by Tony Dayoub
Ira Levin, author of such high concept novels as Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives gave us an interesting bit of science fiction with his novel The Boys From Brazil. The 1978 film adaptation attracted no small amount of talent. Starring film greats Sir Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights) and Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird), and directed by the once great Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton), the film is a guilty pleasure that has stood up surprisingly well thirty years later.
A frail looking Olivier, who had only two years prior played a sadistic Nazi torturer in The Marathon Man, now plays a Simon Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter named Ezra Lieberman. Tipped off by young Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg in a very early role) that the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele (Peck) is alive and well in South America, Lieberman chooses to dismiss the man as a crank. For Lieberman, this is not new information. But when Kohler disappears after uncovering a meeting between Mengele and some of Hitler's top officers (one played by James Mason), he decides to investigate. Starting from Kohler's preposterous premise, that Mengele and his associates plan to assassinate 94 civil servants throughout Europe and North America, Lieberman goes on to discover a much more frightening conspiracy.
Mengele has implemented a plan, years in its formulation, to create another Hitler. Through cloning, and attempts at duplicating the Nazi leader's family environment (hence the assassination plans, since Hitler's civil servant father died when he was only 13), Mengele hopes at least one of the offspring will become the Führer of a Fourth Reich.
Lieberman starts grasping what is occurring at a gut level. This after he visits two unrelated women (played by Rosemary Harris - of Spider-Man fame - and Anne Meara - Ben Stiller's mom), in different parts of the world, whose husbands met an untimely death, and finding that their sons (Jeremy Black in multiple roles) look identical, while bearing a strong resemblance to Hitler himself.
Levin based his novel on extrapolations he made of some facts regarding Mengele, for example, his fondness for hideous experiments with children, particularly twins, during his tenure as Chief Medical Officer in Auschwitz, where he was known as the "Angel of Death". Another example was the plot point based on rumor that Mengele was hiding in South America, a rumor later proven to be true when Mengele died in Brazil in 1979.
Schaffner brings the same epic yet gritty flavor to the movie that he was known for in films like The War Lord (1965), Patton (1970), and Papillon (1973). Like in Papillon, which starred two film giants, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, he benefits here from the tension created between Olivier and Peck. One feels the world turning topsy-turvy in Brazil just as it did in Schaffner's earlier sci-fi classic, Planet of the Apes (1968). Add to that, a wonderful score from Jerry Goldsmith, who collaborated with him so successfully in Apes, and you've got a thriller that flirts with, but never falls into parody. Listen to the score:
Peck is especially impressive as a black-hearted villain that so perfectly embodies the basest evil found in humanity. Well-known for his ability to portray decent human beings such as Mockingbird's Atticus Finch, Peck brings a particular exuberance at the chance to play such a role reversal from the parts he's been known for in the past. His ferocity is on display in the final confrontation between Lieberman and Mengele. Anyone who thinks you can't have a suspenseful fight scene between two elderly men has not seen this film. Olivier and Peck grapple on the floor while barking dobermans surround them, ready to attack the fight's victor. But Peck's vicious streak is most evident in the scene where he attacks a crony at a Nazi banquet, for failing to assassinate one of the men he's been assigned to. When the henchman's wife starts wailing in fear, Mengele growls, "Shut up, you ugly bitch!"
With other notable actors such as the legendary Uta Hagen (she taught both Pacino AND De Niro), Denholm Elliott (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), and Michael Gough (Batman), the film should be of interest to young performers.
At the Oscars, Olivier was nominated for Best Actor, Goldsmith for Original Music Score, and Robert Swink for Film Editing (the 123 minute film moves at a brisk pace).
A remake by New Line Cinema, to be directed by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), was in the works for 2009, but with New Line folded into Warner Bros., the production is now in question.