This forgotten Alistair MacLean action thriller packs a rare starring role for the young Anthony Hopkins — he’s really good as secret agent Philip Calvert, battling gold thieves in the Scottish Isles. He’s got a James Bond attitude in a more down-to-Earth adventure.
When Eight Bells Toll
KL Studio Classics
1971 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 94 min. / Street Date March 8, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Robert Morley, Nathalie Delon, Jack Hawkins, Corin Redgrave, Ferdy Mayne, Wendy Allnutt, Maurice Roëves, Derek Bond, Leon Collins, Peter Arne, Oliver MacGreevy, Tom Chatto, Del Henney.
Cinematography Arthur Ibbetson
Film Editor John Shirley
Original Music Angela Morley
Written by Alistair MacLean from his novel
Produced by Elliott Kastner
Directed by Etienne Périer
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Producer Elliott Kastner stretched Alistair MacLean’s brand of military action adventure to James Bond extremes in the expensive, very popular Where Eagles Dare of 1968. Several MacLean adaptations got underway, with two of them surfacing three years later. Puppet on a Chain is a drug-running police story accentuated by a boat chase that was considered pretty hot in 1971, and that became the benchmark to surpass in the next 007 opus, Live and Let Die. Kastner himself produced 1971’s When Eight Bells Toll, a bid for the action-spy-mayhem market thought to be up for grabs with the retirement of Sean Connery.
I admit that I walked out of When Eight Bells Toll when it was new. I really didn’t give it a chance, though. The film’s opening looked like an ersatz Bond picture, and I had no clue who Anthony Hopkins was. I think it was late and my girlfriend had other ideas for the evening; at any rate I didn’t regret it at the time. I should have stayed, as the movie gets much better as it goes along.
Of course, the things that I like about When Eight Bells Toll now aren’t necessarily reasons other people will like it. It’s a LOT of fun seeing Anthony Hopkins play a two-fisted action man slugging it out with crooks and pirates on the high seas. Use some imagination, and perhaps this is Hannibal Lecter in an earlier vocation, before he went back to medical school. Alistair MacLean wrote some pretty odd books, like the half-hearted The Satan Bug, made into a slick techno-thriller by John Sturges. MacLean had a busy naval career during the war, and his screenplay for Eight Bells has the feel of someone who loves the sea. Anthony Hopkins is also blessed with some excellent low-key spy-guy dialogue, which he delivers exceedingly well.
The story concerns a conspiracy to hijack ships carrying England’s gold bullion. The pompous intelligence official Sir Arthur Artford Jones, aka ‘Uncle Arthur’ (Robert Morley) allows the expert agent Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) to hide a couple of men with a radio in a gold bullion ship, a plan that backfires. Uncle Arthur recalls Calvert from the field, but the agent instead goes forward, aided by his best friend, intelligence officer Roy Hunslett (Corin Redgrave). Their investigation involves some scuba work. They accept an invitation to the yacht of Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins), a minister supposedly above suspicion but now accompanied by two odd companions, Lord Charnley (Derek Bond) and Lavorski (Ferdy Mayne). Also with them is Skouras’ unhappy French wife, Charlotte (Nathalie Delon). Calvert knows something fishy is going on. The locals won’t help him because Skouras has been offering aid to families who have had fishermen gone missing lately. At the impressive Kirkside Castle, Lord Kirkside (Tom Chatto) and his daughter Sue (Wendy Allnutt) are upset that his son and her husband have disappeared. Commandeering the helicopter and pilot (Maurice Roëves) that were supposed to return him to London, Calvert pokes deeper — until the pirates show themselves.
First things first: Hopkins has a great time playing, or under-playing, the frogman spy. He’s such a good actor that we accept the action-man stuff, which he underplays nicely as well. The Bond series at this time was transitioning to a comedy format (cue Roger Moore) so it’s nice to have one more stab at a credible, low-key spy hero. Philip Calvert is one of those won’t-follow-orders tough guys, but Hopkins gives him enough gravity to make the character work. Happily, the action scenes reject sci-fi gadgets, and the fantasy element restricts itself to a few unlikely coincidences. The action takes place on believable locations, with stuntman Bob Simmons doubling Hopkins for the rougher stuff and getting away with it 100%. The only caveat is that the action direction is only so-so, even when the ideas for the scenes are unusual. One or two fistfights could be called mundane, and the action editing is not as sharp as it could be. Eight Bells’ editor John Shirley would work on several Bond pictures. The (incredible) Bond epic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service rewrites the action editorial handbook with every new scene. The gunplay, fights and killings in Eight Bells are all well motivated, even if some aren’t filmed in any particularly inspirational way.
The inventive screenplay makes use of unusual weapons, like a harpoon gun. A deep-sea diver tries to kill Calvert with a white-hot melting rod used to burn through metal — underwater. I haven’t seen that used before or since. Hopkins gets a workout, doing a lot of swimming and climbing in and out of boats. The only real eyebrow-raiser in the credibility department happens when he survives crashing in a helicopter while out on a search for the smugglers’ lair. Although he’s presumably many miles distant, we see him rowing all the way back to his own boat, after a full day of extreme exertion.
The acting support is excellent. At first we think the movie will be a disaster, when Robert Morley shows up doing his standard silly ass bureaucrat schtick. Dumb comedy of that kind mars the much earlier Dirk Bogarde spy picture Agent 8¾. Happily, Morley’s character joins Calvert up in the North of Scotland and gets his share of good dialogue as well. Colin Redgrave is Calvert’s partner in maritime snooping, Leon Collins is a hearty local who comes to their aid and Tom Chatto (of Quatermass II) the local Laird with a stone fortress atop a tall cliff.
We’re given a nice array of bad guys, too. Conspirator Skouras is played by Jack Hawkins. It’s one of his later performances after his surgery for throat cancer. Actor Charles Gray dubs Hawkins’ voice, which allowed him to continue his career. It’s a great Jack Hawkins imitation. Derek Bond (Stranger from Venus) and Ferdy Mayne (The Fearless Vampire Killers) are the chief villains. The most dangerous killers working against Calvert are the sea captain Imrie (Peter Arne of The Oblong Box) and the bald thug Quinn (Oliver MacGreevy, “Housemartin” in The Ipcress File).
In addition, Calvert must deal with two very different women. Nathalie Delon (of Le samouraï is Hawkins’ runaway consort, a blonde with a cross attitude but a liking for the hero. Wendy Allnutt is an unhappy local who may be in on the smuggling conspiracy.
Hopkins’ deft performance sells the excitement, along with the action scenes filmed on location in those Scottish isles, where it looks like a gale will blow up at any moment. The feeling of actually being somewhere is a definite plus. Hopkins is not emoting in front of a green screen in Culver City. He often looks cold, especially when climbing in and out of the water. The list of actual locations includes the tiny port of Tobermory on the Island of Mull, which is where I Know Where I’m Going! was filmed 27 years before. Since the advent of Indiana Jones action movies have gotten way out of hand in terms of what a single human being is expected to do in the course of a day; I like pictures on the order of Frantic, where we can identify with human limitations. When Harrison Ford receives a serious bruising in the Polanski movie, it has consequences.
MacLean’s overall story requires the application of some fuzzy logic. Even back in 1971 people couldn’t hijack and sink ships without the authorities figuring out what’s going on PDQ. Aren’t there a lot of Royal Naval installations up there in that splattering of Scottish islands? I can see Calvert’s romp with a purloined rescue helicopter going undetected for a few hours, but the job of tracking the gold hijackings could be accomplished with a simple homing device. Customs people monitor shipping fairly closely, in any case. MacLean bad guys go to the trouble of knocking out all the local telephones and radios, which in any normal circumstance would raise alarms. But hey, pretend that the Isle of Mull is someplace way out of contact with London, and When Eight Bells Toll is a GO.
Anthony Hopkins fans will also like to see his unflappable London detective in Richard Lester’s disaster thriller Juggernaut. It’s a shame that Hopkins didn’t get more chances to play an action hero. I’ve read some reviews that say he’s miscast here, but I disagree; I think he brings an agreeable style to the show. He definitely is not like the super-spy image in the film’s key advertising art, used for the Blu-ray package. The curious final scene introduces a practical new twist on how an action hero deals with a treacherous female. Like everything else in the movie, Sir Anthony makes it look easy.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of When Eight Bells Toll is a very good encoding of this Rank / Cinerama Releasing Corp. release. A new credit up front touts a restoration, and the show looks quite spiffy all around (spiffy = important film term). Arthur Ibbetson’s cinematography can’t have been done under the best circumstances, and indeed a number of scenes take place when rain is falling. The final conflict between two boats in a studio-built cave comes off as a miniature version of the extravagant Bond battles in the later Roger Moore movies. The exterior of the cave is a huge miniature also filmed on a stage; look closely and you’ll see that the night sky behind Kirkside Castle is the sound stage wall. It’s as if the filmmakers copied the fortress-cliff miniature from the earlier MacLean naval action movie, The Guns of Navarone.
The audio is fine, as is the energetic, jazzy music score by Angela Morely, who would later do such a fine job on Watership Down. I don’t think the music is always well used, however. In an early scene on the ship’s deck, the main upbeat ‘spy action’ cue flies in whenever Philip Calvert starts fighting. It makes the film seem like just another lame Bond rip-off movie. This may be why we walked out on the picture back in 1971, before it really got started. It takes about fifteen minutes before Anthony Hopkins has a chance to win us over.
Kino includes a trailer, and also trailers for Juggernaut, The Satan Bug and The File of the Golden Goose.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
When Eight Bells Toll Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 7, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson