Clive Donner (director)
BFI Film (studio)
28 January 2019 (released)
02 February 2019
This 1976 BBC-TV film, based on Geoffrey Household's bestselling (and for many a landmark) 1939 novel, is never less than compelling. It is of particular interest that Household (who served in Military Intelligence during World War II) wrote this (still in print and with a planned remake starring Benedict Cumberbatch) thriller one year before Neville Chamberlain declared a state of war with Germany.
It also opens up a particularly nasty can of worms that a number of people either tend or want to forget… or just would rather not talk about. Clearly Household had a very good idea of exactly what was brewing in Nazi Germany. Many, even then, still seem to believe 'it simply would not happen' - also bearing in mind that it was only 22 years after the First World War. Our hero, Sir Robert Hunter (the always mannered and occasionally hammy Peter O'Toole) is very much the prototype of what a true upper class English Gentlemen is supposed to represent. At the beginning of the film he is seen tailing a hunt and later attempting to assassinate the Führer as the man in question entertains his guests, accompanied by Eva Braun, on the terrace of the Berghof in the Bavarian Alps. Hunter's hesitancy causes him to be caught and he is ferociously interrogated. His captors obviously want to know who sent him on this mission - a mission to kill 'one of the greatest men who ever lived'. It appears no one sent him; he has, in fact, decided upon this mission completely of his own accord. He does eventually manage to persuade his captors of this. They are somewhat bemused about his reasoning, after all, with him being an aristocrat should he not be 'on their side' (the 'worms' referred to earlier). Obviously he will have to be eliminated and it will have to look like an accident (quite how the missing fingernails following a torture session can be explained is another matter) and so they push him over a cliff edge. The edge in question looks about 60 odd feet and they chuck a dead boar from the hunt over first. Alas, somehow miraculously Sir Robert survives the fall virtually unscathed (soft mud it appears) and manages to get back to Blighty smuggled on a small boat. His old uncle, The Earl’ (the estimable Alistair Sim) tells him in the sauna that the way things are (Sir Robert is being tailed) it would be best for him to go into hiding.
Sir Robert is soon off to the West Country where he hides in a forest hole rather like a mole. However, they (and who precisely are they?) are hot on his trail. Thus begins a rather nasty cat and mouse game between Sir Robert (a born survivor) and his pursuers – in particular real life aristo Sir John Leon, better known by his stage name of John Standing, who hits precisely the right note as the ultra smooth baddie Quive Smith. Although not actually stated in the film he is of course a Mosleyite: “Oh, come on Sir Robert, do really want to see a country run by Jews and Niggers?”
Throughout the film we see in flashback that the former love of Sir Robert's life was a woman called Rebecca (Cyd Hayman) and, presumably Jewish, was executed by a Nazi-firing squad. Harold Pinter appears briefly, complete with 'dark brown' pukka accent as sympathetic high-ranking government man Saul Abrahams.
Household's book is somewhat more graphic and some may be a little put out by a polecat being replaced by a domestic black cat in view of what happens to the poor feline (polecat or otherwise).
Chris Gunning's score echoes Vaughan Williams and enhances the film’s overall atmosphere. Award winning writer Frederick Raphael’s script is spot on. For Raphael and Pinter, both Jewish writers (and virtually the same age) who were young boy's living in England before the outbreak of the WW2 atrocities, the film may have had considerably more relevance.
As is usual with BFI, this Dual Format edition offers a plethora of Special Features. Of particular interest are some home movies courtesy of one Eva Braun, which demonstrate the accuracy the filmmakers took in order to re-create the Berghof terrace scene.