If ever there was a movie that was better than the book it was based upon then Bear Island must be a strong contender. Although I rate Alistair MacLean’s novels highly and have a copy of everyone of them published in the 50’s, 60s, and 70’s, his Bear Island has too many characters with confusing names and too many chapters taken up with the boat journey to arrive there. With poisoning being the mode of murder during the voyage it could easily have been mistaken for an Agatha Christie novel.
So having read the book and been disappointed I was dubious about watching the movie, but I’m glad I did. Although there are no outstanding performances from the reputable cast the story is well rewritten so as to provide for a fast moving action thriller against a backcloth of breathtaking scenery. The boat has the same name (Morning Rose) as in the book but the voyage scenes are limited to explaining the purpose of a scientific expedition to Bear Island and an introduction of the main players. Donald Sutherland plays the lead character Frank Lansing, a marine biologist, who arrives late by helicopter but is dropped into the sea rather than onto the deck. Smithy an all round action man dives in the freezing cold sea and rescues his old friend Lansing. Lloyd Bridges, who I will always remember as the Tower Supervisor from that great comedy spoof Airplane! plays Smithy.
The UN sponsored expedition is meant to investigate and record climate related data but we know there’s a different agenda when Larsen, a member of the advance party, is killed by a hydro-copter, a device similar to an Everglades airboat that can travel at high speed over snow or water. It isn’t an accident as the hydro runs over the victim twice. Otto Gerran, one of the few names retained from the book, is the leader of the party and gathers the team to brief them on the scientific programme pointing out that there is a Nato base on the island and their own radio transmitter must not be used by order of the UN for fear of interfering with Nato communications. Gerran was a German officer during WW11 and suspected of being a Nazi so orders must be obeyed! It was amusing to witness Richard Widmark, who had this role, attempting a German accent.
As they reach the island they pass by a graveyard for U-Boat personnel. During WW11 the island had one of Germany’s largest U-Boat bases the entrance to the pens having been totally blocked by Allied bombing. The ruined base is strictly off limits, another rule which Gerran insists must be obeyed at all times. Of course this is the real reason why many members of the team had volunteered for the expedition in the barren frozen landscape that is Bear Island. Within the pens is a submarine containing the stolen Norwegian gold reserves. This is not a simple tale of a few bad guys infiltrating the expedition in order to steal away with a fortune in gold. There are groups and individuals that have there own secret agendas. There’s a group that intend to return the gold to Norway in an act of reparation but within their numbers are those intent on stealing it to fund the ‘Party’ network. Then there’s someone on the trail of Zelda the ‘Party’ leader who is a member of the team, another sent by Norway to check on the disappearance of Larsen who was one of their agents. Then there’s a straightforward opportunist treasure hunter and finally Lansing whose father was the commander of the U-Boat with the golden cargo. His motive appears to be to establish if his father was a hero or a villain.
As with most movies there has to be a hero and Frank Lansing is the obvious choice here. Well every hero needs a heroine and Frank’s is Heddi Lindquist, the team doctor who warms him up following his dunking. Heddi played elegantly by Vanessa Redgrave is, like Frank, one of those with a secret agenda but as their romance begins to bloom they confide in each other and share the danger together as mishaps occur with increasing frequency. There is one impediment that delays their relationship an old flame of Frank’s is part of the expedition but an avalanche caused by one of Zelda’s henchman soon extinguishes her forever. There are two of Zelda’s henchmen in the group, Heyter and Jungbeck, the only other character names taken from the book. The writers take pains to ensure they are seen as Nazi villains from the start and they are used to carry out all the murders and mishaps which plague the expedition team allowing Zelda’s identity to remain hidden until near the end.
Red herring suspects are in plentiful supply, the first being Lechinski who has the look of a shady character, which is probably why Christopher Lee was cast in the role. He is normally seen with a telescopic rifle in hand and is forever going on mysterious walks even in snowstorms. He’s always on hand when something blows up, which makes it too obvious and so you have to believe he’s not the head villain. As one would expect, Frank is the target for most of the acts of violence often while with his new found love, but he did have Smithy to watch his back. Frank does manage to find the submarine that his father commanded but not before the villains. The skeletons of the crew in their uniforms are still there including his father manacled to the bulkhead. It looks like a scene from a horror movie and I half expected them to come alive to cut down what were intruders.
When a coded letter comes to light, left by the murdered Larsen, we learn that Heyter and Jungbeck where both born at a Nazi baby farm near Hamburg where SS men mated with pure Aryan girls. The letter confirms that Zelda is a member of the expedition team. At that stage in the proceedings both Frank and Heddi suspect it’s Gerran as he keeps reminding anyone who will listen that orders must be obeyed! There is of course a final showdown and reckoning with an unmasked Zelda and some unexpected twists, but our hero prevails. The final scenes take place at the U-boat crew cemetery where amongst others they bury Frank’s father who based on the submarine’s log is declared a hero; a case of like son like father. I did however wonder how they kept the skeletons bones together on the perilous journey from the U-boat to the cemetery. With the burial service over, Frank and Heddi walk off presumably to consummate their relationship.
While the film doesn’t reach the heights of Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone and some of the other Alistair MacLean novels adapted for the silver screen, it is still a very enjoyable movie and well worth the watch.