Good news, pumpkins. Today we're all gonna take a trip in Uncle Mikey's Time Machine.
"Oh, wow! Can we---"
And let me put my foot quickly down and state that we are not gonna go back in time and change anything. Regulations clearly forbid that sort of thing . . . unless, of course, you're Christopher Reeve and you're saving Margot Kidder. None of you are Christopher Reeve.
"So we can't go back and prevent Joel Schumacher from ruining the Batman franchise?"
"We can't go back and arrange for someone else besides Jessica Alba to play the Invisible Woman?"
"We can't even cause Steven Spielberg to catch a nasty virus so he has to hand over "The War of the Worlds" to someone else?"
Tempting , , , but no.
"Well what's the use of having a time machine then?"
For today, we have a time machine for educational purposes only. I need to transmit us back to 1971 in order to more thoroughly explain a particular film.
"Oh, God. Do we have to do drugs and wear flared pants?"
Not necessary. My time machine works sort of on the same principle as Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Past. We will be able to move about and observe, but we will be unseen and unheard by the people around us. Okay, Sherman . . . hit it!
"Uhhh, why 1971 Uncle Mikey?"
We are going to observe a particular crisis point in cinema history. Here's the situation. Back in 1967 Sean Connery had just filmed "You Only Live Twice", announcing that he would never again play James Bond . . . a promise he would keep until later in 1971 when he would appear in "Diamonds Are Forever".
But in the time following 1967 Connery's announcement sent ripples of panic among the Money People in the film business. It was felt that, with Connery gone, the James Bond franchise would fizzle out entirely.
"But Uncle Mikey, wouldn't Roger Moore eventually come along and play Bond years later?"
Like I said, it was felt that the James Bond franchise would fizzle out entirely. With that in mind several producers quietly went about in search of something which would fill the gap. Sort of like what's going now with people trying to create a franchise similar to Harry Potter.
One of these producers was a man by the name of Elliott Kastner. Now he admittedly had a rather nice track record in regards to adventure and drama films with titles such as "Where Eagles Dare", "11 Harrowhouse", "Farewell, My Lovely" and "Harper", and he decided to try and create a series of adventure films based on an Alistair MacLean character called Philip Calvert. With that in mind he set about work on adapting MacLean's novel "When Eight Bells Toll".
"Ah-hhhh, Uncle Mikey . . ."
Yes, yes, yes I know. Very few of you have heard of the film. In spite of the efforts made, "When Eight Bells Toll" didn't do all that great at the box office, and the promise of a new James Bond-like adventure film franchise died on the operating table. Interesting when you consider that the works of Alistair MacLean usually meant box office gold (e.g. "Ice Station Zebra", "The Guns of Navarone", "Where Eagles Dare"). The story for "When Eight Bells Toll" has Calvert . . . a British special agent . . . investigating the disappearances of several ships carrying cargoes of gold bullion. His search eventually takes him to a remote section of the Scottish coast, and a case of double-dealing among some of the locals.
In watching the film I suspect a lot of the problem could be laid at the feet of some of Kastner's choices to handle the project. The director was Etienne Perier, a man not normally known in international circles for successful adventure thrillers (along with "When Eight Bells Toll" he would be best known here for "Zeppelin": a film which co-starred Michael York with both Elke Sommer and a large airship, and which was far more exciting. At least the airship was). MacLean himself wrote the screenplay, and whereas he was certainly no schlep in the wordsmith business, those in the know will keep in mind that there have always been differences between MacLean's novels and the final screenplays. In this case the studio went for an ending which had more action than what was in MacLean's original effort, but Perier couldn't make it work.
"What about the actors, Uncle Mikey? Weren't they at fault?"
A fair question, young padawan. Interestingly enough: the choice of actor to supplant Sean Connery in a new master spy film franchise role was . . . Anthony Hopkins.
"You mean the guy who played Hannibal Lecter? Who appeared in the second "Mission: Impossible" film, as well as "Hearts in Atlantis"? The guy who just recently portrayed Alfred Hitchcock?"
The very person. Keep in mind that this was taking place in 1971, and Hopkins was a lean blade of a dude with a sly look and the sort of subtly sarcastic voice you'd want in an action hero. Back then I was in the habit of getting him mixed up with David Hemmings.
Never mind, just pay attention. As unusual a choice as it might seem now, Hopkins actually managed to do a nice job as a rough-and-tumble secret agent. He handled himself well in the fight scenes, and especially in the film's opening moments when he slips like a shadow onto the deck of a cargo ship. As another character in the film would later on comment: Hopkins' persona of Calvert was a "professional bastard"; a title he wore with distinction.
The rest of the cast wasn't much to write home about. Calvert's immediate superior was played by veteran character actor Robert Morley. Usually a joy to watch, Morley unfortunately played the character with his trademark pudgy humor in a role which called more for Bernard Lee (or even Lee J. Cobb from the "Flint" film series). Not having seen MacLean's original screenplay I can't determine who was at fault here.
Another veteran actor, Jack Hawkins, played Sir Anthony Skouras: one of the people Hopkins' character has to investigate. Usually a source of yeoman performances, Hawkins was suffering from a series of diseases which would eventually kill him, and the toll taken on him was becoming clearly visible. Even his voice had to be re-dubbed by an uncredited Charles Grey.
The film was the English language debut of Nathalie Delon as Charlotte: Skouras' wife and inevitable love interest for Calvert. Delon has done well in her native France (among other things, being the mother of Anthony Delon), but here she possesses all the memorable appeal of a roof tile. Perhaps the script (or Perier's lackluster direction) didn't use her to good advantage, but if "When Eight Bells Toll" was supposed to launch a new action film franchise, then a much more stronger performance by all concerned was definitely called for, and Delon didn't demonstrate what it took to pull it off.
Such a franchise also depends on cinematic action and, despite a few interesting shots, cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson also managed to fall flat. Better known for filming drama in close-in surroundings ("The Chalk Garden", "The Medusa Touch", "Anne of the Thousand Days", etc.), Ibbetson apparently couldn't pull off magic on a wider and much more outdoor canvas. The fight scenes were . . . well, they were dull. Even the underwater scenes weren't up to the standards one could find in an average episode of "Sea Hunt" or "Flipper".
"Wow. So, except for Hopkins' . . ."
That's pretty much it, pumpkins. Oh there was some nice theme music courtesy of Angela Morley (no relation to Robert) but, other than that, the only real reason to watch "When Eight Bells Toll" is to see Anthony Hopkins in action and consider how movie history might have turned out had the film been successful.
Yes. I mean, look at how Hopkins' career has gone, and then consider how his career might've gone had he been locked for five or so years in a successful action film franchise.