Bear Island


‘…While not as iconic as Ice Station Zebra, Bear Island is one of the last good MacLean adaptations and the top-notch cast keep things watchable to the bitter end…’

‘The Third Reich ended here…The Fourth Reich is just beginning…’ runs the tagline for Don Sharp’s 1979 Alistair MacLean adaptation, a big all-star action movie that was way out of fashion with critics and audiences back in the day. What failed on the big screen became a festive tv staple, and while Bear Island doesn’t have the sharpness required to make a classic, it’s far from the dud that research might suggest; it’s garnered a total of zero reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

If nothing else you get bang for your buck; avalanches, explosions, and all kinds of vehicular action; Swedish Larven “Caterpillar” snow scooters and amphibious aircraft-propelled catamarans, also known as hydrocopters. For a certain kind of guy, that’s more than enough reason to tune in, but there’s lots more going on. The setting is a tiny, remote and generally uninhabited Norwegian island where U-boat pens from WWII still conceal hidden gold. Lansing (Donald Sutherland) knows that his father was a submarine operative, and inveigles himself into a mission to the island led by Otto Gerran (Richard Widmark) supposedly investigating something his crew call‘climate change’. Radio masts collapse, explosives are used to create deadly avalanches, a generator blows up, but who is the saboteur who seeks the elusive gold?

There’s a decent choice of suspects; Christopher Lee, Lloyd Bridges, Vanessa Redgrave, Barbara Parkins, Bruce Greenwood and more are all along for the ride, even if the snowsuits often conceal the identity of the potential culprits. Bear Island sags in the mid-section, but pulls itself together for a fairly dramatic race and chase finale from Vic Armstrong that pays off in a final unmasking of the no-gooder. While not as iconic as Ice Station Zebra, Bear Island is one of the last good MacLean adaptations and the top-notch cast keep things watchable to the bitter end.

‘Goodnight Vienna’ is a repeated line here; it’s very much part of both British and Scottish vernacular as a phrase that means that the lights have, in some figurative way, gone out. It was the title of a 1932 film, and presumably was used in WWII, explaining how MacLean would have come across it. Bear Island turned out to be Goodnight Vienna in terms of big screen evocations of MacLean’s work, but his books, bigger than Bond back in the day, would still work as highly recognisable IP for reboots, remakes and re-workings, and the bar isn’t set particularly high here.


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  1. I’ve caught up with most MacLean films recently but missed out on this. Might give it another go although i remember being disappointed at the time. MacLean can certainly capture claustrophobia and a paranoia in his writing but often that – and the pace of his stories – fails to translate.

    • Yup, this has some obvious flaws, although the action and most of the later stages click. Apparently in the book, they’re a film crew not scientists studying climate change, so maybe a remake would be in order honoring the original idea.

      • MacLean was always ahead of his time. My guess is, once again, if they had followed the book, there would be more action earlier on. He didn’t like to hang around for very long.

  2. I thought I’d seen most of the MacLean films but I don’t remember this one. That doesn’t mean I haven’t seen it though. Anyway, yep.

  3. Maybe because it was a Canadian production I remember this was big news when it came out. Surprised to hear it’s fallen so far off the radar.

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