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Action and Adventure - The Novels of 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.
The Writings & Films of Alistair MacLean
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