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When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

As of this writing (2012), When Eight Bells Toll had been released on DVD only in PAL format,which doesn't work with typical U.S. DVD players. However, it is available through some streaming services. A site reader told me he'd watched it through Netflix; I accessed it through Hulu Plus. (As I lack any special hardware, that meant I had to watch it on my PC monitor, which fortunately is a widescreen.)

Clocking in at a brisk 90 minutes, When Eight Bells Toll can't fully reproduce the book's contents. However, when Alistair MacLean wrote the screenplay, he made mainly wise choices about which scenes to trim or remove, so the action doesn't feel too rushed. What is mainly missing, as in many of his film treatments, is the protagonist's inner life — the backbone of the story. In reviewing the book When Eight Bells Toll, I wrote: "Scenery, thoughts, and physical sensations are described with colorful, unhurried prose." Well, the film's viewer gets glimpses of scenery but misses out on Philip Calvert's thoughts (rage, self chastisement, impending dread, etc.) and physical sensations (pain of injuries, tingling of spine, and so on).

The film begins promisingly, with a mysterious black-clad figure swimming up to and boarding a boat while James-Bondish music swells. (The soundtrack adds to one's impression that When Eight Bells Toll was meant as an imitation Bond flick. Substitute Sean Connery for Hopkins — no great stretch, as it takes place in Scotland after all — and you might mistake this for a lesser-known Ian Fleming work.) Soon, the figure — Calvert — is staring down the barrel of the Peacemaker Colt referred to in the book's opening sentence. A nicely reproduced scene. After that, the film focuses less on artistry and more on action and attitude.

Calvert is zestfully portrayed by a dashing young Anthony Hopkins. Anyone accustomed to his more recent elder-statesman roles will be surprised (and likely charmed) by his energetic physicality and insouciance. The rest of the cast is less prominent. Second billing goes to Jack Hawkins, who plays shipping magnate Lord Skouras; I knew him only as the stern Reverend Brocklehurst in one of the less commendable Jane Eyre movies. Robert Morley, who appeared in countless other films, is Calvert's boss "Uncle Arthur". Unfortunately, he [over]plays the admiral / intelligence chief as a complete buffoon, detracting greatly from the film's atmosphere.

Still, if you like the book, you'll probably enjoy this largely faithful rendition. A handful of plot changes — several of which revolve around Lady Skouras, in her two incarnations — raise the viewer's eyebrows but don't detract markedly. The final battle, though, is one large and unwelcome alteration, involving lots more shooting (and fewer allies) than in the book; perhaps MacLean felt that his prose-crafted ending would seem anticlimactic on the big screen.

After the battle concludes, one character unexpectedly sails off toward the horizon. You'll have to watch the film to find out who.

Rating

(6 out of 10)