(1978) Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner; Written by Heywood Gould; Based on the novel by Ira Levin; Starring: Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier; James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Steve Guttenberg, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, Bruno Ganz and Michael Gough; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“In that particular role, the appearance helped a great deal. I had a nasty little mustache and my hair was blackened. The exterior and the accent helped a lot… Then, of course, there was the idea of working with Sir Laurence Olivier. He was just about ‘it’ in my opinion.” – Gregory Peck (excerpted from 2000 Los Angeles Times interview with Steve Proffitt)
I’d like to extend a big thanks to Rebecca Deniston from Taking Up Room for hosting The Atticus and Boo Blogathon, focusing on the film achievements of esteemed actors Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall. Today’s selection is perhaps one of the more dubious roles of Peck’s career, but a suitably ghoulish one for the month of October.
At first glance, The Boys from Brazil might seem to be a curious choice for Horror Month. Technically, it’s not a horror movie, but a science-fiction/thriller. Considering, however, that the main character is one of the most contemptible figures from history, Dr. Joesef Mengele, labeling this as horror seems appropriate. Mengele was responsible for numerous atrocities in Auschwitz, using prisoners as guinea pigs, the details of which I won’t delve into here. Of special note were his experiments with twins, which for the purposes of this story, led him to cloning. They might not have saved Hitler’s brain, but Mengele managed to collect some of his DNA so neo-Nazis could carry on the dictator’s twisted legacy. The Hitler clones were then placed in homes throughout the world by a shadowy adoption agency, with strict fathers and doting mothers. Mengele’s endeavors to strike the proper nature/nurture balance, all in the hopes of producing at least one viable ruler to build a future Fourth Reich. If this sounds bonkers, you’re not wrong.
Peck plays Dr. Mengele with conviction and intensity, as a man so deluded by the righteousness of his cause, he thinks he’s doing humanity a service. He’s bereft of conscience or compassion, with the solitary goal of supporting a diseased ideology. Mengele carries on his unethical research in Paraguay* using the indigenous population as test subjects, far away from the prying eyes of society. One of the hallmarks of playing a credible villain is that he doesn’t see himself as evil. There’s no sneering delivery of monologues, or grandiose cackles. Mengele, as portrayed by Peck, doesn’t see himself as a bad person; he’s simply performing a task no one else can or would do. James Mason is also good in a supporting role as his right-hand man, Eduard Seibert. When push comes to shove, Seibert doesn’t share Mengele’s zeal for the cause, favoring self-preservation over duty.
* Fun Fact: Instead of shooting in South America, the filmmakers chose to film the Paraguay scenes in Portugal, creating a simulated jungle, replete with the requisite flora and fauna.
It must have been a relief for Laurence Olivier, who played a sadistic Nazi dentist in Marathon Man (1976), to play his former character’s opposite (and Mengele’s nemesis), Nazi-hunter Ezra Lieberman. Compared to Mengele, who has secured the funds of wealthy benefactors, Lieberman works on a shoestring budget. His European base of operations has a leaky roof, and he has trouble paying the rent on time. Ignoring these setbacks, he’s resolute in his dogged quest to bring escaped war criminals to justice.
Considering the subject matter, which intermittently lapses into exploitive territory, the film introduces some thoughtful elements. In one scene, Lieberman discusses the possibilities and implications of human cloning with a geneticist, played by Bruno Ganz (who, incidentally, portrayed Hitler in the grim 2004 historical drama, Downfall). On the plus side (if there could be such a thing), it could be a means of bringing back people who have made significant contributions to society (such as scientists and artists). On the other hand, as illustrated in the film, it could be a Pandora’s box that could bring back history’s worst examples of humanity. A key theme, which serves as a counterpoint, is that one is more than the end result of his or her genetic makeup. It’s impossible for Mengele and his cronies to control all of the environmental factors. It’s a foregone conclusion that many of the clones he’s created are bound for different destinies. Despite the unsavory ramifications of cloning, Liebeman understands that you can’t answer immorality with immorality. When pressed by a fellow Nazi hunter, he adamantly refuses to be party to killing the now 14-year-old children (played by Jeremy Black in a quadruple role).
The filmmakers make things ambiguous with regard to the clones. Due to their privileged upbringing, they seem to have a sense of entitlement, but on the other hand, the film never paints them as particularly bad or good. (SPOILER ALERT) In the final, over the top confrontation between Lieberman and Mengele, Bobby Wheelock, a Hitler clone, decides to help Lieberman at the end.* He doesn’t do it out of a sense of right and wrong, but out of mutual benefit. His enigmatic response provides, perhaps, a glimpse of the adult he will be become. He’s not exactly on the path to becoming a good Samaritan, but falls far short of becoming another architect of mass genocide.
* Another Fun Fact: MST 3K fans take note, this film is source of the line “You freaked-out maniac!” exclaimed by Bobby Wheelock (Jeremy Black).
The Boys from Brazil is an A-list film with a B-movie premise. While it’s hard to imagine how the filmmakers managed to coerce such a pedigreed cast of actors to sign on to this production, their presence lends a needed dose of veracity to the proceedings. The film uses a tricky recipe, which takes a touchy subject, throws in a dash of exploitation, and mixes in a dose of intrigue to create a potent, if slightly uneven brew. Peck deserves special mention for his performance, as one of the most beloved actors of his generation playing a character with no redeeming qualities. The Boys from Brazil is an effective enough thriller, as long as you can appreciate its unabashed pulp sensibilities.