The title is from a sea-faring term; Alistair MacLean’s adaptation of his own novel makes appropriately salty use of the author’s own experience in the navy. Filmed in and around the Scottish coastal village of Tobermory, here fictionalised as Torbay, Etienne Perier’s actioneer was intended to spark a new series to rival if not succeed the James Bond films, which were in mid Connery/Lazenby contractual free-fall when this was being made. Alas, no other film featuring Phillip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) were made, but this gives a good flavour of what a potential franchise might have been like.
Calvert is introduced storming a hi-jacked ship; he’s a professional secret agent for the British Treasury, and clearly knows his stuff. MacLean gives Calvert plenty of animosity against his London-based superiors, notably Robert Morley as Uncle Arthur, Calvert’s handler and a man who seems more consumed with the availability of egg sandwiches than solving the mystery of the missing gold bullion. The nearby boat of shipping magnate Sir Anthony Skousas (Jack Hawkins) suggests who might be responsible, but Skouras’s wife Charlotte complicates things by getting attached to Calvert.
There’s a couple of duff-process shots, but for a film made in 1969, When Eight Bells Toll looks amazing today, with great location work in and around the Isle of Mull, terrific use of boats and Westland helicopters, and action that derives directly from the narrative, rather than feeling tacked on. The way Calvert attaches a live grenade to a rope and swing-balls it backwards into his enemies during the final confrontation is genius; without being a super-hero, he’s an ingenious, likeable hero.
When Eight Bells Toll is surprisingly modern in outlook and scope, and the presence of Hopkins, a versatile and thoughtful leading man, lends it a real sense of gravity. This is derring-do and Queen and Country stuff, but leavened with a healthy air of cynicism; enjoy a grand old action movie that still works in 2020.