American movie producer Elliott Kastner passed away in 2010, at the age of eighty. After starting out in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency in New York, he relocated to Los Angeles and joined the Music Corporation of America as a talent agent, which soon led to him becoming vice president of production at Universal Pictures. Kastner worked there for two years before ultimately deciding to strike out on his own as an independent producer. He took a chance on himself and it proved to be worth it. The producer not only urged prominent novelists and playwrights to pen scripts, but also sought out the rights to the literary works of deceased authors. His most profitable collaboration was undoubtedly the one he had with one of the best-selling fiction writers of all time, Scottish thriller and adventure novelist Alistair MacLean who wrote several screenplays for films that Kastner would go on to produce.
The first one was Where Eagles Dare, a 1968 British action film with a script that MacLean penned in only six weeks’ time. Shortly after finishing it, the author wrote a novel of the same name (and made it significantly less violent), which turned out to be a big success, just like its cinematic counterpart. Starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, the Brian G. Hutton-helmed film was not only a box office hit, grossing $21 million on a circa $7.7 million budget, but it is also widely considered one of the best war movies of all time. With a title taken from Shakespeare’s Richard III (‘The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch’), Where Eagles Dare follows Eastwood’s Lieutenant Morris Schaffer and Burton’s Major John Smith as they lead a team of operatives on a rescue mission. Their objective is to free Brigadier General George Carnaby (Robert Beatty) from the clutches of the Nazis who hold the American prisoner captive in a German castle. The amazing cast, the stand-out screenplay, the unpredictable twists at every turn and stuntman Yakima Canutt’s masterful direction of the majority of the action sequences are all equally to thank for this thrilling film’s status as a true classic.
Three years after Where Eagles Dare marked the beginning of an interesting collaboration between the novelist-turned-screenwriter and the independent producer with a penchant for adaptations, the two joined forces yet again, this time to bring the former’s 1965 novel When Eight Bells Toll, written in the first person, to life on the big screen. Belgian filmmaker Étienne Périer assumed his position in the director’s chair, while Anthony Hopkins (in his first top-billed role), Jack Hawkins and Robert Morley starred in this gritty action film. Hopkins plays secret agent Phillip Calvert who is tasked with the mission of locating a cargo ship that was hijacked in the Irish Sea. Kastner envisioned the production of fourteen films over the course of the following two years, and, riding on the wave of their previous film’s success, hoped that When Eight Bells Toll would be as much of a hit as was Where Eagles Dare. During that time, the future of the James Bond franchise was uncertain and Kastner wanted to make a series of realistic spy films that would fill the Bond-shaped hole in the viewers’ hearts, which is why Kastner and his producing partner Jerry Gershwin asked MacLean to write two more espionage scripts revolving around Hopkins’ character. Unfortunately for both Kastner and MacLean, When Eight Bells Toll undeservedly performed poorly in theaters so for agent Calvert that ended up being all she wrote.
Still, the unexpected box office flop did not stop Kastner from continuing to adapt MacLean’s works. Next in line was the 1971 British film Fear Is the Key, based on MacLean’s 1961 novel of the same name. But this time around, the author was allegedly too busy to work on the screenplay, so Robert Carrington was hired in his stead. The action thriller stars Barry Newman as John Talbot, a man who gets into a fight with the local police of a small Louisiana town. When he is brought in front of a judge, Talbot, who turns out to be wanted by Interpol, manages to escape, taking a woman hostage while he is at it. What follows is a breathtaking car chase that lasts fifteen minutes and gives the one in William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) a run for its money. But in Fear Is the Key, nothing is what it seems and the stakes are even higher than at first glance. The movie marked British filmmaker Michael Tuchner’s second directorial effort (his first being The Villain (1971) starring Richard Burton) as well as Sir Ben Kingsley’s theatrical debut, after which eleven years went by before he appeared in another theatrical movie—Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), a critically claimed and award-winning biographical drama that earned Kingsley an Oscar for Best Actor.
The last Kastner-MacLean collaboration happened in 1975, with the western adventure film Breakheart Pass. Charles Bronson, at the top of his game following Death Wish (1974), Breakout (1975) and Hard Times (1975) plays John Deakin, a prisoner boarding an express train together with US Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) who holds him captive. The train is on its way to Fort Humboldt with medical supplies meant to prevent an outbreak of diphtheria. But soon enough, the passengers start either dying or disappearing and Deakin turns out to be more than meets the eye. Bronson later said that he insisted on certain information about his character being divulged at a later point in the movie, as was the case in MacLean’s source material. His wishes were abided by but then the script was changed back to its original form and, although highly displeased with the outcome, Bronson ultimately decided against leaving the film’s production. One of the most memorable scenes in Breakheart Pass is a fight between Bronson’s Deakin and Archie Moore’s Carlos, taking place on the train roof—the phenomenal sequence was done by stuntmen Howard Curtis and Tony Brubaker and directed by Yakima Canutt, the aforementioned Hollywood stuntman and stunt coordinator, who retired from film after his participation in Breakheart Pass, thereby bringing a prolific career that spanned six decades to a close.