The Birdmen (1971)
Just ten miles separates American P.O.W.’s from the Swiss Alps during the second world war in 1943. It’s a castle top prison where the only way out for any prisoners looking to escape is straight down a cliff face. That is unless the men inside can devise a plan to escape by flight in this movie of the week feature made for television.
That’s the challenge that faces O.S.S. officer Doug McClure whose job is to get scientist Rene Auberjonois back to the safety of the United States to better serve the fight against the Axis powers.
Our war time adventure opens in rather shady fashion and I was a bit worried this may turn out to be an exercise in futility. Plenty of stock footage accompanied by Charles Aidman narrating the opening sequence segues into Doug and Rene escaping from a German camp before the credits even roll. There’s plenty of explosions and fireworks as they head off to the nearest treeline and eventually hook up with an underground fighter played by western favorite and unbilled Karl Swenson. Freedom turns out to be rather short for the pair and they are promptly sent off to the mountain top camp where Richard Basehart plays host as the Kommandant.
The senior officer in the camp is Chuck Connors whom McClure immediately taps for any plausible escape routes. Connors has basically resigned himself to finish out the war in captivity and suggest McClure do the same. Escape is futile and the grave yard has enough crosses to back him up.
Doug figures if they can’t go down the mountain then they’ll figure a way to fly out of their mountain top tomb. Doug enlists another a young Tom Skerritt as a captured engineer to build him a glider that can be propelled from a castle rooftop that will sail the ten miles to the Alps and freedom. Joining in the escape adventure are Max Baer Jr. and Paul Koslo.
Like any prisoner of war adventure, the warden will be watching. Basehart can tell something is going on among the P.O.W.’s but can’t quite figure out the latest escape idea. Sudden roll calls and barracks are checked at any given time but he can’t seem to turn up anything. Will Doug and his crew ge the best of him? Perhaps but if they are to so so, they better hurry as the Gestapo is in their way when they figure out that Rene has been hiding out in the camp under an assumed name. It seems the German war machine can use his expertise just as well as the American’s in the lab.
At the time of this film’s debut, McClure and Connors were very well known faces in the television medium and easily marketable for a movie of the week feature. Even Max Baer who at this time was hoping to get out from under the long shadow of his character Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies. Rene Auberjonois has had an incredibly long career since this early appearance. The name isn’t familiar? How about a picture.
Skerritt has never seemed to stop acting and as for Basehart, his role here is far from cliched. He portrays the German warden as a very humane officer who has nothing but respect for his captives and the price they are willing to pay for their country.
There isn’t alot to recommend here but if you like the actors within then one could do a whole lot worse. While the title of this flick is clearly The Birdmen, it recently turned up on DVD as Colditz: Escape of the Birdmen.
Just in case your hoping to locate a copy.