The Where Eagles Dare AJB watchalong was great fun.
The film is perenially popular, and rightly so. I remember being quite indignant when perusing Richard Schickel's book 'Clint: A Retrospective' which has a chapter about all of Clint Eastwoods films as an actor or director, and he begins the section on Where Eagles Dare by quoting Quentin Tarantino, who Schickel refers to as one of the few fans of Where Eagles Dare. Very strange, as I've personally not come across anyone who doesn't like the film.
Continuing my mid to late period Alistair MacLean book reviews:
THE GOLDEN GATE
Peter Branson is a millionaire criminal whose latest scheme involves the televised kidnap, ransom and embarrassment of the US President during an Arab State visit to San Francisco. Branson has an ego the size of a city, so his abduction attempt must take place on the Golden Gate Bridge, in front of millions and with the threat of the bridge’s destruction should the authorities attempt to interfere. Branson however has not reckoned with resourceful FBI Agent Paul Revson. Disguised as a freelance photographer, Revson plans to disrupt the kidnappers as much as he can before time runs out…
As with the previous entries in this fourth phase of MacLean’s career you can tell immediately the book was envisaged as a movie. The film begins with the audacious kidnap and proceeds with short, snappy scenes through the forty-eight hours of the ordeal. MacLean introduces the hero, then a pretty girl, a helpful ally in a doctor, a gung-ho Chief of Staff, a side-kick or two for the main villain and a panicked control centre full of US authorities who sit and wait nervously as Revson’s plans misfire and Branson seems more and more likely to succeed. Sadly, on the page, this approach doesn’t translate very well and there are a trio reasons.
Firstly, despite the premise the novel isn’t action packed enough. I mean, things happen, and there are elements of risk and tension, but it isn’t the most thrilling of thrillers. Second, Branson displays an overconfidence and a stupefyingly haphazard approach to security which beggars belief and gives rise to his eventual downfall. Lastly, MacLean’s longwinded dialogue simply isn’t incisive and slows potentially interesting scenes to a snail’s pace of talky tete-a-tetes. Combined, these three issues provide an insurmountable barrier to literary success. The story has some urgency at the beginning, but midway the project just dawdles and that’s very disappointing. The end, when it comes rushes at us for twenty pages and then it is done. Disappointing again.
I can accept MacLean’s usual foibles – a poorly characterised female protagonist, men who are resourceful beyond compare, a daft situation made acceptably real – but he simply doesn’t dress them up in anything more than his prerequisite armour and the whole episode, like Circus, eventually falls flat. On publication, The Golden Gate sold millions and was generally considered a return to form, but if even MacLean struggles to make the titular bridge sound anything more interesting than a marvel of the engineering world, he's going to struggle to hold my attention. So yes, my attention waned. Given the book’s history [it was originally mapped as a movie vehicle for Charles Bronson] I can understand why the detail of location, action and personality is missing, but that isn’t an excuse because it shows distinct laziness on the author’s part.
Lesser MacLean for me.
And another cover that really doesn't attest to anything that goes on in the book. Shocking artwork. If the author's being lazy, the publisher is equally at fault.
Yes, agreed. The decline continues. With just a few minor changes this could easily have been one of the UNACO stories (and that's not a compliment) especially "Hostage Tower" which it resembles in many ways.
Multibillionaire Scotsman Lord Worth owns the prototype tension-leg oil drilling platform Seawitch, a rig that is pumping oil onto the market so fast it has destabilised prices, setting the oil nations and companies at loggerheads. A secret meeting of the world’s biggest oil producers sets an agenda that pits Lord Worth against an old adversary, oil capper extraordinaire, John Cronkite. The big Texan has it in for Lord Worth following a dispute about payments unforthcoming. Both men are as ruthless as each other, only Lord Worth does it by stealth, with a brandy in his hand and words of incessant insistence; Cronkite is a physical force who doesn’t quite hold all the aces he thinks he does. His brand of ruthlessness is insanely murderous.
MacLean throws into the mix Roomer and Mitchell, a couple of ex-policemen turned detectives who are sweet on Lord Worth’s daughters Melinda and Marina [what, not Mary and Maria??? I hear you cry]. This allows him to add the necessary daring do and thrills per chapter, for Lord Worth and Cronkite barely meet and spend most of their time in various gatherings dishing out orders. Roomer and Mitchell get down and dirty with the bad guys, solving mysteries, thwarting kidnappings and saving the day – just.
I couldn’t find much detail on the history of Seawitch, but the brevity of the narrative and the sparseness of the character detail leads me to the conclusion it was originally a screenplay. There is plenty of action in this one. It is a genuine page-turner. Critics didn’t like it in 1977, but I rather enjoyed the novel’s simplicity. It is very much a good guys vs bad guys romp. The twist in the tale comes on the very last pages and isn’t supplied by a deceptive double cross. It’s more a statement of fact. Maclean also inserts a tetchy romantic relationship for his hero Michael Mitchell and the delicious Marina, who is a stubborn little lass – a characteristic that appeals to the equally dogged Mitchell.
The final three or four chapters fairly roll along, as incident follows incident. Throughout this sustained series of bloody events Maclean describes the various fights, gunbattles, harpoonings, explosions and tense dialogues with a minimum of fuss, which slightly disappoints. The story doesn’t have enough legs to accommodate us, so a bit of florid bloodletting would have supplied an extra mode of interest. As it stands, we have the thrills told as opposed to experienced. The result is left to our imaginations, one feels. One also feels we’ve read the kidnap distraction plotline before – in the previous novel The Golden Gate the whole story was set around a kidnapping – so this hardly touches on original.
Nonetheless, brevity does have its favours and despite the paucity of prose, I rather liked Seawitch. The location and settings are well described and the machinations of Cronkite’s scheme and Lord Worth’s response feel like a mini-war breaking out in the Gulf of Mexico. The dialogue is sharp and doesn’t dwell on longwinded anachronisms. There are repetitious elements that slow the narrative, but Seawitch has more drive and ambition than the ponderous couple of efforts that immediately preceded it.
Due for a reassessment then…?
Additionally, unlike many Fontana paperbacks and Collins hardbacks of the Maclean oevre, I rather like the numerous covers for Seawitch. My own copy is second from the left, but I like all of these as each gives a genuine sense of the story's mounting tension, of what is at stake for the protagonists. I also like the way the first edition softcover [3rd from left] replicates in 'mirror-image' the original hardback cover [1st left].
And finally for this Fourth Period MacLean...
Some observers consider Goodbye California to be a decent return to form for Alistair MacLean. I beg to differ. MacLean had experienced an earthquake while holidaying in Los Angeles and became fascinated with the natural phenomenon as well as the technology surrounding prediction, prevention and preservation. Unfortunately, he lacks discrimination when putting all these thoughts, research and ideas onto the page and the result is a ponderous and dialogue heavy novel. Other than a well-described tidal wave and a climatic final page shoot out, virtually nothing of any actioning interest occurs. Instead, the adventure becomes confined to various meeting rooms, bars and a grand castle estate in the lower reaches of the Rocky Mountains. The cast list is enormous. So too is the alcohol and cigarette consumption. The plot is so convoluted it takes half the novel to get going, maybe because most of the characters are all half-cut. Or perhaps that was MacLean himself, who was struggling with his own bottle demons by this time.
The early sections of Goodbye California deal with a corrupt judge and police chief and their involvement in the main villain’s terror plot. There is an off-page kidnapping to contend with, the Russians are involved for no sensible reason and the investigation is bogged down in banal rhetoric. Every incident feels extremely unlikely and the narrative structure is threaded so thin it can scarcely support even a token of our attention. It doesn’t help that MacLean’s hero, John Ryder, is an ex-police sergeant who displays foreknowledge, intellectual capabilities and physical capacities far beyond his training, background and age. You simply don’t believe Ryder can perform all the tricks he does and think so clear-headedly when every FBI, CIA, law-enforcement officer or nuclear / seismic scientist is so slow and unremarkable. It redoubles disbelief that his wife and daughter have been kidnapped by the baddies for absolutely no reason what-so-ever. It simply suits MacLean’s unwieldy plot.
Basically, a Philippines-based Muslim terror group known as the Moro Liberation Front plans to extract a massive financial ransom from the United States government by threatening to detonate a series of atomic bombs along the various pressure points of the San Andreas fault. They have manufactured the devices by kidnapping and forcing the labour of several nuclear scientists and technicians who have been holed up in the remote Adlerheim Castle. This all sounded a bit Where Eagles Dare to me – although the resolution is not – and one of the early conspirators is named Jablonsky, who was the villain in Fear is the Key, two instances of obvious repetition which like MacLean’s frequent use of alternatives for John and Mary as names for his hero and heroine strikes me as lazy. In fact, the whole book seems lazy, indebted mostly to stretches of long scientific explanation and ridiculously pompous dialogues. Several of the top-level style meetings felt as if they could be combined into one; so too the various interrogations. The book needed a top-notch editor to shave out the fat. I reckon it’d be a far leaner and more intriguing read with about sixty pages cut out. The story could also have been enlivened by an ongoing ‘countdown to destruction’ – a ruse the author employs towards the very end, but which could have increased tension by being inserted throughout.
The villain is called Morro and he’s a jihadist. I will give MacLean credit for recognising the danger in what were at the time very minor players in the terrorism game, but his interpretation of Muslim fundamentalism is hackneyed at best. He raises the group’s motivations very late in the day and – worse – doesn’t even have Morro explain them, it is done via a CIA Operations officer, which again defuses any tension and undermines Morro’s genteel yet menacing demeanour. Without hearing his own reasoning for the atomic terror campaign, he becomes merely a cartoon cipher for all our fears, strolling around his castle retreat with robes and an eyepatch and metal hand. He has a couple of decent henchmen in the monstrous Dubois and the Mexican torturer Lopez, but they are men easily bested [or in Lopez’s case, never seen bested at all] which is tremendously disappointing.
Given the extremely visual set up of the castle stronghold, the swamping of Los Angeles by tidal wave and the three visually strong major villains, it comes as no surprise the book was deemed fit for a screenplay adaptation, this time starring Charlton Heston. Heston would have played the indomitable John Ryder and I can well-imagine him scowling his way through this cobbled together story with barely a twinge, like he did in many late seventies / early eighties films. The movie deal fell through – one of many MacLean products to be shelved – and the book can’t conjure what might have looked spectacular on the screen. Sadly, Goodbye California is merely spectacularly dull.
I don't have a decent picture of a cover for this novel, so you'll get this one which I hooked off the net. I don't really care. It's a dud all-round.
Going back to the early days of Alistair MacLean, here is one of the novels he wrote under the pseudonym Ian Stuart:
THE DARK CRUSADER
If you can forgive the turgid plot, which is improbable at the best of times and confused beyond belief at the others, and concentrate solely on the breakneck tension-racked action and the splendid intricate descriptive detail, The Dark Crusader is a good stab at the Cold war spy yarn. It really does try to out-Bond James Bond.
Johnny Bentall [see J.B. – get it ?] is a crack espionage agent working for the British Secret Service whose superior is Colonel Raine, “a small dusty man in a small dusty room.” It isn’t entirely clear how long these two have known each other or the specific qualities Bentall has as a spy, but the prologue neatly introduces us to the main protagonist and his soon-to-be romantic interest, Marie Hopeman [ahh, another John and Mary…]. This John and Mary, sorry Marie, are dispatched to Australia on the trail of eight missing scientists, who have each responded to a bizarre advert placed in a national newspaper. John and Mary, sorry, Marie, never make it to Oz. Instead their furtive and frisky foreplay is interrupted by Captain Fleck, rapscallion owner of a cargo schooner, who kidnaps them for what appears to be no reason whatsoever.
This is both where the novel kicks in with its startling action – the scene where Bentall wakes up to a gun pointing at his forehead was brilliant and frankly should have opened the novel in a barnstorming fashion – and also where it starts to become improbable. Fleck is a convenience for the writer and as the story unfolds his presence in the plot becomes more and more ridiculous and his motivations lack persuasiveness. Everything to do with Fleck hinges on emotive supposition on Bentall’s part and I didn’t buy it for a second. I felt MacLean was attempting to be too clever. Unlike Fleming, who wrote fairly straight stories that involved a spy, a target, a rudimentary investigation, a capture and a kill, Maclean is all over the espionage narrative shop. Identities are hidden, murder abounds, deception, repetition, unseen clues and backgrounds – all give rise at convenient moments. This wouldn’t be such a problem if he didn’t make the clues so glaringly obvious that there’s no genuine surprise as each one pits our heroes into more danger.
John and Marie discover Fleck is smuggling military supplies and, fearing murder is on the captain’s mind, manage to escape the makeshift brig by taking a night-time gale strewn dip in the Pacific Ocean. If you believe that scenario, you’ll believe everything in this novel. It certainly has the slant of the incredible about it. As luck would have it, John and Mary [oh, sorry…] were within touching distance of a Pacific atoll where a dotty archaeologist called Witherspoon has discovered important Polynesian artefacts. Only he hasn’t, not really. He’s actually been murdering atomic scientists right on the doorstep of a secret Royal Navy research establishment. The fate of the world hangs in the balance as John and Marie struggle to unravel the secrets behind the mineworks.
Bentall’s investigations lead him into a series of scraps and battles and intrigues that keep the pages turning with frightening ease. The problem was, I couldn’t make head nor tale of the unnecessarily convoluted set-up. While the scenes of violence and torture are polished and heart-pounding – a fight with a Doberman had particular gory realism in it – I wished for something so much easier to follow and swallow. By the time John and Marie make their way to the Navy base, I was already wondering how much more of a slender plot Fleming would have made of it, how much more controlled and succinct a narrative arc he would present, how much better the male-female relationship would have been [Fleming struggles too in this area, but while this is one of MacLean’s better ‘relationship’ efforts, it is still fairly dismal] and how much more punch he would have given the climax, much of which takes place without Bentall’s input. In fairness to MacLean, his main two villains LeClerc [read Le Chiffre, maybe…, the man wields a Malacca cane with as much ease as one might a carpet beater] and the hulking brute Hewell are distinctly memorable.
Now, I didn’t dislike The Dark Crusader. It passes the time rapidly and enjoyably. At times towards the end, the scientific stuff and the expansive explanations get in the way of a decent yarn. I could also have done without the final twist in the tale and replaced it with a better stand-off against the villains, which here happens off-page. The anti-romance finale is a downer too and you wonder why MacLean bothered trying to insert a love affair if he was going to jettison it so readily. The novel feels rather bitter when it should be more uplifting, I feel. John Bentall, the supposed hero, hasn’t got many assurances left to cling onto, but he’s not cynical enough to be an anti-hero so he falls between two stools. I didn’t warm to him and his chauvinistic styles which inhabit the first person narration. Ultimately, for me, I suppose this is a sort of glass half full entry into the MacLean canon.
The Dark Crusader was originally published under the pseudonym Ian Stuart. MacLean wanted to see if his novels could sell without his name attached to them. The Dark Crusader didn’t sell as well as his other novels, but that isn’t a reflection on Ian Stuart, it is a reflection on the fact it isn’t as tight and absorbing a read as MacLean's previous efforts. The copy I read is one of those rather nice Harper Collins softcovers they reissued in 2008, but there are a multitude of printing or proofing errors in the text, so much so I wondered if this was a self-published deal by the Maclean estate. Alistair MacLean didn’t linger long over Ian Stuart; he realised fairly fast that people did buy his books for his name and that it was up to him to provide a good story to tell. For the most part of his career, he does that exceedingly well.
As with all MacLean novels, a movie was planned, but curiously not until the late 1980s. The film was never made. For some reason, perhaps a copyright issue, the novel was retitled The Black Shrike in the US, which frankly is a terrible title, so I’m not surprised it struggled to sell copy stateside.
NIGHT WITHOUT END
Night Without End is, hands down, a powerhouse of an adventure thriller.
A BOAC airliner crash lands on the Greenland ice cap near a meteorological station. Medic Dr Peter Mason, wireless operator Joss London and Eskimo Nils ‘Jackstraw’ Nielson rush to the rescue through a hacking snowstorm. They find the crew shot dead and the few passengers dazed and confused. Mason’s suspicions immediately fall on the stewardess, the beautiful hazel-eyed Margaet Ross, but as incidents mount and clues become dead ends his focus shifts from one of the nine survivors to another. The motley band comprises a famous actress, a society hostess and her maid, a catholic priest, a US Senator, a champion boxer and his manager, the MD of a tractor firm and an oil salesman. Each brings their own nuisance, menace or capability – while Mason and Jackstraw continue to be the most resourceful, stubborn and superhuman of everybody. Surviving Artic blizzards is near-as-damn-it impossible and I think Alistair MacLean knew this when he wrote the novel, but pretending your heroes just might be able to gives the story a whole edge of believability without which the novel would become buried in its own snowdrift.
Mason decides that circumstances dictate they use the station’s old snow tractor to make haste for Uplavnik, the closest settlement, but with some of his party injured or sick and with killers on the loose among them, the journey becomes a frostbitten nightmare in the darkness of an arctic winter. When Mason learns that one passenger was carrying a microfiche of secret military data, it becomes clear that the killers must be anti-government spies – but who are they and will they reveal themselves before the party reaches Uplavnik?
Maclean dreams up problem after problem for our heroes to solve and as various members of the party prove themselves able or not our suspicions, as well as those of Mason, switch and change and switch again. The agony of the slow trawl through the snow is excellently rendered. There is tension almost seeping out of the ink on the pages. MacLean really has cranked up the descriptive side of his writing for this one. He makes the cold winds and the snowscapes of Greenland feel like a character themselves, their screaming winds, undulating surfaces and deadly crevasses all set to trap the uninitiated. There are deadly dangers at every turn.
The novel starts brilliantly as the trio of scientists attempt to reach the downed aircraft. There is a sense of urgency, danger and purpose. The descriptions of the downed plane, the corpses and the frightened passengers is sublime. For once, Maclean’s dialogue isn’t distracted by useless pontificating. It is succinct, taut and necessary. There is work to be done and done quickly; barely a word is wasted. Yes, he stumbles occasionally later on, but for the most part the cast don’t blather on too much. It would be a fair criticism to say he possibly overpopulates the story, but importantly each character serves the plot, although the boxer Zagero and his manager Solly Levin share a paternal relationship that is wholly irrelevant and its explanation slows down the action at the point it is cracking on fast. The reveal is unexpected and well-disguised – I’d read the book before and couldn’t remember who the villain was. MacLean even introduces a proper functioning love story between the stewardess and Peter Mason. He’s deft enough not to make it overt, for Margaret has lost her fiancé in the crash, but under those constraints he handles the interaction between the pair brilliantly and credibly.
Night Without End is a hard book to put down. Phenomenally visual and packed full of scientific and social detail, mystery a-plenty and snow and ice bound action, it ticks all the boxes for an adventure thriller let alone one set in the forbidding Arctic wastelands.
As with almost all of MacLean’s novels, the film rights were snapped up, this time by director George Seaton who planned it as a vehicle for William Holden, but no movie was ever made. That’s a crushing disappointment as it is one of the author’s most obviously and successful cinematic efforts; you can sense how the story would have been edited and adapted to accommodate the two hour format.
Very, very good indeed.
MacLean served in the Royal Navy and survived a number of the convoys to Murmansk, something (I believe) Churchill described as "the worst journey in the world". This means the author knew the weather in the Arctic first hand, something "Night without end" probably benefited from.
I think I said this earlier, but I agree that this would make a terrific movie.
It's very long time since I read the book, but couldn't the plot be set in modern day without major changes?
As I posted in #4, Night Without End is my favourite MacLean book and I would love to see a mini-series made of this.
And that is a terrific review @chrisno1
For those with access to UK TV channels, BBC2 is showing ICE STATION ZEBRA again on Saturday afternoon, while on Sunday CHANNEL 4 is offering up a rare showing of FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE. It'll be censored because it is on mid afternoon, so no chance to witness Ms Bach in the altogether.
Thanks for that! Might watch "Zebra", it's been many years since I last saw it.
You guys don’t have ISZ on any format? Shame on you 😉
Does the book count as a format? 😁
I knew I should have put visual in there 😁
I only own a few DVDs, Leone, Tarantino until Kill Bill, Bond of course and a few odds and sods, so I don't have any MacLean adaptations. What would one do without telly and the internet?
I reviewed this movie a couple of years ago, but it is time for a revisit and a re-tread in my new thread...
As the net-mark suggests, this is an original poster. Note the Cinerama logo on the top left.
ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968)
The film of Ice Station Zebra was one of the final Cinerama movies released. It utilised 70mm Super Panavision film, adjusting it optically to project onto and fill the enormous Cinerama screen where necessary. Metro Goldwyn Mayer were so confident of the film’s success they removed Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from L.A.’s Cinerama Dome specifically to promote it. Sadly, the public wasn’t enamoured with Alistair MacLean’s Cold War espionage shenanigans as much as Kubrick’s outer space fantasies. Even watching on a letter box transmission on a big and broad home entertainment system, it is only partially possible to understand how big and broad this movie must have looked back in 1968. It is an exceptionally well photographed adventure and both cinematographer Daniel L. Frapp and director John Sturges use the expanse of the palette to frame people and objects into the action. The tense scenes inside the nuclear submarine USS Tigerfish, for instance, where the cast are spread out across the confined sets as they would be in real life, or the specially filmed full-length sequences of real submarines and well-sculptured models, or the vast expanses of white snow capped ice shelves, or the trio of Soviet jet fighters streaking across the sky, or parachutes dropping out of stormy grey clouds, are all excellent. Sturges worked similar magic with Bad Day at Black Rock, a small thriller with big themes that benefitted from expansive landscapes to paradoxically highlight the personal claustrophobia of the characters. Here the claustrophobic atmosphere of a submarine isn’t so much expanded as honed in, for we are able to decipher all of the characters’ interpersonal communication; you can see every flicker, grimace, danger and comfort of an actor’s performance. Despite the screen size, Ice Station Zebra feels intensely intimate until the final reel and the East v West confrontation at the titular Arctic meteorological camp. Unfortunately this is a studio set and while it passes muster on the small screen, albeit with heavy pinches of salt, I can imagine audiences being somewhat disappointed in 1968.
That’s probably enough about the visuals of the movie, let’s concentrate on the plot which borrows liberally from the novel, even changing all the character names. I’ve interpreted that from online data as I have not read the book since my teens. I remember being bogged down by the technical jargon. Those details are the kind of information Tom Clancy used to fill out his Jack Ryan thrillers, like The Hunt for Red October. MacLean too did thorough research. The movie may also be a little technocratic but thankfully Sturges keeps the action just the right side of intriguing. There is tension and action, suspicion and redemption, murder, sabotage, death and apprehension. Michel Legrand’s music score is suitably nautical and suspenseful.
Rock Hudson cuts an authority figure of some command as Ferriday, the sub captain, and the support players among his crew [too many to list] are very adept, at least offering a believable impersonation of Navy submariners. As the Tigerfish encounters difficulties on its journey beneath the Arctic ice pack, you have a genuine sense of desperation, but also of the work and team effort of a navy ship’s crew, of their fortitude under pressure, their respect for orders and the chain of command. Patrick MacGoohan’s Mr Jones, a man who may or may not be a spy, certainly thrusts an ugly dagger – or pistol – into the efficient fray. Similarly Ernest Borgnine’s Russian defector Vaslov and Jim Brown’s marine’s captain Anders are suitably enigmatic; they may or may not be spies, they may or may not be killers. As the clues come and go, and Hudson’s Ferriday unravels the mystery of a downed Soviet satellite and why everyone’s fighting over the tiny camera within it, Sturges builds momentum and tension with palpable success. If the conclusion is a mite unclear, that doesn’t affect our enjoyment, although you may wonder how MacGoohan figures out his friend is actually his enemy. I believe it is because the culprit knows how to decode the satellite’s boobytrapped explosive casing, but this isn’t emphasised very well as the script has Ferriday say the line MacGoohan should. Jones, for so long a focal point of interest in the tale is largely redundant by now, reduced to a lame dog, standing around looking bedraggled and glum. Luckily, Rock Hudson’s plucky heroic mantle is good enough to remind us he was always much more than just a counterpart to Doris Day.
I liked it.
Where Eagles Dare was released three months later and outshines it, but Ice Station Zebra has plenty of conspiracy, tension and enough good performances to be worth the entrance fee. Pity I couldn’t appreciate it in those Cinerama projections.
This is the 'poster' you usually find when searching online. I believe it is a video or DVD cover.
Starting a short focussed series on what I consider to be MacLean's most fearless and consistent period of writing 1966 - 1971. As each of these novels also has a movie adaptation, I will be reviewing the films [almost] in tandem.
MacLean took three years out after publishing his first ten novels. He announced a retirement and took up a life as a hotelier. It was not overly successful. The success of the movie adaptation of The Satan Bug in 1965 persuaded him to begin writing anew. During this phase of his career, MacLean began to plan each novel as a speculative film or, in the case of Where Eagles Dare, a complete initial screenplay, allowing him more influence over the filmed results on screen. While MacLean always had an eye for descriptive detail, it was during this period that his novels started to become more visually 'cinematic' - including shorter scenes and differing points of view.
Cranking up the suspense, then, let's start with the first of these novels, one which is the least typical compared to my description above as it is a first person narrative and, while a film was made of it, the story doesn't chop and change as the others of the era tend to. Doesn't stop the tension though:
WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL
After a sabbatical of three years, Alistair MacLean returned to writing with a stand out thriller, action packed to the gills and full of intriguing characters. The plot for what it is worth involves modern high piracy on the Irish Sea and the Western Isles, an oil baron and his nubile actress-wife, a group of tough shark fishermen, a lonely Scottish Laird living with an even more nubile daughter in his cobwebbed castle and Philip Calvert, ex-marine salvage expert now special agent for Admiral Sir Arthur Arnford-Jason’s branch of the British Secret Service.
The plot really isn’t the thing here. There is one and it is mightily complicated and MacLean does himself no favours by inventing more and more [unseen] characters and [unseen] incidents which we as a reader need to take on trust. There are three monumentally long winded explanatory scenes towards the rear of the book which slow down the unrelenting pace to a crawl just when it ought to be picking up. I try not to let those bother me too much, but the more I ponder on them, the more I feel he’s misunderstood what his readers want. We don’t need every single loose end tied up. Life in general has loose ends and the author’s need to ensure there are none simply doesn’t ring true. He also has a very forgiving nature which translates itself too easily to Calvert and the Admiral – or Uncle Arthur as he’s known to everyone – and allows villainous persons to be dealt a fair hand. It’s all very well placing people under duress, but if you do it, it ought to be believable and it simply isn’t in When Eight Bells Toll. Let villains be villains, I say, and damn the lot of them.
Still, you can’t fault the descriptions of the rip-roaring action which, for the majority of the story, is what enthrals us. Maclean’s very much at home here, basing the story in his beloved Scotland and using boats and ships as his primary locations. There are plenty of undersea scrapes kicking in too, including a delirious and highly effective helicopter crash in a storm lashed bay and a knife fight with a deep sea diver. While the gun play and fist fights come thick and fast, the dialogue interrupts the steady flow, but is concise and well-structured. You believe in these people and their nuances. Uncle Arthur is particularly well-described and his tone of words feel entirely in keeping with what Calvert tells us. So too Charlotte Skouras, a woman not all she seems, but one who could certainly deceive and seduce a weary British agent into believing her every word and deed. Even better – and this is highly unusual for MacLean who generally hates writing female characters – is the small role of the hipster ingenue Sue Kirkside, a slip of a woman struggling with being hostage, plaything and staring death in the face every day; Sue dislikes Calvert because he reminds her of her captors. Calvert’s night time liaison with her after sneaking his way around the Kirkside fortress was possibly the moment the novel betrayed its ultimate silliness, but the dialogue was very rich and I was never bored, unlike the tryst with Charlotte which was basically an excuse to half-explain again everything we already knew because Calvert, as the first-person narrator, had told us one way or another.
Calvert is a genuine rugged hero. He’s a man out of the typical MacLean mould, but he has weaknesses and regrets and admits them. We learn for instance that his wife died in suspicious circumstances which is why he threw his lot in with Uncle Arthur; he still experiences guilt over her death. One wonders if he is still avenging her passing. MacLean tantalisingly leaves that door ajar. Calvert perhaps takes on too much, but that is a trait of action-thriller heroes, and the trick of not revealing vital information allows Calvert, as narrator, to appear somewhat omnipotent when he does explain all. Nonetheless, I like him and his slightly warped barren view of the world, seen as it is through the eyes and hands of a man working for a small pay-check under enormous ongoing peril. No wonder he resents Uncle Arthur drinking his supply of decent cognac.
Perhaps, though, When Eight Bells Toll is best noted for its opening page and the two paragraphs that define the minute detail of both MacLean’s writing and therefore Calvert’s observation:
“The Peacemaker Colt has now been in production, without change in design, for a century… It is the oldest handgun in the world, without question the most famous and, if efficiency in its designated task of maiming and killing be taken as criterion of its worth, then it is probably the best handgun ever made… It is no light thing… the large and unjacketed soft-nosed lead bullet from the Colt mushrooms on impact, tearing and smashing bone and muscle and tissue as it goes and expending all its energy on you.
“… And I stood absolutely motionless, not breathing, for the Peacemaker Colt that had prompted this unpleasant train of thought was pointed directly at me.”
A stupendous beginning [I condensed it] that welcomes back Alistair MacLean to the literary bestseller fold.
A note on the title, as it isn’t properly explained in the novel, “eight bells” is a nautical term; sailing ships used to ring the ships bell 2-2-2-2 to signal the midnight hour. The final action of the novel, when Calvert leads a small fighting expedition to a secret harbour beneath Kirkside Castle, takes place at midnight.
They made a more than half decent film of When Eight Bells Toll in 1971 starring Anthony Hopkins, Robert Morley, Natalie Delon and Jack Hawkins. I reviewed it a couple of years ago and I’ll dig it out to repost here.
A very good read indeed.
Thanks, @chrisno1, nice review. I must read that one again someday (my mental list of books to re-read grows ever longer thanks to these threads).
Yes, that classic period you mention @chrisno1 is superb reading and watching - he really could do no wrong at that point.
This review is featured somewhere on this site, probably in the Last Film Seen thread, but I have revised it for inclusion here:
WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL (1971)
After the stunning financial success of Where Eagles Dare, producers Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin sought out another Alistair MacLean screenplay for yet another blockbuster. When Eight Bells Toll doesn’t have the star power of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood and was subsequently treated as half-baked by most U.S. critics. That’s a little unfair as there is much to admire. Given that the replacement lead was Welshman Anthony Hopkins, you wonder if the producers had tapped up Burton to take on the hard drinking, anti-authoritarian, action man and archetypal MacLean hero Philip Calvert.
Hopkins is rather good. He was still mostly recognised as a stage actor, but had done some film work including an adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy drama The Looking Glass War. On this performance, I rather fancy him as an action hero. Although he never took on another role quite like this, you wonder if the Bond producers sneaked a look when considering replacements for Sean Connery. I suspect Hopkins’ height may have done him a huge disservice, although he displays verve and vigour as Calvert, a naval intelligence officer loaned to an obscure branch of the British Secret Service run by a pompous Robert Morley.
Calvert is hired by Corin Redgrave’s young pen pusher Hunslett and together the two set off for the Scottish Isles on the hunt for a cache of stolen gold bullion. Suspicion falls on Jack Hawkins’ shipping magnate Sir Anthony Skouras, who is holidaying with his young wife Charlotte, played with demure cold-calculation by Nathalie Delon. Through a series of violent incidents including the machine gunning of a helicopter, an underwater fight with a salvage diver and a boat chase around the Isle of Skye, Calvert somehow manages to piece together who is responsible. Befriending a cutthroat band of local fisherman, he organises a daring assault mission on a windswept castle which contains more secrets than just the comely daughter of the Laird.
The film is a fun joyride. It begins with Calvert’s midnight assault on the cargo ship, retains the novel’s opening scene, slightly elaborated, and from that moment, much like the brisk source prose, the action barely lets up. It never pauses long enough for the viewer to take in the preposterousness of what is happening. MacLean also provided a more satisfying conclusion to his screenplay than he did to his book. He’s developed a free-flowing, crisp script which allows the characters enough room to breathe without getting bogged down in extraneous background details.
The cast give it their all and some scenes are tremendously effective. Belgian director Etienne Perier probably wasn’t experienced enough for a big project such as this and it shows in the lack of visual imagination. It’s the kind of romp our ex-Bond alumni Terence Young or Peter Hunt could have handled with some success. Accomplished cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson can’t do much with the murky landscapes. John Shirley edits without panache, but he doesn’t mess about either, which compensates for the lack of artistic flair.
Luckily the film is almost entirely action, so it doesn’t drag, but there’s a tendency to flirt dangerously close to parody, especially when MacLean’s screenplay forefronts the humorous side of the author. Hopkins, Morley and Redgrave deliver a series of fine darkly comic lines, which mostly succeed. Even when seducing Nathalie Delon, which takes three scenes of protracted salacious staring, Hopkins allows a little twinkle to crease his eyes as the double entendres trip off his and her tongue. The whole ninety-five minutes is thoroughly enjoyable. My only major complaint is the repetitive music score from Walter Stott, which is suitably seventies but offers no variety. There’s an odd story attached to the composer, who is in fact the female Angela Morley, a transgender woman who would break boundaries by winning Emmy awards and becoming famous for writing the theme to the soap opera Dynasty.
Producers Kastner and Gershwin had hoped to launch a series of thrillers starring Hopkins as Calvert but the movie’s relative failure in America curtailed that. The film did recoup its money with good receipts in the U.K. and Europe. When Eight Bells Toll is a fine thriller which delivers its punches and gets out quick. It’s even got a nicely sour ending for hero Anthony Hopkins and the beautiful Nathalie Delon.
An underrated near classic.
Promo index card for the movie with our lovely pair.
Thanks for that thorough review, @chrisno1. I remember catching this in the cinema and thinking that it was intended as the first of a series, as you confirm. Hopkins isn't the first actor who most would cast as the lead in an action thriller but he does fine. Someone must have thought he looked too young so his hair has been greyed to age him up.
Jack Hawkins had sadly lost his voice owing to throat cancer and is dubbed here (and in other films) by our own Charles Gray.