Review: The Boys from Brazil

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

“Budt ze prroject vill be ruindt,” complains Gregory Peck, in the worst possible screen-German accent, when James Mason’s SS Colonel suggests that Peck’s mad geneticist recall his squad of assassins, sent out to bump off 94 civil servants throughout the world. It’s a clever way to evoke audience sympathy for the bad guys, because at this point in the film we don’t want Dr. Josef Mengele’s project to be cancelled—not till we can at least find out precisely what it is. How can the killing of 94 low-grade civil servants, aged 65, possibly bring about “ze Fourss Reich”? That our curiosity should be used to ally us with Mengele, even though we already know him to be a heinous villain, is indicative of Franklin Schaffner’s offbeat taste in heroes. Schaffner has wavered between celebrations of mavericks who defy convention (The War Lord, Planet of the Apes, Patton, Islands in the Stream) and confrontations or alliances of two strong-but-flawed characters (The Best Man, Papillon, and the special case of The Double Man in which Yul Brynner played both a CIA agent and a Communist spy). The Boys from Brazil seems to unite the two interests, with Schaffner unable to conceal his fascination for Mengele, quite despite the intentions of novelist Levin and scenarist Gould.

That Schaffner’s camera and montage tend always to shift interest from the self-martyring Nazi-hunter Ezra Liebermann (Olivier) to the conscienceless experimenter in human mutation Josef Mengele is a credit to Schaffner’s interest in doing something different, taking a daring slant. That he is inconsistent and uncommitted in his approach to Mengele, however, is the central weakness of the film. He is finally just not daring enough to make Mengele the center of interest, to make him anything more than a straw villain. Much might have been made of this modern-day Dr. Moreau, in his jungle laboratory, surrounded with mutants of his own making. Instead, Schaffner’s fascination with Mengele is continually undercut by his sense of duty to the plot and to its outraged postwar morality. And so the mad doctor is finally chewed into bits of gratuitous gore by a quartet of identical Dobermans—who mirror the cold ruthlessness of the four Hitler clones played with obnoxiousness but never any real terror by Jeremy Black—and Liebermann becomes the hero after all, refusing to disclose the addresses of the 90 other little Hitlers to the fanatical American Jew who would kill them all. This final gambit gives us the same frustration as did the premature abortion of Mengele’s sacred mission by the SS axeman: a sense of incompleteness. What is to become of these little boys? Or is this just one more ending like that of The Omen, calculated to fill us with terror at the suggestion that our future leaders are, one way or another, hell-born? And what else is new?

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL
Direction: Franklin J. Schaffner. Screenplay: Heywood Gould, after the novel by Ira Levin. Cinematography: Henri Decaë. Production design: Gil Parrando. Editing: Robert E. Swink. Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
The players: Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Jeremy Black, Jon Rubinstein, Uta Hagen, Steven Guttenberg, Anne Meara, Bruno Ganz, Rosemary Harris, Lilli Palmer, Walter Gotell, Wolfgang Preiss, Denholm Elliott, Michael Gough, John Dehner.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.