Premise: At the tail end of World War 2, a German war hero is tasked with exterminating 8000 American POWs… but instead helps them escape.
About: Today’s screenplay takes us back to the fruitful screenwriting decade that was the 1990s. Randall Wallace was one of the hottest screenwriters in the world. Just two years previous, in 1995, his movie, “Braveheart,” would capture audiences everywhere and go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Today’s 1997 Wallace script had Arnold Schwarzzeneger eagerly ready to commit. However, after Arnold changed his mind, the project never picked up enough steam again to make it to the finish line.
Writer: Randall Wallace
Details: 109 pages
Randall Wallace remains one of the most perplexing screenwriters ever.
He wrote one of the most celebrated, quoted, and memorable war films of all time in Braveheart. But he’s never written anything good since. After Braveheart, which came out in 1995, he got the opportunity of a lifetime in writing The Man In The Iron Mask. That movie, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, came out on the heels of the most successful film in history, Titanic. It was the biggest box office sure thing that you could’ve attached yourself too, and it was a gigantic bust.
Next up came Michael Bay’s attempt to be taken seriously with Pearl Harbor. That movie, starring an overly eager but still raw Ben Affleck, was also a disaster. Wallace got one more chance to bat, agreeing to write Mel Gibson’s “We Were Soldiers.” But that movie was quickly forgotten almost as soon as it came out.
Wallace hasn’t written any movies since. And the reason I seem so flustered chronicling that reality is because I have this irrational fear that writers only get lucky once. They only have that one story that they perfectly connect with and are able to tell spectacularly, whereas everything else they write is average muck.
This isn’t true, of course. There are plenty of examples of writers who’ve written multiple great screenplays. But Wallace certainly isn’t helping me overcome my fear.
The year is 1944 and things are NOT looking good for the Germans. They’ve already started recruiting 16 year olds into their military ranks. Despite that, Hitler refuses to give up, and any German who even whispers that Germany could lose the war is executed on the spot.
One of the Germans’ last hopes is Nicholas Von Ostermann, a colonel of the Black Eagles, one of the most ruthless special units in the German army. Ostermann is notorious for going into battle against impossible odds and coming out alive.
Ostermann has a 12 year old son, a wife, and a polio-stricken brother, Reinhold, who’s a preacher. Reinhold is secretly working with a military unit to assassinate Hitler before all that’s left of Germany is ashes.
Despite Russia closing in on every front, Ostermann is determined to protect his country and heads north to stop the Russians from invading Berlin. He succeeds but in the process is shot and killed. Or so we think. Ostermann wakes up in some field being mass-buried with other deceased German soldiers. Ostermann kills the Russians, steals their truck, and drives home.
But he gets home to a Berlin that’s being bombed to smithereens. And his poor son is dead. Like REALLY dead. Although devastated, Ostermann is immediately ordered to travel to a POW camp that’s holding 8000 captured American bombers and then exterminate them. I didn’t know it was possible to capture that many bombers but okay.
Once there, Ostermann realizes he doesn’t want to kill anyone anymore. So he tells the prison brain trust that he’s going to separate the strong from the weak. He’ll tell the strong soldiers he’s rescuing them, but really, he’s leading them to an ambush where they’ll be wiped out. From there, they’ll slaughter all the weaker soldiers without any resistance.
But his real plan is to sneak a bunch of guns out with the Americans, and when they encounter the Germans, they’ll kill them all, and then make a run for the border, where American forces will be waiting. What makes things interesting is that the Americans don’t exactly trust this guy. So they have to decide if they should kill him the second they’re free. What will happen? I don’t know but I’m guessing a lot of chaos is going to be involved!
I’m trying to figure out how this script was put together. Because I get the sense it was majorly over-developed, with Wallace taking on and trying to incorporate a bunch of conflicting notes. This can happen during any development process. But it was especially prevalent in the 90s when there was a ton of money in development, and studios would put screenplays through the meat-grinder in search of creating that perfect link of screenplay sausage.
The script starts off with this German officer randomly running around Germany getting into conflicts. There’s no real direction to the story. It’s not bad. Wallace is a solid writer and every page reads well in a vacuum. But at one point, Ostermann dies, and then he comes back to life, and then he runs back to Germany, but literally the second he gets there, his town is bombed and his son is killed. It’s like we’re in a salt shaker and the writer can’t stop shaking it.
There are a lot of discussions with his brother, who’s an interesting character, but who, if we’re being honest, has no reason to be in the movie. This is where Hollywood seems clueless at times. You can get hung up on a cool character (he’s got polio! An actor will love to play him!). But everything interesting this character does, like put together a plan to kill Hitler, happens off-screen. He’s nowhere near the main plot.
The film eventually focuses in once Ostermann gets to the POW camp. Finally, we have ourselves a clear narrative. But why all the willy-nilly 40 pages of nonsense to get there? I get that if we see Ostermann’s son die, we’re going to feel more compassion for him than if his son’s death is backstory. But if you’re weighing 40 pages of setup to get that one death? I’m sorry but getting to the meat of the screenplay is way more important.
With that said, Ostermann is a strong character and I understand, from a studio’s point of view, why they made a few of these holding-up-the-narrative choices. At one point, Ostermann dies heroically in battle only to wake up as the Russians are mass-burying truckloads of dead Germans.
I can see an actor like Arnold Schwarzenegger flipping out for that scene. Which is one of the many paradigms of the business of screenwriting. Sometimes you have to detour your entire story to get a cool scene in because the star actor wants it in. As hard as that is for me to accept as a lover of writing, I do understand it from a business point-of-view.
And in Wallace’s defense, he creates two really fun characters here. Ostermann is this war hero who just won’t die. And then the other guy is Crane, the American bomber whose plane crashes and eventually is sent to the POW camp.
I always tell writers how important it is, especially in big movies like this, to give your main characters a whopper of a character introduction. And boy do we get one with Crane. He’s in the back of the bomber plane, watching as all of the bombs are being dropped when, all of a sudden, they get clogged together, in the drop-hole. And the bombs are active! So if they don’t do something fast, their plane will be blown to smithereens.
So Crane leaps on top of these active bombs and starts stomping on them to unclog them. It’s a great scene and immediately makes him a stand-out character.
On top of all this, the script nails one of the Screenwriting 101 tenets, which is to give us a new spin on something familiar. World War 2 scripts are a dime a dozen. But there aren’t many World War 2 movies where the main character is a Nazi. That’s a unique take and immediately makes the script stand out.
I would say that With Wings as Eagles could still be made today. But it needs to better establish what it is – which is basically a prison-break movie – and build its narrative around that from the get-go. Give us an opening scene showing Ostermann kick a$$ on the battlefield. Then have him receive the orders to go to the POW camp. Then cut to the POW camps so we can meet all the American prisoners. Establish all of them. Ostermann shows up. And we’re off to the races.
It’s endlessly annoying reading all these screenwriters overcomplicating their screenplays. It’s what kills 7 out of every 10 scripts I read. Get all the gunk out of the way and just give us a simple narrative with some really great characters and I guarantee we’ll be satisfied.
Despite all this, maybe because I’m feeling that July 4th holiday fireworks goodness exploding around me, I think this is a light “worth the read.” Check it out yourself with the script link NOW!
Script link: With Wings As Eagles
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The “Make Up For Lost Time” Character Intro — You already know that when you want to create a strong character, you have to give them a big memorable introduction. However, there’s an even more important time to do this. Let’s say that your story forces you to spend a ton of time setting up your main character, not unlike the way Ostermann is set up here. Then, you only have one scene to set up a major secondary character. In these times, it is ESSENTIAL that you give them a memorable introductory scene because they don’t have the benefit of the audience spending a lot of time with them like they have your main character. That’s why the Crane ‘bomb stomp’ introduction works so well in With Wings as Eagles. Notice they did this in Star Wars as well. They couldn’t introduce Han Solo early. So they needed to give him a big entrance in order to make up for lost time. They did this with him killing Greedo.