Ridiculous Plot, Ham Acting, Sledgehammer Direction – Awesome Movie!

BOYS FROM BRAZIL, THE (1978)

To view The Boys from Brazil click here.

Alternate histories have always had a devoted following and have been around for years. Since World War II’s end, many alternative histories have focused on Nazis, with premises like “What if the Nazis had won?” or “What if the Nazis were victorious?” (Fatherland, The Man in the High Castle) or “What if the Americans had elected a Nazi sympathizer” (The Plot Against America) or some variation on those basic themes. But only one book/movie had the guts to ask, “What if the Nazis lost, like they actually did, but the party stayed alive in South America, like they actually did, and Josef Mengele, the notoriously cruel, sick and incompetent Nazi quack, cloned Adolph Hitler and then a group of Nazis spent years making sure each clone (all 94 of them) had the same exact upbringing as Hitler in order to reproduce him to lead the Fourth Reich?” No one else asked that question because, holy crap, what a stupid question! But Ira Levin asked it because that man knew how to take a premise no matter how ludicrous and turn it into entertainment gold. Anyway, the resulting book, and then movie, The Boys from Brazil (1978) is about exactly that because somehow, someone thought that if you recreated Hitler’s childhood, you would somehow also replicate the exact world conditions that brought Hitler to power in the first place. Oh wait, I don’t think they thought about that part.

The Boys from Brazil stars Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier ostensibly battling it out as Nazi versus Nazi hunter but really it’s a contest to see which actor can out-ham the other one, and God do I love it! I only wish they somehow could have figured out a way to include William Shatner in the mix but, alas, that boat has sailed. What can you do?

The movie starts out with that underrated commodity from the 1980s, Steve Guttenberg (not joking, he’s actually pretty good), alerting Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Olivier) that Josef Mengele (Peck) is in Paraguay. Lieberman says, essentially, “yeah, yeah, tell me something I don’t know” which forces Steve back to the Nazi’s secret hideout to record their meetings about establishing yet another one of those damn Reichs. He calls Lieberman again but gets killed except this time Lieberman hears Mengele’s voice and suddenly he’s on the hunt. This hunt leads Lieberman all over the world where he finds a bunch of murdered fathers, young mothers, and little creepy teenagers who are kind of aloof and smug. Spoiler: They’re Hitler clones! See, back in the day, Mengele took several dozen women to a lab in Brazil where they were impregnated with Hitler DNA and then the offspring were sent out to young mothers married to older civil servants who, somehow they knew, would hate their adopted sons. Then the father’s get murdered and since the clone’s life is on a track similar to Hitler, they then grow up to become ruthless, anti-Semitic monsters running Germany.

BOYS FROM BRAZIL, THE (1978)

I know what you’re thinking, “But wait, just because you have the same DNA and roughly equivalent parental conditions, that doesn’t mean the world itself is following on the same track to make you a dictator and, hold on, don’t you have to fight in World War I first? How are they going to replicate that? And what about the Beer Hall Putsch? Is that going to get replicated too? And Hitler being arrested and writing that awful, awful book in jail? Didn’t that play a large role in… wait… did anyone think this through?! At all?!” But come on, where’s the fun in thinking that when we’ve got 94 smug Hitler clones and two of the great actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age hamming it up like you have rarely seen. There’s hamming, and then there’s hamming! Then there’s this movie. The hamming here has pineapple rings on top with a honey glaze.

And the hamming isn’t limited to the actors. The movie begins with Jerry Goldsmith, the great composer, somehow finding a way to ham it up for the incidental music as Steve Guttenberg tracks Nazis in Paraguay. It is portentous and pompous and underlines every movement and action. Then we see the Nazis and the actors playing them do everything in their power, without vocal lines, to announce to anyone watching, “We are Nazis! Behold!” There’s even that guy whose face melts in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  No, no, not the archaeologist and not the Gestapo guy who interrogates everyone, but the third guy, Wolf Kahler.

BOYS FROM BRAZIL, THE (1978)

And the ridiculous plotting isn’t limited to the Hitler plot. Oh no, there’s plenty more. For instance, Guttenberg needs to get a bug planted inside the house where Mengele will be meeting with the other Nazis to discuss the crazy plan. The bug works by transmitting on public airwaves so that a portable radio can pick it up. So Guttenberg bribes a young boy who works at the house to plant it. What does he bribe him with? A portable radio. You know, the kind that the boy will listen to at the house, thus revealing to anyone in the house that the conversation taking place in the dining room is publicly available on the radio.

Even details like plumbing issues in Olivier’s apartment are overdone. The leaks, which we see the first time he goes into his apartment, are more like waterfalls that, if they persisted for more than five minutes, would probably collapse the floor beneath them.

Finally, at the end (Spoilers Follow!) we get to see Olivier and Peck together on the screen fighting it out, both physically and with respect to their acting. If you haven’t seen it, you must. You absolutely must. It’s like an acting cage match, each one acting more physically hurt and determined than the other. They roll around on the floor, Olivier bites Peck’s hand then Peck bites Olivier’s (not kidding), Olivier sticks his thumbs into Peck’s mouth and stretches his lips out (still not kidding), Peck bites Olivier’s ear lobe off (and still not kidding), until finally both actors emerge with their dignity completely intact (okay, totally kidding on that last one).

BOYS FROM BRAZIL, THE (1978)

Laurence Olivier was a great actor. As was Gregory Peck. And Lilli Palmer, Denholm Elliot, James Mason and Uta Hagen. And Franklin Schaffner was a more than capable director who won an Oscar for directing Patton (1970). The cast and crew were all quite talented people and the writer of the novel, Ira Levin, wrote such classics as Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. And all of them use their innate and considerable talents to roll with this story like it was Ibsen. I’m not here to run it down either. Everything above is written out of genuine affection. Olivier, who was nominated for ten acting Oscars, received his tenth and final nomination for this very movie which is stunning considering how hilariously over the top he is. But he does so with absolute gusto and determination. Olivier didn’t phone in a single second. I think the members of the Academy recognized that and thought, “We’ve got to. He really worked for it.” And Peck’s final demented speech to the little Hitler clone with the dogs is one for the acting record books.

Movies can speak to viewers in all kinds of ways. Some movies, like this one, yell at the viewer through a megaphone, and the enjoyment of watching it is not to watch something bad, but to watch the assembled talent all going for the rafters, and delivering. Yes, the plot is ridiculous. Yes, the acting (and pretty much everything else) is pure, grade A, honey glazed ham. But, damn, it sure is fun to watch.

Greg Ferrara

20 Responses Ridiculous Plot, Ham Acting, Sledgehammer Direction – Awesome Movie!
Posted By Emgee : March 17, 2017 5:23 am

“they then grow up to become ruthless, anti-Semitic monsters running Germany.” What, all 94 of them? And how did they all get to Germany, being born all over the globe? And weren’t there 2 Germany’s at the time? And..oh well. let’s leave it at that.
Who doesn’t like a slice of ham now and then?

Oh, and Peck was nominated for a Golden Globe; what were they drinking?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 17, 2017 10:31 am

Well, they had to account for probably a good 60 or 70 percent failure rate, right? So that eliminates about 64, let’s say. Then… um… I’m really not sure. I don’t even know how they insure that the clones go into politics. Maybe they just become gas station attendants or something (Citgo, natch).

Josef Mengele: “Go to the Citgo on the corner. Why settle for a peasant when you can have your oil checked by the Fuhrer himself?!”

Posted By EricJ : March 17, 2017 2:20 pm

Uh, this isn’t the Medved Golden Turkey Awards, nor is it AgonyBooth.com, and frankly, by today’s standards, jolly line-by-line vaudeville-ripping into a “Best Worst Movie” sounds either too high-school-Internet from kids who only rented the movie once on reputation, or a bit, well, g-a-i. (As it did for the Medveds, if you read the books today after MIchael’s national-critic stint in the 80′s/90′s.)
That said, author Ira Levin isn’t the tightest horror author, and you can get good results if you give his clever high-concept books to a Roman Polanski for “Rosemary’s Baby” (as discussed last week), but play them straight like Stepford Wives, and the flaws sometimes show.

And it gets lumped in with all of Olivier’s other notorious bad-accent ’78-82 “paycheck” work (Dracula, Inchon, The Jazz Singer), but that was exactly what it was: Olivier in the mid-70′s learned that he had a degenerative disease that would end his stage career, realized that the RSC didn’t pay royalties, was already depressed about his career, and openly sneered that he took film roles to pay for his retirement. When news got out that Olivier was playing Zeus in ’81′s “Clash of the Titans”, his other 60′s-70′s actors like Maggie Smith treated it as a “Benefit show”, and wanted to get in on the movie.
Here, give him credit, Olivier does put everything into the performance, and like Peck in the 50′s John Huston “Moby Dick”, Peck’s stiffness can make even the most over-the-top craziness seem that much more unsettling.

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : March 17, 2017 3:23 pm

WOW! An article about BOYS FROM BRAZIL. I think this movie is a lot of fun. I thought Olivier over-acted but yes, he does put everything into his performance. The best performance to me is Gregory Peck. He seldom played a bad guy, especially later in his career, and he does a great job here. I enjoyed seeing him playing against type.

Posted By Emgee : March 17, 2017 4:04 pm

EricJ, it’s a masterpiece. Happy?

Posted By EricJ : March 17, 2017 5:45 pm

@Emgee – Oh no, it’s bad all right (or at least late 70′s post-Patton Franklin Schaffner standard/mediocre), just that when you’re a grownup, there’s just less of a drooling gleeful Rifftrax-like -thrill- at comically “punishing” old bad movies at random for being Bad, or even worse, for being Old.
There’s an old rule in comedy that “Nothing kills the joke faster than the enthusiastic desire to TELL it.” And why? Because if you’re having more personally fun -telling- the joke than getting the audience to get in on it, by technical dictionary definition, that’s being a bully.
(And if a salute to Faye Dunaway had inspired a hilarious 70′s-bashing star-embarrassment deconstruction of “Mommie Dearest”, ahem, cough…’nuff said for the readers’ reactions to the columnist’s enthusiasm on the subject. You know what I mean, and don’t pretend you don’t. ;) )

Whether it’s trying to pick on 70′s movies, or on Olivier’s Paycheck phase (which even he admitted was Michael Caine’s good advice for actors keeping up with the new British taxes), or just at the easy Millennial-Internet gag of anything that mentions Hitler, let alone how the movie had done in box-office, keep in mind that most folks who watch a channel devoted to Criterion movies are either your parents’ age or have learned to watch them a little more carefully.
And craft the Wacky Internet humor a little more to the audience.

Posted By Emgee : March 18, 2017 4:48 am

Ehm?……..yeah!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 18, 2017 9:42 am

Hey, you guys remember when I wrote this line that one time?

“I’m not here to run it down either. Everything above is written out of genuine affection.”

Where was that? Oh yeah, it was in the text of this very piece. Good Lord, “punishing old bad movies”?! It’s a Criterion title. I am tasked with writing up said titles. I chose it because I love watching it.

Posted By Emgee : March 18, 2017 4:08 pm

Nah, i just like bashing old movies.

Posted By George : March 18, 2017 7:16 pm

I thought BOYS FROM BRAZIL was laughably awful the first time I saw it (in a theater in 1978), but guess what? It has gotten better with every viewing. And not as camp, but as drama. Olivier is seriously good, not campy, in all his scenes.

Maybe it’s because the average Hollywood movie has gotten so much worse since the late ’70s. BOYS FROM BRAZIL looks good by comparison.

Posted By Emgee : March 19, 2017 6:06 am

“Maybe it’s because the average Hollywood movie has gotten so much worse since the late ’70s.”

Maybe not necessarily worse, but definitely more youth-orientated. Would they make a movie with a few old men in the lead nowadays?

Posted By Shaka : March 19, 2017 8:54 am

I’m sorry, George, but The Boys From Brazil is bullshit, and then some; how can a group of hunted, persecuted, and in hiding fascists be able to perfect cloning while the rest of the world can’t? The set up of The 6th Day makes more sense than The Boys From Brazil.

As for movies with older actor leads currently; well, there’s this action/adventure movie series that has a lot of older actors as the leads alongside younger actors…

Posted By EricJ : March 19, 2017 2:29 pm

They would if it was a NYT Bestseller.
Which, in the mid-70′s, was the official mass-audience-approved studio License to Print Money (remember when Fox told theaters they -had- to show Star Wars in ’77 if they wanted to run “The Other Side of Midnight”?)–But also meant that big-budget Hollywood stories were crafted with a little more dialogue and chapter-plotting experience.

The book and movie industries moved away from each other after the Golden Age 70′s, and now when a “NYT Bestseller!” is filmed, we hide under our beds thinking it’s Nicholas Sparks or a YA franchise.

Posted By swac44 : March 19, 2017 3:34 pm

“Would they make a movie with a few old men in the lead nowadays?”

I just saw a trailer for a remake of Goin’ in Style with Alan Arkin and Morgan Freeman, so I guess they would!

Posted By George : March 19, 2017 3:54 pm

” … now when a “NYT Bestseller!” is filmed, we hide under our beds thinking it’s Nicholas Sparks or a YA franchise.”

That’s because it usually IS.

What was the last hit movie based on a best-selling novel that wasn’t Sparks or YA? Maybe GONE GIRL?

Posted By George : March 19, 2017 3:59 pm

“Would they make a movie with a few old men in the lead nowadays?”

LOGAN stars Hugh Jackman (born 1968) and Patrick Stewart (born 1940) and it’s a hit. I know that Jackman isn’t really “old,” but he is — and looks like — a middle-aged man pushing 50.

Interestingly, LOGAN (a very good movie) is largely concerned with death and with the mental and physical deterioration that comes with age. Conventional wisdom holds that such topics scare away a mass audience. Hasn’t happened in this case.

Posted By Emgee : March 19, 2017 5:09 pm

“I just saw a trailer for a remake of Goin’ in Style with Alan Arkin and Morgan Freeman, so I guess they would!”

But they probably don’t expect it to be a big box-office hit, more of a arthouse movie.

The Boys from Brazil was definitely meant to be a succesful mainstream movie, and it did OK, but they probably expected more.

Posted By Swac44 : March 19, 2017 6:07 pm

I’d say it was probaby a modest earner at the box office, and likely earned even more through worldwide TV sales (a specialty of producer Sir Lee Grade). I came across it repeatedly on TV, network and local affiliate showings, in the pre-home video days.

Posted By Swac44 : March 19, 2017 6:08 pm

Sir LEW Grade. Stupid spellcheck.

Posted By swac44 : March 20, 2017 8:00 am

Gee Shaka, I don’t know? How did a scientist in Victorian England invent a time machine when the rest of the world still hasn’t? That movie is ruined for me forever now.

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