Bear Island (1979)

Don Sharp directs a loose but enjoyable Alistair MacLean adaptation starring Richard Widmark and Donald Sutherland. Optimum UK R2 DVD.

The Film

"As we approached in the first light of dawn...
it presented the most awesome, awe-inspiring and,
in the truest sense of the word, awful spectacle of nature
it had ever been my misfortune to behold."

Alistair MacLean - Bear Island

Frank Lansing (Donald Sutherland) arrives aboard the Morning Rose in the North Sea, carrying a UN supported mission to remote Bear Island in the arctic. Lead by Otto Geran (Richard Widmark), the international mission also includes a Polish scientist Lechinski (Christopher Lee) and American (Lloyd Bridges) and is accompanied by Norweigan pyschiatrist Heddi Lindquist (Vanessa Redgrave). On arrival at the snowy island they learn that a scientist who had arrived before them has disappeared and when another is killed in a suspicious avalance, Lansing becomes concerned that there is suspicious activity taking place that may revolve around a hidden WW2 U-Boat base on the island, but doesn't know who he can trust...

Director and co-writer Don Sharp had previously worked on the tight Alistair MacLean adaptation Puppet on a Chain which was written in co-operation with the author himself. For Bear Island, Sharp and British television writer David Butler take a very different approach, taking the MacLean story as very loose inspiration. The titular setting is there, the main characters arrive on an expedition and many of them are doomed, but aside from a few names randomly retained, there is little else to connect the script to the novel.

Fortunately the new storyline works as a pretty effective thriller on its own merits - although things feel quite clean cut to start with, it soon becomes clear that there is a lot going on and the film builds up some genuine tension with a few surprising twists, maintaining a good pace throughout and building to a dramatic climax and neat denoument. As he had in Puppet on a Chain, Sharp includes some more cinematic action scenes to the plot, a dramatic hovercraft chase is remniscent of the earlier film's Amsterdam canal chase and makes for a dramatic highlight, but a couple of others - a fistfight and a silly sea rescue in the opening scenes - just feel shoehorned in for extra 'threat' and drama. The writers also miss the opportunity to characterise more of the group on the island, around half of the are nameless extras, which might have added even more mystery and tension as to who was behind the killings.

As director, Don Sharp's work is exemplary - shot on beautiful locations in Canada, he makes full use of the massive vistas that the scope ratio allows, to really emphasise the remote setting. Aside from a couple of brief shots, all of the exteriors are shot on location (earlier MacLean adaptation Ice Station Zebra (1968) suffered from obvious studio-bound Arctic scenes) and there is good continuity with the interiors. The hovercraft chase is expertly helmed, as are all of the action scenes. Composer Robert Farnon (Shalako (1968)) provides an incidental orchestral score that is rather too minimal and never quite emphasises the thrilling scenes as well as it could have done, but at least it allows the natural wind sounds to come through.

Although not quite Ice Station Zebra for big names, there is an impressive cast at hand and some strong performances all round. Donald Sutherland is very good as Frank Lansing, with the maturity to be a respected marine biologist but believable in the action scenes. Vanessa Redgrave gives a good performance as Ms. Lindquist but is saddled with an intermittent but excruciating Norweigan accent that she just seems to be trying too hard to emphasise and that is completely unnecessary. Veteran actors Richard Widmark and Christopher Lee are well cast as some of the better defined supporting characters, although they never get much to do. Lloyd Bridges gets a bit more to do as Smithy.

Bear Island marked the end of Alistair MacLean's first person narrative novels which had marked the highpoint of his writing career and for many readers it marked his last truly good novel. For producer Peter Snell this film was to be the beginning of a new series of MacLean film adaptations but its poor box office meant that never happened. Don Sharp's script takes only loose reference from the novel, but makes up for it with a tense and enjoyable thriller storyline and is aided by some excellent location shooting and direction along with some good performances, even if a few unnecessary action moments, an overly light score and a dodgy accent do the film no favours. MacLean and classic adventure film fans in general should enjoy this.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Donald Sutherland - versatile Canadian actor who appeared in classic war film The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
Richard Widmark - a veteran American actor and regular Western star, including Death of a Gunfighter (1969)
Vanessa Redgrave - British actress who appeared in a number of art-house films including The Devils (1971)
Christopher Lee - iconic British horror film star, made his name with Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Lloyd Bridges - hard working American film and television actor, perhaps best known today for Hot Shots!
Directed by anyone interesting? Don Sharp - Tasmanian born director who made his name with Hammer vampire film Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and later helmed Alistair MacLean adaptation Puppet on a Chain (1973)
Any gore or violence ? Some blood in a couple of fight scenes and some decayed corpses later on, nothing too vivid but strong for a PG rated film.
Any sex or nudity? None.
Who is it for? Fans of classic adventure and thriller films. Certainly of interest to fans of the novel.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
A decent looking print, plenty of detail and good colours but mild to heavy grain and minor speckling throughout.
Audio English 2.0 mono. Sounds fine.
Subtitles English HOH.
A few lines of dialogue in German are translated by burnt subtitles on the print.
Extras None.
Region Region 2 (ALL) - PAL
Other regions? No US release. A Spanish DVD from Creative Filmes includes both this full length and the short VHS release version, although with reportedly low picture quality. English and Spanish audio and Spanish subtitles.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut as per the original UK theatrical release. The film was trimmed by some 11 minutes of plot and more violent scenes for the 1980s UK VHS release, details available here (includes plot spoilers), all the scenes seem to be restored here. The BBFC does list the cinema print as running to 125 minutes, although no other details are available for this and older BBFC certificates do often seem to run long. English language print, it does not include the final card after the end credits promoting the next Peter Snell MacLean adaptation Goodbye California which may have only been present on US prints.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 24th February 2015.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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