Moore Not Less - Escape to Athena

Another war picture for Roger during his stint as James Bond - this time a 1979 World War 2 adventure that makes a vague attempt to be The Great Escape but ends up playing more like Hogan's Heroes on a bigger budget.
Producer Lew Grade assembled an enviable cast for the film besides Roger. David Niven, Richard Roundtree, Telly Savalas, Claudia Cardinale, Elliott Gould etc. Grade felt the film was ultimately too much of a mish-mash that couldn't decide if it was a comedy or an action film. He felt it should have concentrated on the action. Despite bad reviews it didn't lose as much money as he'd feared.
Roger plays (don't laugh) Major Otto Hecht, the commandant of a POW camp for Allied soldiers in the Mediterranean. He felt (as he usually did) that he was miscast and this time he may have been right. Call me cynical but I think the location shoot on the Greek island of Rhodes might have had something to do with his decision to make the film. If nothing else it was probably a nice holiday.
In Escape to Athena, the setting is an island in the Mediterranean where Allied POWS are ordered to evacuate Greek artifacts by Roger's Major Otto Hecht. Hecht is an Austrian who was an antiques dealer before the war and he's sending the valueables to his sister in neutral Switzerland. Hecht is fairly normal as far as German commandants go. He's no Nazi but rather someone who just wants the war to end. He intends to feather his nest for the time when this day arrives.
Nearby SS Commandant Major Volkmann (Anthony Valentine) is another matter entirely. He's more your stereotypical Nazi villain and a bit of a sadist. Hecht dislikes Volkmann. Meanwhile, Zeno (Telly Savalas) is the head of the Greek resistance and is asked to help spring the Allied prisoners so they can secure a U-Boat fuel depot.

The Allied prisoners include Professor Blake (David Niven), the main British officer amongst the prisoners and an archaeologist, Richard Roundtree's American Sgt Nat Judson, and Sonny Bono as Bruno Rotelli, an Italian POW and chef. Elliott Gould and Stefanie Powers also feature as comedian Charlie and stripper Dottie, two USO performers/prisoners who will stage a show as a diversion.
Hecht throws his lot in with the Allied POWs and if you think that's the whole shebang you're wrong. There are a few twists and turns and the gang end up climbing Mount Athena to disable a V-2 site and liberate some monks or something.
One can see what Lew Grade was driving at when he lamented the lack of a consistent tone in Escape to Athena. This film is all over the place and around the houses. The action is solid enough when it arrives and perhaps this could have worked better as a more straight ahead actioner. The director George Pan Cosmatos later helmed Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and Cobra so he knew a bit about action. Ok, we'll give him Rambo and forget Cobra.
The location is nicely shot at times with some good aeriel footage. The photography is the main reason to watch the film but after numerous sunny pans of the island even this starts to get slightly dull.
The early parts of the film too often feel like a comedy and not all of this is intentional. Let's get Roger out of the way first. He can't do a German, or Austrian in this case, accent. He sort of tries in a half-hearted way. Sometimes he sounds like normal Rog and other times he sounds like he's in Allo 'Allo! Roger's approach to the film can be described as something like this: Who cares? I'm in Rhodes. The sun is shining. I'm about to have a slap up lunch with David Niven. And I'm getting paid for all of this.
Major Hecht's decision to throw his lot in with the Allies is explained by him being Austrian. That doesn't completely work. Hitler was Austrian. Generaloberst Lothar Rendulic was Austrian. I could go on but you get the general idea. Roger can never quite work out if he is supposed to play Hecht as cold and calculating or sympathetic and so he ends up falling through the gap and doing neither.

Elliott Gould is not a great help as the wisecracking comic Charlie. Gould feels far too contemporary for the World War 2 era and it always seems like he's wandered into the wrong film by mistake. He quickly grows tiresome.
When Gould and Sir Rog (in his German uniform) are onscreen together at the start it's hard to take the film seriously. And did the Nazis use to let USO performers walk around their POW camps cracking gags at their officers? It's probably not best to look for realism in Escape to Athena.
The anachronistic nature of Escape to Athena is cemented even further by Sonny Bono looking like Cedric Kushner and Richard Roundtree playing Shaft again. Telly Savalas plays Telly Savalas (in some nice knitwear) while Claudia Cardinale vamps it up as a Greek resistance brothel madam.
The best performance in the film is supplied by David Niven but he's not really given enough to do. While everyone is flailing away in paddle boats trying to make sense of the film or their characters Niven is gliding along in a punt having a nap.
Escape to Athena is not a total loss and it is competently made and directed but with that cast you feel like the foundations for a minor cult classic were in place. Sadly though it's never as funny nor as exciting as it should have been.
- Jake

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