Color, 1979, 98m.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Starring Anthony Quinn, James Mason, Patricia Neal, Malcolm McDowell, Kay Lenz, Michel Lonsdale, Christopher Lee, Paul Clemens
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (MOD DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
The fad for all-star epics (usually disaster films) was definitely drawing to a close in 1979 when this World War II drama briefly landed in theaters. Director J. Lee Thompson had scored some major hits in the '60s with The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear but was having a much tougher time in the '70s, particularly having just come off a pair of expensive (and fascinating) financial flops with The White Buffalo and The Greek Tycoon. This one seemed like a sure thing , with Tycoon star and Oscar winner Anthony Quinn headlining a reputable cast with author Bruce Nicolaysen adapting his own novel. However, the presence of James Mason here should've been a sign that this was destined to join his other controversial exercises in big-budget exploitation like Bloodline and The Boys from Brazil, and sure enough that turned out to be the case as audiences were confronted with some of the most extreme, outlandish violence seen in a major studio film around that time. On top of that the bloody mayhem and sexual assaults are perpetrated by Malcolm McDowell, apparently still channeling some demons from his lengthy stint on Caligula here as a sadistic and very hammy SS officer who likes to wear swastika jockstraps. Yep, it's that kind of film. Though moderately successful in Europe, the film dive bombed in America and soon Thompson was off making slasher films and Cannon actioners with Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris.
Allied forces have expressed a desire to recruit a valuable scientific professor, John Bergson (Mason), but the trick is getting him and his family across the Pyrenees mountains out of Axis territory in France and into the safety of Spain. A Basque shepherd (Quinn) is recruited to help Bergson and his wife, Ariel (Neal), and their two children, Leah (Lenz) and Paul (Clemens), to safety, but the nefarious Captain Von Berkow (McDowell) has been ordered to hunt them down. In the process he razes villages and tortures innocents galore to find his prey (including Christopher Lee as a gypsy and Michel Lonsdale the same year he appeared in Moonraker), often missing them by moments as they all head to a fateful confrontation high in the mountains.
A really odd one to be sure, this film has stuck in the memory of many viewers lucky enough to stumble across it during its frequent TV airings in the '80s. For some reason its transition to MGM/UA didn't result in an official home video release, though the rousing score by the underrated Michael J. Lewis (Theatre of Blood) wound up earning a fan following of its own and even appeared in the 1998 Oscar ceremony for the In Memoriam segment. In addition to featuring two Bond villains in major roles, the film continued to exert some fascination among 007 fans as the only producing credit for Maurice Binder, whose innovative credit sequences defined the Bond look for decades. Eventually MGM ponied up for a new transfer of the film for cable airings in the early '00s, and a manufactured-on-demand DVD popped up in 2011 sporting the first scope transfer ever and, far more weirdly, an extended alternate ending that drags the familiar and already very weird one out to an utterly bizarre, inexplicable degree that veers into avant garde territory.
The 2016 Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber sports an improved HD transfer from what are presumably the best elements in the vault. The film sports a very tricky look with many scenes shrouded in near darkness and outdoor shots frequently softened by filters, so the frequently murky and soft appearance here is a deliberate one. You'll see quite a few specks and scuffs throughout, but this still represents the best viewing option by far for this film to date. The DTS-HD MA English audio sounds fine considering the flat, basic nature of the original sound mix. A couple of very substantial new extras have been created for the release, which is generously spread out on a BD-50 with a high bit rate despite the fairly short running time of the main feature. The 29-minute "Go for It" features McDowell chatting about his unabashed performance and working with his hero, James Mason, as well as implying a bit of location hanky panky involving Quinn. One of the great raconteurs, McDowell's full of stories about his fellow stars ("You don't want to get caught in a car with Christopher Lee!") and his director, making this a very quick and entertaining half hour filled with tales involving trailer envy, avalanches, and reluctant nudity. Then the 33-minute "Three Months in France" features an interview with Clemens, who of course went on to star in The Beast Within and the YouTube sensation, "The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon." Also loaded with fun stories, he's very enthusiastic recalling all of his fellow actors (including Quinn, who kept asking him to do a Steve Martin imitation) and a barrage of colorful McDowell tales. He's also very warm to Lenz, who was married to David Cassidy at the time and taught him a skill called "sharking." His James Mason limerick imitation is pretty great, too, and don't miss the anecdote about going to Disneyland with Michel Lonsdale and Corinne Clery. The alternate extended ending from the DVD release is included here as an extra (apparently it only exists in SD), and the original theatrical trailer is included along with a one-minute, fuzzy TV spot.