The Alistair MacLean Thread

chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent
edited June 2023 in Off Topic Chat

Welcome to The Alistair MacLean Thread, a place where you can share thoughts and reviews and memories of Alistair MacLean, his books, the movies, covers, posters, anecdotes of his life, career and opinions on his literary style…

Whether you are a fan or not, feel free to contribute to the thread. I will be posting some reviews and thoughts as I watch or read, but not in any specific order or to any timeframe…

When I was a teenager, I avidly read Alistair MacLean, borrowing books from the library and purchasing others when I could afford to. I never had a complete set as I stopped collecting in 1983. I didn’t read a single one of his novels ever again after that, except for the occasional dip into my favourite, Caravan to Vaccares. Until recently…

In 2019 I was browsing my local British Heart Foundation and they had four of MacLean’s novels on sale at £2 apiece, the Harper reissues from 2009. My original MacLean collection was mostly the vividly enticing Fontana paperbacks from the late seventies, but I gave them away to a charity shop – yes, even Vaccares – a couple of decades ago. It suddenly felt as if a higher literary and charitable power was telling me something. A fire was ignited. I bought the four novels and read them all in rapid succession. The question for me now was whether I wanted to restart a dormant obsession. I think, after four more years, the time is about right…

MacLean is easily researched on Wiki and various other websites, so I don’t see the need to bore you with a resume of his life, career and work. However, I will start the ball rolling with a brief summary, as I perceive it, of his literary canon:

Alistair MacLean (1922 – 1987)

Along with many commentators, I consider the MacLean writing oeuvre falls into five distinct acts:

Act 1: Early Success: 1955 – 1959: MacLean releases his first five novels to great acclaim. They are excellently plotted, well prosed and eminently readable.

Act 2: A Period of Doubt: 1960 -1963: Maclean believes people are only buying his novels because of his burgeoning reputation. These misgivings increase after the success of the film The Guns of Navarone. He publishes under a pseudonym in an attempt to prove himself. Eventually, despite continued success, he takes a sabbatical.

Act 3: International Period: 1966 – 1971: MacLean returns with six highly successful novels and a string of movie adaptations which make his fortune.

Act 4: Treading Water: 1973 – 1978: Returning from another sabbatical, MacLean seems to lower his interest in the novels, preferring to follow his lucrative movie projects. His books become less well-structured and appear formulaic.

Act 5: Decline: 1980 – 1986: A series of tepid novels bring Maclean’s career to a close while the movie adaptations dry up. He still sells books by the million but the reservations about his talent during the early sixties seem to have become a self-fulfilling prophesy by the early eighties.

I have still not read all of MacLean’s novels, but of the ones I have, if I needed to pick winners from each of these acts, I would nominate:

1: The Last Frontier

2: Fear is the Key

3: Caravan to Vaccares

4: Breakheart Pass

5: River of Death

which is not your usual list, missing many established favourites.

From the movie adaptations [there are fifteen – 14 for the cinema and 1 for television] of the ones I have seen, I would suggest the following three titles [in release date order] perhaps best interpret MacLean’s work for the screen:

The Guns of Navarone

Where Eagles Dare

When Eight Bells Toll

So, guys, over to you…  

Some not so lovely film tie in covers to tide us over. The second one of Vaccares is there because it is one of my favourite hardback covers of all time - along with my avatar, of course.





  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,193Chief of Staff

    Most of his works in Act 2 and 3 are terrific and very much recommended. I believe the decline actually started with Act 4, specifically with "The Way To Dusty Death". From that book onwards they vary from bearable to dreadful with his last "Santorini" being his worst IMHO.

  • Westward_DriftWestward_Drift Posts: 3,090MI6 Agent

    I read a lot of Alistair Maclean when I was in middle and high school. None of the works that were made into films (although I did read Where Eagles Dare later in college after seeing the film). I know I read The Golden Gate, Athabasca, Floodgate, Goodbye California and some other cotemporaneous works. For me it was just passable pulpy fun reads. Not that I remember any of it now.

  • CoolHandBondCoolHandBond Mactan IslandPosts: 6,138MI6 Agent

    Breakheart Pass was the last I read - that and the previous Dusty Death were enough for me to see that he had lost his way.

    My favourite is Night Without End.

    Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.
  • Number24Number24 NorwayPosts: 21,761MI6 Agent
    edited June 2023

    I posted in the wrong thread.

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,193Chief of Staff

    I think you've posted in the wrong thread, @Number24

  • Number24Number24 NorwayPosts: 21,761MI6 Agent

    Again? 🙄

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,193Chief of Staff
    edited June 2023



    MacLean was asked in 1977 to write a series of story outlines which turned out to be about a fictitious organisation called UNACO (United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation) with the intention of these being made into films. Some indeed were (two of which starred Pierce Brosnan, during the period Timothy Dalton was still technically Bond) but more became novels. The first two weren’t actually posthumous, being published in 1980 and 1981.

    These were novelised by “John Denis”, a pen name. No more appeared until 1989, then novelisations were published roughly one a year till 1995.

    The author here was one Alastair MacNeill. The similarity in the names led to a court case- note the change in the relative size of the names after “Red Alert”. You can make up your own mind as to whether HarperCollins were more interested in the commercial possibilities of the reading public confusing Alastair MacNeill with Alistair McLean than in his actual writing talent. I have read all of the above and I know my opinion.

    NB “Rendezvous” is not a UNACO story. Rather, it’s an expansion of a MacLean short story which had been included in the compilation “The Lonely Sea”, published not long before MacLean’s death (though before the awful “Santorini”).

    One Hugh Miller was next to continue the UNACO series in 1997-

    In 1996 and 1998 the following sequels to McLean’s “Force 10 From Navarone” appeared, written by Sam Llewelyn-

      I thought these weren’t bad.


     Overlapping with HarperCollins’ efforts to keep the McLean name going was another brief series from rival publisher Chapmans.

    The genesis of these was a screenplay “Golden Girl”, the rights to which had been given to an ex-wife during a divorce settlement. It was novelised by Simon Gandolfi and then followed by two sequels.

    Edit- As said above, @CoolHandBond you're our resident expert on this. Have a look at the books above (all firsts, though the first two did come out in paperback earlier. Most are mint, a couple are dodgy.). Can I place an order for that Aston Martin or would I be lucky to get a bus ticket?

  • Silhouette ManSilhouette Man The last refuge of a scoundrelPosts: 8,668MI6 Agent

    Has anyone here read Puppet on a Chain or seen the film adaptation?

    "The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette." - Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955).
  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,193Chief of Staff

    That would be me, "yes" to both. I thought the book better than the film.

  • Silhouette ManSilhouette Man The last refuge of a scoundrelPosts: 8,668MI6 Agent

    Thanks, @Barbel. I have a copy of the book but have still to read it. Was thinking of tracking down the film version too.

    "The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette." - Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955).
  • Number24Number24 NorwayPosts: 21,761MI6 Agent
    edited June 2023

    I enjoyed the Alistair MacLean's books a lot during my teens, but I haven't read anything later. My questions to everyone else is: is there a no un-filmed book you wish was made into a movie today?

    Is there an MacLean movie you'd like to see re-made today?

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,193Chief of Staff

    As usual I agree with CHB- "Night Without End", unless it's been filmed and I missed it.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent

    No it hasn't... and when I read it recently, I thought NWE would have made and may still make a great film. It is extremely tense and atmospheric.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent

    Thanks for the info on the follow up books @Barbel an area I pay little attention too. So the Jon Denis books were written by who? Surely not MacLean himself, NacNeil possibly? There was that gap in MacLean's published output in 1979, would he have been working on these outlines in tandem with another author?

    The Gandolfi 'Golden Girl' series is another extremely hard set to track down [I suspect someone will instantly prove me wrong] certainly at a reasonable price anyway.

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,193Chief of Staff
    edited June 2023

    John Denis isn't one guy, he's two- John Edwards and Denis Frost.

    MacLean was asked by the publisher to write the novel of "Hostage Tower" himself but declined since he was working on another book ("Athabasca" if memory serves) at the time.

    Edit- MacLean explains more in the paperback editions of those two books, but I don't have them any more since I now have the hardback editions which is why I'm going from memory.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent

    Thanks @Westward_Drift - what did I just write...

    The Gandolfi 'Golden Girl' series is another extremely hard set to track down [I suspect someone will instantly prove me wrong] certainly at a reasonable price anyway.

  • CoolHandBondCoolHandBond Mactan IslandPosts: 6,138MI6 Agent

    As @Westward_Drift has shown, they are not worth all that much, unfortunately.

    Abe books is a good source to try and value books but buyers should only purchase from those dealers whose provenance can be assured. If you are intending spending a lot of money on a purchase then discounts can usually be bargained with the dealer. Abe books have a lot of chancers on there who over value to extraordinary lengths in the hope of catching those off their guard.

    @chrisno1 pre-internet days and lots of titles were hard to source so prices were relatively high on sought after titles. Once EBay began everything was readily available apart from the genuinely rare items - thus began the decline of the used bookshop (sigh). And the rise of charity shops with advantageous rent, staff and council tax terms didn’t help, either (even bigger sigh and gnashing of teeth).

    Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.
  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,193Chief of Staff

    Thanks, everyone. And whenever I see the name "Simon Gandolfi" I keep hearing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in what passes for my brain....and now you will, too. You can thank me later.

  • Golrush007Golrush007 South AfricaPosts: 3,418Quartermasters

    I'll be interested to keep my eye on this thread and get people's thoughts and reviews on the various books. I've only read a handful of Alistair Maclean novels, all of which have been WWII based: HMS Ulysses, Guns of Navarone, Force 10 From Navarone, Where Eagles Dare.

    I'm more familiar with the two Navarone films and Where Eagles Dare, all of which I am very fond of, even Force 10, which I think it is a little bit underrated. The only time I've ventured beyond WWII territory with Maclean was with the film of When Eight Bells Toll, which I didn't enjoy nearly as much as the WWII films.

    I've had a copy of Ice Station Zebra that I have been meaning to read for a long time but haven't yet got around to it.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent

    My favourite of the Alistair MacLean movies:


    Alistair MacLean had penned six bestsellers before this award-winning adaptation of his second novel hit the cinemas. If you are a MacLean purist, you might be disappointed the film doesn’t accurately follow the book, not in incident or in personnel, but what you can’t fault is the movie’s ability to grab an audience’s attention and keep grabbing. British director J. Lee Thompson and American blacklisted writer-producer Carl Foreman combine to create one of the great war adventures, helped immeasurably by the film not really being a ‘big’ war movie at all, but a ‘small’ one about an elite group of saboteurs attempting to destroy a pair of hulking enemy cannon.

    Gregory Peck delivers one of his most understated performances as Keith Mallory, leader of the half-dozen attack spearhead, who has to make tough decisions at the worst of times. The imp on his shoulder is David Niven – far too old to be playing this sort of role – as an uncooperative munitions expert. Anthony Quinn’s indestructible Greek resistance fighter rounds out the central trio and they are given good support by Anthony Quayle, James Darren and Stanley Baker. In typical MacLean fashion, each man has a set of special skills that will aid the success of the venture and which also aids their survival or hastens their demise. Hence we learn it isn’t just having the skills, it is knowing how and when to apply them. The film looks wonderful, utilising Greek locations, and has an excellent Hellenic inspired Dimitri Tiomkin music score. It is tense and well structured. Despite being over 2½ hours in length, the film never ceases to interest, either through character or incident.

    The movie deservedly won an Oscar for its special effects. The shot of a tidal wave approaching a rocky shoreline was fantastic, and the explosive finale is well choreographed. Unusually for escapist entertainment, the film also received nods for Best Picture and Director, but then it was the second most popular film at the box office in 1961. Time hasn’t dented it. Right from the opening briefing where Richard Harris berates the foolhardiness of a bombing mission and operation planner James Robertson Justice admits his lethal responsibilities prior to anyone’s death or glory, we know we are in for a rough, tough, uncompromising story. The saboteurs work their way through a series of tense standoffs with spies, Nazis, double agents, the weather and the geography while the intrigue and suspense barely lets up. It is significant that writer and director both display more interest in the mission crew themselves, how they interact and react, how war has altered their behaviours and understanding of consequences. These debates provide the soiled heartbeat for a moment of shocking revelation and barbaric solution. In the main, the film deliberately avoids guns and bullets and conflict until the very end, when they become necessary; even then the battles outside the gun emplacement are less interesting than what is happening inside.

    A prestige war film in an era of great war films.       


  • Golrush007Golrush007 South AfricaPosts: 3,418Quartermasters

    Excellent review chrisno1, and I concur with all your thoughts.

    I feel that the film has a terrific sense of atmosphere. I especially enjoy the sense of place as the crew gather in the harbour and then set off on their sea voyage. The storm and the encounter with the German patrol boat are favourite scenes. Then, of course, the shipwreck and the perilous climb...and that is only the start of the mission. Many great scenes follow later, including the tension of that hoist going up and down and narrowly missing the trigger for the explosives.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent

    Kicking off a run of book reviews starting in the latter period of Alistair MacLean's career and 1973's opus The Way to Dusty Death



    Published after a second, shorter hiatus to his career, Alistair MacLean’s The Way to Dusty Death features a great title culled from Macbeth and starts with a fatal crash at the F1 French Grand Prix, which MacLean describes in his customarily languid style. Johnny Harlow is world champion elect, but since the death of his brother – also in a racing accident – he’s become unreliable, taken to drinking hard and driving carelessly. He’s losing Grand Prix and friends faster than he can drive the Coronado race cars. Harlow however isn’t all he seems and gradually MacLean reveals to us the lead character’s secrets, fears and indomitable resolve.

    Aided by Alexis Dunnet, a seedy journalist, and Mary, daughter of the Coronado’s chief financier, the multimillionaire James MacAlpine, Harlow begins to uncover the strange tactics of rival drivers as well as the hidden night-time work performed by the mechanics on his once reliable racing car. MacLean moves the story forward quickly and there’s plenty of intrigue to keep us interested. He even throws in a few action scenes. What spoils it is the stilted, mannered and pretentious dialogue and a sense that the writer doesn’t really care about his characters or the plot. It’s enough for him to write the story without any emotional embellishments. The affair is tense despite his input not because of it. Some of the sentence structure is hopelessly longwinded. A good editor could have shaved a few thousand words off the count, although he novel is short enough already, touching no more than 50000 words.

    Unusually for MacLean there is a romance for his hero but it’s hardly worth bothering with and is as chaste as a photo-story in Jackie magazine. Very visual, full of speeding cars and injections of pace, nasty fights and bloody wounds the confusing tale of kidnap, murder, blackmail, smuggling and illegal track gambling draws to a satisfactory conclusion on a yacht moored off Bandol and a terrifying car chase into the French Alps.

    This novel reads more like a first draft and as such while it isn't bad it is very, very average. MacLean had mooted the story as a potential movie to star his friend Jackie Stewart - the F1 champion at the time - but that came to nothing. Sylvester Stallone expressed interest in the project in the 1980s, but the book wasn't made into a movie until 1995, and then it was on television and starred Simon MacCorkindale. I have yet to have the pleasure. The book certainly has potential for a slam-bang racing drama, but as an exercise in thrill a minute, character tuned prose, it is severely lacking.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent

    If you are in the U.K., it is a big weekend for fans of Alistair MacLean movies - although I only have the London region guide - :

    Saturday BBC2 1.45pm ICE STATION ZEBRA

    Sunday Talking Pictures 10.00pm BEAR ISLAND

    Sunday BBC2 midnight WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL (may need to set the recorder for that one)

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent

    Well, I couldn't watch them all, and as I have reviewed ISZ and W8BT before - I must dig them out and repost in this thread - I picked on Bear Island:

    BEAR ISLAND (1979)

    The last cinematic outing for Alistair MacLean is based on one of his best selling novels. Bear Island shifted over 8million copies, so you’d think the production team would be onto a winner. Canadian Peter Snell had bought a whole bunch of MacLean books for adaptation, but he only made a handful in the end, and those mostly for television. Bear Island wasn’t very successful, had a mixed critical reception and time has allowed numerous ill-informed hacks to write it off as a disaster.

    That’s unfair. It isn’t a terrible film, although there are some terrible accents and atrocious facial hair, and it doesn’t quite have the strung out suspense we’ve come to expect from the best of MacLean’s movies. What it does have is some splendid photography, a well organised narrative with a workable backstory for Donald Sutherland’s leading man and some decent action scenes. It also suffers from a couple of dubious fist fights / chases that don’t quite seem to gel with the murder-mystery that is unfolding.

    Sensibly, screenwriter David Butler, along with director Don Sharp, ditched MacLean’s mostly nautical adventure for a snow bound one that takes place on the titular Artic landscape. Bear Island is a real place, uninhabited other than a meteorological station and its crew plus the dilapidated remnants of old whaler communities. Butler and Sharp also ditched the rather silly notion of a film crew travelling to the island. It does seem much more likely that a multinational science expedition, with accompanying security, could involve persons with the skills and ingenuity to carry out the daring-do expected of them here.

    Richard Widmark is Otto Gerran, leader of a UN Climate Committee, and his group of disparate scientists includes Sutherland’s German Frank Lansing, Christopher Lee’s Lechinski, a Pole, and Vanessa Redgrave’s Finnish doctor. Everyone’s accents are all over the place. Redgrave in particular keeps falling into cutglass RADA which becomes distracting. Best of the bunch is Lloyd Bridges’ Smithy, who turns out to be something of a hero-villain. Lansing holds a secret among his meagre possessions: a photo shows him with his father, a U-Boat Commander. He wants to join the expedition to see where his father was stationed during the war. The old U-Boat pens serve as a cavern full of Aladdin’s treasure. Lansing’s covert exploration of the pen and U-Boat 351 is probably the best sequence of the entire film, which stops and stutters as characters bicker and people are killed off.

    In that regard, Bear Island’s narrative shares similarities to Ice Station Zebra. The plot twists and turns effectively and as a viewer you are never entirely certain who is a good guy, who is bad, who knows what and why. Instead of a the protagonists hunting a spy satellite, they are seeking Nazi gold, or in Lansing’s case some family closure. The problems really start with the resolution which feels bogged down in action and doesn’t feature enough explanation. A couple of sentences here or there suffice for these writers.

    I rather enjoy Bear Island. It looks fabulous – one of ours, Alan Hume, was the photographer – and rewards the casual viewer. If one accepts that MacLean’s works were never meant to be profound pieces of literature, it seems fair to assume not every movie adaptation will display as much depth and emotional impact as The Guns of Navarone. For what it is, the film is fairly successful and makes for a decent if uninvolving slice of entertainment.     

    On a note of interest, Richard Widmark starred in The Secret Ways [1961], which was the first released movie based on a MacLean work [The Last Frontier] so there's a cute full circle going on here. 

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent

    Continuing my re-reading cycle:



    Breakheart Pass is a western on railway wheels, but it is also an espionage whodunnit with Alistair MacLean’s signature tough guy [here called John Deakin] attempting to uncover who is behind the gunrunning to the local Native American Indians, their activities covered by an outbreak of cholera at a US Army outpost. It’s all neatly intricate and passes a few hours of spare time. The book is one of the author’s shortest – my copy touches 190 pages, but the print is noticeably larger than usual. While it conforms to Maclean’s usual ten chapter formula, the action switches constantly from one point of view to another and some scenes are a bare few sentences.

    The novel was written at the time Maclean returned from a sabbatical following his most successful period of writing, but also when the movie adaptations of his work were getting good reviews and decent box office. During this time, MacLean had begun to create screenplays in preparation for film adaptations before he’d even started work on the prose novels. Where Eagles Dare and Puppet on a Chain were both written in the style and the films came along almost immediately after the book’s publication. Breakheart Pass follows this strategy – as did the previous novel The Way to Dusty Death – and as a result the narrative jerks the reader around from place to place, person to person, and lacks the prerequisite literary suspense. What might work on the cinema screen, because a director, editor and actors can improvise and create tension and character, doesn’t translate so easily onto the printed page and while the novel is a swift and enjoyable read with plenty of twists and turns, you sense MacLean’s descriptive heart simply isn’t in it.

    If you watch the movie close-by reading the novel, one of the most noticeable aspects is how the character of Deakin has been written almost as if Charles Bronson was already cast. He’s a surly, monosyllabic character, hard as nails, ruthless when needed to be, charming too at times, resourceful and watchful. The dialogue was made for Bronson’s stoic, lisped delivery; so too some of the action – at one point he’s tied up in a beautifully appointed railway carriage salon in exactly the same fashion his character Harmonica was in Once Upon A Time In The West. The scenes between Deakin and the heroine, a Governor’s niece called Marica Fairchild, crackle with some sensual intensity, despite the relationship being chaste. MacLean doesn’t write very good female characters but Marica is one of his better efforts. I like how she involves herself in the action, spars fruitlessly with Deakin, is alternately suspicious then trusting. She also proves herself a decent shot with a rifle. The almost bitter undercurrent of black humour which pervades their dialogue hints at the likelihood of an unsteady romance. Deakin, like all MacLean heroes, hides a secret and is impermeable to ladies’ charms or baddies’ bullets, knives and fists.

    The villains are sketchily drawn. Their gunrunning, gold mining, get-rich-quick operation relies on too big a leap of faith for the reader. A lot of people are killed in this adventure; it is quite bloodthirsty. Equally, though, thwarting the villains is too easy, requiring a similar exercise of mental expectations. Latterly, whole chapters seem to be set on top of the moving train’s carriage roofs, which isn’t very likely, especially given the story is set during a harsh winter storm. MacLean likes to put his people in this sort of peril, but this time it doesn’t quite come off.

    The novel has pace and some mystery and on a basic level, works very well. It is quite indicative of the author’s style and attentions at this time, focussing more on the machinations of the plot and the scenes he can [or a director can] visually create rather than the location details and the depth of character, which is mostly missing other than in the perfunctory.

    For all that, an enjoyable, rapid read. I like Breakheart Pass more probably because I enjoy the rough and ready Tom Gries movie than the book itself. Memories of the former allow me to picture Maclean’s characters and happenings with ease. The movie also had a better, more traditional wild west ending. The one presented here feels a bit slap dash, as if MacLean wanted a big finish when, as we all know, a western doesn’t need this. Wild West movie mythology is based around the white hatted good guy shooting the black hatted bad guy and Tom Gries, who has made a decent western or two, recognised this and devised something which resembles what we expect. MacLean delivers something more like The Bridge on the River Kwai, only without the artistic balance and conscience ridden characters. 


    I like the way the Fontana paperback [above - which I believe is a 1980s reissue] makes John Deakin look like Charles Bronson. The hardback cover below doesn't conjure up any sense of the book at all, other than the snow, the location and the train.

    Nice artwork, though.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent



    As with Alistair MacLean’s other recent works of the time – basically everything since 1966’s When Eight Bells Toll – a cinema adaptation was on the cards. MacLean had a working relationship with producer / director / writer Geoffrey Reeve, as well as another with producer Eliot Kastner. The films were not really of the blockbuster kind MacLean saw in the sixties, tending towards the European market and featuring low key actors and crew, resulting in often stilted dramas. It didn’t stop MacLean from trying and Circus is another example of a screenplay which has been turned into a novel which it just about is.

    That’s a bit unfair. For the majority of Circus, I was intrigued and interested, perhaps because this was a first time reading for me, but I’d like to give Mr MacLean the benefit of my doubt. He sets up the story very well, with a couple of CIA agents paying a visit to the Wrinfield Circus and watching the greatest trapeze act in history. Bruno Wildermann is an East German whose family have been incarcerated by the Stasi and his wife murdered under interrogation. Relocated to the USA, he’s got reason for a hefty chip on his shoulder and it is going to take more than the comely wiles of CIA operative Maria Hopkins to shift it. She joins the Circus as Bruno’s aide and love interest, supposably his protection against enemy agents. However, Maria is hopelessly naive while Bruno, who has extra-sensory perception, a photographic memory and an agile, probing intelligence as well as being the world’s greatest high wire and aerial acrobat, seems more than capable of handling the cloak and dagger and spy stuff all on his own. Maria’s boss is the Admiral, a burly, surly man himself whose chief operations manager is Dr Harper, who also goes along for the ride.

    The Wrinfield Circus has been coerced into a European tour, which will take in several major cities before decamping east of the Berlin Wall and returning to Bruno’s hometown of Crau where a nasty little scientist is perfecting nasty little biological weapons in the Lubylan Research Facility. These laboratories handily double as a secret police prison. Bruno has been charged with kidnapping the scientist, or failing that, memorising his working documents so the USA can develop their own genocidal weapons. Within minutes of Bruno accepting the task, murders begin to be committed, blame is laid and culprits sought. Nothing goes according to anyone’s plan, not Bruno’s or Harper’s or the Admiral’s – if he had one, it is never clear if he did. Maria falls in love with the moody mind reader and for once MacLean has a decent stab at a romantic interlude. He draws the line at sex; it is probably there somewhere, but he’s ever so discreet about it. The narrative turns turgid about half way, at precisely the point it ought to be interesting.

    The turning point comes during the aftermath of the death of Henry Wrinfield, the circus owner’s nephew. His demise is excellently presented, but what isn’t is Wrinfield Sr’s lack of mourning. He basically goes straight for the vodka bottle, casts a few glances overboard ship and decides to concentrate on the upcoming tour and drown his sorrows in money and profit. Not a tear. No anger. Not even a proper investigation by the cargo ship captain. MacLean needs to make his people act differently to each other. When the support players exhibit all the same similar properties as the hero, the narrative flounders and that’s what happens here. Wrinfield simply isn’t believable as portrayed and, as the story progresses, neither is anyone else. Indeed, all Bruno’s circus pals begin to display the same kind of authoritative skillset he does, which becomes mindbogglingly silly. He may as well have thrown in the X-Men or the Fantastic Four as the eventual finale is so easily achieved by these big top supermen.

    Bruno is back in his hometown, faking his death and impersonating a shoe salesman… or something. This he hopes will get his nemesis, Colonel Sergius, off his back long enough to deliver the perfect prison break, utilising the talents of his best pals in the circus: the strong man, the cowboy and the knife expert. All the rushing around in and out of the circus train, of cafes, of cars, of hotel rooms, etc, etc begins to grate. I kept wanting the story to deliver what I expected, which was an exciting raid on the prison / laboratories and a race against time to escape. We do get there eventually, but the powder has worn dry by then and any explosions feel hackneyed and too obviously designed. MacLean needs a pair of leaden scenes of explanation to allow the reader – and poor Maria – to catch up.

    The ending of Circus is very disappointing as not only does it not utilise all of Bruno’s tremendous skills – we also learn he’s excellent at makeup and disguise and spotting whether he’s being followed – but it fails to provide a satisfying heightening of tension or composite thrills. Bruno’s artistry might have rubbed off on his pals, who are equally adept at the spy game, but we see precious little of it in the long run up to the climatic chapters. Mostly, Bruno is doing the stuff spies might do, or rather the things Maria and Harper should be doing. He comes across as simply being too capable, so as a hero he is not successful, stuck in one dimension not two or three. Heroes need to have flaws and Bruno simply doesn’t have any, unless you include his off-hand approach to love and romance. At one point he admits “I don’t trust anybody” and you get the feeling MacLean is hinting at a deeper psychological problem, but that’s all we do get, a hint, and it isn’t enough for a writer whose attention to character detail is usually fairly well defined. There’s nothing to warm to about Bruno Wildermann.

    Because of the lead character’s unsympathetic interpretation, coupled with his virtual unbeatability, many critics dislike the novel, seeing it as one of MacLean’s weaker and more cliched efforts. While I take the point, I don’t consider it to be a poor novel by any stretch. It has some decent descriptive passages surrounding the Wrinfield Circus and the espionage style intrigue is nicely raised. The first half I really enjoyed, but the back half staggers towards a conclusion which simply didn’t grasp me hard enough. I always knew Bruno was going to succeed because he was so darn good at everything. Like Breakheart Pass before it, one has the feeling it might have made a half decent movie, as a novel it is a only a middling affair.             

    This cover makes the book seem much more exciting and kitsch than it really is, which I suppose is excellent marketing.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent

    In the UK, 5 Action [channel 33] is giving WHERE EAGLES DARE its monthly outing on Saturday 12th Aug at 5.55pm. Seems a remarkably early transmission time for such a violent film, but there it is. May not watch it, but it is a perennial and almost inevitable favourite.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,235MI6 Agent

    Ah, well, so i watched it. There was nothing else I wanted to see, nothing else to do on Saturday night, so I poured coffee, got the cheese and biscuits and the Drambuie out and settled back into blissful times past...

    This is a terrible poster, but I believe it is the original 1968 hallway offering. Neither Burton nor Eastwood look anything like they are represented here. Didn't they have image rights in those days? I am sure a modern star represented so feebly would be threatening legal action...


    Following hard on the heels of Ice Station Zebra, the adaptation of MacLean’s Arctic set Cold War thriller, Where Eagles Dare transfers the author’s interchangeable heroes to the snowy climes of the Alps in a dazzlingly successful Second World War espionage thriller, packed full of about as much violence and as many plot twists as a two-and-a-half hour movie can possibly contain. MacLean was specifically asked by producer Eliott Kastner to write a screenplay for Richard Burton, who wanted something heroic his stepsons could watch. The author, who coincidentally is buried a grave away from the star in the cemetery at Celigny, conjured up one of his most accessible and enjoyable romps, a story he initially wrote in six weeks as a screenplay before turning into a publishing phenomenon in 1967. MacLean made some changes when he wrote the longer novelised version of events, but – if my memory serves me correct – the less complicated plot and character relationships expressed on celluloid is far better than that on the page. The romantic subplots are better described – in one case totally deleted – and the movie relies on action and suspense to propel its narrative, even during the talky moments. The book, for all its strengths, still tended to feature dialogue that pontificates too much. One wonders how good a novel Where Eagles Dare would have been had MacLean simply embellished what we see on screen.

    And what we do have is splendid entertainment. In the modern era of Marvel Comic Universes, Fast and Furious and such franchises, movie goers have indestructible ‘superheroes’ who smash things up, blow stuff up and barely pause for breath or explanation. In 1969, moviegoers got Where Eagles Dare doing exactly the same thing. MacLean’s heroes Major John Smith [Richard Burton] and Lt Morris Schaffer [Clint Eastwood] are brooding indomitable figures. They fight the bad guys, kiss the girls, blow stuff up, lecture their audience in Burton’s case and shoot dozens in Eastwood’s, all with barely a scratch. Do we care? Not a jot!

    Smith and Schaffer head up an eight strong force of Allied special agents tasked with rescuing the captured General Carnaby, a man who knows the provisional plans for Operation Overlord. Carnaby is being held at the Schloss Adler, a mountaintop fortress in Bavaria, which, being the SS and Gestapo Headquarters for the region, is heavily guarded and accessible only by cable car. Parachuted into the wintery landscape, Smith’s problems mount almost immediately when one of his team is killed. When a second is murdered, the tables begin to turn. Arrested, the group become split, allowing Smith and Schaffer to embark on a perilous attempt to breach the castle and rescue the General. However, Carnaby is not who he claims to be, and as the tension mounts, the real motive for the rescue becomes clear – but can the agents escape the castle before the Germans close in?

    Marvellous entertainment all-round with a well-groomed cast acting to the nines and tens. Burton, despite being drunk most of the time, presents himself effectively as an action hero and the younger Eastwood reacts well in a trademark monosyllabic role. Help is provided by two gorgeous blondes in Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt and villainy comes in a host of double agents and scheming Nazis. Derren Nesbitt’s Major Von Happen, garbed in black Gestapo regalia, pomped with self-entitlement and suspicion, is particularly memorable. Many of the jobbing British actors crop up in repeats of The Saint, which is pedigree of a sort. The scenery is terrific, photographed by Alan Ibbetson, and the groundbreaking SFX stand up well. The miniatures and back-screens are barely noticeable. Ron Goodwin’s pulsating military heartbeat of a music score is one of his very best. Director Brian G. Hutton controls the tempo with similar elan. Yakima Canutt tackled most of the action, commanding a second unit that perform memorable stunts and fights. The cable car wrestling match takes the honours, but the corridor fire-fight has smile inducing preposterousness written all over it, yet still succeeds in entertaining us; so much so George Lucas borrowed the scene and reinvented it for Star Wars.

    On a James Bond note, as this is a James Bond website, it is interesting to view the film in consideration of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, chiefly because both films and books have their protagonists infiltrating an Alpine retreat. One of the reasons cited for Broccoli and Saltzman’s delay in making OHMSS is that they couldn’t find anywhere remotely resembling Fleming’s Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps. Now, I love OHMSS and I am so glad we have the version we do and got it when we did, but when you look at the real life Austrian fortress Festung Hohenwerfen which was used for the exterior of the Schloss Adler, you do wonder if the Bond producers didn’t use their imagination enough. The cable car doesn’t exist and is at a different location, but you wouldn’t know it watching Where Eagles Dare. The messing about atop cable cars also feels remarkably prescient. No skiing though.

    Where Eagles Dare isn’t a proper war film as it doesn’t address the actual business of war, but it is an exciting slice of escapism, combining the espionage and the war genres into a rugged, bullet ridden, snowcapped joyride. It’s so successful you can forgive its factual errors, chiefly because the director or writer doesn’t dwell on them. The movie deserves its place as a classic wartime adventure and doesn’t dim with repeated viewings. I remember the whole family watching this on its television premiere, Boxing Day, 1979, and it started me on the route to hunt down the author’s books.

    Probably the best of the Alistair Maclean movies, a sentiment which only leaves me to offer the codewords:

    “Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”


    A famous production still of the main cast relaxing - I wonder how much bourbon went in those beer mugs?

    L to R Ingrid Pitt, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure, Richard Burton. Ure and Burton had cinematic history, starring in Tony Richardson's brilliant Look Back In Anger in 1959, the archetypal kitchen-sink drama.

    Cover for the Fontana movie tie-in, the first Maclean I ever read.



  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,193Chief of Staff

    Wonderful stuff, I enjoyed reading that and it brought back many happy memories. Not the least of those is doing a group watch right here in the Off Topic Forum - That was huge fun!

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