Films about the Second World War were highly popular in the British cinema throughout the fifties and sixties, but by the time "Escape to Athena" was made at the end of the seventies the genre was beginning to run out of steam. The film could be described as a sort of "Guns of Navarone" meets "Colditz". Like the former, it is set on a German-occupied Greek island, and like the latter it concerns the attempts of a group of Allied prisoners to escape from a prisoner of war camp. The prisoners, however, are not merely concerned with escaping. They also plan to make a raid on a nearby monastery in order to loot a collection of priceless Byzantine golden plates. The local Greek Resistance are also interested in the monastery, because the Nazis are using it as a base for the V2 rockets with which they hope to defeat any Allied attempt to liberate the island.
One unusual thing about the film is that it features a "good German", although both the noun and the adjective need to be given a fairly wide definition. Major Otto Hecht, the commandant of the prison camp, is Viennese by birth, and therefore only German by virtue of the 1938 Anschluss between Germany and Austria. In civilian life he was an antique dealer, and he is not above using his military position to loot antiquities which he ships to relatives in Switzerland, hoping to sell them at a profit after the war. In wartime, however, embezzlement of this nature is a minor offence compared with the other crimes of the Nazis, and the comparatively liberal Hecht is repelled by the brutality of some of his comrades such as the fanatical SS Major Volkmann (played by Anthony Valentine who had played a very similar role in the early seventies British TV serial "Colditz"), and has no difficulties about throwing his lot in with the prisoners he is supposedly guarding.
The other characters are something of a mixed bunch. We have David Niven going through the motions as an upper-class English archaeologist, Telly Savalas as a Resistance leader, Richard Roundtree as a black American POW and Sonny Bono as an Italian marooned on the wrong side after his country switched sides in the war. The war film is normally a male-dominated genre, although this one has rather more glamour than normal, with Claudia Cardinale as a Greek prostitute and Stefanie Powers as a swimmer turned actress (presumably based on Esther Williams), one of two American entertainers captured by the Germans, the other being Elliott Gould's Jewish comedian.
It was a surprise to see Roger Moore playing something other than an Englishman, although it must be said that he does not make a convincing German. This film came halfway through his reign as 007, and he sounds much the same as he did when playing James Bond, making only the most perfunctory attempt at a foreign accent. As in some of his less successful Bond films he just seems content to stroll through the film without putting any great effort. To be fair, however, the same could be said of most of the rest of the cast. One wonders if they signed up merely in order to spend a few months in the Greek sunshine. Niven, for example, too old in his late sixties to be taking a leading role in an action film like this, seems even more laid-back than Moore.
If the cast seem uninspired, that is possibly because they are dealing with a very uninspiring script. The film's occasional attempts to blend humour with action (mostly involving Gould's character) tend to fall flat. "Escape to Athena" is very much an average war adventure, or even a below average war adventure, with little to set it apart from all the other indifferent war films that had appeared on both sides of the Atlantic over the preceding few decades. 4/10
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