by Alistair MacLean
352 pages, HarperCollins
Review by Pat Black
It’s often forgotten what a publishing colossus Alistair MacLean was. I’d bet there are some younger readers out there who have never heard of him.
The Scot wrote action and adventure stories, many of them set during the Second World War. Some of these were adapted into movies, the most famous of which is Where Eagles Dare. You’ve surely seen it - it’s the one where Clint Eastwood shoots the entire Third Reich.
Iron Maiden even wrote a song about this movie – an honour which should have gone on MacLean’s tombstone.
The novel was more or less written to order after Richard Burton said he wanted to star in an action and adventure picture “where I don’t get killed at the end”. MacLean was hired, and in a very smart move, novelised his own screenplay in time for the film hitting cinemas. Where Eagles Dare was the result.
It sees British man of action Major John Smith leading a squad of daredevil paratroopers behind enemy lines to penetrate a seemingly impregnable mountain castle, the Schloss Adler. This is where the Gestapo high command is based. The keep is teeming with specialist alpenkorps soldiers and guarded by slavering Dobermans; somewhere inside is an American general, awaiting questioning after being captured by the Nazis. Anyone fancy having a go at breaking him out?
Piece of cake, says Smith. Aided by the American Lieutenant Schaffer and two undercover agents, his team is dropped in, ostensibly to rescue the general. But Smith has a secret mission of his own, as he seeks to unmask a traitor hiding within his own party.
One thing that surprised me about the novel is that it’s less violent than the big screen version. Hardly anyone is killed. In comparison, the movie is notable for boasting the highest single kill count of Clint Eastwood’s career. We’re talking “Arnie in Total Recall” levels of squibbage, here.
Smith and Shaffer’s characters are notably lighter in tone than the cynical, cold-blooded assassins you see on screen. Shaffer has a goofy, corn-fed, aw-shucks persona, prone to one-liners and tics like talking about himself in the third person. He’s a little more world-weary, but more agreeable than Eastwood’s laconic, less-talkin’-more-shootin’ interpretation.
The story goes that the script was reworked so that Burton got most of the lines, while Eastwood did most of the shooting – which, you have to admit, plays to both men’s strengths and worked really well. You can’t help but hear Burton’s superb vocals whenever Smith has any dialogue on the page. This is particularly true in the big set-piece in the bowels of the castle where the Major outfoxes his Nazi opponents in order to ferret out the name of the German mole. And Burton’s voice practically haunts you as you read that most famous line: “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.”
There’s a Boy’s Own Adventure feel to Where Eagles Dare, particularly when it comes to the moral imperative of the heroes. They will not kill unless it’s absolutely necessary. At one point, Smith even risks his life and the fate of the entire operation to rescue a German they left unconscious in a store room as Shaffer sets off some bombs nearby. These guys are do-gooders. They will not compromise their moral code.
The big action set-pieces work really well, particularly Smith’s grim fight with the traitors on the roof of a swaying cable car and a breathless escape aboard a bus as the survivors seek to rendezvous with their flight home.
Major Smith is a character type which I gather appears repeatedly in MacLean’s work – the hero who holds all the aces. Smith is never outfoxed, always having some fall-back plan or an angle he can work to outwit his enemies. Regardless of the setback, he’s got a ploy in place to get around it.
It seemed too convenient to me, and sometimes Smith’s reasoning didn’t make much sense. In an early part where the undercover party goes to a bar stuffed with German soldiers, Smith draws attention to himself by pretending to have a row with their insider barmaid, getting his face slapped for his trouble. His thinking is that the Gestapo are always watching, and so a drunken soldier causing a ruckus wouldn’t make too much of an impression - as opposed to a quiet bunch, who could be up to no good, and would inevitably arouse suspicion. This seemed to be stretching counter-intuition too far. Rule number one of espionage: don’t draw any bloody attention to yourself, full stop!
The plot is laced with delicious twists and turns. It becomes apparent that there is at least one rat in the house, who manages to kill someone in Smith’s party before their boots have even hit the ground. The treachery keeps coming, too, with crosses, double-crosses, agents and double-agents galore, as Major Smith’s ultimate aim in invading the Schloss Adler is revealed. At one point you are led to believe that Smith has actually gone double-double, in cahoots with the Germans.
It’s a gripping, exciting novel – something of a contrast to the only other MacLean book I’ve read, his debut, HMS Ulysses. That was a grim but still compelling story of a wartime battleship as it engages the Tirpitz in the freezing North Atlantic. Where Eagles Dare is pure Hollywood in comparison, but I enjoyed it better for that.
Alistair MacLean was a complex man. His death in 1987 at the age of 64 is widely rumoured to have been brought about by his alcoholism, and I recall Scottish newspaper articles not long afterwards accusing him of violent behaviour.
Following active service at sea in the war, MacLean had a fortunate career, winning a short story competition with his first effort, having a novel commissioned on the strength of that, and then enjoying staggering success with HMS Ulysses a year later. From there he averaged one book a year until the end of his life, and made an absolute fortune.
It seems that while MacLean’s literary career brought him great wealth and worldwide fame, he struggled to deal with it. First of all, he was very harsh on his skills as a writer, never thinking he was good enough despite a readership of millions; secondly, the wealth that came with success troubled him. Glasgow-born, but brought up in the Highlands, with Scots Gaelic as his mother tongue, MacLean’s father was a Church of Scotland minister. This type of cleric is not known for feasting, merriment or light-heartedness. A strong work ethic and a lack of adornment in life is the order of the day for these guys - Calvinist to the core.
Having known austerity, and taught that virtue can only be found in honest toil, it seemed MacLean was haunted by success. He even gave writing up for a couple of years in order to run a hotel in Cornwall, before coming to his senses. According to the film critic Barry Norman, MacLean could not accept that he had made so much money simply by writing stories - a very Calvinist stance indeed.
Whether this informed his alcoholism, who can say? But MacLean was fearfully fond of the bottle. As is often the way with drunks of a certain vintage, his mood could turn dark on the flip of a coin - even violent.
His story is both strange and sad; and it’s amazing how quickly his work seemed to fall out of favour, from being one of the best-selling writers of his generation. MacLean’s books are not even in print any more in the United States, where they had regularly topped bestseller lists.
Equally interesting is what has happened to the action-adventure genre. Lee Child and Wilbur Smith still write stories of that stripe, and as far as I’m aware Clive Cussler and his collaborators are still rattling books out. But the genre isn’t what it was. The Da Vinci Code had an exciting plot and great action scenes, but Dan Brown’s books couldn’t really be counted as action-adventure. You’re more likely to see them in “crime/mystery” sections.
Lots of similar books tend to get plonked onto the sci-fi, horror or thriller shelves – you rarely see an out and out action novel in the top 10. It may be that they have become – shudder – “the kind of thing your dad reads”. Like all those large-print westerns by people you’ve never heard of in the library.
You wonder where and how we lost our taste for action. But for all that, MacLean’s books are still out there on Kindle, and well worth dipping into. I found it refreshing to read something with morally upright, dependable heroes.
I might read The Guns of Navarone next, and hopefully reclaim it in my mind from being a metaphor for erect nipples.