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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “When Eight Bells Toll” (1971) – 50th Anniversary

The list of actors who have been considered for the part of James Bond’s 007 is huge. It included: Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Hugh Jackman, Clint Eastwood, Idris Elba, Tom Hiddleston and Burt Reynolds. But have you ever thought about Hannibal Lector? Well maybe not Lector himself but the man who famously played the cannablistic doctor Sir Anthony Hopkins. He’s never been in the running for the part, however he did appear in a film that was clearly an attempt to piggyback on the success of 007. 

Long before “The Silence of the Lambs (1991) had finally made him a household name, Anthony Hopkins had built a respectable reputation as an actor of the stage. But he had also appeared in films, making his eye-catching feature debut in the late 1960s with “The Lion in Winter”. 1971’s “When Eight Bells Toll”, is one of his few traditional starring roles and his first as a top-billed leading man. Hopkins who received £8,000 pounds (equivalent to $11,000 in U.S. dollars) and met his future wife, production secretary Jennifer Lynton while making on the set of the movie. Hopkins role as naval secret service agent Philip Calvert, is the closest anyone will come to seeing Hopkins play a James Bond type. 

“When Eight Bells Toll” is based upon Scottish author Alistair MacLean’s 1965 novel of the same name and often leans into the Fleming-esque territory. His works also include: “The Guns of Navarone”, “Ice Station Zebra” and “Where Eagles Dare”, all of which were made into popular films. The term “Eight bells” used in the title, is a nautical reference to the hour of midnight. It is also a nautical euphemism indicating “finished” as well as an expression stating the end of a sailor’s watch (as in an obituary).

At the time “When Eight Bells Toll” was about to go into production, the future of the James Bond series was in question. Sir Sean Connery had left the role and George Lazenby had taken over, who hadn’t really clicked with fans. The producers of “When Eight Bells Toll” no doubt saw an opportunity to create a new spy movie franchise. But, Bond returned and so did Connery in the roll. “Diamonds are Forever”, released a few months after “When Eight Bells Toll”. 

The comparisons in the Anthony Hopkins spy flick to the Bond franchise are unmistakable. All the way down to the splashy 007 artwork on the films poster that really evokes the spirit of James Bond. Or from the dangerous woman to the cocktails to the villains to Robert Morley’s M-like Uncle Arthur. But that’s not to say that they don’t do a good job with the whole thing. As Bond knock-offs go, this is one of the best. 

In July of 1966, producer Elliott Kastner and his producing partner Jerry Gershwin had purchased five screenplays from author Alistair MacLean: “Where Eagles Dare”, “When Eight Bells Toll” and three other unnamed ones. In November Kastner announced they would make the film as part of a 14-film slate over two years. Among the 14 movies were Maclean’s “Where Eagles Dare”, which was a big hit in 1968, leading to high expectations for “When Eight Bells Toll”.

Kastner was drawn to “When Eight Bells Toll” because, “There was a strong character and a great adventure in there”. MacLean adapted his own novel for the screen himself and kept the adaptation as close to the novel as possible. The story is very close to the source text and features some of the same witty dialogue. Although MacLean decided to put some twists on the ending having been changed from what was in his book. MacLean added a shootout to replace MacLean’s original Agatha Christie-style ending.

Producer Elliott Kastner says he raised the budget for the film by ringing “a guy I read about in Fortune magazine and I went and saw him and said ‘I need one point eight million dollars to make this second Alistair Maclean project’. He heard me out and he wrote the damn cheque”. Kastner also regrets hiring Belgian director, Etienne Perier who had only done low budget films. Kastner saying hiring him was “probably the one mistake” he made on the film.

Kastner wanted a Celtic actor to play the hero Calvert, having had a big success with Richard Burton in “Where Eagles Dare”. Kastner said, “I saw agent Calvert as a very exciting characterization. A lot could be done with him. But I didn’t want a Tony Curtis. I didn’t want a star. I wanted a classical actor. A real actor”. Hopkins was chosen on the basis of his performance in his first feature film “The Lion in Winter”. 

Hopkins turned down the role at first, worried about being labeled an action star. “It seemed too fast for me” Hopkins said. “I could hear myself saying, ‘Now wait a minute’. Then when I had finally overcome my fright I said to myself ‘I’d be mad to turn this chance down’”. Kastner requested Hopkins to lose weight for the role. James Bond film stunt arranger Bob Simmons helped Hopkins slim down to become a convincing Royal Naval officer trained as a commando and frogman. This experience is recollected in Simmons’ 1987 book “Nobody Does It Better: My 25 Years of Stunts With James Bond and Other Stories”.

Hopkins is Philip Calvert, a British Navy action man retrieved from service in the Mediterranean by his old pal Roy Hunslett (Corin Redgrave), an Intelligence officer, to help organize an investigation into a series of disappearances of ships carrying bullion (not the little cubes they use to make soup) off the Scottish coast. Calvert makes a plan to track a potential target ship, and this is accepted by Hunslett’s globular snob of a boss, Sir Arthur Arnford-Jones (Robert Morley), or “Uncle Arthur”, but he also insists they use two more familiar and house-trained agents. 

When Calvert boards the ship in an inlet off the small town of Torbay, he finds this pair have been killed, and Calvert only escapes a party of gun toting heavies aboard by the skin of his teeth. Calvert and Hunslett soon begin to delve into a conspiracy that involves the townsfolk, who are variously employed or blackmailed into aiding with the ship hijackings, including local laird Kirkside (Tom Chatto) and his daughter Sue (Wendy Allnutt). The mastermind behind all of the villainy is magnate Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins), who hovers off the coast in his yacht with his icy wife Charlotte (Nathalie Delon) and suspiciously bossy guests MacCallum (Derek Bond) and Lavorski (Ferdy Mayne).

Kastner originally offered the role of Sir Anthony Skouras to Orson Welles. The deal was for $40,000 for one week’s work, with an extra $5,000 for living expenses. Instead the role went to Jack Hawkins, who had to be voice dubbed by actor Charles Gray, after throat surgery had affected his distinctive voice. Filming for “When Eight Bells Toll”, started in September 1969 and went for sixteen weeks. It was shot partly on location in Scotland with studio work at Pinewood studios. While Peter Ibbetson’s widescreen photography makes the most of the innately dramatic location photography around the Scottish and Irish coastlines, generating a sweeping and primal backdrop.  

Filming for “When Eight Bells Toll”, started in September 1969 and filmed for sixteen weeks. It was shot partly on location in Scotland with studio work at Pinewood studios. While Peter Ibbetson’s widescreen photography makes the most of the innately dramatic location photography around the Scottish and Irish coastlines to generate a sweeping and primal backdrop.  

MacLean fills his script with plenty of that Alistair MacLean action from his books.  Including underwater fights, cliff climbing, gunplay and fisticuffs. The action isn’t staged on a extravagant scale like the Bond films, but the action still remains gripping, visually impressive, well-staged that’s a cool reminder of what action scenes looked like long before fancier effects and CGI entered the fray. It’s easy to admit that another major pleasure of the film is in the sight of Hopkins getting into action mode having fist fights, gun fights, squeezing into a wetsuit, plugging a guy with a crossbow and doing all the things expected of an action hero. 

The movie was to be the first in a series of spy movies featuring the character Philip Calvert. Since Sir Sean Connery had stated that he would be doing no further James Bond movies, the producers saw an opportunity to be the next big franchise in the spy-action genre. Kramer even commissioned MacLean to write two more Philip Calvert screenplays for the sequels. However, the movie’s box-office failure scrapped any plans for future entries in the “Agent Calvert” series.

Producer Elliott Kastner commented that “Proportionately, it made more than ‘Where Eagles Dare’, so I cannot say it disappointed me. But the distribution deals weren’t as efficient as they could have been. I sold it to an organization for distribution in the U K. and that was all right. In the U.S., it went to one of the distribution companies owned by our financier and that may not have been the wisest route in terms of market saturation”. 

If Hopkins really was never considered for the role of 007, this film certainly leaves one wondering why. He makes a quite crafty and appealing spy. “When Eight Bells Toll” deserves a better reputation and is a very enjoyable spy flick. It may have come as a response to 007, but it’s strong enough to earn a licence to kill all on it’s own..

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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