26 March 2007 | Oct
Chiller, not thriller
Comparing Alistair MacLean and Ian Fleming is salutary. Both were heavy-drinking Scots who wrote action thrillers, hitting the jackpot in the Fifties and Sixties. But whereas Fleming's novels have risen to be Penguin Modern Classics, MacLean-- once said to be the world's best-selling novelist-- is now totally out of print in the States, and in and out of it in his own country.
Fleming created a flat but fascinating protagonist who became more interesting than the villains and girls he encountered; MacLean never used the same character twice, preferring chase and setting to psychology. His inability to invent interesting female foils was absolute; often they have the same name, Mary or variants thereon. MacLean trusted that the story would be its own reward, but without psychological flesh on the bones his stock situation-- group of professionals in tight-lipped quest for a treasure, one of them a snake in the grass- becomes wearisome.
MacLean's other handicap was that he liked money. After "The Guns of Navarone" hit dollar paydirt, he increasingly wrote with movie adaptation in mind, producing hybrids that were neither literary nor cinematic; whereas Fleming barely lived to see the Bond films blossoming into history's biggest screen moneyspinner.
"Bear Island" is a case study in the frosty aridity of MacLean's "visual" imagination. The gang are placed in a locale he knows and loves: the Arctic, scene of his first hit, "HMS Ulysses", and "Ice Station Zebra", a good film. In the background is World War Two, in which MacLean's naval service was the making of him. The principals are uneasily allied in search of Nazi gold buried on Bear Island, near Spitzbergen. There is much betraying and motive-revelation, chases in boats and on skis and snowmobiles, close-quarters work with fists, knives and guns, before the treasure hunt is played out. But it's all as chilly as the temperature.
To begin with, the film was an Anglo-Canadian co-production, never a promising sign; it was shot in British Columbia with a cast ill at ease with their roles. Donald Sutherland, the Canadian contribution, gawps and mumbles in his usual fashion, hardly the strong silent MacLean hero. Vanessa Redgrave-- incredibly, this was the part with which she chose to follow an Oscar for "Julia"-- is a statuesque Scandinavian with a wobbly Ingrid Bergmanesque accent. Christopher Lee seems to pine for cape and fangs. Lloyd Bridges, the bad apple, hams it up in a manner anticipating his turn to actual self-parody in "Airplane!".
All are often encased in anoraks and big fur hoods, so knowing who is doing what to whom is a puzzle. The pace is crippled by the conditions: fights seem slapstick, and there is a ludicrous moment when several characters flounderingly "break into a run" knee deep in snow, at a leaden pace. The icy scenery is attractive, but to get scale the camera has to stand well back, diminishing the figures of the actors and making their manoeuvres seem as trivial as a puppet show.
Director Don Sharp, as Ken Annakin noted in his memoirs, was better at derring-do than humour, but nobody goes to MacLean for a laugh: here too he is unlike Fleming, whose pawky vein of wit was broadened by the Bond scenarists and has preserved the early 007 entries magnificently. The solemnity of "Bear Island"'s furry, flailing personnel becomes risible.
The picture, in short, was a weary and chilly haul for the audience. Not that many were given the chance; it was hardly released to cinemas and became a TV schedule filler. It might as well have been a midatlantic melange from Lord Grade.