Behind the Scenes – “Hour of the Gun” (1967)

Blame Robert Wise for falling behind on The Sand Pebbles (1966), otherwise John Sturges  would have pressed ahead with Steve McQueen pet project Day of the Champion (later resurrected as Le Mans, 1970, though minus Sturges). Needing another hit after the consecutive box office failures of The Satan Bug (1965) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Sturges fell back on an equally favoured project, The Law and Tombstone, a revisionist and darker look at the Wyatt Earp legend, with “a few liberties taken so it doesn’t become a documentary.” Despite the failings of the last two films, Mirisch had just re-signed Sturges, expanding his current deal from two to four pictures.

“It seemed like a first-rate idea,” recalled producer Walter Mirisch, who had worked with Sturges on The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). In his memoir he said, “If there was still a market for Western pictures, John Sturges was certainly the ideal director to test it.” (Mirisch’s memory is a bit hazy here regarding the commercial prospects for westerns – 1966 had seen box office success for El Dorado, Nevada Smith, The Professionals and The Rare Breed while 1967 would usher in The War Wagon and Hombre among others). The initial idea was to re-team Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas from Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, to which this was a sequel, but Paramount, which had made the original picture, nixed the notion.

The image for the Japanese poster was taken from the initial shootout at the O.K. Corral that opened the picture.

James Garner came on board in the main because he still owed Mirisch, marking a decade in the business, a picture. He had originally worked for Mirisch in The Children’s Hour (1961). He was hired for “not much,” a straight salary, but credited Mirisch with kick-starting his career after his battle with Warner Brothers. Mirisch had also funded By Love Possessed (1962) in which Sturges had directed Jason Robards, “a brilliant actor though one with problems” (something of an understatement).

There was some surprise in Hollywood when Sturges returned to Mexico after the difficulties – censorship, threats to boycott the film, union issues – he had encountered shooting The Magnificent Seven there. Having vowed “never to make another picture” in that country, “one of the reasons we’re back here is because they’ve eased up on regulations.” Having expected to import most of the cast from Hollywood, the producers were delighted that “six of the ten other featured parts” went to Mexicans, as a result of extensive auditions. Although Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch, 1969) remained director of cinematography, a Mexican camera crew was hired with Jorge Stahl in charge.

James Garner takes the stand in court defending himself against allegations of murder.

Shooting began on November 9, 1966, at Torreon, “a quiet little agricultural town with a single hotel and bar,” where a fake town had been built at a cost of $100,000. Filming shifted to Churusbusco Studios in Mexico City on December 20 and four weeks later production wrapped after exteriors at a hacienda near San Miguel de Allende for the face-off with Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan in the film).

James Garner (The Great Escape, 1963) was keen to be reunited with Sturges. “I was happy to play the character,” reminisced Garner, “because John always knew what he was doing. He would take five, six, seven factions in a story and bring them together.” Garner saw Earp as “a guy taken with his own power, who nobody could defy.” 

Jason Robards, as Doc Holliday, with a well-known wild side, was difficult to manage. Assistant directors were dispatched every morning to find out where, bar or brothel,  the actor had ended up the night before. Sturges rounded on him when Robards turned up at lunch for a scheduled 8am start. He was perfect after that. Unusually, Sturges would invite the cast to watch the dailies. Producers Mirisch were not happy with the title which was eventually changed to Hour of the Gun.

“My mistake,” rued Sturges, “was that I thought people would be fascinated by the real story about the quarrel between the Earps and the Clantons. You didn’t just shoot people, there were trials, lawyers, citizens’ committees…I got preview cards that said of all the stories told about Earp and Holliday this was the dullest. They (the audience) considered them fictional characters. They couldn’t have cared less that that’s the way it really was.”

As Variety pointed out in its review: “Probing too deeply into the character of folk heroes reveals them to be fallible human beings – which they are of course – but to mass audiences …such exposition is unsettling.”

Edward Anhalt’s screenplay was based on this book published in the late 1950s.

There were clearly reservations about the project. Mirisch announced it was “ready for release” at the end of March 1967 but it did not see the light of day for another seven  months. Although the film was budgeted at just over $3 million – $1 million more than In the Heat of the Night (1967), another Mirisch project – and received tremendous support from the industry-wide “Fall Film Fair” promotional campaign (“commended…for excellence in entertainment”) it was a huge flop in the U.S. bringing in a miserable $900,000 in rentals (the amount studios receive once the cinemas have taken their share of the gross). It did better abroad with $1.5 million but the total was nowhere near enough to recoup the costs.

“Also playing a large role in the reaction to the picture was the continued loss of interest by audiences in Western pictures,” said Mirisch. “I was again guilty of thinking that this trend would reverse and that Westerns, led by a hit picture, would return to favour stronger than ever. I was wrong. As a new generation arose, their interest in westers had been satiated, probably by television, and they now embraced the so-called Easy Rider era of movie-making.”

This is another piece of faulty memory. The year after the release of Hour of the Gun   commercial success was enjoyed by Bandolero!, Hang ‘Em High and The Scalphunters to name a few and Will Penny and The Stalking Moon, both revisionist westerns, won critical favour. And, apologies for harping on about it, but, as I showed in my book The Gunslingers of ’69, that year proved a box office bonanza for westerns despite Easy Rider.

SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) p257-262; Walter Mirisch, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), p259-260; United Artists Archive, Appendix II, University of Wisconsin; “Mirisch, Sturges Revamp Pact for Two More Films,” Box Office, July 25, 1966, W-1; “James Garner Moves from Actor To Future Producer Status,” Variety,  October 5, 1966, 5; “Director John E. Sturges Returns to Mexico for Law and Tombstone,” Box Office, November 7, 1966, pW-2; “Mirisch Schedules Five Major Films,” Box Office, March 13, 1967, p10; “Film Title Changes,” Box Office, April 24, 1967, p18; Advert, Box Office, Aug 28, 1967, p4-5; Review, Variety, October 4, 1967, p16.

Hour of the Gun (1967) ****

Destroy a legend at your peril. Mythic western hero Wyatt Earp (James Garner) goes down’n’dirty after the death of his brother, spurning law and order to turn bounty hunter, which is legitimate, and then vigilante, which is not, in pursuit of Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan). A revisionist western, then, with director John Sturges substantially reimagining the image of Earp he had been instrumental in creating through Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), a box office smash starring Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as sidekick Doc Holliday.

The first change is to keep Clanton alive, having been a casualty in the previous picture. The opening sequence sets the record straight. But corruption and the law acting in conjunction pull Earp and Holliday (Jason Robards) up on criminal charges though they are found innocent. When corrupt law fails to work, Clanton resorts to ambush, killing Earp’s brother. Clanton organises a posse of twenty men to kill Earp while the lawman sets up his own, smaller, team of bounty hunters.

It soon transpires Earp’s warrants are little more than “hunting licenses” and although marginally he errs on the side fairness the odds, courtesy of his superior gunplay, remain substantially stacked in his favour and he picks off the villains one by one, pursuing Clanton into Mexico.

This is the story of Wyatt Earp in transition, shifting into lawlessness, at a time – 1881 – when the West itself was undergoing dramatic change, big business from the East forcing greater acceptance of the law (and using it for their own purposes), the growth of the cattle barons and the gradual elimination of the gunslinger, gunfighter and criminal gangs. There’s no room for romance as there was in O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven (1960) just pitiless determination to revenge. But there’s little of the all-male camaraderie that informed The Great Escape (1963). Earp and Holliday remain tight but the others in their gang have been somewhat forcefully enlisted.

The poster is very misleading, giving the impression of an all-action
gun-toting movie rather than one of somber reflection.

The best scenes are the result of Earp conniving, revealing a streak Machiavelli would have envied, even duping Holliday, until it’s clear the Earp of legend has been vanquished. Sturges congratulates himself on telling the “truth.” But that’s the problem. The truth involves a lot of background that slows the picture down. And presenting Earp as transitioning is pretty much a blatant lie. Earp was clearly as ruthless killer at the O.K. Corral as he is now and no amount of pointing to corrupt law can eliminate the fact that the lawman prefers to kill villains rather than see them face justice. So there’s really no transition. Earp is a more civilized version of The Man With No Name. But at least he accepts it. There’s no hypocrisy involved.

The two principals are superb, shucking off the mannerisms that previously defined their screen personas. Gone is the trademark James Garner cheeky chap, the grin and even the slicked-back hairstyle. He is your father in a continually bad mood now rather than your favorite uncle full of japes. How much Sturges pinned back Robards’ capacity for over-acting can be seen by comparing this with the actor’s performance in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

Full marks for Sturges in trying to tell a complex, morally ambivalent, story, and he avoids the more grandiose approach to changes in the West as instanced in Once Upon a Time in the West. The early courtoom scenes slow down the narrative when a couple of lines of dialogue could have done the same job. But it is exceptionally true in its depiction of Earp. There is not a bone of redemption in his body. He is going on a killing spree and he doesn’t care who knows it or how it damages his reputation, still high enough before the final episode of the revenge hunt for him to be touted as a future lawman-in-chief for Arizona.

Nor does Doc Holliday offer anything in the way of consolation. This isn’t like The Wild Bunch where a ruthless band of robbers convince themselves they have a code of honor and provide rough camaraderie as a way of filling in the emotional gaps in their lives. Holliday mistakenly sees Earp as man who could not exist outside the law without destroying himself, but that would only concern an Earp who was still interested in rules. Holliday, a self-confessed killer, over 20 deaths to his name, seeks redemption by saving Earp from himself. But in keeping with the raw truth, he is wasting his time. “I’m through with the law,” proclaims Earp, somewhat redundantly, once he dispatches his final victim.

It was a different kind of western at a time when in mainstream Hollywood there was no such thing. Although elegiac in tone, it cuts to the mean. And it was the forerunner of other, more critically acclaimed, westerns like Will Penny (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and in a sense it was precursor to Dirty Harry (1971) where in order to obtain justice Harry Callahan has to throw away his badge.

Many reasons have been advanced for the film’s commercial failure, most erroneously assuming that the genre had fallen into disrepair and was not revived until the glory year of 1969, but as I point out in my book The Gunslingers of ’69, that was far from the case. The same year as Hour of the Gun, John Wayne had ridden high on the box office hog with The War Wagon to follow the previous year’s El Dorado and Paul Newman as Hombre had been a big hit. The first two spaghetti westerns, only released in the U.S. in 1967, were also given as instrumental in the failure of Hour of the Gun, but neither was a massive box office hit. Revisionism had not quite hit the target with the public either as witness Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

The most likely reason was the fact that Sturges set out to dispel a myth that the public were happy with, that the movie was slow moving, and the characters essentially unlikeable. John Ford averred that when the legend became fact you printed the legend, but the opposite was patently not true here.  Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, 1965) wrote the screenplay based on a straight-shooting biography by Tombstone’s Epitaph by Douglas D. Martin. who had previously written about the Earps.

It might be cold, and at times meandering, but it offers up a fascinating character study and although Earp’s transition could be construed as tragedy, the destruction of a good man, Sturges takes no refuge in such an idea. This is Sturges boldest, most courageous, picture and he does nothing to soften the killing. Where The Magnificent Seven, another bunch of killers, ride into Mexico on the back of a bombastic theme tune, this is a much leaner effort, and all the richer for it.

Book into Film – “Ice Station Zebra” (1968)

Many liberties have been taken with the work of Alistair MacLean but there is little to match the arrogance of director John Sturges in deciding that the author’s original ending just wasn’t good enough. Setting aside the achievements of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), he was known for lapses of cinematic judgement, namely in switching completely the tone of The Satan Bug (1965) and assuming audiences shared his sense of humour with The Hallelujah Trail (1965).

According to Glenn Lovell, Sturges’ biographer, the director had “cringed” when presented with the Chayefsky screenplay, claiming the book had no “finish.” Closer, in Lovell’s words, to Agatha Christie than Ian Fleming. You have to ask if Sturges, or Lovell for that matter, had ever read Alistair MacLean’s astonishing tour de force of an ending.

The MacLean version climaxes in the submarine not on shore. And it takes to the ultimate the problems of confinement. You would have thought Sturges would have had little problem with the deadly incarceration of the MacLean climactic chapter given that had been a main element of The Great Escape, especially in the scenes with the claustrophobic Charles Bronson.

What Sturges passed up was what films like Das Boot (1981) later did so well – the sheer terror of being trapped underwater. MacLean’s book envisages the survivors of the fire at Ice Station Zebra rescued and returned to the submarine with the knowledge in the mind of David Jones (Patrick McGoohan in the film) that among them is a murderer, a Russian spy who caused the fire. The vessel is then subjected to further sabotage. A fire in the engine room causes the submarine to stop. That in turn causes the temperature to plummet, leaving the men in an “ice cold tomb.” Worse, they are running out of oxygen. Carbon monoxide is poisoning the atmosphere. In a short time a hundred will be dead. And to top it all, they have lost their bearings, the compasses don’t work, they are going round and round in a circle.

Can you imagine the possibilities? Absolute chaos. Not just thick acrid smoke everywhere, men strewn unconscious, the fire still burning, panic, terror. A submarine that was slowly becoming an underwater grave with still a killer on the loose.

Sturges could not imagine the possibilities. Perhaps he had not read the book either and Chayefsky had skipped through that part of the novel to get to the “trial,” the uncovering of the traitor that had been deemed too much like Agatha Christie. But The Guns of Navarone, one of the most successful movies of all time, had enjoyed a similar scene, when a surprise traitor was unmasked.

The ending Sturges slapped on the picture had its genesis in a couple of lines from the book where the British secret agent explained that Russian airplanes had come to the Arctic in the guise of helping the rescue but in reality looking for the film from the satellite. All the stuff about the new type of camera being stolen by the Russians and of film containing sensitive information about American missile sites needing to be recovered had come from the book. In the MacLean version, the traitor would dump the film out into the sea via the sub’s garbage chute but tagged with a floating device and a yellow marker so it could be picked up by a Russian vessel.

Instead, Sturges went for some kind of direct confrontation with the Russians, a shoot-out on the ice. It seemed a mighty odd decision, given the opportunities in 70mm Cinerama for a full-scale panic on board an immobilised submarine drifting to its doom.

In order to make his version work, Sturges had to draft in a squad of marines eventually led by Capt Anders (Jim Brown). The introduction of Russian defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) makes less sense, especially as, snooping around the submarine, he is obviously up to no good, but that might be for sound cinematic reasons since otherwise the traitor would only turn up once the movie reached Zebra and even then would need to come to the fore for some obvious reason.

Interestingly, the screenplay omits one element. Heading the Zebra Arctic operation is the older brother of the British secret agent, giving him a secondary reason for his mission, and the potential for emotional reaction on finding his sibling dead.

Sometimes screenwriters just seem to earn their keep by changing names for no apparent reason. So the book’s Commander Swanson becomes Ferraday (Rock Hudson) and British agent Dr Carpenter is renamed David Jones minus medical degree. All the initial sabotage comes from the fertile mind of the author and long before Tom Clancy, beginning with The Hunt for Red October, invented a brand-new publishing genre concentrating on military detail, MacLean reveals an extraordinary grasp of every detail of a nuclear submarine, the Arctic, the weather and what exactly might go wrong from a fire on board or should the vessel lose speed.

Neither would you recognise Rock Hudson in MacLean’s description of the submarine commander as “short, plump…(and) a pink cherubic face.” MacLean’s British agent is less arrogant and acerbic, keeps much more to himself, revealing his character at appropriate moments spaced through the book, than does the film’s David Jones. That Dr Carpenter, the narrator, knows massive amounts about everything means that he does not need to showboat like the filmic David Jones to prove he is in charge.

The book is a turbo-charged thrill ride. That the final piece of sabotage and its consequences last nearly 50 pages is proof of MacLean’s skill as a page-turner. Much as I enjoyed the film as it stands, it’s just a shame that Sturges did not follow the author into his astonishing climactic sequences.   

Behind the Scenes – “Ice Station Zebra” (1968)

Director John Sturges was not flying quite as high as when he had greenlit The Satan Bug. Since then two films had flopped – big-budget 70mm western The Hallelujah Trail (1965) and Hour of the Gun (1967). Two others had been shelved – Steve McQueen motor racing epic Day of the Champion and The Yards of Essendorf. But his mastery of the action picture made him first choice for Ice Station Zebra.

Independent producer Martin Ransohoff (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) had snapped up the rights in 1964, initially scheduling production to begin the following spring. He financed a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky (The Americanization of Emily, 1964). Judging by later reports MacLean appeared happy with the screenwriter’s approach, especially after being so annoyed with the way Carl Foreman had appropriated The Guns of Navarone. Ransohoff put together a stellar cast – The Guns of Navarone (1961) alumni Gregory Peck and David Niven plus George Segal (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966). But each wanted to act against type. Peck, having played a submarine commander in On the Beach (1959), wished the role of an American secret agent, Niven to play his British equivalent with Segal left to pick up the role of skipper. Then Peck objected to the way his character was portrayed.

Sturges, paid a whopping $500,000 to direct, was unhappy with the Chayefsky script commissioned by the producer so he hired Harry Julian Fink (Major Dundee, 1965) and W.R. Burnett (The Great Escape, 1963). But he hated the results so much he suggested MGM drop the entire project. That was hardly what Ransohoff, after forking out $650,000 on screenplays and $1.7 million on special effects, needed to hear. As a last resort, Sturges turned to Douglas Heyes (Beau Geste, 1966) who beefed up the Alistair MacLean story, completely changing the ending, introducing the U.S. vs U.S.S.R. race to the Arctic,  and a bunch of new characters including those played by Jim Brown and Ernest Borgnine, who had previously worked together on The Dirty Dozen (1967).

Six months after its roadshow engagement in New York, the picture went into
general release in continuous performance.

After a string of flops, Hudson, celebrating his 20th year in the business, chased after the role of sub commander. Although it has been reported that Laurence Harvey briefly came into the frame for the part that went to Borgnine, I could find no record of that. Confusion may have arisen because in 1964 Harvey was prepping another MacLean picture, The Golden Rendezvous, which he planned to direct in the Bahamas. Having landed the major supporting role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Segal was the casting coup before he, too, jumped ship.

British star Patrick McGoohan (Dr Syn, 1963) who had not made a movie in five years, was an unlikely candidate for the second lead. Sturges saw him as the next Steve McQueen. But his inclusion only came about because of the sharp increase in his popularity Stateside after fans had bombarded the networks to bring back the Danger Man (1964-1967) television series (renamed Secret Agent for American consumption) after it had initially underwhelmed.  Increased public demand for the “old-fashioned hero with morals” became a feature of an advertising campaign. McGoohan received the accolade of a write-up in the New York Times. It seemed a cinch to have a denoted television secret agent star to play another spy in the film.

The all-male cast prompted the director to consider adding a hallucinogenic dream sequence involving women. Despite his penchant for action pictures, Sturges was a gadget nut and particularly interested in the space race, tracking by ham radio the launch of the Russian Sputnik 1, concerned that the Americans had been beaten. While moon landings remained some way off, the next battle for supremacy was nuclear submarines, of which Sturges was in awe.

Principal photography began in mid-June, 1967 and finished 19 weeks later. The $8 million budget topped out at $10 million. The non-nuclear U.S.S. Tronquil stood in for the book’s sub with U.S.S. Blackfin doubling in other shots. The vessel’s interiors dominated MGM’s soundstages with a 16ft superstructure as the centerpiece with hydraulics creating the tilting and rocking effects. Art director Addison Hehr’s commitment to authenticity saw his team buying real submarine effects from junk yards to fit out the interiors. The conning tower was almost as tall as a five-storey building and the submarine, built in sections, measured 600ft. The Polar landscape was created by draining the MGM tank, at the time the largest in Hollywood, of three million gallons of water and then mounted with snow and rocks and the burnt-out weather station.

While aerial shots of Greenland ice floes and fjords doubled for Siberia, to capture the wild ocean Sturges and cameraman John Stephens took a helicopter ride 30 miles out from the coast of Oahu where a 45-knot wind created “monumental” seas. A 10ft miniature in a tank permitted shots underwater and cameras attached to the Tronquil’s deck and conning tower achieved the unique sub’s-eye-view. The unconvincing Arctic landscape was shot on a sound stage.

Early trade double-page advertisement (hence the lines in the middle).

Not only did screenwriter Douglas Heyes alter the original ending, but Sturges claimed improvisation was often the order of the day.  “We made it up as we went along,” he said, “adding a whole bunch of gimmicks – the homing device, the capsule in the ice, the blowtorch…I don’t think it had any political significance. It just dealt with an existing phenomenon in an interesting way.” (Note: the homing device was in the original novel.)

A major hitch hit the planned roadshow opening in New York, essential to building up the brand. MGM proved reluctant to whisk 2001: A Space Odyssey out of the Pacific East Cinerama theater while the Stanley Kubrick opus was still doing so well. So it opened in the Big Apple on December 20, over two months after its world premiere at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, where MGM had decked out the lobby with a submarine measuring 20ft long and 12 ft high.  From the publicity point-of-view the delay was a drawback since New York critics – who attracted the biggest cinematic readership in the country – would not review the film until it had opened and should they take a positive slant their quotes would come too late for the national advertising campaign.

SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist, The Life and Films of John Sturges (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) p262-268; “Film in Focus, Ice Station Zebra,” Cinema Retro, Vol 17, Issue 51, 2021, p18-27; “Harvey Huddles with Maugham on Bondage,” Variety, May 15, 1963, p25; “New York Sound Track,” Variety, April 29, 1964, p18; “Ransohoff-Metro Prep Zebra Via Chayefsky,” Variety, January 20, 1965, p4; “Novelist, Producer Meet On Ice Station Zebra,” Box Office,  April5, 1965, pNE2;“George Segal,” Variety, April 28, 1965, p17; Advertisement, Variety, April 20, 1966, p44-45; William Kirtz, “Out To Beat Bond,” New York Times, Jun 23, 1966, p109;  “Ponti Seeks David Niven,” Variety, October 26, 1966, p3; “Cinerama Process for Metro’s Zebra,” Variety, May 17, 1967, p24;   Advertisement, Variety, June 21, 1967, p8-9;“26 Probable Roadshows Due in Next Two Years,” Variety, January 17, 1968, p7; “Poor Ratings But Film Plums Going To Pat McGoohan,” Variety, July 3, 1968, p3.”Premiere Display Built for Ice Station Zebra,” Box Office, October 14, 1968, pW2; “Ice Station Zebra Frozen, No N.Y. Cinerama Booking,” Variety, October 23, 1968, p12; “Ice Station Zebra in World Premiere,” Box Office, Oct 28, 1968, pW1; “No Zebra Shootout in N.Y. , Gets 2001 Niche, Latter Grinds,” Variety, October 30, 1968, p3; “Filmways Stake in Ten Features for $55m,” Variety, November 20, 1968, p7.

Ice Station Zebra (1969) ****

John Sturges’ Alistair Maclean Cold War thriller, released within months of the more action-oriented Where Eagles Dare, twists and turns as Americans in a nuclear submarine and the Soviet Union race to the Arctic to retrieve a fallen space capsule containing a deadly secret. Thoroughly enjoyable hokum filmed in Cinerama 70mm with an earworm of a booming theme from Michel Legrand and mostly outstanding special effects.

Nuke sub Commander Ferraday (Rock Hudson), despatched from Scotland, and believing he is only on a last-gasp mission to the save scientists at a stricken weather station, is somewhat surprised to be forced to carry as passengers arrogant British secret service agent David Jones (Patrick McGoohan) and Russian defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), the former refusing to divulge the reasons for being on board. From the outset the vessel is afflicted by sabotage and the cruel ice. Tensions mount further as they reach the Ice Station Zebra weather station. Since so much depends on mystery in a MacLean thriller, any other revelations would amount to significant plot spoilers.

So while there’s more than enough going on among the various characters and a plot that shifts like a teutonic plate, it’s the submarine section that proves the most riveting, the dives exhilarating. The underwater photography is superb in part thanks to an invention by second unit cameraman John M. Stephens which could film for the first time a continuous dive. Whether the sub is submerging, surfacing, puncturing the ice or in danger of being crushed to smithereens, it’s the nuke that takes centre stage, a significant achievement in the days before CGI.

Not all the effects are quite so top-notch, there’s some dodgy back projection, and the Arctic rocks look fake, but in general, especially with streamlined control panels, jargon spat out at pace, and sub interiors that appear realistic, the result of two years research, it’s a more than solid job, delivering the core of a Saturday night action picture.

The absence of a giant Cinerama screen does not detract from the movie – though if you get the chance to see it in 70mm, as I once did, jump at it – because the Super Panavision cameras capture in enormous detail the bow spray, the massive icebergs, the gleaming intricacy of the controls, and even the sea parting under the weight of the sub creates astonishing visuals. And there’s something inherently dramatic in the commander slapping down the periscope.

Rock Hudson (Tobruk, 1967) is back to straightforward leading man duty after his departure into paranoia in Seconds (1966) and he is burdened with both a chunk of exposition and having to develop a stiff upper lip in response to the secret agent’s reluctance to take him into his confidence. He comes more into his own in the action sequences. The tight-lipped brusque provocative McGoohan (Dr Syn, 1963) clearly has a ball as mischief-maker-in-chief, keeping everyone else on tenterhooks. Ernest Borgnine (The Wild Bunch, 1969) invests his character with wide-eyed charm at the same time as the audience doubts his credentials. Jim Brown (The Split, 1968) has little more than an extended cameo as the Marines’ chief and in smaller roles you can also spot future Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (Castle Keep, 1969) and veteran Lloyd  Nolan (The Double Man, 1967).

This was the second MacLean adaptation for John Sturges (The Satan Bug, 1965) and he keeps a tighter grip on proceedings, a $10 million budget ensuring he could make the movie he envisaged, part-thriller, part-high adventure with well-orchestrated slugs of action.

Book Review – Dreams of Flight: “The Great Escape” in American Film and Culture

In the history of rousing action cinema few movies are as revered or have produced such a collective cinematic response as John Sturges’ World War 2 POW picture The Great Escape (1963) starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough and a host of upcoming stars including The Magnificent Seven alumni James Coburn and Charles Bronson,  

Dana Polan’s rich assessment of the film’s making coupled with a superb analysis of the film itself, script, style, themes and directorial bravura is filled with informative nuggets. Eschewing the standard star bio approach, Polan goes much deeper to detail how earlier adaptations for American television and Australian radio (made by novelist Morris West’s company and with Rod Taylor as a German guard) affected the film, how it fitted into the British POW tradition (The Colditz Story etc) and the influence of an American offshoot like Stalag 17.

You might already be familiar with the work of Dana Polan since he has written books on Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos and Jane Campion and another half-dozen books besides. This is an excellent addition to his impressive portfolio.

Paul Brickhill, author of The Great Escape (and other war classics The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky) had been an inmate at Stalag Luft III so drew on personal experience – including that of tunnel digger – and sketches made at the time of the tunnels to turn out, as co-writer, a precursor Escape to Danger. It was either interviews relating to this or a magazine article or condensation that alerted neophyte director Sturges in 1945/1946 to a potential film. The book, published in 1950, sold a million copies in paperback in the UK alone and was a huge global success. And for independent producers Mirisch, for whom Sturges later made The Magnificent Seven, buying the rights was integral to the director’s pact with that company in 1957 and indeed The Great Escape was mooted as his debut picture for them. When finally greenlit, it was intended to be shot in the U.S. with only 10 per cent taking place in Europe. That it went the other way was due to an unusual set of circumstances.

In his analysis of the picture, Polan makes other interesting connections, first of all to the caper picture where each character has a specific task to contribute to the overall effort. Unusually for a heroic film, he points out that courage is continually undercut, each uplifting moment leading to defeat, the film itself having an essentially downbeat ending, the only true victory found in defiance. And in some respects The Great Escape created a bridge between the gung-ho war films of the 1950s and the more cynical approach to war envisioned in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.

Being British, it had never occurred to me how important the baseball glove was to American culture, the glove representing for many a “certain brand of American problem-solving in the face of adversity” although far more universally accepted would be the premise of the motorcycle escape representing the triumph of the spirit even as it results in a more down to earth resolution.

Tracing Sturges’ stylistic development back to post-WW2 B-movies made for Columbia explains the importance of the trademark parabolic shot in driving action forward. Yet for all his stylistic bravura, Sturges was very grounded when it came to the work required to make pictures, for example here adopting coloured index cards to shuffle around pieces of action to best effect.

The script went through various hands – William Roberts and Walter Newman, both integral to The Magnificent Seven, but was finally credited to crime writer W.R. Burnett (who had worked with Sturges on Sergeants 3, 1962) and James Clavell (who adapted The Satan Bug, 1965), himself a POW in a Japanese camp with British writer Ivan Moffat (Giant, 1956) coming in at the last minute as script doctor. A breakdown of the various scripts attributes the Hilts’ cooler baseball bouncing to Moffat who also wrote the scene that changed Hilts from loner to participant.

In a terrific appendix you can discover exactly the problems facing the real escapees and who came up with the book title (clue – not the author) four years after the idea originally surfaced. There’s a fascinating coda about the film’s impact on Hollywood and general culture and Polan takes time out to reflect on the experience of various fans on their virgin encounter with the picture. The movie was a big hit and so well received that when critic Bosley Crowther wrote a negative review the “New York Times” postbag was filled with complaints. Written with tremendous authority and great style, this is one book you would want to find in your Xmas stocking.

Dreams of Flight: The Great Escape in American Film and Culture by Dana Polan is published by University of California Press at $24.95 / £20 in both paperback & ebook.  ISBN 9780520379305. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520379305/dreams-of-flight

When Alistair MacLean Quit – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

Scrolling down the credits for The Satan Bug (1965) you might have been surprised to discover that the film was based not on a book by Alistair MacLean but by one Ian Stuart. Yes, this turned out to be a pseudonym but you might be asking yourself why on earth did a world-famous thriller writer need to employ a pseudonym.

Pseudonyms were generally used for two reasons, and most often in genre fiction. Firstly, they were utilized by authors who were far from world-famous and needed to churn out four or five books a year to make a living. In those days only the likes of Agatha Christie or Simenon could get away with producing three or four books annually without the public getting fed up with their output. Long before the likes of the prolific Danielle Steel or James Patterson showed publishers that the public would devour anything they produced, it was considered ruinous to your career to be seen to be turning out more than one book a year.

Salvatore Lombino wrote under the pseudonyms of Ed McBain (the 87th Precinct series), Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle etc), Richard Marsten, and Hunt Collins. Most famous under his own name, British author John Creasey (The Toff series) had 27 pseudonyms including J.J. Marric (the Gideon books) and Anthony Morton (The Baron series) as well as a number of different names for his westerns and romances.  A famous author wanting to dip a toe into a new genre was the other common reason a pseudonym came into play, the outstanding recent example being J.K. Rowling who turned to crime under the name of Robert Galbraith.

Alistair MacLean fell into neither of these categories. An unexpected success, the Scottish schoolteacher hit the jackpot with his debut HMS Ulysses in 1955, a straightforward war novel, and two years later bestseller The Guns of Navarone which was turned into a movie. He followed up with another four thrillers in four years under his own name, the last being Fear Is the Key (1961).

The reissued 1969 hardback while retaining the Ian Stuart name on the cover
links the book to Alistair Maclean in the inside flap.

By this point, MacLean, a somewhat touchy individual, had become exceedingly annoyed at the treatment his manuscripts received at the hands of his publisher Collins. In particular, he was often taken to task by editors for making simple errors like confusing “of” with “off.” But more importantly, editors treated his books as if they should be met with a rejection slip – in fact it was strongly suggested that the author set aside his third book South by Java Head in favor of something else – rather than slung out to an adoring public. As his biographer Jack Webster put it, he felt “very much like a pupil under severe pressure from a master.” It would have been humiliating for an English teacher to be told off for his use of English. The editors also complained there were too many incidents which made the books hard to read rather than enrapturing the reader.

While no doubt every author gets picked up for momentary lapses or for elements of the story that need reconsideration, it was clear to MacLean that his publishers were taking a very snobbish attitude to his output rather than falling over themselves to have in their possession such a cash cow. MacLean also felt that his books only sold so well because his name was attached. Every book was “by the author of HMS Ulysses” or, after the fantastic success of the movie, “by the author of The Guns of Navarone.” He was beginning to feel more of a unwelcome commodity than a cherished asset. And he had already made so much money from his millions of books sales and additional revenues from film studios -£30,000 for HMS Ulysses for example – that he did not need to listen to his publishers.

In fact, matters had come to a head with Fear Is the Key (1961), his least successful book. Clearly this provided his enemies in the publishing house with the opportunity to gloat and to attempt to force him to listen to their superior wisdom and toe their line But for MacLean Fear Is the Key was an experiment, a deliberate change of writing style. “What I’m trying to do is develop a technique of completely impersonal story-telling in the first person”  – in essence the reader would see action unfold as if through the eye of a camera. His publishers, who appeared to view sales as the only measure of a book’s success, felt otherwise. After one too many clashes with the Collins hierarchy, he took himself off to renowned agent Curtis Brown who welcomed him with open arms and none of the niggling that marked his dealings with the publishers. While Collins would remain his British publisher, Curtis Brown took on the task of invigorating foreign rights.

Having snared what they expected was a golden goose, you can imagine Curtis Brown’s astonishment on being told that the first book they were to sell under this new deal would not bear the name of Alistair MacLean. It would be by an unknown author – Ian Stuart. The Dark Crusader (retitled The Black Shrike for U.S. readers) was set in Australia and concerned a hunt for missing scientists. Never mind previous antipathy between author and publisher, Collins hated this book, complaining about over-complicated plot, boring characters, and improbable action. It was “a thoroughly bad book.” MacLean was incensed: “If the book is as bad as you say and you obviously lack faith in it, can you genuinely imagine that I believe you will honestly and sincerely get behind it in promotion, publishing and selling?”

Desperate to retain the author and hoping that this experiment would be short-lived, especially if sales showed a marked downturn from the MacLean books, Collins agreed to publish it. Naturally, the only way to ensure that it reached any kind of sales peak rather than vanish into the chasms of oblivion that faced most new authors, Collins gave the book “by a new author” a heavy publicity campaign. The poorer sales did not dampen MacLean’s ardour for his pseudonym and he went to produce The Satan Bug by Ian Stuart, his faith in his decision justified when a Hollywood director of the caliber of John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960), clearly seeing far greater potential in the novel than the publishers, snapped it up for production.

The rule breaker – the back cover of the 1962 U.S. paperback gives the game away and clearly, judging by the quote from King Features, the true author’s identity must have been in the public domain.

Myth has it that both The Dark Crusader and The Satan Bug played by the rules laid down by the author. But that did not turn out to be the case. The paperback edition of The Satan Bug published by Popular Library in 1962 on the back cover reveals the true author. In any case in due course the book was reissued under the MacLean moniker and is a far better example of the cinematic style the author was attempting to achieve than The Dark Crusader and became the template for his later books.

But, as it turned out, this was not the first time that Alistair MacLean would go on strike.

Catch Up: movies made from Alistair MacLean novels featuring in the Blog are The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Secret Ways (1961) and The Satan Bug (1965).

SOURCESAlistair MacLean by Jack Webster (Chapmans Publishing, 1962, paperback edition), pages 73, 89-90, 94-96, 112-117.  

Book into Film – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

Not unexpectedly, director John Sturges shifted the action of the Alistair MacLean Doomsday-scenario thriller from Britain to the United States and the locale of the secret chemical facility from lush English countryside to desert and from above ground to underground. Not unusually, either, wholesale changes were made to the names of all the characters. The MacLean chief investigator was called Pierre Cavell, but Sturges altered that to Lee Barrett (George Maharis), chief scientist Dr Gregori becomes Dr Hoffman (Richard Basehart), General Cliveden turns into General Williams (Dana Andrews), his daughter Mary becomes Ann (Anne Francis). MacLean’s Cavell was far from the handsome Hollywood hero, walking with a limp and face scarred. Mary is his wife and not, as in the Sturges version, an ex-flame.

More surprisingly, Sturges inserted a 15-minute prologue. The initial scenes taking place at the research facility are pure invention on the part of screenwriters James Clavell (633 Squadron, 1964) and double Oscar-winner Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964), although drawing on material dealt with as backstory in the original novel. In typical Alistair MacLean fashion, the novel went straight into the action with the attempt to recruit Cavell/Barrett for nefarious purposes, allowing the reader/viewer the chance to learn about his past.  

There are other considerable differences between book and film. In the first place Sturges widened out the action, so that the idea of mankind in complete peril is more obviously cinematically achieved. (In the book a small village is wiped out after a nerve gas attack with London the main objective for the Satan Bug).  In addition, the General plays a greater on-screen role and in some respects controls the manhunt.

But the narrative thrust of film and book go their separate ways. Barrett,a Korean war veteran, operates in standard espionage territory while Cavell is more of an old-fashioned detective, interviewing suspects. While Barrett, with the help of the General, closes in on the suspect responsible for the panic, Cavell had to investigate myriad possibilities before fixing on the culprit.

Perhaps the most important differences are that MacLean’s hero solves the mystery primarily through his own skill while Barrett is less self-reliant. Cavell often informs his mystified superiors that he knows exactly what is going on.  A further departure from the film is that Cavell spots the real reason for the theft of the Satan Bug, realizing it is merely a front for a bigger plot. With the author’s usual audacity this supposes that the villain’s blackmail scheme is simply a method of clearing out central London in order to carry out a series of heists on bank vaults while the city is deserted of all personnel and police.  

However, the heist to end all heists had already being adequately covered in terms of grand larceny in Goldfinger the previous year and Sturges could clearly see the cinematic benefits of an audience fearing the impact of wholesale slaughter rather than worrying whether a James Bond-type hero would survive. Sturges correctly calculated that audiences would respond more to the paranoia pervasive at the time than individual derring-do. In some respects, Sturges created a template for future bug movies that threatened to leave swathes of the population dead such as The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Black Sunday (1977) and Outbreak (1985). Silent destruction – rather than the devastating fire rained down by invading aliens – also touched on implicit human fears of unknown powers at work and of course is now decidedly contemporary.

The screenwriters did lift complete sections from the book – the initial interrogation of Cavell/Barrett, how the dogs were silenced at the facility, the nerve gas attack on the imprisoned pursuers (in an abandoned gas station in the film, a farm in the book), and Barrett’s insistence that the bad guys take away Ann immediately prior to this attack.

But most of the Sturges film veers so far from the Alistair Maclean blueprint that it relies heavily on the invention of the screenwriters. But it would be interesting to know why they deprived Barrett – perhaps determined to establish him as a loner – of more personal ties for in the novel it is the wife who is endangered not an old girlfriend and the investigator’s best friend is among the casualties at the facility.

The book itself is highly recommended, not just tautly- but well-written. The author’s later books were often a parody of his earlier excellence but this novel, published in 1962, is one of his best and well worth a read.

Behind the Scenes – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

In 1963 John Sturges made a deal for his Kappa Productions outfit with United Artists.  The director was keenest on The Hallelujah Trail (1965) and what became Hour of the Gun (1967) but The Satan Bug was greenlit first because of the production difficulties inherent in developing westerns. To cut down on travel, Sturges decided to shoot in and around the desert area close to his home turf of Palm Springs and the Joshua Tree National Park. He called in James Clavell, responsible for the screenplay of The Great Escape (1963), and Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964) to Americanize  and update the English-set Alistair Maclean thriller written before the Cold War escalation of the Cuban Crisis and the increasing fears of nuclear arsenals.

Hardly a director known for “message pictures” – more likely to emanate from the likes of Stanley Kramer – nonetheless he recognized the implicit threat of biological warfare for “its terror potential” and envisioned a powerful climax in the evacuation of Los Angeles. He swapped the married, lame and disfigured hero of the novel for a hip loner in the Steve McQueen mold.

Unable on a $6 million budget to afford a leading man of the McQueen calibre – a strange notion when Two for the Road’s $5 million budget included $1 million for Audrey Hepburn – he settled on rising star George Maharis (Quick Before It Melts, 1964) who had graduated from television’s Route 66 (1960-1963). “We were disappointed that we were not able to get a major star to play the leading role,” commented producer Walter Mirisch, whose company Mirisch Pictures bankrolled the picture. “The idea of using… George Maharis was suggested… John (Sturges) pressured us to cast him. I had felt the subject required a major action-adventure star. George Maharis wasn’ t that, nor did he ever become a major shooting star. ”

Richard Basehart was also plucked from television – the star of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) – as was Frank Sutton (Donald in the film) from comedy Gomer Pyle, USMC (1964-1969). Initially cast as the general’s daughter, Joan Hackett (The Group, 1966)   – in what would have been her movie debut – was replaced by Anne Francis. In fact, Hackett worked on the movie for two weeks. “John called,” explained Mirisch,” and told me he was very dissatisfied with Joan.” Sturges had worked with her replacement Anne Francis before on Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).

Sturges biggest problem was creating imposing research facility Station 3. Sticking it underground saved a chunk of cash on the budget, since interiors were minimalist. “The set cost us nothing,” said Sturges. But to add a sense of tension, the set was lit with an ominous amber glow.

However, it proved impossible to achieve the one effect Sturges had set his heart on – the panic-crazed evacuation of Los Angeles. City officials put a block on the gridlock called for in the script. Recalled Sturges, “The sons-of-bitches wouldn’t let me stop traffic…we didn’t get the panic on the streets, the motorists trapped on the freeways…the nightmare of the evacuation.” The director was forced to resort to “glass shots” and background noise to create the sense of pandemonium, the gridlock limited to the roadblock.

Also hampering production was a sense that the director’s mind was not fully on the job. Screenwriter John Gay (The Hallelujah Trail) was often on set conferring between shots with Sturges. The laughter they enjoyed dreaming up ideas for the comedy western seemed at odds with the mood of the pandemic thriller, leaving some actors annoyed.

Commented Mirisch, “It never developed any momentum on its (U.S.) release and wasn’t successful commercially.” According to the Mirisch internal records, the picture’s negative cost (excluding marketing and advertising) was $1.78 million. It only brought in $850,000 in rentals from the U.S. release though foreign business was better, $1.75 million, but the combined total was not enough, once the promotional costs were included, to turn a profit.

SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008,p243-248; Walter Mirich, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008, p211-212; Mirisch Financial Records for 1965.

The Satan Bug (1965) ***

Director John Sturges blows apart all the conventions of the genre and boy does he enjoy playing with the audience in this Alistair Maclean pandemic thriller. Hero Barrett (George Maharis) takes fifteen minutes to arrive and the second main character General Williamson (Dana Andrews) another thirty minutes. We shift from docu-drama to pure detection to a manhunt that is way ahead of its time. General Williamson marshals an air-sea-land operation that pulls a dragnet so tight it seems the villains cannot escape – but that is just another device to throw the audience off track.

Most spy/thrillers take place in glorious color or in noir night, but here we are either in broad desert daylight, with vistas so wide and dirty brown nothing can escape the camera, or in murky twilight where anyone could get away, so that when we reach Los Angeles civilization is like a lush new world.  In the arid desert water is like an oasis of blue.

Barrett is a pretty good investigator so it’s quite wordy in places but discovery drives forward the narrative. By now quite a lot of the bad guys in this kind of thriller (e.g. James Bond) were narcissists, delighted to step into the spotlight and take on the good guys, but once again Sturges lets us nibble on this juicy bone before yanking it away.  The bad guy may be well known but has left no trace on the public records of the day.

There are a few standout scenes: Barrett entering the bug vault in full Hazchem outfit with every squeak of his accompanying hamster setting the viewer on edge; newsreel footage of roads littered with corpses; a roadblock played for laughs. And some neat twists – a phone ringing inside a locked house is easily answered because everyone also has a phone beside the pool, and in the noir tradition ex-flame Ann turns up too often for coincidence. That kind of playing on expectation goes, too, for Ed Asner (The Venetian Affair, 1966) who tones down his usual belligerence to a whispers.

Barrett is always behind the eight ball, never getting the drop on the opposition, and unlike James Bond, who always makes time for a dalliance of two, he’s a more down-to-earth hero and you can see why Sturges steered clear of the more obvious likes of Steve McQueen who would have demanded more action scenes to preserve his screen persona.

There’s a bit overmuch exposition at the start and especially once the picture picks up pace but that said the tension remains taut.

Maharis is excellent as the smart detective but former Hollywood superstar Dana Andrews (Laura, 1944) steals the show as the tight-lipped general. Anne Francis (Girl of the Night, 1960) proves a spunky girlfriend while Richard Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series, 1964-1968) has a plum as the chief scientist.

James Clavell (The Great Escape, 1963) and Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964) devised the screenplay from the Alistair Maclean thriller – written under his pseudonym Ian Stuart.

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