Last night I watched the 1978 political thriller, The Boys from Brazil. I didn’t like it, which isn’t surprising because I don’t like many movies, actually most movies, but what I stumbled upon in my analysis afterward is what I consider to be a (for me) fatal flaw of some 1970s all-star vehicles like this one.
For example, I am endlessly bothered when I think about A Bridge too Far, the 1977 Joseph E. Levine WWII epic about the Market Garden campaign. It’s a true story with an all-star cast including Sean Connery as the British major-general who leads a parachute attack on a key Dutch town in the riskiest part of a risky operation. The mission is supposed to be a cakewalk and turns into anything but, and this British general ends up hiding in a Dutch family’s attic surrounded by Germans while his command is ripped to shreds. Imagine the psychology of this man, a British bigshot, sitting impotent for 24 hours in a civilian attic.
The script skims the surface of this incident and Connery plays it accordingly. Where’s my mark? What are my lines? Between an uncaring screenplay and a work-for-hire performance, history lovers are left 44 years later with a cardboard cutout of Sean Connery in a British uniform standing here and standing there, with nothing meaningful revealed about his character other than that every situation aggravated him. Clearly, the script of A Bridge too Far prioritized balanced screen time for its all-star cast above characterization.
On to The Boys from Brazil, the Lew Grade epic of 94 clones of Adolf Hitler placed into hand-chosen families around the world during the 1960s by Nazi war criminal Dr. Joseph Mengele. Oops, sorry, I guess I should have warned, “spoiler alert,” because the fact they are clones of Hitler is revealed at plot point 2. Gregory Peck plays Mengele and Laurence Olivier plays the Jewish Nazi hunter chasing Mengele. Pardon me, but a little of these two in this circumstance goes a long, long, very long way, and after a while Peck, as creepy Mengele, dissolved into Peck the actor, ever-broadening his performance as if realizing how silly the whole thing was and deciding what the heck, let’s chew some scenery. In The Boys from Brazil, Olivier played the exact same character in the exact same makeup and using the exact same accent as he had in A Bridge too Far the previous year when he was cast a Dutch doctor (Where’s my mark? What are my lines?). Which is to say, this was Olivier’s stock performance by the latter 1970s, and what scraps of scenery Peck left behind Olivier grabbed at and gobbled up.
I remember what a big deal The Boys from Brazil was on first run, two titans of the screen in opposition, which didn’t interest me as a kid, so I didn’t see the picture then and I’m gratified these four decades later that my instincts were right. Now all grown up, I got to thinking what is it about these all-star epics from the 1970s that doesn’t hold up for me? The Boys from Brazil does boast an interesting and offbeat all-star cast that includes, below the top-liners, James Mason, Lili Palmer, Steve Guttenberg (still in his baby-fat youth), Anne Meara, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, and even TV veteran John Dehner.
Budgets are always a problem in Hollywood and they certainly proved a factor in 1970s blockbusters. Your Joseph E. Levines and Lew Grades followed a formula where you hired known names up and down the cast and slotted them into this week in this location and flew them in and here’s your lines and here’s your mark and, Action! The screenplay merely connected the stars to the situation. Levine and Grade as filmmakers were slaves to a big-name formula and an unforgiving bottom line, and that’s why Sean Connery trudged into the middle of location shooting in the Netherlands and hit his marks, delivered his lines, collected his paycheck, and flew home without an iota of interest in who Maj.-Gen. Roy Urquhart really was or what he endured psychologically in the battle of Arnhem.
Part of the filmgoer experience back then in pictures like The Boys from Brazil was, oh, there’s Michael Gough! Oops, there was Michael Gough because he was murdered after a single line of dialogue. Hey there’s John Dehner! Oops, there was John Dehner after Mengele murdered him in the cellar. Cameos here, cameos there, cameos everywhere in a Lew Grade picture. It’s high-gloss surface entertainment with nothing much to make you think, except maybe that in 1978 bad people ran around plotting to set up authoritarian regimes and rule the world just like they do today.
I finally checked The Boys from Brazil off my list. I do admit to enjoying these time capsules of production in the 1970s, and it’s nice to see Gregory Peck alive again and working in a big-budget spectacular. The print was beautiful, as fresh and crisp now as it was during the Carter administration. But after a first reel that sucked me into creepiness and murder in Paraguay, I caught on that the filmmakers didn’t take this picture seriously, so why should I? I went into the viewing feeling the creeps and came out two hours later drenched in camp and a gallon of Mengele’s blood.
I’m curious what you think about any number of these all-star WWII-related spectacles of the 1960s and 70s. Battle of the Bulge, Tora, Tora, Tora, Midway, A Bridge too Far, and so on. Was it The Longest Day that began the trend of big names slotted into here’s-your-lines-here’s-your-mark roles? John Wayne as the world’s oldest and most out-of-shape parachute colonel? Richard Burton as a pilot held together with, uh, safety pins? Connery again as a cynical Scottish private hitting the beach?
Actors still say it today: “It’s a living.” They take the paychecks where they can get them and the pictures float around in the cloud forever, waiting to be streamed. I guess you could argue that all these movies are escapism to entertain you for two hours, mindlessly or not, and maybe I’m too picky and too demanding. If that’s the case, never mind. I am a Virgo after all.