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Escape to Athena is a 1979 British adventure war film (with several elements of comedy), directed and co-authored by George Pan Cosmatos and produced by Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment. The international cast included many well-known actors of the 1970s, including Roger Moore, Telly Savalas and Elliott Gould.
In 1944 allied POWs, at a remote POW camp on an unnamed island, are forced to excavate ancient Greek artifacts. The camp Commandant, Major Otto Hecht (Roger Moore), who was an Austrian antiques dealer before the war, is sending some of the valuable pieces to his sister living in Switzerland. However the prisoners have discovered they will be sent to other POW camps once the artifacts run out, so they operate a ruse in which they repeatedly "discover" the same pieces.
While Hecht is just content to sit out the war, the SS Commandant of the nearby town, Major Volkmann (Anthony Valentine), is his complete opposite. He and his Lieutenants (Siegfried Rauch and Richard Wren) rule with a sadistic grip, executing the innocent residents just as easily as enemy soldiers.
The only opposition to the Germans is Zeno (Telly Savalas), a former Monk, and his few resistance fighters who use the local brothel as an undercover headquarters. Zeno, who is in contact with Allied Headquarters, is ordered to break the prisoners out of their camp to increase his numbers in order to liberate the town from the Germans and secure a U-Boat refuelling depot.
Two captured USO artists Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Dottie (Stefanie Powers) perform a concert as cover while the prisoners and the Greek resistance take over the POW camp. With the choice of being killed by Zeno or helping the resistance, Hecht joins forces with the allies helping them eradicate Volkmann's troops as well as capturing the U-boat fuel depot.
On completing the mission, Charlie asks Zeno to lead him and two other prisoners, Judson and Rotelli (Roundtree and Bono) up to the monastery on Mount Athena to steal Byzantine treasures being kept by the monks. However Zeno tells Charlie that the Monks' treasure is the property of the Greek people. The situation ends in impasse.
But Zeno receives word the Allies' invasion of the Greek islands has been brought forward. It means that the German garrison in the monastery atop Mount Athena will have to be neutralised. Without telling them the whole truth, Zeno tells Charlie, Rotelli and Judson that he'll help climb Mount Athena to liberate the monks from the Germans. Then whatever they find is theirs.
But on reaching the monastery, the group find a heavily armed garrison. Zeno uses gas to neutralize most of the soldiers but not before the garrison's commander orders a V-2 launch. The Americans realize that Zeno had lied to them about the mission when they see the rocket being readied for launch. Instead of hunting for treasure, they were sent to the monastery to destroy missiles the Germans were preparing to launch against the invading allies.
Judson knocks out the missile control room using grenades, but one of the Germans survives long enough to set the base's self-destruct mechanism. Not realizing the danger immediately, Charlie and Rotelli scour the monastery for the monks' treasure while Judson frees the monks. Zeno finds the self-destruct clock, but cannot deactivate it.
With Zeno and the monks, the Americans escape the monastery before it explodes. Searching for treasure up until the last minute, Charlie escapes the explosion with the only treasure the Germans left behind - tin plates adorned with Hitler's face.
During the victory celebration in the village, Hecht, Charlie, and Dottie make plans to capitalize on treasures Hecht has already looted - making copies to sell to the Americans. Professor Blake (David Niven) learns from one of the freed monks that their treasure - Byzantine plates made of gold - are safe, having been hidden in the brothel the entire time.
The final scene cuts to modern day, by which time Zeno's former headquarters have been turned into a state museum housing the Byzantine treasures of Mount Athena. The film ends with the Heatwave song Keep Tomorrow for Me.
- Roger Moore as Major Otto Hecht – an Austrian and the Wehrmacht commandant of the POW camp who opposes his government's ideology
- Telly Savalas as Zeno – the head of the Greek Island's resistance movement
- David Niven as Professor Blake – Senior British Officer amongst the prisoners and a well known archaeologist
- Stefanie Powers as Dottie Del Mar – an American USO artist (in fact, stripper), who was shot down with Charlie and detained in the POW camp.
- Elliott Gould as Charlie Dane – an American comedian, USO performer and professional partner of Dottie.
- Claudia Cardinale as Eleana – a local madame, girlfriend of Zeno
- Richard Roundtree as Sgt. Nat Judson – African-American POW and amateur magician
- Sonny Bono as Bruno Rotelli – an Italian POW, professional chef
- Anthony Valentine as Maj. Volkmann – the ruthless SS officer, town commandant and Hecht's rival
- Siegfried Rauch as Lt. Braun – SS officer under Volkmann's command
- Richard Wren as Capt. Reistoffer – Volkmann's adjutant
- Michael Sheard as Sgt. Mann – Hecht's senior camp NCO
- Philip Locke as Major Vogel
- Steve Ubels as Capt. Lantz
- Paul Picerni as Zeno's Man
- Paul Stassino as Zeno's Man
William Holden, who was in a relationship with Stefanie Powers at the time of filming, makes a cameo in the film as a POW. Elliott Gould's character passes by Holden leaning against the POW barracks, looks at him and asks, "Are you still here?" This is in reference to Holden's Oscar-winning performance in Billy Wilder's World War II/POW film Stalag 17 as Sgt. J.J. Sefton, who actually escapes at the end of that film.
The film was partly financed by Lew Grade who wanted an action movie. However he felt it did not live up to the script, in part because the first eighty minutes mixed comedy and action and "the combination just didn't work... but the last forty, action-packed minutes were wonderful. If only the emphasis had been on action throughout the film would have been a hit. Unfortunately it wasn't. Still, with the pre-sales I'd made we didn't lose nearly as much as we might have."
- Lew Grade, Still Dancing: My Story, William Collins & Sons 1987 p 250-251
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