces. Such as when instructing that Ms Del Mar is taken to the guest portals next to the carpenter’s shop, Hecht says
‘’I hope you don’t mind the banging” to which Dane replies ‘’She never has’’. True comedy ‘Gould’ right there. There is also a line about the Nazis considering everyone a Jew, unless proven otherwise. It might have landed in the 1980’s but I am not sure today’s audiences will find it funny. Speaking of comedy, it’s not all spoken, David Niven’s Professor Blake attempts some visual comedy that works very well when switching a certain antiquity. While all this is going on a group of P.O.W’S led by Professor Blake (David Niven), Nat Judson (Richard Roundtree) and Sonny Bono (Bruno Rotelli) are having secret meetings arranging to overthrow the town, a plan that would involve the resistance who are set up in a brothel (as the Germans do not look beyond locked doors?)
About halfway through the film, once all the characters have been introduced, they all start scheming with each other, so they can all work together and get something out of the planned coup. This leads to yet more plot shifts, attempts at comedy and a heist that does not go straight to plan, leading to a subplot that has something to do with a secret missile base.
If the script has a strong point, then it is the action sequences, they are well placed and well thought out, and work to move the film forward and are very entertaining, more on that later in the review.
I think the writers must have all had opinions on what to include in a war film, so decided to stick all their ideas together. Tonally the script lurches from serious to comedy, from escape movie to adventure movie. Ultimately making the comedy feel strained and weak, and the story is as mixed up as cake batter. It’s hard to think that this film comes from the same director as Rambo Part II.
I am not sure whose idea it was to bring in an all-star cast for Escape to Athena… was it Director George P. Cosmatos, David Niven’s producer son David Niven Jr, or Casting Director Irene Lamb (famous for casting a small film called Star Wars). Did the producers think that having a cast including Kojak, two James Bonds (think about it), and the Princess would help the film find an audience?
What is more surprising is having read the script, Telly Savalas, David Niven, Sonny Bono, Richard Roundtree, Claudia Cardinale, Roger Moore, Elliot Gould, and Stephanie Power all signed on for the film, and it’s a shame that for all that talent Cosmatos could not find a way to inspire the cast to do their best work.
Here are my thoughts on few cast members that caught my eye.
‘’You are assuming that because a man steals from his country… he will also betray it?’’
The late seventies and early eighties were a busy period for Moore. Squeezing in a few smaller projects in between numerous Bond films. These allowed Moore to explore other sides to his acting. In Escape to Athena, Moore plays a German commandant who is very much interested in his retirement. The only problem is that Moore is sleepwalking through the film, charisma on full display, but no conviction in his performance. What is it with Bond stars and accents? In some scenes Moore actively attempts a German accent – badly, and in other’s he simply does not even try. Dialogue delivery feels like we are watching the pre-shoot read through. A quick scan online reveals reports that even Moore felt miscast, perhaps this is something Cosmatos could not get Moore to overcome.
‘’No, that would make any tax fiddler a potential traitor.’’
Niven plays a professor of antiquities imprisoned and enforced by Hecht to dig up relics for profit. However, Blake is the ultimate grifter and is highly creative in scamming the Germans. Professor Blake gives Niven an opportunity to explore his comedic side, it’s just a shame that Cosmatos’ directorial style reduces to Niven standing or walking around quoting exposition. Just like Moore it seems that Niven is putting very little effort to the character. It is a shame then, that after Escape to Athena, Niven only goes on to feature in seven more film credits, three of which are Pink Panther sequels.
”I’m Your Man”
Ms Del Mar is one half of a comedy troupe (alongside Elliot Gould) that has crash landed and is now having to find a reason to exist under Nazi capture. Subjected to on screen casual sexism, Powers seems to be putting up with a lot. Dottie Del Mar’s main activity is to be the sidekick to Gould, leading to an erotic striptease dance to distract the Germans.
Back when the film was produced, Powers was in a relationship with William Holden who starred in P.O.W film Stalag 17. Holden turns up for a non-speaking cameo as a P.O.W at Stalag 17. This is the P.O.W camp that is featured in Escape to Athena, it’s another muddled attempt at a joke, presumably included on a whim at the time of filming.
Lalo Schifrin is the composer on Escape to Athena. Schifrin is a talented composer with a long and distinguished career. Famous for composing the Mission Impossible theme, and scoring the first few Tom Cruise Mission Impossible films, plus the original series.
In Escape to Athena, unusually Schifrin has opted for instrumental versions of military style songs rather than a discernible film theme. I thought that hearing ‘When the Saints Go Greek’ (When The Saints Go Marching In) during the beginning few minutes added a certain whimsy to the film. Schifrin continued this instrumental style throughout the film bringing in tracks like Rat-Tat-Tat, The Kite Over The Tower, and Battle Hymn Of Athena (Battle Hymn Of The Republic).
Elsewhere in the score, Schifrin melds a Greek style of music with middle eastern and Indian inspirations, plus I am sure I could hear a Didgeridoo during my listen. As the film moves into action mode, so does Schifrin’s work. The simple instrumental music is replaced with a more traditional score and the tracks take on that distinctive 1970’s action feel. You know the type, it features in every police show / action film of the 70’s and 80’s, fast beats mixed with a string quartet and a maybe trombones that suddenly come to a crashing crescendo and then stop. So, whilst Escape to Athena may not be Schifrin’s most iconic work, it does have a certain level of ambition and the music Schifrin created fits perfectly with what Cosmatos puts on screen.
The visual effects supervisor is none other than John Richardson, by the time Escape to Athena was created, Richardson had already worked on Superman, The Oman, Phase IV, and afterwards went on to amass 97 Visual effects credits including Aliens, several Bond Films and the Harry Potter films.
In Escape to Athena, Richardson was tasked with creating some quite ambitious shots, despite the film’s other shortcomings. Using a mix of practical effects and (I suspect) scale models, Richardson pulls of a series of explosive set pieces when the monastery is attacked, it is one of the most impressive set pieces in the film. Richardson’s other master stroke is a motorcycle chase featuring Elliot Gould. Richardson oversaw a chase sequence that is reported as being one of the best filmed, having now seen it, I can see why people think that way. The sequence features some great motorcycle shots and includes a superb mix of both peril and skill. It’s a sequence that draws you in as a viewer and uses all the latest technology available (at the time) to make it look so thrilling to watch.
The Costume design was handed over to Yvonne Blake, famous for working on films such as Superman and Jesus Christ superstar and for the most part the costumes are standard war film attire, military uniforms, torn clothing etc. The costume choices go a bit strange late on in the film, look out for Nazis dressed in black jump suites with silver helmets, it makes Escape to Athena look like a ‘Daft Punk’ video! I’m not entirely convinced it is historically accurate, but the strange attire gives Gilbert Taylor (director of photography), a chance to make good use of the helmet reflections for some well spotted shots.
Gilbert Taylor is Director of Photography on Escape to Athena. He swapped the darkness of space from filming Star Wars a year or so before to the bright colourful scenery of Rhodes. As I watched the film on BBC I-player and on Plex’s free service, I noticed that not only is this film pin sharp for its age, it is also bright and colourful too. Taylor manages to create some wonderful arial shots that look like they have been taken using a drone, but as they did not exist in the late 70’s, I guess it’s a camera in an aircraft. The sweeping vistas really do look inviting. Taylors eye for framing results in a film that has a very stylish feel despite its script and cast shortcomings.
Escape to Athena is part WW2 adventure, part comedy, and as such it is gloriously bonkers, think Kelly’s Heroes blended with The Great Escape. Director Cosmatos tried to create a war film that tapped into the audience’s love of epic popcorn flicks. Whilst the other films have a clear sense of purpose, be it all out action, or a continuation of American post war back slapping propaganda, Escape to Athena suffers from not settling on what it wants to be.
The film’s big attraction is the stellar cast. It is just a shame that it doesn’t take long to realise that cast just seem to be having a lovely holiday in Rhodes and the fact a film crew are around them is a just a side note in their life at the time.
Ultimately, Escape to Athena is one of those films that you could put on during a rainy Sunday afternoon. It will brighten up a dull day, but this is not a film that demands repeat viewing.