When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

Alistair MacLean's adapts his own novel for the screen for this exciting thriller starring Anthony Hopkins. Carlton UK R2 DVD.

The Film

"There was nothing more to be done here now.
I'd sent two men to their deaths and that couldn't be undone."

Alistair MacLean - When Eight Bells Toll

British naval officer Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) has been attached to a mission to locate the criminals behind a spate of gold-bullion ship disappearances in the seas off the rugged West Scottish coast. After two spies put aboard the next shipment are found dead shortly after reporting the hijacking and Calvert himself only just escapes with his life, he is recalled to London. Instead he chooses to stay, believing that the sleepy town of Torbay might hold the key, a place where everyone from the police officials to the visiting Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins) seem to have something to hide...

Scripted by Alistair MacLean himself, from his gripping 1966 novel, When Eight Bells Toll remains very close to the book throughout, both in story and atmosphere. Accordingly we get a tight paced, well plotted and often very grim adventure film, which like most of MacLean's work, emphasises the gritty reality rather than the Hollywood glamour of espionage, hence the remote and windswept Scottish settings and the frequent failure and bloody consequences of Calvert's plans. Fortunately MacLean realises the changes necessary to adapt a book to the screen and trims enough parts of the story to keep the film comprehensible without forcing unnecessary exposition.

A couple of new sequences are included into the plot, including an effective flashback near the start and a rather gratuitous hint of sex and romance. The tension between Calvert and his over the agent's dislike of the upper classes, is emphasised more than in the book and provides a light vein of humour that balances well with the otherwise quite grim tone. Importantly the film is very well paced throughout, building up to an explosive and exciting climax, with a couple of twists towards the end that will certainly catch fans of the book by surprise.

Little known Belgian director Etienne Périer does some solid work here, making good use of the dramatic Scottish scenery, and shooting the action scenes very well. Fortunately, unlike many films of the era, optical effects work is all but absent, and the limited special effects shots all look very good - with an explosive sequence part way though gaining massively from use of full size vehicles instead of models. There is a suitably dramatic orchestral soundtrack from Watership Down (1978) composer Angela Morely (then known as Walter Stott) with a distinctive main theme.

A young Anthony Hopkins, in one of his first film roles, makes a very good impression - he is well cast in the role, in keeping with the book, he does not resembling the dashing hero that one might expect from the genre and looks fitting in the action scenes. Character actor Robert Morley gives a superb performance as his boss and the duo have some great interaction. Jack Hawkins, dubbed by Charles Grey, sadly looks rather ill and only gets a few scenes, but still shows his real talent, while actress Nathalie Delon is perfectly cast. A solid supporting cast give the film a good backing.

Having an author adapt their own book for the screen can often be hazardous, with many writers unprepared to make the changes to their stories that are required by the movie format. However, MacLean had gained experience writing film scripts in the 1960s (on titles such as Where Eagles Dare (1968)) and has certainly managed to balance both loyalty to the book with making an enjoyable film. Boosted by some solid direction and a more than fine cast, When Eight Bells Toll comes highly recommended to fans of the novel and recommended to fans of the gritty thriller films from the 1960s/70s.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Anthony Hopkins - now a big Hollywood star, before that, best known for his role in A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Jack Hawkins - well known British actor at the time, best remembered for The Black Rose (1950)
Directed by anyone interesting? Etienne Périer - a Belgian director, best known otherwise for the Michael York adventure film Zeppelin (1971).
Any gore or violence ? Some blood, nothing strong
Any sex or nudity? Some hints, nothing seen.
Who is it for? Certainly of interest to fans of the grittier action thrillers, and for fans of the book.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.28:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
The print is good, with no noticeable damage and only very slight grain. Colours are a little faded in some scenes, although this might well reflect the original print.
Audio English stereo. Sounds fine
Subtitles English HOH
Extras The disc includes:
  • Original theatrical trailer - wonderfully over-the-top, selling the film as an all out action-fest. Spoiler heavy.
Region Region 2 (ALL) - PAL
Other regions? No US release. German disc includes English and German audio, as Das Mörderschiff.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. English language print.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 15th November 2007, updated 11th Feb 2015.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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