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Bear Island (1979)

This strikes me as one of those films that I rarely seem to find anything positive written about and to be honest, I can’t figure out why. Equal parts Alistair MacLean, Nazi gold, an arctic location and a cast that features Donald Sutherland in the lead role surrounded by some high priced talent including Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee and Lloyd Bridges had me hooked. I hadn’t seen this film since it came out at the theater and maybe a network debut the following year and upon this revisit, time hasn’t marred my judgement. I still like it!

Writer MacLean had plenty of novels turned into feature films famously including The Guns of Navarone and lesser titles including Breakheart Pass and Golden Rendezvous among others. Directorial duties have been handed to Don Sharp whom Hammer fans may recall having helmed Rasputin, The Mad Monk which also featured Chris Lee who returns here as another Russian who may or may not be a red herring in the mystery that is to follow. The pair would also work together on a couple of Fu Manchu outings, Dark Places and a good old Pirate adventure.

A boat is enroute to Bear Island where it will drop it’s passengers meaning the stars of the film on what is supposed to be a scientific venture aimed at researching global warming. Seems like we’re still trying to agree on that touchy subject. The buildings they are too be stationed at are a former Nazi post that still stands from WW2. Also on the island is a bombed out U-Boat facility and supposedly underground passages and caverns where ships may still exist and as we will learn, the possibility of a fortune in gold bars. Practically everyone associated with this scientific venture are not who they claim to be and deadly secrets are going to be exposed before the payoff.

It’s a collection of different nationalities gathered on Bear Island including Lee’s Russian, Widmark the German who also happens to be an expert in war history, specifically German U-Boats, Barbara Parkins I noticed has a prominently displayed Canadian flag/badge on her jacket, Redgrave from Norway and then there is Sutherland who seems a bit of a mystery. We assume he’s an American though of course he’s another real life Canadian export to the movie world. This time out he’s a man with a hidden past and is on the island to uncover a family secret that involves the missing U-Boat he seeks to find. Finally we have Lloyd Bridges who is a friend to Sutherland and his partner when lesser known actors begin turning up dead.

Don and Lloyd quickly begin to suspect that Widmark and fellow German Laurence Dane are after the missing Nazi gold. If it really exists. Casualties will soon begin to mount and if one didn’t know any better, you might think Kurt Russell and the cast of The Thing might turn up at any moment due to the arctic isolation and the sabotage being committed upon various life preserving needs such as a generator.

For a brief moment I thought I might have stumbled into an Agatha Christie tale but considering writer MacLean’s Breakheart Pass felt like a cowboy version of Orient Express, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Donald is taking center stage as a man of action styled Hercule Poirot as opposed to the Peter Ustinov laid back style of sleuthing. Avalanches, explosions, falling radio towers and plenty of carnage lie in wait for Donald and Lloyd as they attempt to discover the whereabouts of the gold and just who is behind the insanity of it all. And of course Donald has those family skeletons that haunt him from his youth.

Like most any mystery, guilt will be cast across each character as the tale unfolds letting the viewers play along. Filmed in British Columbia and Alaska, the location shoot is beautiful and I’d love to see more winter shoots in locations like this. Perhaps I like this film upon a revisit due to my love of Carpenter’s The Thing. I think the isolation of the wintery yet deadly surroundings open up all kinds of possibilities for filmmakers.

At the time of the film’s release I was most interested in Christopher Lee’s appearance in a Canadian made feature film. I still have a copy of an article that appeared on Lee in our weekly TV Guide that came with the newspaper in my hometown. Richard Widmark was the other name that appealed to me because of his being a favorite in our household thanks to his association with the western. Seeing him in the film at the time was a lesson in life.

He had aged considerably and wasn’t the virile action star I had imagined him to be at this point in his film career. In reality, both have secondary roles here as the majority of screen time goes to Sutherland with Redgrave, Bridges and Dane slightly behind him. That’s due in large part to the action sequences put together by second unit director and stunt co-ordinator, Vic Armstrong.

Not readily available in North America, I had to get a DVD shipped in from the U.K. which is rather ridiculous considering that this is a made in Canada feature though I’m glad I did as it was fun to check it out after far too many years. The Original one sheet? That I do have in my collection.

6 Comments »

  1. Well, I think we’ve started another streak of reviews of films I’ve never seen…but I distinctly remember buying the paperback book! Not sure why I wouldn’t have seen this when it was first released…it’s just the type of movie I would’ve checked out that year, when I started going to the walking-distance multiplex regularly and catching at least a movie a week. Oh wait…it seems it opened in the US in August of 1980, so I guess I went to see ‘Xanadu’ instead…

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