In order to investigate a missing ship, Officer Philip Calvert is employed by intelligence head "Uncle Arthur" and equipped with a small team including intelligence officer Hunslett. Finding the ship once turns out to be easy off the coast of Scotland but comes at a price – the lives of two of his team. Finding the ship again is the first step but soon Calvert has uncovered a bigger scheme involving the disappearance of many other smaller boats.
Anthony Hopkins ... Philip Calvert
Robert Morley ... Uncle Arthur
Nathalie Delon ... Charlotte
Jack Hawkins ... Sir Anthony Skouras
Corin Redgrave ... Hunslett
Derek Bond ... Lord Charnley
Ferdy Mayne ... Lavorski
Maurice Roëves ... Helicopter Pilot
Leon Collins ... Tim Hutchinson
Wendy Allnutt ... Sue Kirkside
Peter Arne ... Imrie
Oliver MacGreevy ... Quinn (as Oliver Macgreevy)
Jon Croft ... Durran
Tom Chatto ... Lord Kirkside
Charlie Stewart ... Sgt. Macdonald
In 1971 Diamonds Are Forever was released, marking the end of Connery in the role of the world's favourite secret agent. A two-year hiatus would ensure before Roger Moore assumed the mantle, and to a mixed response from fans. In the meantime When Eight Bells Toll was released, scripted by Alistair MacLean from his own novel, and gave audiences a chance to see a different actor in a similarly adventurous role. Whether or not it was intended as an action 'calling card' for the young star (whose fourth film it was) Eight Bells certainly owes a lot of its inspiration to the 007 series, not least in that its hero Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) is tough, naval officer, a "professional bastard," used to killing in the course of duty, working undercover against some widespread criminal combine. "Under conditions of extreme pressure" we are told, the surly Calvert is "unique". His adventures however, are less so. From Russia With Love (1963) is one visual influence: the helicopter which brings Calvert to his initial briefing drops him off before a building with a distinctive white façade which echoes Rosa Klebb's landing to inspect assassin Robert Shaw, while both films feature the shooting down of one of the same vehicles with a rifle. Elsewhere Calvert's white boat recalls that of Emilio Largo in Thunderball (1965), while the presence of large quantities of bullion at risk brings to mind the acquisitive obsession of Auric Goldfinger.
Eight Bells even has its very own 'M' in the form of Robert Morley, whose crusty 'Uncle Arthur' is a cross between the part famously personified by Bernard Lee and rotund 'Mother' from British TV's The Avengers. The present film also features a memorable sub-Barry score by John Stott, who also worked on Peeping Tom (1960) as well as TV's Dallas and Dynasty. Stott's swaggering larger-than-life theme perfectly suits the matter in hand, and is one of the most striking elements in the opening sequence, the dramatic position of which reminds one of those standalone openings which head up so many Bond movies.
That's not to say that When Eight Bells Toll is so derivative as to be un-enjoyable. Director Etienne Périer made this film, then Zeppelin (1971), in quick succession before disappearing back to France where he is still active, mainly in TV. This is the better of his two British productions: a brisk, no nonsense affair that benefits greatly from a strong cast and some excellent location work. It differs too in that, unlike most of the Bond series, its hero has no gimmicks to fall back on to save his skin. As Calvert punches and struggles against a range of adversaries, he does so without the benefit of the ejector seats and rocket belts which larger budgeted agents found so essential. Bond is a public schoolboy, who is by profession a lucky, sexually rapacious thug. Calvert has no such privileged background, and is viewed by his superior with some disdain as a "bloody fellow... north of England grammar school, working his way through life..." Of course the central irony of the film is that the main villain of the piece is exactly the sort of person that Uncle Arthur welcomes onto the wine committee of his club with open arms, while the insubordinate and independent Calvert proves an essential part of the operation's success.
Calvert's closest friend - and the only genuine relationship he maintains during the film, is Hunslett (Corin Redgrave), a bespectacled intelligence man whose faces a somewhat predictable demise. There's an interesting tone to his early scenes with the hero and friend of over 10 years, as they share onboard accommodation. Codenamed 'Caroline' by London control, Hunslett and Calvert are almost like a married couple, making each other drinks or dressing wounds - a warmth of companionship in contrast to the suspiciously hostile relationship exhibited by Sir Anthony Skouras and his young wife Charlotte. The discovery of Hunslett's body, unexpectedly pulled up with the boat's anchor, provides one of the film's most striking moments, while his disappearance from the scene allows the reassuring display of Calvert's sexuality as he somewhat peremptorily beds Charlotte.
Eight Bells hardly wastes a scene and apparently reflects the dramatic efficiency of the original book. The frequently adapted MacLean was on a roll at this time, having seen his work made into such successful projects as the early Guns Of Navarone (1961), then Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare (both 1968). The year before had come a near disaster with the problem-beset Puppet On A Chain (1970), but the present film makes a return to a standard of excitement that admirers of the novelist had come to expect. The film shows some sign of tightening up: once or twice Morley's scenes start rather abruptly as if dialogue has been excised, and some of the villainous minor characters are strangely silent throughout (it is odd, for instance, that such a fine supporting actor such as Peter Arne should appear without speaking). Jack Hawkins, struggling with the throat cancer that eventual killed him three years later, makes for a rather pasty-faced Greek millionaire, and Charles Grey may well have dubbed his lines. The only element of glamour in the film comes in the form of Nathalie Delon, who does a game enough job in a role that at one point requires her to take a dip in the freezing waters off Torbay. Her scenes with Hopkins are adequate, but this is a film that has little time for the sexual shenanigans of Bond, (in fact she has to directly proposition the hero while there is no bedroom scene) saving Charlotte's best scene for that at the very end of the film. The sexiest images in the film are stuck on the walls in the shark fisherman's hut, balefully eyed by Calvert, and even the eventual appearance of Charlotte in long white socks and shirt does little to raise the temperature.
With some fine airborne photography as Calvert searches the Scottish coastline for ships as well as some effective settings in and around Torbay harbor, Eight Bells is a film which manages to be very atmospheric on what must have been a modest budget. The cold realism such an approach brings to the story helps it immensely. Hopkins turns in a fine performance as the single-minded Calvert, made even more resonant when one remembers the notoriously hard living the actor was famous for at the time. Those who have only seen Hopkins in later years as the most famous celluloid serial killer will be in interested in this unmannered early role.
Among other highlights is Morley's fussily upper-crusted Uncle Arthur, whose eventual, grudging acceptance of his wayward officer is convincing - and he even makes a fair pass at waving a gun and defending the boat with a timely use of an open hatch. Seen today, the film remains very entertaining while the lack of self-parody and cynicism, common to contemporary action cinema is refreshing.
I saw this at the cinema when it was first released. I was nine at the time and I notice the DVD has now been released with a '15' certificate. Oh, well. I suppose there are some scenes (helpless men shot from a boat as 'payback' for a dead colleague, a very graphic harpooning) that are best not seen by children. In 1971 it just seemed very exciting (and had an 'A' certificate).
I enjoyed the film when I first saw it and while it seems rather dated now, I think it's still worth viewing. It sets out to provide escapist entertainment and on that level it succeeds. My memories of seeing the film 34 years ago (help!) was of the waves crashing against huge black cliffs and *feeling* the cold dampness of North-West Scotland on the edge of the Atlantic. The locations are very well used indeed, the viewer gets a real sense of place.
The cast perform their roles well, Anthony Hopkins and Robert Morley particularly playing mutual antagonism with some nice comic touches.
One reviewer mentioned that Charles Gray's dubbing of Jack Hawkins's voice seemed a bit slapdash. When Charles Gray was interviewed about dubbing Hawkins (which he did quite regularly after the mid-60's) he said that Hawkins insisted on *speaking* his lines even after his voice was gone. The result was to make his delivery very erratic and therefore difficult to voice-over. Jack Hawkins was one of the best actors we've had (Cruel Sea, Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, etc., etc.) and these supporting roles made a rather sad postscript to his career.
Even at 34 Anthony Hopkins made an unlikely hero for a rousing adventure thriller such as When Eight Bells Toll, based on the book by Alistair Maclean. Hopkins face looks so young, with even a hint of cherubic baby fat. His height and build are only average. And 36 years later it's hard to erase the knowledge of the future Hannibal Lecter, James Stevens, Henry Wilcox and Titus Andronicus, or for that matter much of the dreck he's been appearing in these last few years.
Still, Hopkins carries off the role of Commander Philip Calvert, an agent for British Naval Intelligence, with aplomb. First, Hopkins can act. He's completely assured in a role which sometimes calls for the suspension of belief. His voice is quick and confident. He knows how to underplay. Second, he's physically quick. The role calls for a lot of clambering up and down cliffs, running up staircases and along paths, swimming in a scuba outfit and engaging bad guys in fistfights. There are enough medium shots to see that Hopkins is doing a great deal of the action himself. Third, he's intelligent and gives an intelligent performance.
Why is Calvert doing all this stuff? Because gold bullion is being pirated from ships off the coast of Scotland's western highlands. Calvert, tough, disrespectful of authority, as unintimidated by Naval bureaucracy as he is by killers, is sent in undercover to investigate. What he finds, aided by a young Naval helper (and we know the fate that always awaits young helpers), involves Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins), a very rich tycoon on a plush yacht anchored in a stormy loch, Charlotte (Nathalie Delon), introduced as Sir Anthony's young wife, and Lord Charnley (Derek Bond), who appears to be Sir Anthony's great and good friend. Occasionally checking in with Calvert is his boss in London, a fat and seemingly complaisant spymaster called Uncle Albert (Robert Morley). When Calvert, suspicions aroused, requests that Sir Anthony be vetted, Uncle Albert is deeply offended. "He's a member of my club! He's on the wine committee!" In an amusing plot development, Uncle Albert winds up coming to the loch to find out what's really going on. Since by now Calvert's young sidekick (played by a young Corin Redgrave) is no longer with us, Uncle Albert winds up doing a bit of careful violence. Considering Morley's corpulence and often officious roles he usually played, it was a pleasure witnessing his cautious but ready steadfastness.
The search for the gold and for the mastermind takes Philip Calvert through some of Scotland's mistiest, coldest-looking and rockiest sea-swept scenery, from a desolate cemetery and a desperate fight with two goons to deep under water in a scuba outfit and into the bowels of a deliberately sunken ship and another desperate fight, this time with a goon in a diving suit. There's even a flaming helicopter crash into the cold, murky loch waters. Calvert eventually puzzles out the murderous scheme, but not before there are plot twists, turns and roundabouts. Along the way, Calvert deals out death by shooting and knifing, by throwing overboard, by neck cracking, by underwater acetylene torch and even by crossbow. Calvert is not a man to find yourself between him and his objective.
When Eight Bells Toll isn't a great adventure thriller, but within its own limits it's entertaining. Those limits are the same as in most of the many other adventure thrillers by Maclean...headlong plots that don't stop for anything, regular intervals of vivid violence and escapes, unexpected betrayals, loose ends that stay loose, a certain level of confusion about what exactly is happening, minimal significant female involvement and no sex. He wrote the screenplay for this one and often worked on the screenplays for the movies made from his books. Think Ice Station Zebra, The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare and quite a few others. Personally, I still like his first, HMS Ulysses, published in 1955. He cranked out nearly a book a year until he died in 1987. The last 20 or so, in my opinion, were little more than recycled quickies, predictable and uninteresting.
The one disquieting and poignant note is watching Jack Hawkins, a first-rate actor, as Sir Anthony Skouras. Hawkins was a beefy man with a distinctive, raspy voice. He smoked 60 cigarettes a day at one time. In 1965 surgeons removed his larynx because of cancer. He no longer could speak. Hawkins continued to act until his death in 1973. Charles Gray, a character actor and friend of Hawkins, usually dubbed his voice. Gray provides Hawkins' voice in When Eight Bells Toll.
Revealing mistakes: When gunmen shoot at a helicopter which is supposedly crashing, the smoke disappears into their guns. This shows the film was run backwards and the helicopter was taking off. In the film's trailer (available with the DVD) the shot is run correctly.
Revealing mistakes: Towards the end of the film Calvert fires a rocket powered grappling-hook to help scale the cliff. This is clearly attached to a box of thin twine which is shown rapidly emptying as the rocket head upwards. When the hook lands and catches onto the base of a cannon, the twine has magically evolved into a 1 inch thick rope which Calvert then uses to climb the cliff.