The Anglo-Canadian co-production Bear Island was the last of the notable film adaptations of Alistair MacLean’s novels. This one actually has little to do with the source novel and has a poor reputation but it proves to be entertaining enough.
A group of UN scientists arrive at Bear Island, a frozen waste well to the north of Norway which happens to be the site of a major NATO base. The scientists are supposedly there to study changing climate patterns but in fact most of them are not scientists and have no interest whatsoever in the weather. The expedition in fact is a motley assortment of spies, criminals, conspirators and fruit-cakes. So why would such people have gone to the trouble of infiltrating a scientific expedition? The answer is gold. Nazi gold, which was a remarkably popular theme in 1960 and 1970s thrillers.
You see Bear Island had been used as a military base before, by the German in World War 2. It was the site of an important U-boat base. The base was destroyed by Allied bombing late in the war. Or at least that’s what everyone assumed. In fact the U-boat pens are still there, along with several U-boats. The U-boats include U-351 which may or may not have been used by the Nazis to carry off the Norwegian gold reserves in the last days of the war.
Frank Lansing (Donald Sutherland) is unusual in that he really is a marine biologist. Despite this he also has an ulterior motive in wanting to go to Bear Island. Although he’s an American he was born in Germany and his father was a U-boat captain. He was believed lost when U-351 disappeared in 1945. Lansing hopes to discover the truth about his father’s fate.
Lechinski (Christopher Lee) is a Pole who may or may not be a KGB agent. The expedition’s leader, Professor Otto Gerran (Richard Widmark), is a Norwegian who was suspected of collaboration with the occupying Germans during the war. He was cleared of the charges but the suspicions remain. He certainly seems to be on good terms with the expedition’s two resident Nazis. Yes, this is yet another thriller about Nazis who are unhappy with the result of World War 2 and are hoping for a re-match. Smithy (Lloyd Bridges) is a genial American who seems to know more about spycraft than you’d expect in a member of a scientific expedition. In fact there’s hardly a member of this party who doesn’t arouse suspicions, apart from Dr Judith Rubin (Barbara Parkins) who is merely a shrill scientist who wants to lecture everybody.
Such romantic interest as this film has centres on the relationship between Lansing and Dr Heddi Lindquist. Dr Lindquist is a dull, humourless Norwegian psychiatrist and she’s played by the dull, humourless Vanessa Redgrave. Sutherland and Redgrave have zero chemistry and the romance sub-plot falls very flat indeed.
Don Sharp was noted for his competence as an action director and he delivers some quite effective action set-pieces, including a murder by avalanche and a chase involving hydrocopters and jet skis.
The movie’s greatest strength is the setting. There’s some spectacular photography and the frozen wastes of Bear Island provide the perfect atmosphere for a suspense thriller. The scenes in the U-boat pens are very impressive and effectively eerie.
This is not one of Sutherland’s best performances but he’s solid enough. Richard Widmark is surprisingly convincing as a troubled and possibly treacherous Norwegian. Christopher Lee, not surprisingly, makes a good sinister possible KGB agent. Vanessa Redgrave is the weak link, as she was in every movie she ever made. Lloyd Bridges is typically over-the-top as Smithy. Lansing and Professor Gerran are the only characters who exhibit any depth at all so it’s fortunate that Sutherland and Widmark are the only actors who make any attempt at actual acting.
Sony’s DVD release is barebones but features an excellent anamorphic transfer.
Bear Island has some pacing problems and suffers from some very uneven acting. Luckily the spectacular setting, the impressive sets and Don Sharp’s skills as an action director are enough to compensate for these problems and the end result is a fairly effective suspense thriller. Recommended.