‘When Eight Bells Toll’ (1971): Acceptable Alistair MacLean spy thriller escapism

With it being summer and all, my movie-watching habits are now directly connected to my crushing need to escape while watching whatever it is that I’m watching. I’m not going to survive 90 degree heat and 100% humidity in my “Love Pink” short-shorts and tank top (mesh, you noisy bastards) by cueing up a double feature of The Sorrow and the Pity and The Passion of the Christ. To go along with my lawnmower beer and peanuts, I want mindless action, a few good-looking broads, and some amusing kiss-off one-liners from an acceptable hero surrogate. It’s too hot to think.

By Paul Mavis

Flipping through my backlog of unwatched DVD titles for something salty, I admit to being suckered in by Kino Lorber’s canny cover use of the original poster artwork for When Eight Bells Toll, the 1971 Alistair MacLean spy thriller from producers Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin (distributed here in the States by Cinerama Releasing), starring Anthony Hopkins, Nathalie Delon, Robert Morley, and Jack Hawkins. Looking similar (not surprisingly) to the poster work for Where Eagles Dare, another MacLean adaptation, the outsized comic book ridiculousness of When Eight Bells Toll’s illustrated derring-do—exploding mountain-top castle, one-handed machine gun assault while hanging off a helicopter rope ladder with a beautiful pistol-packin’ babe—worked its seductive magic on me…despite a vague, faint impression that I hadn’t particularly liked the movie the last time I saw it 20-some odd years ago (if you upgrade to the KL’s Blu-ray, you get the even sweeter European poster artwork, where a recognizable Anthony Hopkins replaces the generic U.S. mystery man).

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Hopkins plays HM’s Secret Service agent Philip Calvert (various sources list him as either Naval Intelligence, or Treasury Intelligence…while the movie fudges the info). A cynical rebel who has problems with authority (never saw that before!), Calvert’s talents are “unique” in the field, we’re told, particularly when the pressure’s on and the mission seems impossible. Calvert and his “brain” sidekick, Hunslett (Corin Redgrave), have been called in by imperious, snobby Sir Arthur Arnold-Jones (Robert Morely), who is getting pressure from the government, the Navy, and insurer Lloyd’s of London, to stop the hijacking of gold bullion shipments in the Irish Sea. Calvert’s idea to send two of “Uncle Arthur”’s men aboard the next shipment boat is unsuccessful: they’re killed before Calvert almost buys it, too, when he boards the vessel to check up on them.

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“Uncle Arthur” wants Calvert out of there, but Calvert disobeys orders and continues on with his and Hunslett’s cover: government marine biologists working near the tiny Scottish fishing village of Torbay, site of several previous hijackings. Strangely enough, considering the cold and filthy weather, wealthy, influential Sir Arthur Skouras (Jack Hawkins) has his yacht moored of Torbay, as well, along with shady friends Lavorski (Ferdy Mayne), Macullum (Edward Burnham), and Skouras’ brand new French wife, Charlotte (Nathalie Delon). Even more mysterious, local squire Lord Kirkside (Tom Chatto), ensconced in a moutaintop castle along with his hot daughter, Sue (Wendy Allnutt), is decidedly unfriendly towards Calvert, when the agent, posing as a Sea and Air Rescue pilot, asks for help (when Calvert is really looking for a hidden smuggling port there). What follows are a series of double and triple crosses as Calvert starts killing one smuggler after another in his search for the gold.

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I honestly don’t remember what I wrote about When Eight Bells Toll in my spy book, and I can’t find the stupid thing to check (last time I saw it, we were using it as a door stop, and then it got thrown away, I think…). Watching it now, it’s an acceptable time-waster in the lower-tiered post-Connery Bond, pre-Indiana Jones 70s actioner tradition…but holy jesus is it centrally miscast. Back in those days, best-selling author Alistair MacLean was a top-of-the-line marquee name if you wanted to read some fast-moving junk on the beach or at an airport. Growing up on high-octane movie adaptations of his work like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, and Force 10 From Navarone made me seek out his books in middle and high school, where I probably enjoyed them. But frankly…I don’t remember much about the ones where I didn’t see the movie, as well. He wasn’t that kind of writer. He didn’t stick with you in a literary sense. He was a storyteller who could keep your attention for an afternoon, and that’s about it (AM fans, don’t get riled at me—he said the same thing about himself all the time).

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The movie version of When Eight Bells Toll doesn’t aim to do anything more than that, either—MacLean wrote his own screenplay here—but as for succeeding in keeping our attention, let’s just say it’s a good thing the movie is only 90 minutes long. I never care if suspense thrillers like these “make sense,” as so many prosaic reviewers seem to demand. If it’s complicated and intricate and all the puzzling puzzle pieces fit at the end, great. But if it’s busy and noisy and you make yourself not look too closely because if you did you’d keep going, “Now wait a minute…”, who cares, as long as you’re entertained. If looked at with even a modicum of critical inspection, When Eight Bells Toll’s gold smuggling story is full of Swiss cheese holes (you’re telling me the government wouldn’t send out the entire Royal Navy instead of a measly two guys if millions of pounds of gold were routinely getting stolen on the high seas?). Worse, the villainy of gold smuggling itself isn’t particularly compelling (who cares if anyone is stealing bullion when the government rips me off in taxes every day? I say more power to ‘em). The villains aren’t very interesting, either, outside the established movie personas of the actors portraying them (we don’t get any kind of establishing framework for their deeds, so we don’t become involved in their actions). Still, as long as When Eight Bells Toll keeps moving, and if the action is at least competent, none of the above are deal-breakers.

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What does very nearly sink When Eight Bells Toll is the casting of Anthony Hopkins. Producers Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin bought the film rights to the When Eight Bells Toll novel in 1966 when they commissioned MacLean to write another script, which MacLean subsequently turned into the novel, Where Eagles Dare. When Eagles turned out to be a huge moneymaker at the box office, the producers set into motion When Eight Bells Toll with the thought of turning it into a franchise (the conventional thinking at the time was with George Lazenby—personally my favorite Bond—gone from the Eon series and Connery not yet confirmed for Diamonds Are Forever, the Bond series might have been on the ropes, making room for new spy series). MacLean was further commissioned to write two more screenplays featuring agent Calvert.

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So if Kastner and Gershwin were hoping to mint another Bond…why did they pick that “actor’s actor” ham bone Hopkins? Did they shoot any test footage of him in action? He was okay in that fistfight in his other spy shenanigans outing from 1969, The Looking-Glass War, but that was one scene (and a different choreographer). Why didn’t they go with someone like Oliver Reed or Stanley Baker if they wanted to fill Connery’s slot (how great would those guys have been as Bond)? Physically, Hopkins is laughable as a ruthless secret agent who can kill at will. As Hopkins surveys the bullion ship in the movie’s opening flashback, the soft-looking, slightly tubby actor, bedecked in an unflattering wet suit, runs with his knees at angles and arms akimbo, hands flapping, thrusting his head forward like a turtle (when you add in composer Walter Stott’s ridiculously jazzy score—it’s like Buddy Love as James Bond, with Les Brown and His Band of Reknown backing it up—the effect is ludicrous). Later, when Hopkins is shot in the leg, he bitches and moans like a big girl’s blouse, huffing and puffing and rolling his eyes before demanding that his sidekick tend to his wound, sniffling all the more when a subservient Redgrave does (the overall impression Hopkins gives is, in a word, un-masculine).

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We even get a thoroughly embarrassing stripped-to-the-waist Hopkins in the last reel, displaying his far too-large head on far too-narrow shoulders as he absently fondles his own blubbery chest (he really looks like that “Fats” dummy in Magic…except Fats had a better body). And I don’t care if its the celebrated Bob Simmons from the Bond series working here: Hopkins’ fight scenes look like amateur night in Dixie (he simply can’t throw a believable punch). As for Hopkins’ more cerebral approach to a Bondian spy, when I read critics approvingly mention a “more thoughtful James Bond,” or a “thinking man’s James Bond,” that really means, “a more boring, less manly Bond” (these are the same critics who applauded the total feminization of the Bond character that began with Judi Dench’s mommy-spanking reign as M). Michael Caine was a “thinking man’s” spy in the Harry Palmer outings, and certainly Richard Burton was in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold—did either of them come off as little girls? And even if he does use an “actorly actor’s” approach to a traditionally macho character…can we all just come to the consensus that Hopkins has always been a wildly overestimated performer, with a grating grab-bag of tricks and ticks that are as off-putting as his overly-mannered “master thespian” delivery?

Thank god, then, for Robert Morley, who almost single-handedly saves When Eight Bells Toll. You may call what he did “shtick,” but it was expert shtick, and it get laughs every time he opens his eyes wide and puckers up that sneering, corpulent face. Perfectly epitomizing the aristocratic, upper class authoritarian who would seemingly rather back a criminal who belonged to his club than a common-as-muck operative like Hopkins, Morley gets some big, big yocks in When Eight Bells Toll. As priceless as the image is of a huge Morley filling up a row boat while holding an umbrella, his indignant, “He’s on the wine committee!” defense for fellow club member/suspected smuggler Hawkins, is hysterical. Too bad they didn’t just cast Morley as Calvert and made When Eight Bells Toll an all-out spoof.

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Curiously, once Morley comes on the scene and becomes a new sidekick for Hopkins, When Eight Bells Toll finally kicks into gear, with credible (if unimaginative) action scenes following at a reasonable clip. Belgian director Etienne Perier (The Day the Hot Line Got Hot, Zeppelin), despite having ace cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson (The League of Gentlemen, Where Eagles Dare) on hand, can’t seem to summon up any memorable images here; his framing (and overall sensibility) is more small tube than big screen. Still, once When Eight Bells Toll’s gears finally engage, at a minimum you can just watch for the familiar tropes of the genre to pop up—the various shootouts and killings, the red herrings, the sacrificial lamb’s death, the double-crossing sex object—before the satisfying set piece finale, a shoot out in an underground boat dock (the movie needed more “big” scenes like this to give it some scale). Too bad When Eight Bells Toll ends on a completely ridiculous note concerning Nathalie Delon’s fate (you do know she tried to kill you, right?)…but then again, its compromises and goofs are so numerous, you’re just glad it’s wrapped up by then.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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