UK – USA / ITC – Producers Circle / 124 minutes / 1978 Filmed in Deluxe
Writer: Heywood Gould (based on the novel by Ira Levin) / Music: Jerry Goldsmith / Cinematography: Henri Decae / Producers: Martin Richards, Stanley O’Toole / Director: Franklin J Schaffner
Cast: Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Steve Guttenberg, Denholm Elliott, Jeremy Black
Hollywood has frequently used Ira Levin’s novels as valuable source material for movies (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Sliver, A Kiss Before Dying were all based on the American’s work), and one of the best dramatisations of his thrillers is The Boys from Brazil. Franklin J Schaffner directs this chilling look at a latter-day Nazi attempt to produce a clone of Adolf Hitler, a plan which is masterminded by Dr Josef Mengele, the real-life ‘Angel of Death’ whose grotesque scientific experiments at Auschwitz horrified the world in the 1940s.
The film starts in Paraguay with a member of the Young Jewish Defenders Organisation, Barry Kohler (a formative sighting of STEVE GUTTENBERG), shocked to see Dr Josef Mengele (GREGORY PECK) is still alive. The doctor tells a group of neo-Nazis that 94 civil servants in Europe and North America are being assassinated on or near their 65th birthday, but after Kohler imparts this information to an ageing Viennese Nazi hunter, Ezra Lieberman (LAURENCE OLIVIER), he is killed by Mengele’s henchmen. Lieberman starts interviewing recent widows who fit Kohler’s description and notices that the young son of an American family is identical to one he saw in Europe. Further investigations reveal that all 94 families adopted boys from a suspected war criminal, Frieda Maloney (UTA HAGEN), and each had to meet certain social and personal criteria. After talking to a geneticist, Lieberman uncovers Mengele’s plan: all 94 boys are clones of Adolf Hitler, and Mengele is trying to recreate the conditions that the Führer grew up in. The scene is set for a bloody confrontation between the two ageing men.
“With two excellent antagonists in Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, The Boys from Brazil is a gripping, suspenseful drama,” Variety wrote, although the film also features strong performances by JAMES MASON and Uta Hagen as fellow Nazis. Peck was originally more interested in playing the Nazi-hunter rather than the Nazi, but because Olivier had already played a character based on Mengele (the War Criminal Szell in Marathon Man), Franklin J Schaffner decided instead to cast him as Lieberman, who is modelled on the legendary Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.