Made in 1951, this early movie from Terence Young, the man who would later guide James Bond through some of his earliest adventures, turns out to be a real surprise. It starts out like most post-war espionage films before suddenly morphing into an epic (or as epic as a 4:3 ratio black and white film can be) adventure.
It’s one of those curious British films set in a foreign country – in this case Sweden – where almost everyone seems very British, stiff upper lip and all. This includes Australian actor John McCallum as Dr Nils Ahlen, who has invented an improbable technique of turning sound into electricity. This is the sort of thing that is worth a fortune, and so it comes as a shock when he finds that vital components for his device have been stolen (as with so many films where scientists invent some amazing new machine, he’s only built one and presumably hasn’t bothered keeping details of how to replace any of the parts, given that it will take about three years to get back up to speed on the invention). To make things worse, it seems that the thieves are his wife Helga (Mary Laura Wood) – who we’ve already seen has a frosty relationship with her husband – and his assistant Sven Nystrom (Anthony Dawson).
At this point, it seems that the film will follow a straight forward route, with Ahlen trying to recover his device while shifty foreign agents try to stop him. Indeed, a visit to a house in Karlsbad to visit a secretive and dangerous old woman who has been in touch with Nystromand and the appearance of a gun-toting Christopher Lee in an early role – who turns out to be a policeman, but looks sinister througout his brief screen time – seems to confirm that, but then the film takes a curious swerve. Finally accepting that Police Inspector Jack Warner is not a bumbling fool, Ahlen teams with his to follow leads that take them out towards the Finnish border. As the two thieves make their getaway, the pursuit is slowed by snow storms and helped by a frozen lake. Eventually, our heroes team up with a group of Lapps, who are taking their reindeer herd across the frozen wastelands to the border. And so the film suddenly stops being a spy adventure and becomes something rather more original, as this group struggle against the elements and packs of marauding wolves as they try to reach their destination. The Lapps consider the two Swedes as bad luck, something that seems to be the case as a false trail leads them into disaster, devastating the reindeer herd and leading to death and despair amongst the Lapps. To make things worse, Ahlen is openly contemptuous and racist about his companions, considering them savages, though he is made to think differently by token female Lapp Kara (Nadia Gray), who is somewhat more glamorous than her associates.
There are impressive, sweeping vistas in this film – scenes of vast reindeer herds, struggles through the snow and avalanches look good even within the limited visual scope of the movie (if this had been shot a few years later, in colour and widescreen, it might be rather better known). But the film works best as an intimate and often quite dark tale of survival and culture clashes. The scenes with the wolves skulking in the dark are impressively creepy, while the desolation and bleakness of the locations is made to feel effectively chilly. At one point, the heroes are rescued from a wolf attack by Lapps using trained Eagles, which is impressive, unusual and surely at the edges of the BBFC’s rules on animal cruelty, as it’s hard to see how scenes of Eagles swooping down and clawing at wolves could be effectively controlled – no CGI effects here!
The film also seems somewhat progressive in its treatment of the native Lapps, at least for the time. Ahlen is a pretty unpleasant hero for much of the film and his open contempt for these ‘primitives’ is never presented as a viewpoint we should sympathise with; quite the opposite in fact. It’s possible that his education into respecting the traditions of the Lapps is also an education for the audience, even if it does take a sexy young hotty to make him open his mind.
I’m not going to suggest that Valley of Eagles is some sort of lost masterpiece, but it’s definitely an original and above-average adventure thriller for the period, and one that perhaps hints at what Young would be able to do with exotic locations and a mix of action and espionage a decade or so later in Dr No, From Russia with Love and Thunderball. Certainly, it’s appearance on DVD – in a print that is as good as you could hope for given the age of the film – has been long overdue, so this new edition is very welcome.