The Alistair MacLean Thread



  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    For those interested, in the UK, Legend [free view 41] is showing FEAR IS THE KEY on Weds night / Thursday morning at 00:40.

    I wouldn't call it a 'legend' or even a 'classic' but the film's worth a look.

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    It's one of my favourite Maclean films. I bought a copy, I liked it that much!

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    RIVER OF DEATH (1989)

    The era of great Alistair Maclean movie adaptations was well past by the time infamous writer / producer / director Harry Alan Towers and bargain budget lovers Cannon Films got their hands on River of Death. Once touted as a project for Sylvester Stallone, the original novel was no great shakes but benefitted from a page turning format of daring-do along Amazon rapids and a halfway decent hunt for hidden Nazis. The lost city MacGuffin was by-the-way and the characters were the usual bunch of paradoxes, but it certainly had potential for a cinematic treatment. The film might have done decent business in the late seventies with someone like Jon Voigt or Chuck Norris in the lead, but by the late eighties there wasn’t anything very unusual about the jungle format or the story of hidden Nazis and cities.

    What we end up with is a laboured transposition of the MacLean skeleton that contains the rudiments of a traditional jungle adventures. We also have a non-entity of a hero in Michael Dudikoff’s John Hamilton, a sort of hybrid of Indiana Jones, Allan Quartermain and Tarzan only without the charisma. Dudikoff was a low-rent action hero at best. The film definitely would have benefitted from someone like Chuck Norris in the lead; in fact director Steve Carver worked with the martial arts star on a couple of early eighties projects. The villainous cast is occupied by Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasance and Herbert Lom, who all know they are working with a script well below par. Knowing Harry Alan Towers wrote the screenplay helps form our [and their?] below standard expectations; you know it’ll be ropey and it is. In some respects then, River of Death doesn’t disappoint for it never attempts to be anything more than it is, a substandard outing across the board. You can tell it is cheap because the outfits worn by the cast don’t change from when they meet in the city to when they go traipsing about in the rainforest.

    The plot has been slightly altered to feature deadly poisons rather than stolen Greek Orthodox antiquities and some of the more elaborate action set pieces of the book have been excised, one assumes on a cost basis. The movie was filmed in South Africa because it was cheaper too. Michael Dudikoff looks stunned by proceedings, perhaps because oldsters Donald Pleasance and Herbert Lom have been out-acting him at every turn. Robert Vaughn however is dreadful. Despite the mostly humdrum entertainment, it was worth waiting to see the final confrontation, one of some silliness, much smoke and many bullets. An annoying voice over narrative adds nothing to the proceedings we witness on screen and is baffling when you consider the novel wasn’t even written in the first person.

    River of Death is trash cinema, straight-to-video fare as those of us who were there remember it. I fully expect this to turn up on Legends or the Great Movies Action channel sooner or later. As a close observer of The Saint television show for the last year, it was nice to see the lovely Erica Rogers turn up in a small role as a sleazy bar madam. And that’s about your lot…


  • HarryCanyonHarryCanyon Posts: 277MI6 Agent

    Reposting, per suggestion:

    FEAR IS THE KEY (1972) with Barry Newman, Suzy Kendall, John Vernon, and a very young Ben Kingsley in his film debut.

    The premise: Newman is John Talbot. As the film begins, he's on the radio listening to a plane go down in the ocean. Three years later, he's causing a scene involving a trial, a shooting, a kidnapping, a long car chase, and a whole lotta other nonsense to eventually get captured by John Vernon's Vyland (with Ben Kingsley as his henchman). Vyland needs Talbot for a salvage operation. To say anything more would be to go into spoiler territory. Suffice to say, hijinks ensue.

    It's...ok? This is one of those 'what the heck is going on?' kinda films that keeps holding back information from the viewers in order to hit them with a twist. That's fine if done right, but it's done rather clumsily here. With no clear understanding of how the opening sequence relates to the antics of the first act, I was frankly baffled as to what was going on. What are the motivations? Why is he doing what he's doing? Who are these people? Am I supposed to care about any of this? Eventually the WHY of the situation is revealed and the viewer can now follow the main throughline of the plot, but it still doesn't hit in a satisfying way. All of it carries through to the finale and a final revelation that ties everything together.

    The film lacks oomph. There's a solid but overlong car chase in the opening act that adds some thrills but nothing else in the film really works in terms of adding tension. Also, Barry Newman was a pretty limited actor and a lot of things that he's asked to do in the film are frankly out of his range, especially hurting the revelation scenes. Ben Kingsley is interesting to watch here (he has hair!) in a role that doesn't require much. You can see glints of what he'd become 10 years later in GANDHI but he's otherwise unremarkable.

    From an Alistair MacLean novel that I suspect was much better than the film.

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    My rather eccentric thoughts on the above- Diamonds in disguise — ajb007

  • HarryCanyonHarryCanyon Posts: 277MI6 Agent

    Interesting! Wow, those similarities didn't even occur to me.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    @Barbel l wrote in July 2013:

    I took the liberty and I hope you don't mind, Barbel, as it is an interesting Fleming V MacLean post:

    Diamonds in disguise

    As we all know, the 1971 film of “Diamonds Are Forever” doesn’t owe a great deal to Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name (mainly the first 15-20 minutes and the cruise liner ending). I’d like to put forward the theory that it owes an equal if not bigger debt to a novel by another well-known UK thriller writer, Alistair MacLean. “Fear Is The Key” was published in 1961, and filmed in 1972. Both book and film feature:

    (1) A reclusive billionaire being held captive by a smooth master criminal, who then uses the billionaire’s organisation as a front for his own scheme.

    (2) A two-man team of hitmen working for the villain.

    (3) A featured car chase in which the protagonist, accompanied of course by the lovely leading lady, runs rings around the cops who think he’s a baddie. (A 30-second clip from the 10-minute chase: )

    (4) A climax on an oil rig (modified to suit the villain's scheme) with a small submarine attached; the plot is resolved, hero wins, etc.

    Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds very like DAF to me. I’m sure there are more resemblances between the two stories- if I’ve missed anything, please point it out.

    Point (1) is not in Fleming’s novel, and the explanation for it being in the film has always been that Cubby Broccoli had a dream about meeting his old friend, Howard Hughes, in one of Hughes’ residences- only when the man turned round it wasn’t Hughes at all- Cubby then had Mankiewicz and/or Maibaum write it into the script (Howard Hughes becoming Willard Whyte). I’m not doubting that explanation in any way, but am beginning to wonder if Cubby had been reading MacLean the night before!

    Point (2) – Wint and Kidd are in Fleming’s novel, though treated much more seriously than they are in the film (no surprises there). Royale and Larry in MacLean’s book more closely resemble Fleming’s hitmen: Royale is older, deadly and calm while Larry is young and more excitable.

    Point (3) – Of course many thrillers in the late 60s/early 70s have a car chase. Both the books have car chase scenes (albeit that in Fleming isn’t much like the film version) though the films play this up much more. The car Barry Newman drives (I'm not an expert) looks pretty similar to the one Bond has.

    Point (4) – The oil rig isn’t in Fleming at all, while the entire plot of “Fear Is The Key” leads toward it.

    The two films do not have the same general feeling in any way. As a side point, John Vernon plays the head villain, Vyland, and IMHO he'd have made an excellent Bond baddie- if things had been different, he could have played Seraffimo Spang.

  • caractacus pottscaractacus potts Orbital communicator, level 10Posts: 4,002MI6 Agent

    "you've interfered with my evil plans the last time, James Bond 007! This time you're on Double Secret Probation!"

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    @chrisno1 No, of course I don't mind. It saves a reader going to the other post to see what I wrote.

    (PS I don't remember you cutting and pasting my thoughts back in July 2013, but I suppose that's understandable!)

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent
    edited April 13

    Reading these posts about FEAR IS THE KEY, made me check the thread as I was certain I re-read the novel last year. I never posted the review I wrote! So here, for your pleasure or displeasure, MacLean is that divisive sort of writer...



    Fear is the Key is the sixth Alistair MacLean blockbuster thriller and the third successive set in contemporary times and revolving around an ‘espionage’ plot – this one to unearth a cache of stolen gold bullion and diamonds from a downed and drowned cargo plane. Mixed up in the narrative is John Talbot, a salvage expert on a revenge mission who is not everything he appears to be, and the delectable Mary Ruthven, daughter of an multimillionaire oil magnate. Talbot kidnaps the nubile blonde while escaping from a Louisiana courthouse. The strange, oddly humorous and slightly off-kilter opening is one of MacLean’s more peculiar scenes; he continues the tactic of showing everything yet telling nothing throughout almost the entire first half of the novel. He even disguises John Talbot’s thought processes, so the reader is unable to gauge exactly what the hero’s motives are. This device has its plus points, chiefly by disguise, but the reader constantly lurches from one extreme to another and the uncertainty doesn’t aid tension, only provokes confusion.

    Stick with it.

    Fear is the Key eventually straightens itself out and turns into a rollicking ride of fights, chases and underwater derring-do. If there are perhaps a shade too many scenes of violent incident, I can forgive this. It is fairly obvious MacLean wants to crank up the pressure for his hero in deliberate and unsubtle fashions. So, it works, I suppose, because Talbot’s manner is abrasive enough to make the bad guys believe every single one of his carefully woven lies, however preposterous. Of more concern is the amount of action and intrigue MacLean has left out: in the final chapter, he reveals whole swathes of back story, character development and investigation which could have been utilised to far greater effect inside the narrative. Instead, MacLean uses them as a knot-tying exercise and the suspenseful climax becomes a long monologue explaining the who, where, what and how. Unlike the early scenes, this is a case of extreme tell and not show, and it is extremely ineffective. At least the opening three or four chapters had pace and intrigue; the denouement lacks much of that which, given all that comes before, is a trifle disappointing.

    Fear is the Key begins the second phase of MacLean’s career, when having established his name and career with outstanding initial critical and commercial success in the late 1950s, he began to experience self-doubt and wrote in differing styles – and even under a different pseudonymous name – in an attempt to prove he could succeed without the expectation brought on by the name tag ‘Alistair MacLean’. The novel is a successful thriller, bounding from page to page with a hefty dose of the ridiculous and the central character, while initially unlikeable, grows on the reader chapter by chapter, reflecting Mary Ruthven’s own changing attitudes. Love and sex is pushed into the background in favour of drinking and fighting, where MacLean’s strengths tend to lie. While he isn’t in the Fleming class for sexually available heroines, the author does imbibe Talbot with the steely wherewithal of a Bond-style secret agent; one can believe a desperate woman in desperate circumstances might fall for him.

    So, generally a big thumbs up. Compared to most thriller writers of the era, who tended to the pedantic, Maclean understands the need to propel his stories forward with heroics and action; he sensibly saves the talk for appropriate moments. Fear is the Key, along with The Last Frontier, Night Without End and Caravan to Vaccarès displays the storyteller’s skill to the full.


  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    I would say that's a fair enough review. I read it in my youth then again more recently plus much the same for the movie (which is pretty faithful), so I guess I like it.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent
    edited April 16

    FEAR IS THE KEY (1972)

    I wrote a review of this for the Last Film Seen thread a couple of years ago. This essay was from a revisit from last year that I also never posted here, I think because I hadn't created the thread at the time.

    Fear is the Key isn’t one of the very best MacLean adaptations, but it is a fairly good version of his fast-paced 1961 thriller, the writer and director hurtling through the book’s action sequences with some gusto and barely a moment to pause for explanations. The twists and turns of the plot are hardly important here; in fact the opening sequence, where John Talbot listens in as one of his fleet of cargo planes crashes into the Gulf of Mexico seems entirely detached from proceedings for most of the film’s length. On board the plane are Talbot’s wife and son. This important prologue isn’t explained at any great length until the very end, nor is it filmed in any spectacular fashion, giving an underwhelming opening to the movie. That might be a costing issue, it might be a scripting one in choosing to stick to MacLean’s version of events, or it might be 1970s cinematic fashion; whichever, it now seems an oversight. A clearer indication of why Barry Newman’s maddeningly, violently driven hero is how he is just might have helped the telling. If however, you prefer your stories told with oodles of senseless, grim-faced action, this will get a thumbs up.

    The opening twenty minutes is fabulous stuff as Barry Newman gets himself arrested fighting Louisiana Highway Patrolmen, then flees the courthouse and enacts an extended car chase among the bijous, the unwitting and unwilling assistance of sexy Suzy Kendall proving a pretty distraction. Hers is a completely underwritten role. Kendall’s Sarah Ruthven comes across far better in Maclean’s novel, where she has to be competent to aid the hero. Here, she is shovelled into the action almost because she needs to be, not because the character has abilities and thoughts of her own. You could get away with it if she was bedhopping dolly-bird and Newman took advantage of her wantonness, but she isn’t. Kendall plays a multimillionaire’s chaste daughter caught up in a game of kidnap and blackmail beyond her or her father’s control. Ray McAnally is the dad, owner of Nyland Oil. John Vernon is – confusingly – Vyland, the villain who is searching for a cache of diamonds loaded on a cargo plane downed in the Gulf of Mexico. The gems were bound for the USA from Colombia as payment from one government to the other to buy arms to fend off a Communist revolution. That’s quite of its time and yep, you guessed it, the cargo plane was the same one carrying Talbot’s wife and son.

    This revelation takes some time to catch up with the unfolding action. When it does come, it feels like an afterthought as the audience has been watching an extended series of seemingly unconnected action set pieces. When all the revelations are made, everything slots neatly into place, but by then it is too much to take in. Learning the facts piecemeal is a reflection of the original nature of the hard-as-nails prose. However, it is narrative tactic that doesn’t always work on film where clearer motivations tend to be a more useful aide-memoir. You can’t go back and revisit sections of a film and decipher them as you can in a book; at least you couldn’t in 1972. It is easy to get lost in all the tension, cool-as-cucumbers dialogues and startlingly roughhouse action to forget what Talbot’s purpose is. The revenge motive, while interesting from a psychological point of view for MacLean when he wrote the novel, isn’t very necessary in the tough actioner we have here. It would have been enough to demonstrate that innocent people died and that Vyland, along with his henchman Royale [a young and efficiently nasty Ben Kingsley] were responsible for the killings, so desperate were they to gain the diamonds. The suspenseful oxygen zapping climax in a submersible is good, but if you don’t concentrate fully, you do wonder how the characters ended up there.

    Overall, after a second viewing, I quite enjoy Fear is the Key. It isn’t as taut as the novel, but it features most of the highlights and presents them in a rapid and unfussy manner. The music score is a jazzy little number from Roy Budd. Michael Tuchner is not a director I am familiar with. Mostly working in television, he is okay here, but okay doesn’t quite instil enough intrigue and purpose, despite Barry Newman’s brutishly physical performance. I fancy if they made this today they’d put Jason Statham in it, pack it with mixed martial arts, profanity and sex and call it Jason Statham’s Fear is the Key.

    Not the best, no, but a better than middling Maclean adaptation.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    If anyone in the UK wishes to compare notes FEAR IS THE KEY will be shown on the Legend Channel [no.69] on Saturday 20th April at 9pm.

  • CoolHandBondCoolHandBond Mactan IslandPosts: 6,597MI6 Agent
    edited April 17

    It’s strange that whenever car chases in movies are discussed the one from FEAR IS THE KEY is never mentioned, even though it’s one of the best.

    Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.
  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    If anyone is thinking of burning the midnight oil in the UK, Film 4 is showing FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE at 01.30 Thursday night / Friday morning. It isn't a great film, but it is worth a look.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent



    There are some right ropey covers for this late-in-the-day entry into MacLean's canon. Mine is the first on the left; the hardback the next. The right hand one I am not even sure is an official cover as I have never physically seen it and have seen pics online with and without the Fontana label [this one doesn't have it]. One feels the covers may be imitating the prose of the novel...

    I had no idea Athabasca was a real place until I finally picked up this ‘comeback’ novel that kicks off Alistair MacLean’s final career period, seven books of mundane thrills and low literary skill. While the 1970s was characterised by MacLean’s books all being initially written as a workable screenplay, it is fair to say this approach did not always translate well onto the page. MacLean’s earliest novels had drive and ambition, mixed with a few florid descriptions. That began to go missing and dialogue heavy ‘thrills’ started to take over the writer’s prose, resulting in a series of so-so adventure stories. Things did not improve after a two-year interval and Athabasca sadly harks back to previous triumphs while failing to address convincingly the lack of genuine action. Compared to a novel as pulse-racing as Caravan to Vaccares or as tense as Night Without End, Athabasca comes up short.

    The tar sands oil fields of Athabasca and the thousands of miles of pipeline that link the extraction plant and the refinery to the industrial storage facilities in Canada and Alaska’s far north comes under threat of sabotage. The oil company Sanmobil calls in expert oil fighter Jim Brady. His caution is not taken seriously by the field bosses and it is only when a chief engineer turns up dead, having frozen to death in suspicious circumstances, that Brady and his team are taken seriously. Time begins to run out and as the stakes increase, so does the murderous intent of the saboteurs.

    Like Lord Worth in Seawitch, Jim Brady has two experts on hand to do all his dirty work while he sits back in his big private jet and feasts himself silly by partaking of the largest cocktail bar north of the Arctic Circle – his own! Brady is a very bad example of self-control. The man is clearly an alcoholic and, worse, he tries to foster booze on everyone he meets, including a young lad who declares he has never touched a drop of the devil’s brew in his life. Brady soon changes that. He is an appalling character: obese, insensitive and truculent sums him up well. His assistants are George Dermott and Donald Mackenzie, two Scots masquerading as Americans. All three men are huge in manner, gait, size and personality and about as subtle as a bulldozer. Not very sympathetic heroes then…

    There is another immediate problem with Athabasca which again reflects badly when compared to MacLean’s earliest more accessible work, which is one of the sheer volume of characters. As I read Athabasca, I kept wondering why the cast was so huge. Of course, some of the minor personalities need to be there, like the engineers, the onsite security managers, the company doctor, some eye-witnesses, some eye-candy – I understand all that – what fails to convince is why three heroic heads would be better than one. The only reason seems to be it allows the author to shuffle his protagonists simultaneously to different locations. But they don’t do anything! Brady is most often chilling in his private jet or hotel room with daiquiris and cigars while Dermott galivants heroically about the frozen wilderness. Mackenzie meanwhile merely vanishes off the pages altogether. I am not entirely sure why Mackenzie is even in the novel, other than to be a verbal foil for Dermott who can’t make any decision without discussing the pros and cons at length with everyone and anyone. He harks on about security, but allows his fat boss to drunkenly pontificate in the hotel bar; I assume Brady was drunk as he was so indiscreet.

    MacLean’s novels function better when he is more streamlined. For example, all those first person narratives he kicked his career off seem clearheaded and intense when compared to this shaggy dog story. The single point of view also allows clues and information to be hidden from the reader, for we are at the behest of the narrator. When employing the third person narrative, MacLean prefers to issue forth a constant stream of explanatory speeches and unseen events or circumstances. The endless meetings and the stilted officious sentences simply don’t convince. Characters, one feels, are being invented because MacLean hasn’t created a method of how to explain everything without using new and extra people. It is odd as MacLean has two or three readymade people who could occupy this role: Mr Black, the Operations Director, or Finlayson, the plant manager, would have sufficed perfectly well for they should be the mouthpiece about all things Athabasca. Instead, MacLean prefers to use the former as a disinterested red herring, a money man rather than an oil man who glares down a disapproving nose at the brash Texan trio, and the latter as a misunderstood victim.

    A similar problem arises with the three women in the tale, Brady’s wife Julia, his daughter Stella and a comely secretary named Corrine Delorme. They are separated from the heroes and then from each other allowing them to become redundant to the main story. In fairness, MacLean latterly improves with regard to Corinne who turns into a minor heroine. Whatever their fates, all the female characters are written with a condescending air and spoken to by the men as if they are still slaving over hot stoves, not being capable career women on their own terms. Even odder than that, it is Corrine who is involved in the most visceral action of the whole novel, proving herself a dab hand at evading a vicious kidnapping and then swinging to the rescue of the not-so-capable Dermott, who finds himself strapped before the onslaught of a monstrous dragline mining shovel. She certainly deserves better respect than she receives. These two incidents are the book’s thriller highlights.

    While I was intrigued by the sabotage story and found the background details, the scenery and the circumstances held my attention adequately, the book misses an opportunity to focus our viewpoint through one character’s eyes. While Brady may be the top man of Jim Brady Enterprises, it is clearly Dermott who is the hero-in-waiting. Yet too often we are not hearing or understanding through Dermott’s POV. When so much happens ‘off-page’ [all the sabotage events are related via telephone calls and there is no description of the events of destruction only their aftermath] we become removed from the action and become less interested. It was the sudden kidnapping and escape as well as the chaotic affair with the dragline extractor which peaked my taste buds. The remainder of the novel is a dialogue heavy affair, hindered by stereotypical people and language.

    Disappointingly too, MacLean employs his favoured technique of an explanatory chapter and here we learn a whole extra set of unseen persons from the FBI to London Insurance Brokers have been delving into the backgrounds of the Sanmobil security team. So while fires and gunfire reigns supreme in the ice lands of Alberta, Canada, the leg work is being done in unseen offices thousands of miles away. The reveal and arrest of the top bad guy is underwhelming at best.

    Ultimately, while Athabasca isn’t quite as dull as one might expect, it lacks a narrative hook to draw me in. I read it quickly and with some interest, but not a lot happens, unless you include all that drinking. Even the climax is tame. After a while, the stream of umpteen dialogues becomes heavy weather, even when relevant – and a lot of it isn’t.

    The critics were rightly unkind to Athabasca on publication, but it sold millions.   

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    And sadly the drinking and dialogue only increase with time. 🙁

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent
    edited July 13



    This is the novel which, due to its famous and very excellent film adaptation, made Alistair MacLean an internationally renowned and bestselling author. He’d had success before 1961, and The Guns of Nararone, like MacLean’s debut H.M.S. Ullyses, sold very well, but rather like Ian Fleming post-1962 and Dr No, the author’s reputation expanded dramatically following the movie’s box-office and subsequent Oscar nominations. It was a reputation that MacLean found difficult to maintain – and he had been struggling with minor fame already – leading to a sudden three-year sabbatical. It is worth bearing in mind the film of The Guns of Navarone when reading the novel, or perhaps I mean it is worth trying to forget it, because Carl Foreman’s cinematic version of MacLean’s story is so much better than the novel. That isn’t to say Navarone is a bad novel – far from it – but the movie, which is brilliantly structured and characterised, makes for a more immersive and satisfying experience than the trials and tribulations of MacLean’s original heroes, who spend the majority of their time holed up in the mountain caves and shepherd huts of the titular Greek island. 

    Navarone is based extremely loosely around events of the Aegean campaign of 1942-43, when the British and Greeks were fighting a guerilla and naval war among the Cyclades and Dodecanese. MacLean mentions this briefly in the narrative, but given the volcanic island archipelago of Lerades, its mother isle Navarone and sister isle Kheros are all entirely fictional, based on a conglomeration of Santorini, Rhodes and the like, you have to take any historical facts with a hefty dose of salt. This unfortunately translates onto the postulating and incompatible heroes Mallory, Miller and Andrea. Firstly, not a single one of them is British. Andrea at least is a Greek, although he is a Macedonian not an islander; Mallory however is a New Zealander, and happens to be the world’s greatest mountaineer; Miller is an American and the Allies greatest explosives expert – he is also one of Maclean’s worst drawn characters, with hackneyed derivative dialogue and a louche attitude to life which suggests he ought to be the least heroic of the trio. Mallory, despite being a leader of the Cretan resistance, fails to kill anybody in cold blood, even when it makes perfect sense to do so. His attitude to battle and death in war is completely unfathomable, as if an armed conflict can be won without direct confrontation. He leaves all that to Andrea, who knives, strangles, batters and shoots Germans with incredible skill, stealth and much triviality.

    MacLean is better with the two British protagonists, Andy Stevens, a nervous wreck of a man, also a great mountain climber but no longer any use with a gun or a knife, and Casey Brown, the capable engineer and radio operator. Unlike the movie there are no women involved, which is fine, and doesn’t hinder the narrative any. It does mean the reveal of the traitor, while excellently done, lacks the pathos of the filmic version. In MacLean’s hands it becomes a brutal, one-sided interrogation and assassination, and not from Mallory’s hands either. There is so much I kept frowning over, uncertain why for instance the Greek resistance isn’t more prominent, why the saboteurs spend so long dragging a dying man around with them or why everything happens twice – it really does: two boat trips, two mountain climbs, two caves, two huts, two captures, two interrogations, two big cannon. The only other certainty was Andrea’s indomitability.

    For all that, I did understand why Navarone was so popular in the late 1950s. The descriptions of the sea, the sky, the land are formidably accessible and the moments of tension do spark withers of interest. MacLean already displays his penchant for oblique action, much of it told in reportage or unseen at all, which holds back the enjoyment somewhat. The story winds its way through two-hundred odd pages and I wasn’t bored, I simply didn’t consider it as good as it should have been. The structure needed tightening. Instead, MacLean becomes minorly obsessed with inner monologues;  fresh here while in later novels they would jar. However, Dusty Miller’s unfathomable American ‘accent’ is an abomination of writing and can’t be justified under any circumstances. Sensibly, Foreman made Miller British.

    The Guns of Navarone isn’t the best of Alistair MacLean, but it is an important novel for the writer in terms of the impact it had on his career and on the public consciousness. It succeeds, just about, but has several major problems, many of which would continue to recur throughout the author’s career. It is worth a read, but I won’t be rushing to recommend it.


    When MacLean wrote the sequel Force 10 from Navarone, he was in the habit of writing screenplays as a working template for a novel with one eye on a future cinematic adaptation. Hence, that novel is a sequel to the 1961 film of Navarone, not the book. Miller becomes a British sapper and Andrea has plans to marry resistance fighter Maria. I am bold enough to declare that Force 10 is probably a better book than The Guns of Navarone.

    A further series of book covers. It is interesting to note how - like my main image above - the book designers used representations inspired by the movie not the novel. Mallory, Miller and Maria are featured on the front of one - Maria wasn't even in the book - and they all resemble their respective actors. The guns are frequently look exactly like those in the film. The paperback tie in is featured here also. Note too how the US publisher Fawcett was so desperate to promote Santorini they put the title on the tag line "author of...".


  • Number24Number24 NorwayPosts: 21,964MI6 Agent

    I "re-read" Guns of Navarone as an audiobook this spring and I agree on everything you write. It's a good novel, but the movie improved on it.

Sign In or Register to comment.