Some 24 years(!) ago, I was working my first job as a drone in a bookstore and I became curious about the books of an author calling himself Trevanian. His books were pretty striking at the time, with just text on a stark, colored background. No pretty pictures, no advertising copy. Because I recognized the title, I picked up The Eiger Sanction and gave it a go.
Wow. I could barely stand to get through the first fifty pages. The Eiger Sanction sold more than a million copies, so it clearly struck a chord with a lot of people, but I couldn’t get into it at all. By the time I got to the point where the hero, art professor/assassin Dr. Jonathan Hemlock, turns out to be the best lover in the world despite his inability to achieve orgasm, I was plenty ready to check out. Needless to say, I never finished the book.
The Eiger Sanction was made into a movie of the same name. Adapted for the screen and directed by its star, Clint Eastwood, the filmic version of The Eiger Sanction had been a bomb upon its release, but it has its fans. Since I’ve enjoyed most of the Eastwood films I’ve seen over the years, with a couple of exceptions, I decided to give it a try. How bad could it be?
It turns out that the answer is: pretty bad, though its problems relate directly back to its source material. I have respect for anyone who can sell millions of books, but I don’t have any problem saying that even a popular book can be shoddy and Trevanian’s novel is terrible. Pretty much everything that’s wrong with The Eiger Sanction is taken from the book, which makes Eastwood a faithful steward of the material, but not a wise one.
The first thing that both book and film do poorly is depicting a realistic protagonist. Trevanian, who was a scholar himself, crafted a pure wish-fulfillment character in Jonathan Hemlock: handsome, seductive, brilliant and skilled at everything. It’s impossible to identify anything remotely human about such a perfect being, and without a center of gravity the whole movie quickly spins out of orbit. The Eiger Sanction also indulges in some of the most offensive gay stereotyping you can imagine. Jack Cassidy had the singular misfortune of playing Miles Mellough, a former comrade of Hemlock’s from (apparently) the time Hemlock spent time fighting in Southeast Asia as a mercenary or something. The movie is never completely clear on that. Anyway, Miles is every mincing gay cliché you can think of rolled all into one and he even has a delicate little doggie he’s named Faggot. Yes, it’s awful.
The weirdness doesn’t stop there. Hemlock’s controller, Mr. Dragon (Thayer David), is an albino with a rare condition that requires him to have his entire blood supply replaced periodically. He’s also a former Nazi. It’s strange, strange, strange and I have no idea why Eastwood would keep all of this stuff in the movie when it would be better sunk at the bottom of the ocean.
There is some amusement to be had. Hemlock, for example, is paid the princely sum of $10,000 for every kill, which seems incredibly cheap for the world’s foremost assassin. When he’s tasked with one, final assignment (cliché alert!), he demands a premium… of $20,000. It is to laugh.
Hemlock’s last kill is to be carried out on the Eiger, a notoriously difficult mountain in Switzerland. One of the three men he’ll be climbing with is an assassin for a rival organization, but Mr. Dragon cannot tell Hemlock which one it might be. Hemlock’s only clue: the man in question will have a limp. Not much to go on, I know.
At any rate, the bulk of the movie is taken up with Hemlock training for the big climb and that part is actually fairly interesting. Eastwood did real climbing in Arizona and later Switzerland, sans any sort of contemporary CGI assistance, and those sections that involve the climbing itself are well photographed. Whatever missteps Eastwood may have made with the adaptation of Trevanian’s novel, he is still a skilled technician behind the camera, and that shows in all the outdoor footage, including that shot in Switzerland. A man actually died shooting this stuff, so let there be no doubt that everything Eastwood did for this film was as dangerous as it looked.
No matter how good the climbing sequences are, this movie would be totally unwatchable without the involvement of Clint Eastwood. Whatever else you may think of him, and I know there are some people who don’t care for his work, it cannot be denied that he has star power. Even when the movie is being absolutely ridiculous, and this happens with disturbing regularity, Eastwood plays his part completely straight. He’s clearly uncomfortable in the early going when he’s supposed to be playing a mild-mannered art historian, but once he’s able to graduate to more physical, action-hero kinds of activities he does quite well. Star power doesn’t necessarily denote range, though I will say that Eastwood has done some out-of-type work over the course of his long and varied career and acquitted himself well.
Combining Eastwood’s inherent magnetism with some of the most intense mountainside action you’ll ever see makes The Eiger Sanction better than it has any right to be. Like I said, when the movie is bad, it’s really, really bad and I would blame no one if they said they shut the movie off in disgust right about the time Miles and Faggot show up. The ridiculous aspect of The Eiger Sanction cannot be ignored or excused, and I suspect it was because of all that nonsense that the movie failed.
So… is the movie worth watching, or what? I find myself surprisingly conflicted about the whole thing. On the one hand, The Eiger Sanction is definitely not a good movie, but on the other hand those climbing sequences are truly outstanding and if you pass on the film because of its many, many negatives you’ll miss out on some remarkable stuff. I’m such a movie purist that I hesitate to tell anyone to watch The Eiger Sanction with one thumb on the fast-forward button, but in this case that’s probably a good idea. Believe me: you won’t be missing much in the parts you skip.