The Secret Ways (1961)

It's hard to review a movie based on a favorite book. Even a respectable film will fall short of the reader's lofty expectations. Still, films that fulfill a beloved book's promise are not unheard of; examples of outstanding films based on some of my favorite books include the Lord of the Rings trilogy and To Kill A Mockingbird.

Site readers know that The Secret Ways (a.k.a. The Last Frontier) is my top-ranked MacLean work. Only a masterful film could have lived up to the gripping tale of early-Cold-War espionage inside Communist Hungary.

Let me start by stating that this — the first MacLean-based film released, months before the far superior The Guns of Navarone — is not a masterful film. Perhaps that's why it was unavailable for purchase through normal channels until a DVD was released in 2020.

The plot bears only a superficial resemblance to MacLean's original. It does take place in Hungary (after a long and often nonsensical invented segment in Vienna, which seems largely designed to showcase a mysterious blonde bombshell). Also, many characters have the correct names. But nearly all similarity ends there. The differences are apparent the moment the film starts: it shows someone trying to cross a border by hiding in a horse-drawn cart full of hay, rather than in a truck as MacLean wrote it.

The book is built around British intelligence agent Michael Reynolds's efforts to take a noted scientist out of Hungary, with the help of a network of freedom fighters run by a man named Jansci. In the movie, there is no scientist; instead, Jansci himself must be smuggled out of Budapest. (Without wanting to reveal any "spoilers," I must say this plot thread is the near opposite of the book's ending.) We never get much idea of what Jansci and his colleagues are doing to help their oppressed countrymen. His daughter Julia, part of her father's network in the book, has an entirely different movie role: traveling with Reynolds from Vienna to help him find her father.

Instead of MacLean's intricate tale of cat-and-mouse spy games and confrontations (and deep political discussions), we're given a progression of stark [black-and-white] scenes of Reynolds — as played by Richard Widmark — blustering, getting beaten up, and desperately dashing along countless roads, hallways, and staircases with the fair Julia. (While she is "fair" in his eyes, she is brunette rather than having "yellow hair, the color of ripening corn" as in MacLean's depiction.)

Oddly, amid all the plot changes, two scenes are presented almost exactly as written. One is when Reynolds is forcibly taken to Jansci's headquarters and tries to escape by tricking and assaulting the powerful Sandor. The other comes when Reynolds and Jansci are imprisoned and given drugged coffee to lower their defenses and make them talk. "Keep your head up! ... I told you to keep it up!", Jansci urges. These scenes give a frustrating hint of how much better (and truer to the book) the film could have been.

While the plot is nearly unrecognizable and many characters (especially Sandor) endure different fates than in the book, one moment in particular sums up how much the filmmakers thumbed their noses at MacLean's sensibilities. In the book, Julia has trouble pronouncing Reynolds's full first name, which he insists she use:

"Michael." She said the name slowly, pronouncing it "Meechail." "Mike?"

"I'll murder you," he threatened.

"Very well. Michael."

Meanwhile, while riding in a car in the movie, he turns to her and jauntily declares, "Just call me Mike."

Widmark — the only actor whose name is familiar to me — plays Reynolds as a nasty piece of work, a middle-aged freelancer with an instant sarcastic answer to whatever anyone says. He is doing this job only because he owes a lot of money and needs a quick payday, and his bitterness shows. Eventually, he does start caring about Julia, but not noticeably about any grander ideas, whereas the original Reynolds was converted to the freedom-fighters' perspective. (A note in this film's Wikipedia entry says Widmark took over as director; there's no indication of how he changed the plot or characters.)

While most of the other actors comport themselves well, it's hard to say much about them because their characters are given little chance to be developed.

As a standalone entity, without the book's context, The Secret Ways would be an often disagreeable but not completely worthless film. As a representation of my favorite MacLean work, it is simply a travesty.


(3 out of 10)