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Alistair MacLean on Film

Alistair MacLean
Action Adventure
It would have been at some point in 1979 that I first became familiar with the author Alistair MacLean. The movie “Force 10 From Navarone” had been released in movie theaters the previous December after serving as the Thanksgiving 1978 movie at the Maryland presidential retreat Camp David. In these pre-VHS days the only way to see movies was at the cinema or to wait for them to appear on TV approximately three years later, and every week our local Town Hall was converted into a movie theater.

But I digress, suffice to say I saw “Force 10 From Navarone” at the movie theater and loved it. It began my fascination with the books and their movie adaptations. The movie was precisely what a 7-year old schoolboy could hope for, rollicking action, fantastic performances by Harrison Ford and Robert Shaw, and the presence of the impossibly beautiful Barbara Bach. I vividly recall seeing the movie tie-in paperback at the local newsagents and pleading for pocket money to purchase a copy – to no avail.

Guns of Navarone (1961)
To date, “Force 10 From Navarone” is the only MacLean adaptation I have seen on the movie screen. This is not by design but merely the fact that, by 1978 Alistair MacLean’s star was beginning to wane. The 1960s and 1970s had been replete with MacLean adaptations, from the steller “The Guns of Navarone”, “Where Eagles Dare”, “Ice Station Zebra” and “When Eight Bells Toll” to the lesser efforts such as “Fear is the Key”, “Puppet on a Chain” and “Golden Rendezvous.” Even MacLean’s wonderful attempt at entering the western genre “Breakheart Pass” had gone before the movie cameras with Charles Bronson in the lead.
“This won’t look so good in my obituary,” Schaffer said dolefully. There was a perceptible edge of strain under the lightly-spoken words.”Gave his life for his country in a ladies’ lavatory in Upper Bavaria”


The 1980s by comparison saw a lone notable entry, the Donald Sutherland/Christopher Lee ice-bound adventure movie “Bear Island” together with a smattering of TV movies, many sporting the Alistair MacLean name. The connection to MacLean was extremely tenuous though, the venerable author had only “suggested” the hero’s organization UNACO. Perhaps the best of these efforts was “Hostage Tower” which featured Peter Fonda, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Maud Adams.

The prolific output would have probably seemed extremely unlikely when his second novel, 1957’s “The Guns of Navarone” was optioned for a screen treatment in the early 1960s and released starring Gregory Peck and David Niven in 1961. Indeed, when his fourth novel “The Last Frontier” received its movie, also released in 1961, it was released under the title “The Secret Ways” and starred Richard Widmark as the protagonist. Incidentally Widmark, almost 20 years later, would make an appearance in the aforementioned “Bear Island.”

But, the movie that really caught the public’s imagination was “The Guns of Navarone” which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. The movie proved such a triumph that not only was MacLean pushed to produce a sequel, but when Richard Burton’s son expressed an interest in seeing his father as an action hero, Burton turned to MacLean to produce a vehicle for him (“Where Eagles Dare”).

I have collected all of the MacLean movie adaptations where available and own the major titles in several formats. Some of the missing US releases have led me to import DVDs of “Fear is the Key” from Sweden, “Puppet on a Chain” and “Bear Island” from the UK, and “Caravan to Vaccares” from Australia. Prior to its DVD/Blu-ray release stateside in 2016 I had also imported MacLean’s foray into James Bond territory “When Eight Bells Toll” starring Anthony Hopkins. I will also be picking up the Blu-ray release of “Caravan to Vaccares” currently scheduled for April 17, 2018.

MacLean novels that have been adapted into movies

TitleNovel YearMovie YearLead ActorLead Actress
Guns of Navarone, The19571961Gregory PeckGia Scala
Last Frontier, The (aka The Secret Ways)19591961Richard WidmarkSonja Ziemann
Fear Is the Key19611972Barry NewmanSuzy Kendall
Golden Rendezvous, The19621977Richard HarrisAnn Turkel
Satan Bug, The19621965George MaharisAnne Francis
Ice Station Zebra19631968Rock Hydsonn/a
When Eight Bells Toll19661971Anthony HopkinsNathalie Delon
Where Eagles Dare19671968Richard BurtonMary Ure
Force 10 From Navarone19681978Harrison FordBarbara Bach
Puppet on a Chain19691972Sven-Bertil TaubeBarbara Parkins
Caravan to Vaccares19701974David BirneyCharlotte Rampling
Bear Island19711980Donald SutherlandVanessa Redgrave
Way to Dusty Death, The19731995Simon MacCorkindaleLinda Hamilton
Breakheart Pass19741975Charles BronsonJill Ireland
River of Death19811989Michael Dudikoffn/a

About The Author


Born on the English-Scottish border I emigrated to the US after graduating college in 1995 and became a U.S. citizen in 2007. I have served in the U.S. military and my past positions include as an Assistant Managing Editor of The Washington Post Company, a technical writer working on technical documentation for both a construction company and a large government contractor, a graphic designer creating graphics in support of government contract proposals, and as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Navy. which included being assigned as the official writer for the Navy and DoD on the assumption ceremony of a new Secretary of the Navy. I am currently a Web Services Writer for a large government contractor in the Washington, D.C. metro area.

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