Greece 1944, and the occupying Nazi forces have set up a prisoner of war camp on one of the islands. No matter that the captives make regular attempts to escape, as some of them have today, they are always recaptured: Professor Blake (David Niven) finds his disguise is not up to snuff, for example, or the cook Bruno Rotelli (Sonny Bono) is uncovered and as the Germans don't wish to lose one of his profession, an innocent old man is executed in his place. The point of the camp is to uncover lost Greek treasures, and Major Otto Hecht (Roger Moore) is keen to boost the spoils of his looting...
Well, you can see what's wrong there right away, can't you? That English gentleman's English gentleman Sir Roger Moore playing a Nazi? Were the producers mad? Maybe he wanted a challenge, but if it was a challenge with the accent he patently lost, as there were better inflections to be heard on an average episode of 'Allo, 'Allo! and Rog simply did not convince as a German, no matter how refined his character was meant to be. Yet otherwise he fit into this, which could best be described as an all-star romp, pretty snugly as he was precisely the type of actor suited to what was the tail end of the British war movie cycle.
It was a venerable tradition, but the problems of the British film industry as it lurched into the nineteen-eighties, coupled with changing tastes of the audiences, meant that war movies were falling out of fashion, especially the action would-be spectaculars that the genre had become. This was one of the films made by Sir Lew Grade, the television mogul who wished to branch out onto the silver screen but found that it was not half as lucrative as his small screen bonanzas. He did not find many hits, although at this stage he still had The Muppet Movie or On Golden Pond to come, and Escape to Athena was forever after destined to reside as a schedule filler on the world's television stations.
It is clear that all concerned thought they were making something in the vein of The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, except that it more closely resembled a holiday for its stars who had the inconvenience of a film to break up their time spent sunbathing. The list of famous faces was impressive, nonetheless, with not only Moore and Niven, but also Telly Savalas as a freedom fighter, Claudia Cardinale as his whorehouse madam partner, Richard Roundtree as one of the treasure seekers, and Stefanie Powers as an entertainer turned diver. Her manager/comedian was played by Elliott Gould, making the most of his role as the comic relief even if he doesn't really get any funny lines.
All right, there was nobody in that cast who would surprise you to see them appearing, but that wasn't bad for what was never going to be the blockbuster Sir Lew had in mind. Assemble that lot on the island and you have the makings of derring-do, which is what happens in its oddly underpowered fashion as the hunt for Greek art treasures, supposedly hidden in the nearby Nazi-controlled monastery, is embarked upon, along with sabotaging the bad guys' efforts to fire off great big missiles that doesn't look very World War II, and ends up more Star Wars when you see the uniforms the troops are wearing. It's all very much on autopilot, with nobody you recognise likely to get hurt, but even so Escape to Athena does pass the time painlessly enough, nothing taxing, nothing shocking, all on the level of a TV special with more people falling from great heights that usual. Music by Lalo Schifrin, along with the disco stylings of Heatwave (really).