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Action and Adventure - The Novels of Alistair MacLean

Updated on January 8, 2015
Alistair MacLean
Alistair MacLean

A tribute to one of the most popular authors of thriller fiction.

Alistair MacLean was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1922, at 19 he served in WWII with the Royal Navy. In 1944 his ship The Royalist was part of the invasion of southern France he also saw action in the far east, Sumatra, Burma and British Malaya.

After leaving the Royal Navy in 1946 he was writing short stories at the University of Glasgow where he was studying English, making a bit of money on the side and winning writing competitions. He graduated in 1953 and found employment as a school teacher.

Publishers Collins were impressed with one of his short stories and asked him to try his hand at writing a novel, drawing on his wartime experiences MacLean came up with HMS Ulysses. Published in 1955 it was a big success and the reviews were good too, MacLean quit his job as a teacher and became a fulltime author.

Alistair MacLean followed HMS Ulysses with what would become his most famous novel, it told the story of a team of Allied commandos out to destroy two huge guns in an impenetrable German fortress on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea.

Published in 1957, The Guns of Navarone was an international bestseller and brought MacLean worldwide fame. It was made into a hugely successful movie in 1961 starring Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn and directed by J. Lee Thompson.

He continued writing thrilling adventure novels for the next 30 years, writing 28 novels in total and a collection of short stories. He also wrote books about James Cook and T.E. Lawrence.

The only sequel to his novels he ever wrote was Force Ten from Navarone which was published in 1968.

Many of his novels were turned into films and he wrote the screenplays to a few of them.

The novel Ice Station Zebra, published in 1963, was influenced by the cold war and the Cuban missile crisis. A nuclear submarine is despatched on a rescue mission to the Arctic Sea. But the real mission turns out to be the retrieval of film ejected from a reconnaissance satellite which contains photographic evidence of all the nuclear weapons installations in the USA.

It was loosely adapted into a 1968 film starring Rock Hudson, Patrick MacGoohan and Ernest Borgnine, directed by John Sturges. There were many changes from the novel including important plot points, the names of the major characters and even the name of the nuclear submarine. Additional characters were added.

Another popular novel and film – Where Eagles Dare – came about when Richard Burton’s stepson told the actor he wanted to see him star in a good old fashioned adventure story. Burton asked film producer Elliott Kastner for ideas. Kastner approached Alistair MacLean for a new novel. Six weeks later MacLean delivered a script which he turned into another bestselling novel.

The story concerned a team of commandos out to rescue an American General from the Castle of Eagles – Schloss Adler, there are traitors in their midst as usually happens in MacLean’s novels. The title was taken from Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act I Scene III "The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.” The film was released in December 1968 it co-starred Clint Eastwood and was directed by Brian G. Hutton, Where Eagles Dare was one of the years biggest hits.

The only novel set in Alistair MacLean’s native Scotland was When Eight Bells Toll published in 1966 and turned into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins in 1971.

Late in his life MacLean wrote a series of storylines which were turned into novels by other authors, they involved the fictitious United Nations Anti-Crime Organization – UNACO and some of the novels included – Death Train, Hostage Tower, Night Watch, Code Breaker and Red Alert.

By the 1980’s the popularity of Alistair MacLean’s novels were in decline and his latest novels were not well received. He struggled with alcoholism which led to his premature death in 1987, he was 64.

He was buried a few yards from Richard Burton’s grave in Celigny, Switzerland.


1955 – HMS Ulysses – adapted for radio by BBC

1957 – The Guns of Navarone – Movie 1961 starring Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn.

1957 – South by Java Head

1959 – The Last Frontier – US Title The Secret Ways – Movie 1961 starring Richard Widmark.

1959 – Night Without End

1961 – Fear is the Key – Movie 1972 starring Barry Newman

1961 – The Dark Crusader – US Title The Black Shrike

1962 – The Golden Rendezvous – Movie 1977 starring Richard Harris.

1962 – The Satan Bug – Movie 1965 starring George Maharis and Richard Basehart

1963 – Ice Station Zebra – Movie 1968 starring Rock Hudson, Patrick MacGoohan and Ernest Borgnine.

1966 – When Eight Bells Toll – Movie 1971 starring Anthony Hopkins and Jack Hawkins.

1967 – Where Eagles Dare – Movie 1968 starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood

1968 – Force Ten from Navarone – Movie 1978 starring Robert Shaw, Edward Fox and Harrison Ford.

1969 – Puppet on a Chain – Movie 1971 starring Sven-Bertil Taube.

1970 – Caravan to Vaccares – Movie 1974 starring David Birney and Charlotte Rampling.

1971 – Bear Island – Movie 1980 starring Donald Sutherland, Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Widmark

1973 – The Way to Dusty Death – TV Movie 1995 starring Simon MacCorkindale and Linda Hamilton.

1974 – Breakheart Pass – Movie 1975 starring Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson and Richard Crenna.

1975 – Circus

1976 – The Golden Gate

1977 – Seawitch

1978 – Goodbye California

1980 – Athabasca

1981 – River of Death – Movie 1989 starring Michael Dudikoff, Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasance.

1982 – Partisans

1983 – Floodgate

1984 – San Andreas

1985 – The Lonely Sea – Short Story Collection

1986 - Santorini


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    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      2 years ago from London, England

      Not sure but was The Satan Bug an original story by MacLean or did he adapt the screenplay? Thanks for posting!

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      At the time of writing The Satan Bug there was actually a similar controversy going on in real life concerning biological weapons experiments. In the 1962 novel McLean sets the finale location as London where as the motion picture of a few years later has L.A. as the locale. Just love that gorgeous Hollywood actress Anne Francis though.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      I'm about to mention The Satan Bug but seems it has been mentioned before.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Was not much of a reader as a young child. In high school I needed to write a book report on a book of my choosing. The local Librarian recommended Breakheart Pass because of its strong male hero, and rustic setting. I consumed the book, did my report and received a great grade. After that I then read every Mac Lean book that they had at the library. Guns, Force 10, Ice station, and Where Eagles Dare. Many years later I come on this posting and now I see I have missed quite a few of his gems. I will take care of that by catching up again. Thanks

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      2 years ago from London England

      The premise of mounting two 18 inch naval guns facing the direction of neutral Turkey would have been tacticly unsound. I believe Mac Lean broached the idea that Italian engineers did in fact construct a massive anti-aircraft emplacement, grandious in appearance but never ever fired a shot in anger!

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      3 years ago from London England

      Just received a copy of 'The complete Navarone' which is all four books for the first time in one volume. Maclean does not glorify war but does admire the men (and women) who put their lives on the line in particularly

      dangerous situations with the ever present potential for traitors and meglomaniacs. He pays a particular tribute to the Long Range Desert Penetratration Group and the Royal Navy's Special Boat Section. The first two parts of the book need no introduction but the others are Storm Force from Navarone and Thunderbolt from Navarone.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      4 years ago from London England

      The third and probably lesser known novel of 'South by Java Head' is an especially tantalising yarn to me as it was based on facts in a region of the world that is of interest to me. There were British and other nationals able to leave Singapore prior to the enemy bluffing their way in (Singapore as an island fortress could have held out!)

      There were several instances of evacuees made up of civilian dependants of soldiers as well as nurses who departed for Java (or India, Burma etc) but sadly many vessels were sunk on route but an Australian general did in fact make it all the way to Melbourne with the enemy operational plan. MacLean makes full use of his naval experiences bolstering the storyline with nautical terms and of course the inevitable surprise ending.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      4 years ago from London England

      The helicopter used in the movie 'Where eagles dare' was only used briefly and the scene may have been cut from later release when it became obvious that the machine which was manufacted by the Bell corp, did not see combat till the Korean conflict.

    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      4 years ago from London, England

      Thanks for commenting limpet. Was there a helicopter in Where Eagles Dare? I'll have to watch it again, it's been a while.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      4 years ago from London England

      I'm glad the Satan bug has been previously mentioned. It is not an ordinary 'run of the mill' spy novel and the ending has an ironic twist to it.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 

      4 years ago from London England

      Yep! Maclean's idea for The guns of Navarone actually arrived from an Italian army anti aircraft battery on an Agean island never put to use. Whilst the plot was a veritable 'boy's own' yarn and the actors (all) well suited to their roles, i had the book too in which they didn't take women partisans on that mission. Whilst Maclean had a deadline to meet the screenplay for Where eagles dare, the Hollywood version was preposterous with a helicopter 10 years before the real thing came into service, footprints not being left behind in snow Clint Eastwood taking out the villains like it was the gunfight at the O K Corrall.

    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      5 years ago from London, England

      The good old days when reading a thriller did not require checking a long list of character names and a terminology at the front of the book. ;)

      Yep, Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare are two of my favourites. Thanks for commenting!

    • brianjanuary profile image


      5 years ago

      His early novels were brilliant--he was a natural storyteller. "The Guns of Navarone" and "Where Eagles Dare" are definite must-sees!

    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Alun, appreciate the comment. There was a time when Alistair MacLean's name was as well known as the films made from his books. Not any more, which is one of the reasons I wrote this hub.

      This reminds me of another favourite author of mine who was very popular and now nearly forgotten, Dennis Wheatley.

      Thanks for posting.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 

      6 years ago from Essex, UK

      Not being much of a reader of novels (in fact, I haven't yet read one this century) I've only ever read one of Alistair MacLean's books (The Satan Bug), but I have seen and enjoyed many of the film adaptations. As you point out, many of his novels have been adapted, perhaps because his stories have the right blend of thrills, adventure and simple story telling to work well on the big screen.

      Interesting to hear that the movie idea of 'Where Eagles Dare' effectively came about before the novel, and sad to hear how MacLean's career declined. Although I cannot comment too much on his writing ability, his contribution to exciting stories for the screen is greatly underestimated. All the films I have seen which carry his influence are good fun to watch.

      A nice page Steve about a writer who, although well known, is perhaps not well enough appreciated. Voted up. Alun

    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Dave, it is an excellent website with reviews and ratings on all MacLean's books and the movies too. I've added your link to the main hub.

    • profile image

      Dave Gertler 

      6 years ago

      Nicely written overview of MacLean's career.

      As a long-time fan of his work, I have created a website with reviews of all his novels and of many of the films based on them. Please stop by:

    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      6 years ago from London, England

      Hey thanks for visiting my 'nothing to do with movies' thread. :)

      Happy Thanksgiving Bruce!

      And Happy Thanksgiving to all the Hubbers of Hubland.

      My dad was a huge fan of these type of films, he loved Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra too.

      The only Alistair MacLean movie I saw at the cinema was Breakheart Pass.

    • Cogerson profile image


      6 years ago from Virginia

      I am in the same boat as Flora as I have not read any of the novels that Alistair MacLean wrote but have seen many of the movies based on his books. actually just bought a Blu-Ray copy of Where Eagles Dare. My dad was a huge fan of his, with The Guns of Navarone being a favorite. I had never even heard of USS Ulysses before this hub. Lots of great information that fill in lots of the blanks about Mr. MacLean. I do not find it surprising that even a non-movie hub works its way back to Happy V for Vendetta day. Voted up and very interesting.

    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      6 years ago from London, England

      Acer, Flora appreciate the comments, thanks!

      Strange how when I decide to write a non-movie hub it still turns out to be movie-related. It's an accident I swear! :)

      Flora, I didn't know Widmark's wife wrote the screenplay of The Secret Ways, an interesting bit of movie info cheers.

      I read a few of MacLeans novels back when I used to read a lot, when I could get though an entire novel without nodding off.

      Now I have to use matchsticks to prop my eyes open when I read the new highly detailed and dense technothrillers writers come out with every year.

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image


      6 years ago

      Well, I have not read his books, but I've seen several of his films. My favourite is The Guns of Navarone, no surprise there. However, the Secret Ways was a bit bizarre and hard to follow. It's one of the curiosities of Widmark's career. His wife wrote the screenplay. I still haven't seen Bear Island-that is one of my to-see Widmark films. I have seen Ice Station Zebra many times. I have seen When Eagles Dare once. I have seen Breakheart Pass once.

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 

      6 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      My father was not much of a book reader,but was a big fan of Alistair MacLean's movies and so was I...thanks for this professional and informative Hub Steve.;)


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