Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Bear Island - film review

Bear Island is a 1979 film based on book by Alistair MacLean that I read when it first appeared as a paperback. As a teenager, I was a huge MacLean fan, and devoured all his novels, including a couple written under the name of Ian Stuart. Although he was an action thriller writer, he often used devices familiar to whodunit fans, above all "the least likely suspect", and this is why I preferred his books to those written by other thriller writers of the time such as Desmond Bagley (though I really did like Bagley), Duncan Kyle and so on.

I also watched several of the films based on MacLean's books, such as Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare, When Eight Bells Tolls and Puppet on a Chain. Some were relatively faithful to the source, whereas others (notably Ice Station Zebra) were not. The problem I began to find with MacLean was that the quality of his work began to deteriorate, and Bear Island was the last of his novels that I really enjoyed. By the time I got into student life, my reading tastes had shifted, and I didn't bother to watch the film of Bear Island.

Had I done so, I would have found that, once again, the screenplay bore little resemblance to the book. There's a starry cast, led by Donald Sutherland as the daring hero, joining up with an expedition to a remote frozen island in the North Atlantic Unfortunately, Vanessa Redgrave, cast as the love interest, is wholly wasted as a Norwegian medic, and her accent is as dodgy as Richard Widmark's attempted German accent. Christopher Lee, who is rarely less than excellent, is not at his best, either, while Lloyd Bridges takes the role of Sutherland's trusted friend (and regular readers of MacLean will know what that means....)

The action scenes are very well done, but the story is laboured and over-long. I wanted to see what the landscape of Bear Island really looks like, and felt cheated when I learned that the film was shot in Canada and Alaska, because the landscape there is more photogenic. All in all, this film is a decent time-passer, but not as good as, say, Where Eagles Dare. Watching it has, however, reminded me of my long ago enthusiasm for MacLean, and I'm tempted to write more about him in the future.


8 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I was a big fan of MacLean's early novels. I can still reread them with pleasure. I've never seen this movie, however, and I probably won't.

Carol said...

HMS Ulysses is by far my favorite, an excellent, exciting book that
I have given to "non-fiction only" readers and they have loved it.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Bill, always good to hear from you. You're not missing a masterpiece if you don't watch this one, though it passes the time well enough.

Martin Edwards said...

Nice to hear from you, Carol. I very much like the idea of a novel that suits non-fiction only readers!1

Ed Gorman said...

I grew up reading MacLean, too. When he was good he was very good but when he was bad...But isn't that true of all writers/actors/directors? I have to admit that his last books when his publishers "suggested" he write the kind of disaster novels that were being turned into big name movies (Towering Inferno etc) I was disappointed. But I still reread his best novels from time to time and they hold up quite well. Thanks for the post.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Ed, I always value your comments. I shall say more about his books before long.

John Martin said...

I too was a fan of MacLean up to and including Bear Island. Highlights for me were HMS Ullysses, Night Without End and The Satan Bug.
I didn't see the Bear island film, but the films of his work that I did see (Ice Station Zebra, Force 10 from Navarone and Caravan to Vaccares) lacked the thrills of the books.

Martin Edwards said...

Where Eagles Dare and When Eight Bells Toll were my favourite films, John. The Satan Bug was okay but I felt Puppet on a Chain was so-so because the lead actor was not really well cast. Hope your book is selling well.