Monday 18 May 2020

Movie Review: Escape To Athena (1979)

A World War Two comedy thriller, Escape To Athena is lazy, hazy, and tonally uncoordinated.

It's 1944, and on an occupied Greek island Germany's Major Otto Hecht (Roger Moore) oversees an archeological dig. The forced labour is provided by assorted Allied prisoners of war including Professor Blake (David Niven), Sergeant Judson (Richard Roundtree), and Rotelli (Sonny Bono). Hecht is content sitting out the war and keeping some treasure for himself; Blake obliges by recycling the found artefacts to keep the dig going.

In a nearby village SS commander Major Volkmann (Anthony Valentine) is ruthlessly suppressing the population, while Zeno (Telly Savalas) is leading the local Greek resistance using the whorehouse run by Eleana (Claudia Cardinale) as his HQ. The arrival of talent show performers Charlie Dane (Elliott Gould) and Dottie Del Mar (Stefanie Powers) as new POWs at Hecht's camp adds a new dynamic. Charlie has his eyes on ancient treasure hidden at a local monastery, while Zeno is anticipating an allied invasion and has his orders to move against the occupying Germans.

Emitting the strong stench of a group vacation for underemployed Hollywood stars, Escape To Athena develops ugly blisters in the Greek sun. The Lew Grade production directed by George P. Cosmatos attempts to recreate the classic vibe of movies like The Guns Of Navarone but falls embarrassingly flat. While the setting, uniforms and vehicles hold promise, Cosmatos is never able to assemble them into anything other than settings, uniforms and vehicles waiting in vain for a breath of inspiration. Lame humour rubs against context-free action and plenty of explosions, but all momentum is lost in a stupefyingly bland opening hour.

As the parade of stars galavant across the screen, none are properly introduced or provided with anything resembling a backstory, creating an  emotional void that devours the film. And so the actors default to importing luggage from other projects. Roger Moore continues with the worst of his Bond womanizing mannerisms; Elliot Gould believes he is recreating MASH; Richard Roundtree has no idea what he is doing and gets maybe 10 words of dialogue; and Sonny Bono reads his lines off the nearest tree. Telly Savalas was not told this was a semi-comedy and plays the Greek resistance leader absolutely straight, adding to the tonal confusion.

The second half is marginally better and features three action set-pieces, slapped together but still decent: the mish mash of Allies first attack the German troops in the village; then destroy a submarine refueling depot; and finally assault a monastery high up in the mountains. And still Cosmatos' grip on the material is ghastly. At one point a group of unidentified underwater divers surface to join a battle, just because. Then for no apparent reason a massive intimidating rocket is rolled-out mid-battle complete with mirror-helmeted starship troopers in attendance. The rocket plays no meaningful role in the movie.

Of course the stuntmen do all the work, and all the explosions do not obscure Escape To Athena as a collection of random scenes cobbled together in the futile hope that the editors can create sense out of nonsense.

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