“Three hours gone, Mr. MacLean, three hours – and never a word of the lifeboat.” So begins “The Dileas”, the winner of The Glasgow Herald’s 1954 short story competition. The newspaper might have been Glasgow-based, but the six-person judging panel read over nine hundred entries from around the world. In the end, the £100 first prize travelled no further than Rutherglen. “The Dileas” (roughly translated as “The Faithful”) was a dialogue-driven tale of salty dogs and shipwrecks, described by the judges as a “story of exciting action in which the Highland dialect is used sparingly to suggest the setting, in which the simple emotions of courage and affection are treated with undemonstrative conviction.”
The story reflected its writer, an unassuming and somewhat bored schoolmaster named Alistair MacLean. MacLean, the son of a Church of Scotland minister, was a native Gaelic speaker (English was his second language) and had served in the Royal Navy Arctic convoys during World War II. At university, he dabbled in fiction, which later in life became a welcome distraction from the daily grind of teaching English, history and geography at Gallow Flat School. The £100 prize money was useful, especially with a baby on the way, but he didn’t believe there was much of a career in it. He was about to be proven spectacularly wrong.
Ian Chapman, an editor in the Bible department at Collins, found his wife crying over some story in the newspaper. That story was “The Dileas”. Chapman liked the story so much he pursued MacLean, attempted to persuade him to try his hand at a novel. MacLean was flattered, but reluctant. He saw no future in books; he could make more money running a tourist boat to Arran. But he promised to give it a go and set about sketching the outline: “I drew a cross square, lines down representing the characters, lines across representing chapters 1-15. Most of the characters died, in fact only one survived the book, but when I came to the end the graph looked somewhat lopsided, there were too many people dying in the first, fifth and tenth chapters so I had to rewrite it, giving an even dying space throughout. I suppose it sounds cold-blooded and calculated, but that’s the way I did it.”
After ten weeks of carefully spaced death, MacLean delivered HMS Ulysses (1955) – a gruesome, tempest-tossed tale of the Arctic convoys that made The Cruel Sea look like Three Men in a Boat – and Chapman secured him an advance of £1,000 from Collins. He would earn out that advance fifty times over before the book saw print, yet MacLean remained wary about making the jump from teacher to novelist. “It’s a matter of economics,” he told the News Chronicle. “I don’t want to give up my career in case this book is just a flash in the pan.” Less of a flash than an explosion, HMS Ulysses became the first British novel to sell over 150,000 copies in hardcover and sold over a quarter of a million copies within the first six months of publication, garnering as many spittle-flecked rants as raves (some critics were averse to seeing their beloved Royal Navy portrayed in a less than patriotic light), and securing MacLean’s place as a writer to watch. MacLean’s second novel, The Guns of Navarone (1957) was a ripsnorting Boys’ Own wartime adventure that not only proved that this pony knew more than one trick, but also inspired a whole sub-genre of post-war adventure cinema when it was adapted for the screen in 1961. If there had been any doubt in MacLean’s mind that he could turn a profit at this writing game, it was long gone now.
And yet MacLean was still malcontent. His overnight success left him wanting. He swiftly became as ambivalent about writing as he had been about teaching. In 1963, after eight years, nine published novels and millions in the bank, he decided to call it a day. He delivered the manuscript of Ice Station Zebra to Chapman with an announcement: he was fed up with writing, fed up with living as a tax exile in Switzerland, fed up with the whole bestseller life. He would give up publishing for hospitality, he said. He planned to buy a small portfolio of hotels, including the Jamaica Inn, once a smuggler’s haunt, now a tourist trap thanks to Daphne du Maurier’s 1936 novel. “Let’s be frank about it,” he told Sunday Express book critic Robert Pitman. “I’m not a born writer. I know and you know it. I don’t enjoy writing. In Switzerland I wrote each book in thirty-five days flat – five weeks for seven days a week; plus, of course, time for preliminary research. Two days! I wrote like that because I disliked it so much I just wanted to get the darned thing over. You know the value of most novels published today, including mine. It’s not really a moral way of earning money. Now I can afford to be moral. This may not earn as much, hour for hour, as writing books but at least it’s doing something solid.”
Solid it may have been, but it wouldn’t stay that way. The bestseller-turned-hotelier lacked business acumen. His three hotels hemorrhaged money thanks to poor management. Within only a few years, he was in financial trouble. Ego-bruised and cash-strapped, he turned over the hotels to his brother and his wife and returned to the typewriter, where he worked quietly on the novel he said he would never write and hoped that his editor had forgotten about his rash decision to leave the publishing world behind.
“Major, right now you got me as confused as I ever hope to be.”
Harlem-raised Elliott Kastner paid his show business dues working in the William Morris mailroom and as a literary agent at MCA before Lew Wasserman made him vice-president of production at Universal. His first production, Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965), prompted Pulitzer-winning playwright William Inge to remove his name from the credits after studio pressure shifted the focus from the lead (Michael Parks – then tipped to be the next Brando) to Universal favorite Ann-Margret. The film was a failure. Smarting from his studio experience, Kastner jumped ship to set up his own shingle with producer Jerry Gershwin, Winkast Film Productions, based at Pinewood Studios. Winkast struck gold with their first production – Harper (1966) – and bronze with their second. While Harper had Paul Newman in the lead and William Goldman adapting Ross Macdonald, Kaleidoscope (1966) starred an ineffectual Warren Beatty in a Swinging Sixties soufflé. But Kastner was undefeated. Independent production meant creative freedom. All he needed was another hit, and he knew where to find it: MacLean.
Kastner had read HMS Ulysses and The Guns of Navarone and found plenty to like in both. He ferreted out MacLean’s phone number, called him at home and told him he wanted to work with him. MacLean was nonplussed: his books were all optioned; he had nothing to offer. But Kastner didn’t want to option a novel, he wanted MacLean to write an original story for the screen. MacLean was interested enough to agree to lunch. Kastner brought two screenplays as examples of the form and told the writer exactly what he wanted: a wartime adventure story, a team of guys on a rescue mission facing extraordinary odds. High stakes, lots of obstacles, lots of action. If MacLean felt the need to throw in a couple of female characters, great, but the emphasis needed to be on the men, their mission and, most of all, “I want the clock ticking.” In short, Kastner wanted The Guns of Navarone with a lower budget. Tempted by the prospect of more money for less work, MacLean agreed, in return for a fifty-fifty split on profits and the right to turn the story into a novel. It was a deal.
A couple of months later, MacLean delivered the 170-page screenplay to Alder Schloss. “My palms were sweating as I read it,” said Kastner. “It was wonderful, rich, full, exciting. The only problem was that it had a shitty title.” Alder Schloss – what did it mean? MacLean told him it was German for “The Eagle’s Castle”. According to Kastner: “I remembered my Shakespeare and thought of a title from Richard III – ‘where eagles dare not perch.’ I simply cut off ‘not perch’ and we called it Where Eagles Dare.” Title in place, Kastner and director Brian Hutton whittled the script down to a manageable 130 pages. The producer then wooed Richard Burton with the promise of commercial success after a series of flops, scored Clint Eastwood fresh off the American success of the Dollars trilogy, secured a $6.5m budget from MGM, and upped sticks to Austria where the production team aimed to kill as many Nazis as possible.
Where Eagles Dare (1968) follows Kastner’s instructions to the letter: Major John Smith (Burton) and Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Eastwood) are tasked with leading a small commando team into the Bavarian Alps to infiltrate the impenetrable Schloss Adler and rescue a U.S. Army Brigadier General from the clutches of the Nazis before he spills the secrets of the Western Front. The film is a daffy espionage thriller in military uniform, with twists piling up faster than the bodies can drop. It doesn’t matter that the plot has all the coherence and credibility of a barroom brag – the audience wants to see Burton bark and Eastwood murder and they get it in spades.
Burton is the quintessential MacLean hero, “a man of infinite resource” – inscrutable, intelligent and pathologically impatient, perpetually risking his own neck because of the incompetence or self-preservation of those on his team. Eastwood presents a worthy, mildly incredulous foil for all this British bossiness, agreeing to a suicide mission almost as casually as he machine guns his way through a castle full of Nazis. The original script and subsequent novel (which actually hit the shelves shortly before the movie premiered) allow both Smith and Shaffer plenty of dialogue, but Eastwood smartly asked to be given fewer lines and let the classically trained Burton carry the weight of exposition. It meant Eastwood’s Schaffer was no longer the gee-whiz equinophobic moron of the novel, and saved him the ignominy of MacLean’s stilted American idiom, most notably the immortal line “It’s not a pop-gun, and that’s a fact.” Both Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt (who apparently heard about the audition through Ralph Meeker’s poker game) also do a lot with very little, expanding their flimsy characters through performance and their own natural charisma, while the supporting cast is a rogue’s gallery of British character acting, including Michael Hordern, Patrick Wymark, and a typically reptilian turn from Derren Nesbitt.
With a cast like that, it’s inevitable that the novel suffers by comparison. MacLean’s writing dawdles (the opening ten minutes of the film take over thirty pages of novel) and there is the feeling he mistakes the withholding of information for suspense. The action sequences in the novel are also largely toothless. This last point was somewhat contentious for MacLean, who objected to the movie’s high body count and apparently muttered during the premier, “This is terrible! I didn’t kill as many Germans as this. I was writing an anti-war film.” While no one could possibly mistake Where Eagles Dare for a pacifist polemic, the novel does go out of its way to paint Major Smith as a non-lethal action hero: in one protracted sequence he even rescues an unconscious Nazi from burning to death in a fire designed to cover the commandos’ escape. Indeed, throughout his career, MacLean was keen to keep his action scenes as bloodless as possible, with few outright murders and a whole lot of bad guys plummeting to their doom because of their own greed or ineptitude. There is the sense that MacLean is always writing for his erstwhile pupils rather than an adult reader, alluding to foul language with his “unprintable epithets” and minimizing the violence wherever possible. And yet Where Eagles Dare is still one of MacLean’s most enjoyable novels, playful in its ridiculousness, a prose version of D.C. Thomson’s Commando comics or The Victor, where blustering Nazis exclaim “Gott in Himmel!” and square-jawed, usually middle-aged, men roll up their sleeves to give Fritz a jolly good seeing to. MacLean also appears to be having a good time, freed up by a pre-sale to the pictures, which meant any editing of the finished manuscript would likely be performed with scalpel rather than hatchet.
Where Eagles Dare was a massive success both on screen and in print, securing a healthy $21m box office and staying on The New York Times bestseller list for four weeks running. The film was the last major hit of Burton’s career, confirmed a rising star in Eastwood, and forged a relationship between Kastner and MacLean that would result in three more movies over the next seven years. While Kastner usually refused to talk about his films in interviews, he made a special exception for Eagles: “That film was a joy for me, from beginning to end. I was making the perfect meat and potatoes movie-movie. The kind of movie I love, the kind that grabs an audience for two hours and sucks ‘em in! It was like a Michael Curtiz or John Huston film: Robin Hood and The Maltese Falcon rolled into one. Those were movie-movies, and so was this. Everything about that movie was so tremendously satisfying, to relive those moments is delicious for me; that’s why I’ll talk about that film and no other.” For MacLean, Eagles opened a door to an exciting new career, and Kastner was already committed to the writer’s first post-retirement novel.
“I don’t think you need demonstrate your questionable attitude to authority quite so early.”
Many writers find titles aggravatingly difficult, and MacLean was no exception. As he wrote to Chapman: “Beul nan Uamh would have exactly the right and aptest title. Unfortunately, it’s almost totally unpronounceable and the English equivalent, The Mouth of the Grave, is too morbid even for me.” After brainstorming a list of twenty alternatives, including The Misty Islands and Full Fathom Five – “Another quotation, admittedly, but what was good enough for Shakespeare is good enough for me.” – author and editor finally agreed on When Eight Bells Toll, a title with a maritime ring that echoed MacLean’s previous hit.
When Eight Bells Toll (1966) returned MacLean to the choppy waters and sunken wrecks that featured in his prize-winning short story twelve years prior, now with an added thriller layer. The story concerns modern-day pirates terrorizing Scotland’s west coast and the “miserably paid” man of “unique talents” Philip Calvert, an irascible treasury agent who aims to bring the pirates to justice as well as recover the £8m in stolen gold bullion that resides somewhere on the sea floor. Kastner was a fan as soon as he read it: “There was a strong character and a great adventure in there. The movie I envisioned was a kind of Guns of Navarone. A combination of Navarone and Gunga Din and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I saw the agent-hero Calvert as a potentially very exciting characterization. A lot could be done with him.” A lot could be done, namely establish a new franchise hero to fill the gap left in the wake of Sean Connery’s abandonment of Bond. Calvert was in many ways an anti-Bond, little more than a highly competent civil servant who hated being called an “agent”. Kastner trusted his gut on casting the lead: “I didn’t want a Tony Curtis. I didn’t want a star. I wanted a classical actor. A real actor.” In short, he wanted a young Richard Burton, and so he cast Anthony Hopkins.
At the time, Hopkins was best known for his stage and television work, with only a handful of film roles to his name, first in Lindsay Anderson’s short film The White Bus (1967) and then, more importantly, as Richard in The Lion in Winter (1968). Nothing persuades a producer of an actor’s class more than a supporting role in a critically-acclaimed historical drama. Hopkins was grateful for what would be his first leading role, even as he was underwhelmed by the picture: “At the time of When Eight Bells Toll, I didn’t tend to learn a script too well. Sheer laziness, I suppose. So I’d ad-lib as I went along, hoping the director wouldn’t notice. Etienne [Périer, the director] rather seemed to like that.” It’s possible that Hopkins, used to the likes of Shakespeare and Strindberg, chafed a little at the quality of MacLean’s script, which is a mostly faithful adaptation of his novel. As with Eagles, Kastner’s hand is apparent. The 1971 film is less coy about violence, less clichéd in its dialogue, and the book’s unconvincing details about an island hermit and the female lead being horsewhipped by her husband are wisely jettisoned. The ending too is completely rewritten, turning an Agatha Christie-style summation of events into an action movie shootout. And yet When Eight Bells Toll still feels like a MacLean story with MacLean characters: Hopkins is a suitably prickly (and prickish) Calvert; Corin Redgrave is a rock-solid presence as Calvert’s right-hand man (who naturally meets a sticky end); and Robert Morley delivers his usual masterclass in upper-class buffoonery, all bug eyes and trembling jowls. Only Nathalie Delon and Jack Hawkins fail to convince, the former because her part is painfully underwritten (in both novel and film) and the latter because his performance is hampered by a lack of larynx – an uncredited Charles Gray provides Hawkins’ gravelly tones, just as he would in Theater of Blood (1973) and Tales That Witness Madness (1973).
When Eight Bells Toll was not, as Kastner and MacLean had both hoped, a franchise starter. Despite its brassy Barryesque score (by Angela Morley) and pretensions to high action, audiences looking for a new Bond were not particularly interested in an irritable treasury agent boat-hopping across the grim, gust-blasted North Atlantic; they wanted the sun-drenched shenanigans of Diamonds are Forever, which opened nine months later. It was a blow to MacLean, who had always hated Ian Fleming’s “sex and sadism” and hoped to provide a moral alternative. That said, Eight Bells wasn’t a complete flop. According to Kastner: “Proportionately, it made more money than Where Eagles Dare, so I cannot say it disappointed me. But the distribution deals weren’t as efficient as they could have been. I sold it to Rank for distribution in the U.K., and that was all right. In the U.S., it went to one of the distribution companies owned by our financier, and that may not have been the wisest route in terms of market saturation.” Either way, the prospect of future Calvert stories was dead in the water.
“You are truculent, insolent, and a man of violence.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, Kastner followed When Eight Bells Toll with another MacLean adaptation, this time his 1961 novel Fear is the Key. In Lee Child’s foreword to the latest reissue, he places it third in his Perfect Three (the other two are 1959’s The Last Frontier and Night Without End): “It has everything … the silent but preternaturally skilled boatman, the stolid and reliable family chauffeur, who we know will play a minor role in saving the day, the dramatic physical infrastructure, the constant presence of the sea, its sound and smell, its depths and dangers. Plus an opening with an amazing first reveal.” While Child is naturally diving headfirst into the hyperbole usual with forewords, Fear is the Key is arguably one of MacLean’s finest novels and, ironically, one of his least successful of the period. It is at heart a hardboiled revenge story, a poor man’s Count of Monte Cristo, and is told in the first-person by John Montague Talbot, WWII veteran and former owner of a ramshackle charter airline, now driven to avenge the deaths of his brother, his wife, and his child in a mysterious plane crash. One of Maclean’s occasional American protagonists, Talbot has a Chandlerian edge to him even if MacLean’s writing lacks Chandler’s precision and wit.
The 1972 adaptation of Fear is the Key discards pretty much everything but the plot – which, for all its twists, is remarkably straightforward – and concentrates on the action. Barry Newman came into the movie fresh from what would be his signature role, that of Kowalski in Vanishing Point (1971), and brought a swagger and simmering moral ambivalence that serves the film well. Director Michael Tuchner (who had directed the brutal and brilliant Burton-as-Ronnie-Kray movie Villain only the year before) and Vanishing Point stunt coordinator Carey Loftin ensure that Kowalski fans get their money’s worth with an opening car chase (complete with demolished fruit stand and jazzy Roy Budd score) that takes up around a third of the movie’s running time. While the movie slows after this barnstormer, the tension is bolstered by a couple of fine villainous performances by sleaze-for-hire John Vernon and a baby-faced Ben Kingsley. Even Suzy Kendall manages to make the best of another underwritten Maclean female, helped in no small part by Robert Carrington’s script, which eliminates “the stolid and reliable family chauffeur” character and gives much of his derring-do and day-saving to Kendall’s Sarah Ruthven.
Fear is the Key is, in many ways, a perfect MacLean adaptation. It maintains much of MacLean’s strengths – a taciturn protagonist with a secret agenda that will only be revealed at the story’s climax, a reliance on brains over brawn and the non-lethal dispatch of the bad guys, and an unusual, perilous maritime setting – while minimizing many of his weaknesses – clunky dialogue, a tone-deaf sense of humor, preposterous plotting, and throwaway female characters. The film was a success in the U.K. but struggled to find an audience on the other side of the Atlantic, which partly echoed the novel’s reception.
“I am not a man of violence.”
By 1974, Alistair MacLean’s life was in turmoil. Always a heavy drinker, MacLean was now an alcoholic. His first marriage had ended, his second to Marcelle Georgius already in trouble thanks to her profligate spending and ambitions to become a film producer. He had juggled novel writing with a number of film production deals that had died on the vine, and he was in dire financial straits. Enter Elliott Kastner once more: “I had heard he was in bad shape and was becoming a drunken, stupid bore. I used to say to him, ‘Alistair, why are you poisoning your body this way? You should stop fucking moaning and get your fucking act together.’ He seemed to be drowning emotionally, unable to produce.”
This isn’t quite true: apart from a brief detour into non-fiction with his 1972 book on Captain Cook, MacLean had been publishing at least one book a year since the success of The Guns of Navarone in 1957. On top of that, he had been at least partly involved in nine film adaptations of his work, and written the screenplay for Puppet on a Chain (1970) for Geoffrey Reeve, who would go on to direct another MacLean adaptation Caravan to Vaccarès in 1974. But even for a writer who thought little of his work, MacLean knew he was in decline. The formula that had worked so well in his early successes was now starting to feel stale, his weaknesses as a writer now more evident than ever, and he was restricted by a readership that appeared to refuse any deviation from the norm. Kastner rightly recognized that MacLean’s work was becoming a parody of itself, but that there might be life in the old dog yet. All he had to do was repeat the Eagles request. He installed MacLean in an office at 20th Century Fox and gave him an idea for a film designed to shake up MacLean’s storytelling and play on his strengths, as well as give him the confidence that came with another pre-sold property.
Breakheart Pass (1974), like Eagles, is a thriller in fancy dress, this time sporting a gun belt and spurs. It is 1873. A relief train headed for the cholera-ridden Fort Humboldt carries a Nevada state governor and his niece, a couple of carloads of cavalry troops, and a U.S. Marshall escorting a wanted man, John Deakin. As with previous MacLean fare, nobody is who they appear to be, not least Deakin, who is actually an undercover Secret Service agent investigating a conspiracy involving arms deals and stolen bullion. As the train chuffs to its destination, people are thrown overboard, the cavalry cars are destroyed, and Deakin dodges bullets and blades to break the back of the mystery. The novel is one of MacLean’s leanest efforts, in part reflecting his growing fatigue with the novel as a form, and reads like a padded treatment, eschewing interior monologue for action and dialogue wherever possible. The film adaptation is even more streamlined, mostly thanks to the casting of Charles Bronson as John Deakin. Bronson, like Eastwood before him, knew that the less he said, the better he was, and so the chatty Deakin of the novel becomes a laconic character, prone to the odd bout of fisticuffs.
As with Eagles, this streamlined approach to dialogue works in the 1975 film’s favor. MacLean’s leading men tended to crack wise when they should have been concerned with their own safety. With Bronson in the lead, the quips are kept to a minimum, communicated primarily by his trademark squint. Otherwise, the film stays fairly close to the book, with some minor details changed (the governor’s niece is now his mistress; the cholera epidemic is now diphtheria) and, as expected, the film boasts a more explosive finale and a cast filled out with stalwart character actors like Richard Crenna, Charles Durning, David Huddleston and Ben Johnson. Jill Ireland is unfortunately saddled with the kind of Jill Ireland part that made critics believe she was a poor actress, but it’s clear that everyone involved knows they’re in a solid little action movie, even if it isn’t quite intelligent enough to be the novel’s whodunit-on-rails or exciting enough to merit the thrilling poster image, in which a fifty-three-year-old Bronson flinches from the boot of fifty-eight-year-old former World Light Heavyweight Champion Archie Moore.
Breakheart Pass would be the last collaboration between MacLean and Kastner. While the two parted amicably at the time, a later feud over money owed from Where Eagles Dare would sour Kastner’s view of MacLean: “He was a dead man when I picked him off the floor, breathed life back into him – and made him write. He was looking to destroy himself and his books had become rubbish.” A harsh summation, and one no doubt colored by MacLean’s intention to take more control over adaptations of his work. Shortly after the release of Breakheart Pass to disappointing box office returns, Marcelle formed a company with producer Peter Snell – Aleelle Productions – to make future Maclean adaptations. Unfortunately for Marcelle, MacLean had become disenchanted with both the film industry and his second wife, and a 1977 divorce killed both the production company and their marriage.
Further disappointments awaited. A Guns of Navarone sequel, Force 10 from Navarone (1978) failed to match the success of its predecessor and another confined setting thriller Bear Island (1979), which bore little resemblance to the novel it was based on, also tanked. A film version of HMS Ulysses was mooted with David Puttnam producing, but wrangles over money meant Puttnam would satisfy his need to make a World War II movie with Memphis Belle (1990). MacLean’s novels no longer inspired the same kind of excitement in Hollywood and while MacLean would write outlines for a series of stories that would ultimately make it to television (and in print written by others), he would see only one, Hostage Tower (1980), before his death in 1986.
While their collaboration brought both men some measure of success and effectively pulled the writer out of a professional rut, MacLean’s longstanding editor Ian Chapman was less enthused about Kastner’s influence. For him, Where Eagles Dare represented the beginning of MacLean’s decline as a writer: “From then on, he was writing visually, writing with the screen in mind and neglecting to build up the atmosphere and description a book requires.” It is undoubtedly true that MacLean’s novels declined in quality after the success of Eagles. It is also true that MacLean found Hollywood a largely dispiriting experience, where his author’s ego butted up against his inadequacies as a screenwriter. His collaborations with Kastner were a breeze compared to those with other producers, where his scripts would be rewritten by people MacLean saw as inferior. But to attribute MacLean’s decline solely to Kastner’s (or even Hollywood’s) influence is to disregard the writer’s own ambivalence to his craft, his increasing reliance on old formulas and narrative crutches, his rocky home life, and his alcoholism. Alistair MacLean enjoyed the money that writing brought him, but he was suspicious of his own success and yet took every failure personally.
Hollywood may be littered with the corpses of novelists who tried and failed to write for the movies, but MacLean isn’t one of them. For all his faults, he remains one of the most popular writers of adventure fiction to this day and his influence is felt in the work of the likes of Clive Cussler, Wilbur Smith and the aforementioned Child. And while modern readers may struggle to see what all the fuss was about, Hollywood has not forgotten Maclean’s work: at various times, Kastner’s step-son Cassian Elwes was working on a remake of Fear is the Key, Dancing Ledge Productions announced a miniseries of MacLean’s 1984 novel San Andreas, and both David Gordon Green and Christopher McQuarrie were tipped to direct a remake of Ice Station Zebra. Broadsword has not yet given up on Danny Boy.