Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 17, 2017
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.
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.
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).
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.
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