Thursday, April 14, 2016

Film Friday: The Boys From Brazil (1978)

Imagine a film starring Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Denholm Elliot, a dozen other people you know, and Steve Guttenberg. Imagine I told you it was a thriller with a very original idea that involved Nazis. Boo hiss! Imagine it was made during the same time period when Star Wars, Close Encounters, The Godfather and a dozen other classics were made. Sounds like a heck of a film, doesn’t it? Yeah, no.


The Boys From Brazil involves a secret plot by escaped Nazi war criminals now living in Brazil. The man coordinating the plot is the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele (Peck). As the film opens, Mengele’s scheme is uncovered by a young Nazi hunter (Guttenberg). He learns that Mengele and his team are planning to kill 94 men in several different European and North American countries. The reason for this is not clear. Guttenberg calls the famed Erza Lieberman (Olivier) to get his help. Lieberman has become discredited and cynical and refuses to help, however. Then Guttenberg is killed by Mengele.
Lieberman realizes that Mengele is behind the murder and decides he must take action. He begins to investigate the leads Guttenberg gave him before he died. While investigating, Lieberman runs across something strange. Each of the men slated to be killed has a similar profile (middle-age civil servant) and each has an identical, adopted son. Realizing very quickly that this cannot be a coincidence, and that the boys cannot be twins, Lieberman realizes they are clones.

We, of course, know that these boys are clones. What’s more, we know they are clones made from Adolph Hitler’s DNA. And the reason the 94 men have similar profiles and are being killed is that Mengele hopes to recreate Hitler by re-creating him genetically and then making each boy go through a similar childhood to the one Hitler had. He believes this will lead to a reincarnation of Hitler.
Meanwhile, the other Nazis order Mengele to stop his experiment, which is drawing too much heat. They also tell him to avoid Lieberman. Mengele violates his orders, however, and goes to kill Lieberman. This results in an odd showdown in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where one of the clones lets his dogs kill Mengele.

Why This Was A Turdburger

On paper, this film has amazing potential. Seriously, it offers Nazis, a sinister global plot, and tons of potential action. And best of all, the casting was top notch! Is Mengele’s plan a little weak? Sure, but in a well-done film you won’t have time to think about it until well after you’ve left the theater. So what went wrong? The failure of this film is a classic example of what happens when a writer/director thinks the set up is so strong that it sells itself. In fact, that idea permeates this film time and again leaving unsatisfied potential everywhere. Consider this...

The idea of a group of Nazi war criminals hatching a global plot that will ultimately lead to the rebirth of a new Nazi German under a cloned Adolph Hitler is a strong idea... at least on the surface. There are some definite problems with this. For one thing, Hitler took advantage of unique circumstances. So you can make all the clones you want, but unless you find another Germany in the Great Depression, they won’t be able to do anything. Further, history tells us that Hitler made as many ruinous mistakes as he made brilliant decisions. And by the end of the war, he had become such a drug-addicted mental case that he was ordering around phantom armies, shooting loyal subordinates, and abandoning hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fruitless deaths. Why recreate him? Recreate Stalin if anyone.

Anyways, that issue aside, the real problem is that once we know the scheme, there’s no sense of urgency to it. The film never once convinces us that the societies where these Hitler²s live are looking for a Hitler, nor does it suggest that the Nazis have political connections that would let them place these Hitler²s into power. So at best, this film tells the story of a plot that could one day evolve into a genuine scheme for power. That’s weak. Nor does the director substitute action to generate tension. There are a couple murders, but they are quite dull. There are no chases, no lucky escapes, and no fights. In each case, we’re supposed to be shocked by the fact of the murder rather than how it gets carried out. And that’s just the beginning.
Lieberman is meant to be the lone hero who still fights for justice when the rest of the world no longer cares. That’s a great character. But once again, the writer/director seem to think the existence of the character is enough. Indeed, he never really does anything throughout the film. He doesn’t trick the villains or defeat them in any way. All he does it travel to meet people Guttenberg has identified. Even when he finally seems to put together Mengele’s plot, he does nothing with it. He just waits until Mengele comes to kill him, then someone else kills Mengele, and then the film ends.

In fact, throughout this film, both the Mengele character and the Lieberman character underwhelm. Lieberman is meant to come across as noble, tenacious and resolute. But Olivier seems to think that his being a Jew who spends his life hunting Nazis is enough to give the character life, so he just stumbles around meekly as the plot magically plays out for him. Mengele, on the other hand, is a Nazi who did cruel experiments on death camp victims. Just like Olivier, Peck thinks this is enough to make the character. So he swaggers around and barks orders and he shoots people casually, but that’s about all he gives you to feel his evil. There’s never anything to let you into this guy’s mind or to explain his actions. In fact, neither actor does anything to give you any more insight into the character than you would get from knowing their background. It’s like being given a sports car and then letting it sit in the driveway.
The ending is another example. The ending involves a one on one battle of wits between Mengele himself and Lieberman for the soul of one of the Hitler² boys, with the loser to be torn apart by dogs! Sounds exciting doesn’t it? What’s more, when Mengele loses, there is the delicious irony that he is killed because he made these boys evil. Sounds great, right? Well, once again, the writer/director thought the setup was enough. So when the scene occurs, almost nothing happens. Mengele has a gun and wounds Lieberman at the outset. Then they both sit down and say things to the Hitler². Neither one is particularly convincing. There is no discussion of the kid’s destiny. There is no battle of philosophies or moralities. There’s no ticking clock to add urgency to the moment. They both just kind of say, “pick me!” and the boy decides. Yawn.

This problem repeats itself throughout. At every turn, the film relies on the setup itself to hold the audience’s interest and it does nothing to develop interest independently. Even the presence of the Nazis is done lazily. You see one brief moment where you have some people in Nazi uniforms at a ball, but there’s no sense that these people truly have an ideology, a goal, or an organization that is capable of doing anything more than holding a ball in Brazil.

The end result of this is a film filled with potential which never once lives up to that potential. And that makes the film boring. This film failed scene by scene.



ScottDS said...

Since I'm a stickler for such things... :-)

The writer is Ira Levin, whose novel was adapted for the screen. He also wrote the novels that were turned into The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby. I couldn't tell you what might've been changed for the movie.

And the director was one Franklin J. Schaffner, who is responsible for what I call the three "P"'s: Patton, Planet of the Apes, and Papillon.

Having said that, I more or less agree with you. The film has an excellent idea (and the only title I know of where, to even explain it would be a spoiler!). But it's all rather silly. Olivier reminded me more of Siegfried from Get Smart! I go back and forth on Peck. And the kid actor wasn't very good.

This is one movie I wouldn't mind seeing remade. Of course, it would still have to take place in the 70s. There's some mystery but there really should be a palpable sense of dread and this movie didn't really have it.

I do like the main theme by Jerry Goldsmith, which combines both Viennese and German waltzes.

ScottDS said...

P.S. When I Saw you were doing this movie, I immediately thought of a poster.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This one would make for a good remake. Olivier really phoned this in. He is kind of like Siegfried! LOL! Mainly though, he struck me as bit character -- the stock ultra-Jewish holocaust survivor who gets caught up in a large group by the terrorists, says some "you would do this to an old man?" lines, and then gives the speech about how it was when Hitler came to power... and does nothing else.

Peck does try to project evil, but he does a better job of project "asshole."

The child actor was AWFUL! He couldn't do any of the accents and he was stiff (not menacing).

Interesting poster.

PikeBishop said...

Around the time of this film, Marathon Man and the Jazz Singer, one national critic quipped, "Laurence Olivier just has to stop playing Nazis and Jews!"

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That's a great quip! It's very fitting. At one point, he was an awesome actor. But by this point, it really struck me that he was just playing a cliched old man.

Anonymous said...

Scott, Great poster! And Andrew, "It's like being given a sports car and then letting it sit in the driveway" is a great line.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks GypsyTyger!

BTW, Scott's actually done some great posters. I recommend checking them out. LINK I really love his Soylent Green, In The Name of the Rose, and Capricorn One.

shawn said...

But by this point, it really struck me that he was just playing a cliched old man.

So, the Harrison Ford of his day.

AndrewPrice said...

Actually, Ford looks like a master thespian who loves disappearing into roles compared to Olivier here.

Kit said...

Good side? It gave us Krieger in Archer which means we now have this gem of a line:

"One more word and I'll make you wish they never scraped you out of Hitler's drawers."

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