Sunday, January 24, 2010

Alistair (Stuart) MacLean (1922-1987)

Alistair Stuart MacLean (21 April 1922 - 2 February 1987; Scottish Gaelic: Alasdair MacGill-Eain) Scottish writer who became known for his well crafted adventure thrillers. The sea or the icy north was MacLean's favorite setting, from H.M.S. Ulysses (1955) and Ice Station Zebra (1963) to his late collection of short stories, The Lonely Sea (1985). A number of MacLean's books gained a huge success as films, among them Where Eagles Dare, starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, The Guns of Navarone, starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn, Ice Station Zebra, and Breakheart Pass, starring Charles Bronson.

"Gangsters and hoodlums are notoriously the world's worst marksmen, their usual method being to come within a couple of yards before firing or spraying the landscape with a sufficient hail of bullets to make the law of averages work for them and I had heard a hundred times that those boys couldn't hit a barn door at ten paces. But maybe Larry had never heard of this, or maybe the rule applied only to barn doors." (from Fear Is the Key, 1961)


Compared to other thriller writers of the time, such as Ian Fleming, MacLean's books are exceptional in one way at least: they have an absence of sex and most are short on romance because MacLean thought that such diversions merely serve to slow down the action. Nor do the MacLean books resemble the more recent techno-thriller approach. Instead, he lets little hinder the flow of events in his books, making his heroes fight against seemingly unbeatable odds and often pushing them to the limits of their physical and mental endurance. MacLean's heroes are usually calm, cynical men entirely devoted to their work and often carrying some kind of secret knowledge. A characteristic twist is that one of the hero's closest companions turns out a traitor.
MacLean's gravestone at the Vieux Cemetery in Céligny. He is buried a few paces away from Richard Burton's grave. The inscription reads "Come my friends 'tis not too late to seek a newer world."

Nature, especially the sea and the Arctic north, plays an important part in MacLean's stories, and he used a variety of exotic parts of the world as settings to his books. Only one of them, When Eight Bells Toll, is set in his native Scotland. MacLean's best books are often those in which he was able to make use of his own direct knowledge of warfare and seafare, such as HMS Ulysses which is now considered a classic of naval fiction.

Stylistically, MacLean's novels can be broken down into four periods:

1. HMS Ulysses through to The Last Frontier. These featured third-person narratives and a somewhat epic tone, and were mostly set during World War II. The Last Frontier contained overt philosophical and moral themes that were not well received. MacLean then switched gears to —
2. Night Without End through to Ice Station Zebra. These all featured first person (and sometimes unreliable) narration laced with a dry, sardonic, self-deprecating humour, and were all set in contemporary times. These are MacLean's most intensely plotted tales, masterfully blending thriller and detective elements. MacLean then retired from writing for three years, returning with —
3. When Eight Bells Toll through to Bear Island, a varied collection that still maintained a generally high quality, with some books harking back to each of the first two periods but usually taking a more cinematic approach (not surprising since he began writing screenplays during this time).
4. The Way to Dusty Death to the end. There were no more first-person stories, and his prose is thought to have often sagged, with excessive dialogue, lazily described scenes, and under-developed characters. All the books sold reasonably well, but MacLean never regained his classic form.

Certain themes are repeated in virtually all of MacLean's novels. For example, they typically feature a male character who is depicted as physically and morally indestructible (for instance, Carrington in HMS Ulysses; Andrea in The Guns of Navarone); such characters are also often described as having an almost inhuman tolerance for alcohol consumption (for instance, the Count in The Last Frontier; Jablonsky in Fear is the Key). Other minor traits or actions also turn up in every book, such as the cliche of characters shaking their heads in order to come to their senses after receiving a blow to the head. "Mediterranean" or Latin American characters are almost always depicted as criminals (as with Gregori in The Satan Bug, Miguel and Tony Carreras in The Golden Rendezvous, and so forth).

Altogether, MacLean published 28 novels and a collection of short stories, as well as books about T. E. Lawrence and James Cook.

MacLean also wrote screenplays, some of them based on his novels and others later novelized by other writers. Around 1980, he was commissioned by an American movie production company to write a series of story outlines to be subsequently produced as movies. He invented the fictitious United Nations Anti-Crime Organization (UNACO), and the books were later completed by others. Among these are Hostage Tower by John Denis and Death Train by Alastair MacNeill. Some of these works bear little resemblance to MacLean's style, especially in their use of gratuitous sex and violence.

Many of MacLean's novels were made into films, but none completely captured the level of detail and the intensity of his writing style as exemplified in classics such as Fear is the Key; the two most artistically and commercially successful film adaptations were The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare.

After his death, the popularity of his work saw a decline, and, according to Amazon.com, as of 2006 none of his novels are in print in the U.S. However, most are currently still in print in paperback in the UK.

After completing his Higher Leaving Certificate with passes in English, History, Latin, Mathematic and Science at Hillhead HighMacLean took up a post at the shipping office of F.C. Strick. At the age of eighteen in 1941, he joined the Royal Navy. During World War II he served as a torpedo man in Home, Mediterranean, and Eastern Fleets on the HMS Royalist. Much of the time he served on Russian convoy routes, and from these experiences he drew heavily for his novels about the sea. "He was a good chap to have around in a tight situation," recalled one of his shipmates. MacLean claimed that he was once captured by the Japanese and tortured, but his story has not been verified. However, in 1946 he returned home.

After the war, MacLean gained an English Honours degree at Glasgow University, and became a teacher at Gallowfleet Secondary School. During his spare time MacLean began writing short stories. In 1954 he entered a short story competition of the Glasgow Herald with the 'Dileas.' It won the first prize of £100. The depiction of the force of the sea was from a born storyteller: "The Dileas would totter up on a wave then, like she was falling over a cliff, smash down into the next trough with the crack of a four-inch gun, burying herself right to the gunwales. And at the same time you could hear the fierce clatter of her screw, clawing at the thin air. Why the Dileas never broke her back only God knows – or the ghost of Campbell of Ardrishaig."

With encouragement from the publishing company Collins, MacLean wrote his first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses. It was based on his experiences on a navy ship escorting merchant vessels in the Arctic Ocean and became a bestseller. H.M.S. Ulysses is regarded alongside Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny (1951) and Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea (1951) as one of the classic novels of navy ships. It deals with a convoy in the North Atlantic battling during World War II with submarines and foul weather. The emotional power in the end of the story, when the doomed Ulysses turns against the heavy German cruiser, has not been surpassed in any other naval war novel.

From 1955 MacLean devoted himself entirely to writing, with great success. His next books, Guns of Navarone (1957) and South by Java Head (1957), were war stories. The Guns of Navarone (1957) depicted a five men sabotage team sent to destroy two giant guns at Navarone. The book was filmed in 1961 and won an Academy Award for special effects. The producer and screenwriter Carl Foreman bought the screen rights of The Guns of Navarone in 1958. He was fascinated by the author's "gift for keeping his audience enthralled by the pace and drive of his tale. The novel had six colorful major characters, providing an opportunity for casting as many international stars." Gregory Peck played Captain Mallory in the film and was criticized for being at times a trifle wooden – David Niven was Corporal Miller. The women Foreman wrote into the story were played by the Greek actress Irene Papas and the Italian Gia Scala. In its sequel, Force 10 from Navarone (1968), a mixed group attempt to blow up a bridge vital to the Nazis in Yugoslavia. The film version was not produced until 1977. Robert Shaw and Edward Fox played the Peck and Niven roles respectively. Force 10 from Navarone did not gain success similar to its predecessor.

With The Last Frontier (1959) MacLean left war stories behind for a while. The novel was a spy adventure in which an agent is sent behind the iron curtain to rescue an English scientist. In the early 1960s MacLean wrote two novels under the pseudonym of Ian Stuart. The Satan Bug, dealing with the disappearance of a deadly toxin from behind the locked doors of a laboratory, and The Dark Crusader, about a tough secret agent in a Polynesian island, were both Cold War thrillers. MacLean did not try to change his style, and readers familiar with his work easily recognized the author behind his Scottish pseudonym.

"But -" I paused. "Good God, Gregori, no sane man, not even the most monstrous criminal in history, would ever dream of such, of such – In the name of heaven, man, you can't mean it!"
"It may be that I am not sane," he said.
(from The Satan Bug, 1962)

Between the years 1957 and 1963 MacLean lived in Geneva. He owned Jamaica Inn, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, and in the 1960s ran hotels in England for four years. During that period, nearly all MacLean's novels were adapted for the screen, with the noteworthy exception of H.M.S. Ulysses; its film right were sold to an Italian aristocrat, Count Giovanni Volpi. "So why did I go out of my way to buy this property?" Volpi said to MacLea's biographer Jack Webster. "I suppose I did it like I might have bought a painting." The film version of Where Eagles Dare, starring Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton, cost $6.2 million to produce, and was a major success. In the story of team of special soldiers are commissioned to destroy the headquarter of the German alpine corps. "His story-line and characterization were brilliant but, frankly, his screenwriting was clumsy," said the producer Elliott Kastner of MacLean's script. Burton and MacLean quarreled at the Dorchester Hotel, London, the author planted a right hook to Burton's nose. Ice Station Zebra (1963), filmed in 1968, was an espionage story about a British weather-monitoring station on a polar ice cap, which is almost totally destroyed by an oil fire. The United States nuclear submarine Dolphin is sent to rescue the team. The narrator and protagonist is a doctor, but later it turns out that he is not simply a doctor and Ice Station Zebra is not just a neutral research station. In fact Dolphin's quest is to recover a capsule from outer space containing a long-range, top-secret reconnaissance camera and its films.

Usually MacLean's heroes are calm, cynical men who are devoted to their work, and carry some kind of secret knowledge. "The job, the job, always the job on hand," the colonel had repeated once, twice, a thousand times, "Success or failure in what you do may be desperately important to others, but it must never matter a damn to you." (from The Last Frontier, 1959) The heroes fight against incredible odds and of course there are the evil opponents, a wide variety of humorless villains, the Nazis, terrorists, Communists, drug dealers, and foreign agents. During the course of the story, the protagonist is pushed to the limits of his physical and sometimes mental endurance. Nature is a central element in MacLean's work, especially the North Atlantic Seas, ice mountains, deep gulches, desert quicksands, frozen Arctic tundra. Even the ordinary Central European winter conditions are nearly fatal to MacLean's hero in The Secret Ways (1959): "Only the snow was real, the snow and that bone-deep, sub-zero cold that shrouded him from head to toe in a blanket of ice and continuously shook his entire body in violent, uncontrollable spasms of shivering, like a man suffering from ague."

Typical of MacLean's novels are the highly dramatic settings and the sudden plot twist. He allows nothing to hold up the action – there is not much sex in MacLean's books because according to him it hinders the action. "It is a world where there are no cities that do not drip with intrigue", said the American film critic Roger Ebert on the film adaptation of Puppet on a Chain (1972), "and only the most romantic of those make the grade: Amsterdam, London, Zurich." MacLean himself had a very clear concept of his work: "I'm not a novelist, I'm a storyteller. There is no art in what I do, no mystique." The protagonist often hides his knowledge, and sometimes one of his closest associates turns out to be a traitor. In MacLean's Western, Breakheart Pass (1974), the federal agent John Deakin poses as a thief, a murderer, and a coward. In Fear is The Key (1961), a novel of revenge, the protagonist pretends to be a gangster. The story starts when he shoots his way out of a courtroom, takes a hostage, and starts his escape. In fact he has conceived an elaborate plot to track down those responsible for killing his wife and family in a plane crash. The protagonist has his revenge, but he finally realizes that he is alone with his victory and memoirs: "X 13. I supposed that would always be a part of me now, that and the broken-winged DC that lay 580 yards to its south-west, buried under 480 feet of water. For better or for worse, it would always be a part of me. For worse, I thought, for worse. It was all over and done and empty now and it all meant nothing, for that was all that was left."

MacLean's later books were not as well received as his earlier ones. The Way to Dusty Death (1973) was set in the world of racing cars, and The Golden Gate (1976) was a kidnapping story, in which the President of the United States and two Arab leaders are taken hostage in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. The master criminal Branson wants money for his hostages: "This is the United States of America, the richest country in the world, not a banana republic. What's three hundred million dollars? A couple of Polaris submarines? A tiny fraction of what it cost to send a man to the moon? A fraction of one per cent of the gross national product? If I take one drop from the American bucket who's going to miss it – but if I'm not allowed to take it then a lot of people are going to miss you, Mr President, and your Arabian friends."

"I'm not a born writer, and I don't enjoy writing," MacLean once stated in an interview. "I wrote each book in thirty-five days flat – just to get the darned thing finished." In the 1960s and 1970s MacLean was one of the best selling thriller writers in the world. He had retired as a tax exile to Switzerland and published books, in which the characters sometimes save the world as in Goodbye California (1978). It dealt with the threat of a major earthquake along the San Andreas Fault, an event that would wash much of the state of California into the sea. In Santorini (1986), a plane carrying hydrogen and atom bombs drops into the sea in an area subject to volcanic eruptions – and one of the bombs is ticking.

MacLean had started his career as a short story writer, and a few years before his death he published The Lonely Sea, a collection of stories, in which he proved again his skill in describing the power of the sea. The book included his very first prize-winning achievement, a tale of an old seaman who takes an old fishing boat out in a storm in order to rescue his two sons. "And then a miracle happened. Just that, Mr MacLean – a miracle. It was the Sea of Galilee all over again. Mind you, the waves were as terrible as ever, but just for a moment the wind dropped away to a deathly hush – and suddenly, off to starboard, a thin, high-pitched wail came keening out of the darkness." MacLean died of heart failure in Munich on February 2, 1987. He was buried in Celigny, Switzerland. MacLean left a number of story outlines, commissioned by an American film company, to be written by other authors. He was married twice, first to the German-born Gisela Heinrichsen, who worked at Mearnskirk Hospital; they had three sons. In 1972 MacLean married Marcelle Gorgeus, the daughter of French music-hall entertainers, Georgius Guibourg and Marcelle Irvun. The marriage ended in divorce in 1977. According to the divorce settlement, she was given £400,000 and the right to a full lenght screenplay, called The Golden Girl, which MacLean had completed.

For further reading: Alistair MacLean by Robert A. Lee (1976); Alistair MacLean by Jack Webster (1991); St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); Alistair MacLean -bibliografia by Simo Sjöblom (2000) - See also: Desmond Bagley (started his career as a thriller writer in 1963)

Selected works:

* H.M.S. Ulysses, 1955 - Saattue Murmanskiin (suom. Martti Montonen)
* The Guns of Navarone, 1957 - Navaronen tykit (suom. Aaro Vuoristo) - film 1959, dir. by J. Lee Thompson, starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn. - "When students of movie form foregather to study ways of mingling suspense with maximum melodramatic excitement henceforth, they will have to analyze The Guns of Navarone." (Archer Winsten in the New York Post)
* South by Java Head, 1957 - Pako yli Jaavan meren (suom. Aaro Vuoristo)
* The Last Frontier, 1959 / U.S. title: The Secret Ways - Viimeinen rintama (suom. Aaro Vuoristo) - film The Secret Ways, 1961, dir. by Phil Karlson, starring Richard Widmark, Sonja Zieman
* Night without End, 1960 - Loputon yö (suom. Aaro Vuoristo)
* Fear Is the Key, 1961 - Pelko on aseeni (suom. Aaro Vuoristo) - film 1972, dir. by Michael Tuchner, starring Suzy Kendall, Barry Newman, Ben Kingsley
* The Dark Crusader, 1961 (as Ian Stuart) / U.S. title: The Black Shrike - Taivaan nuoli (suom. Aaro Vuoristo)
* All About Lawrence of Arabia, 1962
* The Golden Rendezvous, 1962 - Miljonäärien laiva (suom. Aaro Vuoristo) - film 1977, dir. by Ashley Lazarus, starring Richard Harris, Ann Turkel, David Janssen, Burgess Meredith
* The Satan Bug, 1962 (as Ian Stuart) - Kalmankoura (suom. Aaro Vuoristo) - film 1964, dir. by John Sturges, screenplay by James Clavell, starring George Maharis, Richard Basehart, Anne Francis
* Ice Station Zebra, 1963 - Jääasema Zebra (suom. Juhani Jaskari) - film 1968, dir. by John Sturges, starring Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgine, Jim Brown
* When Eight Bells Toll, 1966 - Kun kello lyö (suom. Timo Martin) - film 1971, dir. by Etienne Perier, starring Anthony Hopkins, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Nathalie Delon
* Where Eagles Dare, 1967 - Kotkat kuuntelevat (suom. Timo Martin) - film 1969, dir. by Brian G. Hutton, starring Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton . - "You have to put your brain on hold to watch this, so many are its implausibilities. But despite the fact that it should have been at least half an hour shorter, there is plenty of stirring action to be enjoyed." (Simon Rose in Classic Film Guide, 1995)
* Force 10 from Navarone, 1968 - Navaronen haukat (suom. Timo Martin) - film 1978, dir. by Guy Hamilton Robin Shaw, Edward Fox, Harrison Ford
* Puppet on a Chain, 1969 - Kahlenukke (suom. Juhani Jaskari) - film 1971, dir. by Geoffey Reeve, starring Sven Bertil Taube, Barbara Parkins
* Caravan to Vaccares, 1970 - Karavaani Vaccarèsiin (suom. Juhani Jaskari) - film 1974, dir. by Geoffey Reeve, starring David Birney, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Lonsdale
* Bear Island, 1971 - Karhusaari (suom. Seppo Loponen) - film 1980, dir. by Don Sharp, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Donald Sutherland, Richard Widmark
* Alistair MacLean Introduces Scotland, 1972
* Captain Cook, 1972 - Kapteeni Cook (suom. Panu Pekkanen)
* The Way to Dusty Death, 1973 - Katkuinen kuoleman tie (suom. Risto Lehmusoksa) - television film 1995, dir. by Geoffrey Reeve, starring Linda Hamilton, Simon MacCorkindale, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Anthony Valentine
* Breakheart Pass, 1974 - Särkyneen sydämen sola (suom. Juhani Jaskari) - film 1975, dir. by Tom Gries, starring Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland
* Circus, 1975 - Kuolonhyppy (suom. Eero Huhtala)
* The Golden Gate, 1976 - Kaappaus San Franciscossa (suom. Hilkka Pekkanen)
* Seawitch, 1977 - Merinoita (suom. Matti Kannosto)
* Goodbye California, 1978 - Hyvästi Kalifornia (suom. Matti Kannosto)
* Athabasca, 1980 - Alaskan musta kulta (suom. Arto Häilä)
* Hostage Tower (with John Denis) - Kaapattu torni (suom. Virpi Luukkonen, Teija Rinne)
* television play: Hostage Tower, 1980 - film dir. by Claudio Guzmán, starring Peter Fonda, Maud Adams, Billy Dee Williams, Keir Dullea, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
* River of Death, 1981 - Kuoleman joki (suom. Aulis Rantanen) - film 1990, dir. by Steve Carver, starring Michael Dudikoff, Donald Pleasence
* Airforce One Is Down, 1981 - Kaappaajan paluu (suom. Teija Rinne)
* Partisans, 1982 - Partisaanit (suom. Kimmo Linkama)
* Floodgate, 1983 - Tulvaportti (suom. Erkki Hakala)
* Alistair MacLean: Six Complete Novels, 1984
* San Andreas, 1984 - Saalistus Barentsinmerellä (suom. Risto Mäenpää)
* The Lonely Sea, 1985 - Armoton meri (suom. Risto Mäenpää)
* Santorini, 1986 - Santorinin hauta (suom. Aulis Rantanen)
* Death Train,1988 (by Alistair MacNeill) - Kuoleman juna (suom. Seppo-Risto Lindfors) - film 1993, dir. by David S. Jackson, starring Pierce Brosnan, Patrick Stewart, Alexandra Paul, Ted Levine, Christopher Lee
* The Rembrandt Affair, 1989 (by Alistair MacNeill)
* Night Watch, 1989 (by Alistair MacNeill) -Yövartio (suom. Irmeli Ruuska) - television film 1995, dir. by David Jackson, starring Pierce Brosnan, Alexandra Paul, William Devane, Michael Shannon, Kay Siu Lim
* Red Alert, 1990 (by Alistair MacNeill) - Kuoleman kauppiaat (suom. Jukka Jääskeläinen)
* Time of Assassins, 1992 (by Alistair MacNeill) - Salamurhaajien aika (suom. Irmeli Ruuska)
* Dead Halt, 1992 (by Alistair MacNeill) - Pyörremyrsky (suom. Jorma-Veikko Sappinen)
* Golden Girl, 1992 (by Simon Gandolfi)

Notes on the books

* Force 10 from Navarone, MacLean's only sequel, picks up from where the film version of The Guns of Navarone leaves off, not his original novel. The book anticipates the much lighter works of MacLean's later years, and seems to be more of a tossed-off "pastiche" of his other works, occasionally descending into nearly farcical humour.
* MacLean's only other use of inter-novel continuity is a police character from Puppet on a Chain reappearing in Floodgate.
* MacLean wrote the novel and screenplay of Where Eagles Dare at the same time. In effect it was commissioned by Richard Burton, who wanted to make a "boy's own" type adventure film that he could take his son to see. The book and screenplay differ markedly in that, in the book, Smith and Schaffer at times go out of their way not to kill anyone, whereas in the film they basically shoot anything that moves. In fact, the film contains Clint Eastwood's highest on-screen body count. Also, in the book, Schaffer is considerably more talkative than Eastwood's laconic interpretation.
* Where Eagles Dare and Guns of Navarone have similar plots; the "MacLean Formula" used in both is as follows: impregnable fortress which requires a commando team to be sent in; one of the team is not what he/she seems; betrayal in a public place; barricade a door for the getaway; mountain climbing; escape by jumping into water; good guys win. Amazingly, all these contrivances seem to work quite well.
* There have been reports of a "lost" MacLean novel titled Snow on the Ben, but it appears to be by a different Ian Stuart (refer ISBN 0-7089-6503-2).
* MacLean's chief female characters are frequently named Mary, or a variation thereupon (Marie, Maria). They are usually described as intelligent, whether they are professionals like the hero or not. Some are exceptionally adept at the spy game; more come through strongly despite a lack of experience. A few seem puzzlingly incapable. MacLean's characterization of these is a key, although subtle, plot point.
* A number of MacLean's chief male characters are named John. In a few of his mid-period books, his male protagonists have "savagely scarred" faces that they believe render them unattractive to women; they are usually proven wrong by book's end.
* The lead female character dies in a few of the early to mid period books. The male lead protagonist always survives and is successful in countering the odds.
* His villains become more stereotypical and self-referential over time, usually featuring a coldly competent and ruthless mastermind paired with a hulking, brutishly powerful subordinate.
* Exceptions to the little-romance rule include one novel where the protagonist is rewarded for his labors by winning the love of the beautiful daughter of a millionaire, and conversely another which ends with its protagonist committing murder to avenge the death of his beloved. In other books, the romantic angle is in the past, as the hero's wife has been killed in a road accident by a "drunken driver".
* In several books (most notably the Navarone books, Partisans, Circus) MacLean gives his usual cynical hero two assistants: a smaller man who is highly gifted with one particular weapon (knives, explosives), and a very large, immensely strong man who has intelligence equal to the protagonist, smokes foul-smelling cigars or cigarettes, and is often the hero's best friend.
* MacLean was known to reuse plot devices, characterizations, and even specific phrases. For example, the description "huddled shapelessness of the dead" occurs in some form in several stories.
* Clive Cussler plagiarized (or paid homage to) MacLean's Ice Station Zebra in his Raise the Titanic! and MacLean's The Secret Ways in his The Mediterranean Caper. Fans of other thriller authors, such as Len Deighton, Dale Brown, and Tom Clancy, will find plenty of foreshadowings of their favorite authors' work in MacLean's own novels.
* The cover of Alistair MacLean novel features in the Bollywood classic film Aradhana, during the scene of the classic song "Mere Sapno Ki Rani"

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