FILM REVIEW: The Boys from Brazil (1978)

The Boys from Brazil (USA, 1978)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Starring Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Jeremy Black

From the sadistic Amon Goeth in Schindler's List to the pantomime Gestapo in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Nazis have consistently proven themselves to be Hollywood's most reliable villains. The costumes, accents and mannerisms are so easy to recognise and replicate that a wide range of characters can be created. Nazis on film can be cold, ruthless and heartless, or scenery-chewing cannon fodder - the enemies of democracy, or something more playful and harmless.Coming three years before Raiders, The Boys from Brazil attempts to have the best of both worlds. It attempts to explore serious ideas about history repeating itself and the dangers of scientific progress, within the confines of a pulpy plot and a great deal of hammy acting. In the end it does veer sharply towards the silly end of things, but even if it can't compete with Steven Spielberg, there is still much to cherish and enjoy.Considering the context in which it was made, it's fair to assume that The Boys from Brazil carried a great deal more weight than would appear immediately obvious. Coming only 16 years after the capture of Adolf Eichmann, it was still faintly credible to believe that there were dozens of ex-Nazis hiding out in South America, harbouring bitterness and plotting to 'put things right'. Likewise this was nearly 20 years before Dolly the Sheep was created; cloning was still the stuff of science fiction, and the lack of palpable examples in nature made the prospect of a Fourth Reich all the more terrifying.This feeling of weight is compounded by the talent on both sides of the camera. The film is based on a novel by Ira Levin, whose previous works, Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, had captivated the public both in print and on the big screen. Franklin J. Schaffner had demonstrated his ability to combine politics and populist entertainment in both the original version of Planet of the Apes and the Oscar-winning Patton. And then we have the two male leads, one a beloved Hollywood veteran, the other hailed as the greatest actor ever to grace the English stage.With the bar set so high, you could be forgiven for reacting badly to the finished film. There is a conflict between the serious talent involved and the essentially pulpy, trashy nature of the story, which means the film has neither has the grace or poise to be a truly 'serious' work, nor the knowingness needed to take it into Flash Gordon territory. Some of the sillier moments of the film may produce the same belly-laughs and face-splitting grins that Mike Hodges achieved, but for the most part it is sadly unintentional.Part of this silliness, as has been mentioned, comes from innate contrivances in the plot. While there is great potential in the idea of old Nazis cloning Hitler to bring back their great empire and enslave the world all over again, the idea falters when the actual technology is examined. We are asked to believe that the cloning technology we see on screen is both cutting-edge - according to Bruno Ganz - and would have been available some 25 years ago, so that Gregory Peck's Dr. Mengele could have come up with such a scheme in the first place.If you manage to get beyond this initial trifle, there are various other contrivances and plot holes surrounding the mystery element of the film. Even if Ezra Lieberman were the most highly-skilled Nazi hunter in the world, it seems unfeasible that he could pick up the trail so quickly simply by sorting through newspaper clippings of civil servants. Furthermore, if Mengele's plan is to condition the young Hitler clones, why does said conditioning start with the fathers being murdered? Surely to be properly effective, the boys would have to be encouraged to be artistic rather than just assuming that they would be genetically? Finally, there is the small matter of the money - for all the stories about Nazi gold hidden in Swiss bank accounts, it's hard to imagine James Mason and his associates living quite so lavishly without detection.Then there are the performances to consider. Peck had recently returned to public prominence through his role in The Omen, which avoided becoming preposterous by the gravity and subtly of his performance. In this, however, he is hamming it for all his worth, scowling at the camera, chewing the scenery and spitting out his lines in a German accent which, to be kind, comes and goes. Laurence Olivier is equally ripe, although his accent is more ridiculous and wanders more obviously. The fact that he was Oscar-nominated for his performance is proof that the film, and perhaps the Academy, had gotten sillier with age.

In a way, though, the performances hold the key to enjoying or understanding the film. Once you accept the hammy tone both Peck and Olivier are going for, your opinion slowly adjusts from one of mild disappointment to embracing the film as a piece of trashy fun. From this point of view the two leads are enjoying themselves, and in their final confrontation much of that enjoyment rubs off on us. Considering that both actors were well over 60 (and Olivier was recovering from kidney surgery), it's a thrill that they could actually do the fight scene, let alone do it so well.If the fight scene is a case of 'spot the stunt double', then the supporting cast is one of 'spot the famous face'. One of the murdered fathers is played by Michael Gough (Batman's butler), and his wife is Prunella Scales, best known for playing Sybil in Fawlty Towers. Walter Gotell, famous for his role as a Soviet agent in the Bond films, makes an appearance as one of Mengele's oldest allies. He gets one of the funniest lines in the film early on, when he remarks: "And by killing this old mailman I will be fulfilling the destiny of the Aryan race?".

Bruno Ganz, who would ironically play Hitler in Downfall years later, shows up later on as a professor specialising in cloning. He makes the most of what is essentially the Basil Exposition role: his job is to explain how cloning works so we and Olivier can join the dots and unleash the twist. There is also a very good performance by Jeremy Black, who goes through a multitude of accents and one very bad haircut to convincingly play all the different clones of Hitler.The film also has its fair share of B-movie special effects which somehow make it more endearing. Aside from fairly standard acts, like a dummy being thrown off a dam and Bobby's dad falling strangely after being shot, we have the sequence of Peck being mauled to death by several Alsatians. Here we get false arms dangling off Peck's body, obvious make-up (with scars that are raised up off his forehead) and bucketloads of giallo-red blood.Within these final scenes The Boys from Brazil attempts - and partially succeeds - to touch on the serious issue at the heart of its story. It explores the danger of fascism or other tyranny returning if people forget about it; Mengele's experiment is possible because even those charged with bringing Nazis to justice have lost faith in their cause. There is also an argument about pre-emptive justice, i.e. should the clones be killed for what they may become, or should they be left to develop and choose their own destinies. The film does well in showing both sides of the argument; Lieberman destroys the list of the 94 boys, but then in a classic Levin twist, we see Bobby Wheelock in his dark room, staring with a morbid fascination at Mengele being ripped to shreds...The Boys from Brazil is an interesting and enjoyable if completely silly film, which brings several interesting issues to the fore while providing ample in the way of entertainment. It's not as successful as Rosemary's Baby or The Stepford Wives, either as an adaptation of Levin's work or as a deeply disconcerting piece of filmmaking. But once we have embraced its hammy exterior, and forgiven its more obvious shortcomings, it emerges as something with bombast, brio, and just a little bite.

Verdict: Suspenseful but silly


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