Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Bear Island

Except for Cannon’s little-seen RIVER OF DEATH, released to a handful of theaters in 1989, BEAR ISLAND was the last adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel to play on the big screen. It was the 13th of MacLean’s novels to be turned into a film (though WHERE EAGLES DARE was written as a novel and a screenplay at the same time), beginning with 1961’s THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Amazingly, despite MacLean’s enormous popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, he seems to be a forgotten author today. A pity, as his best thrillers still hold up.

Director Don Sharp (THE FACE OF FU MANCHU), who rewrote MacLean’s PUPPET ON A CHAIN screenplay and directed second unit on it, must have thought 1971’s BEAR ISLAND didn’t hold up well. He, along with David Butler (VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED) and Murray Smith (SCHIZO), made a lot of changes in the BEAR ISLAND screenplay. Whereas the novel told the story of moviemakers shooting a production on remote Bear Island, well above the Arctic Circle, the film turns the doctor protagonist Christopher Marlowe into an American named Frank Lansing (Donald Sutherland), one of several United Nations scientists who travel to Bear Island to study climate change.

Everyone seems to be harboring a secret, and some of the scientists are murdered. Lansing, surrounded by snow, ice, and suspicion, investigates and comes to believe the violence has something to do with the abandoned German U-boat base located on Bear Island. And that leads to Lansing’s secret: his late father was the captain of that U-boat during World War II, and family legend is that a cache of Nazi gold is hidden on Bear Island. Well, it’s not all that secret, because it seems everyone on the island is posing as someone else as an excuse to search for the treasure.

Sharp was an effective action director, and his BEAR ISLAND setpieces are the best part of the film. It was not a hit, which is why future MacLean adaptations were scrapped, nor was it critically praised. Second unit director Vic Armstrong (JOSHUA TREE) also contributes to the fine stuntwork. The script takes shortcuts with characterization and throws in an unlikely romance between Lansing and a humorless psychologist played by Vanessa Redgrave, but the actors’ chemistry is as icy as the Bear Island winter. It’s fun to watch the all-star cast, including Richard Widmark (MADIGAN), Christopher Lee (HORROR OF DRACULA), Lloyd Bridges (TV’s SEA HUNT), and Barbara Parkins (VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), wrestle with their accents.