Alistair MacLean was a writer who found his niche at the very beginning of his writing career. Having made a successful debut with H.M.S. Ulysses, he proceeded to turn out thirty-three novels in the next thirty years. He worked very quickly, completing a screenplay in about two months and a novel in even less time. That he set a demanding schedule for himself can be inferred from his output. He was a formula writer, whose formula was exceedingly successful, and he would not have claimed to be anything else. To MacLean, writing was a business, and his responsibility as a businessman was to please the customer (that is, the reader).
As noted above, MacLean’s fast-moving narratives and their often rugged settings are eminently filmable, and several of his early books were adapted for the screen. By 1967, MacLean was ready to try his own hand at screenwriting. His first effort was the script for Where Eagles Dare, which had been published as a novel that year. He enjoyed solving the technical problems associated with screenwriting and went on to adapt several more of his novels: The Guns of Navarone (1957), Caravan to Vaccarès (1970), When Eight Bells Toll (1966), Puppet on a Chain (1969), Force 10 from Navarone (1968), and The Golden Rendezvous (1962). MacLean novels adapted for the screen by others include Fear Is the Key (1961), Ice Station Zebra (1963), The Last Frontier (1959), South by Java Head (1958), The Satan Bug (1962), Bear Island (1971), H.M.S. Ulysses, and Breakheart Pass (1974). These films have been vehicles for action stars such as Clint Eastwood (Where Eagles Dare) and Charles Bronson (Breakheart Pass), as well as other major stars, such as Richard Burton (Where Eagles Dare), Rock Hudson (Ice Station Zebra), and Anthony Hopkins (When Eight Bells Toll).
The novels follow a pattern that millions of MacLean fans have endorsed for more than three decades. The protagonist is a strong man, usually an extreme individualist, who is often in conflict with regularly constituted authority. He is pitted against an implacable, often a totalitarian, enemy. The confrontation usually takes place in some bleak and menacing locale—the turbulent North Atlantic, the sheer face of a cliff, a windswept mountain peak, or frozen arctic tundra. The action consists of a series of encounters (a capture, an escape, a recapture, a reescape), violent and intense but essentially inconclusive, leading up to the final climactic scene. Here, MacLean follows the basic episodic structure of the adventure story, descending from Homer and the medieval romance through James Fenimore Cooper and Alexandre Dumas, père. He adds to the mix an emphasis on twentieth century technology, so that the hero is often simultaneously facing hostile men, a hostile environment, and hostile machines.
The Guns of Navarone
An example of a novel that blends twentieth century technology with the traditional adventure story is The Guns of Navarone, one of MacLean’s best-known tales, thanks in part to the highly successful motion-picture version starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn. In this work, the Allied heroes must destroy mammoth German guns housed in supposedly impenetrable caves high up the face of a sheer and seemingly unscalable cliff....
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