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by Bamber Gascoigne

Alistair (Stuart) MacLean (1922-1987) - wrote also as Ian Stuart


Scottish writer who became known for his well crafted adventure thrillers. The sea or the icy north was Alistair MacLean's favorite setting, from H.M.S. Ulysses (1955) and Ice Station Zebra (1963) to his late collection of short stories, The Lonely Sea (1985). A number of MacLean's books gained a huge success as films, among them The Guns of Navarone, starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn, Ice Station Zebra, starring Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgine, and Where Eagles Dare, starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton.

"Gangsters and hoodlums are notoriously the world's worst marksmen, their usual method being to come within a couple of yards before firing or spraying the landscape with a sufficient hail of bullets to make the law of averages work for them and I had heard a hundred times that those boys couldn't hit a barn door at ten paces. But maybe Larry had never heard of this, or maybe the rule applied only to barn doors." (from Fear Is the Key, 1961)

Alistair MacLean was born in Glasgow, the son of Alistair MacLean, a Church of Scotland minister, and Mary Lamont, a singer. His parents spoke the Scottish language, Gaelic, and English was MacLean's second language; at home he was not allowed to speak it. The family moved north to Daviot, near Inverness, and MacLean spent his early years in the Scottish Highlands. When Alistair was 14, his father died of cerebral haemorrhage, and he returned to Glasgow with his mother. MacLean's brother Lachlan, who was a medical student, died of cancer of the stomach.

Upon completing his Higher Leaving Certificate with passes in English, History, Latin, Mathematic and Science at Hillhead High, MacLean took up a post at the shipping office of F.C. Strick. At the age of eighteen in 1941, he joined the Royal Navy. During World War II he served as a torpedo man in Home, Mediterranean, and Eastern Fleets on the HMS Royalist, a Dido-class light cruiser. Much of the time he served on the northern convoy routes to Murmansk. From these experiences he drew heavily for his novels about the sea. "He was a good chap to have around in a tight situation," recalled one of his shipmates. MacLean claimed that he was once captured by the Japanese and tortured, but his story has not been verified. However, in 1946 he returned home.

After the war, MacLean gained an English Honours degree at Glasgow University, and became a teacher at Gallowfleet Secondary School. During his spare time,  MacLean began writing short stories to earn extra money and work his way out of acute financial distress. In 1954 he entered a short story competition of the Glasgow Herald with the 'Dileas.' It won the first prize of £100. The depiction of the force of the sea was from a born storyteller: "The Dileas would totter up on a wave then, like she was falling over a cliff, smash down into the next trough with the crack of a four-inch gun, burying herself right to the gunwales. And at the same time you could hear the fierce clatter of her screw, clawing at the thin air. Why the Dileas never broke her back only God knows – or the ghost of Campbell of Ardrishaig."

Encouraged by Ian Chapman of the Glasgow publisher Collins, and with a thousand-pound advance, MacLean wrote his first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses. It was based on his experiences on a navy ship escorting merchant vessels in the Arctic Ocean and became a bestseller – it sold 250,000 copies in hardback within six months of publication.

H.M.S. Ulysses is regarded alongside Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny (1951) and Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea (1951) as one of the classic novels of navy ships. It deals with a convoy in the North Atlantic battling during World War II with submarines and foul weather. The emotional power in the end of the story, when the doomed Ulysses, a light cruiser, turns against a heavy German cruiser, has not been surpassed in any other naval war novel. From 1955 MacLean devoted himself entirely to writing, with great success. His next books, The Guns of Navarone (1957) and South by Java Head (1957), were war stories.

Navarone told of a five men sabotage team sent to destroy two giant guns at Navarone. The novel was partly inspired by the Battle of Leros; another source of inspirationm was perhaps the Operation Brassard. In the sequel, Force 10 from Navarone (1968), a mixed group attempt to blow up a bridge vital to the Nazis in Yugoslavia.

A victim of the blacklist, the producer and screenwriter Carl Foreman, bought the screen rights of the book for his own company (Open Road Films) and made a production deal with Columbia Pictures. Foreman was fascinated by MacLean's "gift for keeping his audience enthralled by the pace and drive of his tale. The novel had six colorful major characters, providing an opportunity for casting as many international stars." The film adaptation was shot on the Greek Isle of Rhodes; Navarone Island is a fctional place. Gregory Peck, criticized for being at times a trifle wooden, played Captain Mallory – David Niven as Corporal Miller stood out above the rest of the cast, Anthony Quinn (Major Roy Franklin), Stanley Baker ("Butcher" Brown), and others. Most of the principal actors were in their mid-to-late 40s (Niven was born in 1910), which made the British press to label the film as "Elderly Gang Goes Off to War." (100 Great War Movies: The Real History Behind the Films by Robert Niemi, 2018, pp. 147-148)

Differing from the original story, Foreman turned its two male Greek partisans into females. The women were played by the Greek actress Irene Papas and the Italian Gia Scala.With a budget that exceeded even David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Columbia Pictures hoped to duplicate the success of  Kwai, and managed to do so. Navarone was the biggest hit of 1961, earned six Oscar nominations, and won for Best Special Effects.

The screen version of  Force 10 from Navarone was not produced until 1977, although MacLean had provided the screen treatment before the book came out. Robert Shaw and Edward Fox were cast in the Peck and Niven roles respectively. In spite of all anticipations this film, directed by the James Bond director Guy Hamilton, did not gain success similar to its predecessor.

With The Last Frontier (1959) MacLean left war stories behind for a while. The novel was a spy adventure in which an agent is sent behind the iron curtain to rescue an English scientist. "True to MacLean's non-ideological nature," Lee Child wrote, "the book contains an astonishingly humane and sympathetic understanding of Soviet feelings and paranoia. Its characters are compelling and multi-dimensional, and in some cases genuinely and affectingly tragic." ('Foreword' by Lee Child, in Fear Is The Key, 2019) In the early 1960s MacLean wrote two novels under the pseudonym of Ian Stuart. The Satan Bug, dealing with the disappearance of a deadly toxin from behind the locked doors of a laboratory, and The Dark Crusader, about a tough secret agent in a Polynesian island, were both Cold War thrillers. MacLean did not try to change his style, and readers familiar with his work easily recognized the author behind his Scottish pseudonym.

Between the years 1957 and 1963 MacLean lived in Geneva. Putting aside writing, he bought a small chain of hotels in England, eventually realizing that "running hotels is a most undemanding pastime." ('MacLean, Alistair ("Ian Stuart"),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 912) During that period, nearly all MacLean's novels were adapted for the screen, with the noteworthy exception of H.M.S. Ulysses; its film right were sold to an Italian aristocrat, Count Giovanni Volpi. He engaged David Osborn, an American screenwriter chased out of the country by McCarthy, to produce a screenplay, but the project did not move forward. "So why did I go out of my way to buy this property?" Volpi said to MacLean's biographer Jack Webster. "I suppose I did it like I might have bought a painting." (A Final Grain of Truth: My Autobiography by Jack Webster, 2013, Chapter Twenty-Nine: 'The Duchess Was A What?')

The film version of Where Eagles Dare, starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, cost $6.2 million to produce. It was a major success. In the story of team of special soldiers are commissioned to destroy the headquarter of the German alpine corps. "His story-line and characterization were brilliant but, frankly, his screenwriting was clumsy," said the producer Elliott Kastner of MacLean's script. Burton was a Swiss neighbour of MacLean, who disliked the actor inrensely. When they quarreled at the Dorchester Hotel, London, MacLean planted a right hook to Burton's nose and they never spoke to each other again.

Ice Station Zebra (1963), filmed in 1968, was an espionage story about a British weather-monitoring station on a polar ice cap, which is almost totally destroyed by an oil fire. The United States nuclear submarine Dolphin is sent to rescue the team. The narrator and protagonist is a doctor, but later it turns out that he is not simply a doctor and Ice Station Zebra is not just a neutral research station. In fact Dolphin's quest is to recover a capsule from outer space containing a long-range, top-secret reconnaissance camera and its films.

Usually MacLean's heroes are calm, cynical men who are devoted to their work, and carry some kind of secret knowledge. "The job, the job, always the job on hand," the colonel had repeated once, twice, a thousand times, "Success or failure in what you do may be desperately important to others, but it must never matter a damn to you." (from The Last Frontier, 1959) The heroes fight against incredible odds and of course there are the evil opponents, a wide variety of humorless villains, the Nazis, terrorists, Communists, drug dealers, and foreign agents. During the course of the story, the protagonist is pushed to the limits of his physical and sometimes mental endurance.

Nature is a central element in MacLean's work, especially the North Atlantic Seas, ice mountains, deep gulches, desert quicksands, frozen Arctic tundra. Even the ordinary Central European winter conditions are nearly fatal to MacLean's hero in The Secret Ways (1959): "Only the snow was real, the snow and that bone-deep, sub-zero cold that shrouded him from head to toe in a blanket of ice and continuously shook his entire body in violent, uncontrollable spasms of shivering, like a man suffering from ague." When Eight Bells Toll (1966) was the only novel, that MacLean set in Scotland. 

Typical of MacLean's novels are the highly dramatic settings and the sudden plot twist. He allows nothing to hold up the action – there is not much sex in MacLean's books because according to him it hinders the action. Suspense is created by withholding information from the reader about a character's motives or background.

"It is a world where there are no cities that do not drip with intrigue", said the American film critic Roger Ebert on the film adaptation of Puppet on a Chain (1972), "and only the most romantic of those make the grade: Amsterdam, London, Zurich. . . . There are no flatlands inside Alistair MacLean's head, no small towns, no marshes, no boring people, and no real people." (I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Rober Ebert,  2000, p. 289) Also MacLean hated the film, which took three years to make.

MacLean's protagonists are unreliable narrators – they often hide their true thoughts and identity, as in Fear Is the Key (1961), in which the hero seems to be a cold blooded killer, and Breakheart Pass (1974), a Western, in which the federal agent John Deakin poses as a thief, a murderer, and a coward. MacLean himself had a very clear concept of his work: he is not a novelist, but a storyteller. "There is no art in what I do, no mystique. It's a job like any other." ('MacLean, Alistair ("Ian Stuart"),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 913)

Fear Is The Key opens after Prologue with a scene where the narrator, John Talbot, shoots his way out of a courtroom, takes a hostage, and starts his escape. In fact he has conceived an elaborate plot to track down those responsible for killing his wife and family in a plane crash. Talbot has his revenge, but he finally realizes that he is alone with his victory and memoirs: "X 13. I supposed that would always be a part of me now, that and the broken-winged DC that lay 580 yards to its south-west, buried under 480 feet of water. For better or for worse, it would always be a part of me. For worse, I thought, for worse. It was all over and done and empty now and it all meant nothing, for that was all that was left."

MacLean's later books were not as well received as his earlier ones. The Way to Dusty Death (1973) was set in the world of racing cars, and The Golden Gate (1976) was a kidnapping story, in which the President of the United States and two Arab leaders are taken hostage in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. The master criminal Branson wants money for his hostages: "This is the United States of America, the richest country in the world, not a banana republic. What's three hundred million dollars? A couple of Polaris submarines? A tiny fraction of what it cost to send a man to the moon? A fraction of one per cent of the gross national product? If I take one drop from the American bucket who's going to miss it – but if I'm not allowed to take it then a lot of people are going to miss you, Mr President, and your Arabian friends."

"I'm not a born writer, and I don't enjoy writing," MacLean once stated in an interview. "I wrote each book in thirty-five days flat – just to get the darned thing finished." In the 1960s and 1970s MacLean was one of the best selling thriller writers in the world. He had retired as a tax exile to Switzerland and published books, in which the characters sometimes save the world as in Goodbye California (1978). It dealt with the threat of a major earthquake along the San Andreas Fault, an event that would wash much of the state of California into the sea. In Santorini (1986), a plane carrying hydrogen and atom bombs drops into the sea in an area subject to volcanic eruptions – and one of the bombs is ticking.

Although MacLean was best known for his thrillers, at the beginning of his career he had focused on short stories, and a few years before his death he published The Lonely Sea, a collection of stories, in which he proved again his skill in describing the power of the sea. The book included his very first prize-winning achievement, a tale of an old seaman who takes an old fishing boat out in a storm in order to rescue his two sons. "And then a miracle happened. Just that, Mr MacLean – a miracle. It was the Sea of Galilee all over again. Mind you, the waves were as terrible as ever, but just for a moment the wind dropped away to a deathly hush – and suddenly, off to starboard, a thin, high-pitched wail came keening out of the darkness." MacLean died of heart failure in Munich on February 2, 1987, at the railway station; nobody knows why he had gone there. He was buried in Cèligny, Switzerland. By coincidence, Richard Burtonis buried in the same cemetery. MacLean left behind a number of story outlines, commissioned by an American film company, to be written by other authors. For this project he created the fictitious United Nations agency, the  Anti-Crime Organization (UNACO), which was introduced in Hostage Tower (1980) by John Denis.

MacLean was married twice, first to the German-born Gisela Heinrichsen, who worked at Mearnskirk Hospital; they had three sons. In 1972 MacLean married Marcelle Gorgeus, the daughter of French music-hall entertainers, Georgius Guibourg and Marcelle Irvun. The marriage ended in divorce in 1977. According to the divorce settlement, she was given £400,000 and the right to a full lenght screenplay, called The Golden Girl, which MacLean had completed.

For further reading: 'MacLean, Alistair ("Ian Stuart"),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975);Alistair MacLean: The Key Is Fear by Robert A. Lee (1976); 'MacLean, Alistair (Stuart)' by Neysa Chouteau and Martha Alderson, in Twentieth-century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly (1985); Alistair MacLean: A Life by Jack Webster (1991); 'MacLean, Alistair,' in St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); Alistair MacLean -bibliografia by Simo Sjöblom (2000); Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed by Mike Ripley (2017) - See also: Desmond Bagley (started his career as a thriller writer in 1963)

Selected works:

  • H.M.S. Ulysses, 1955
    - Saattue Murmanskiin (suom. Martti Montonen, 1956)
  • The Guns of Navarone, 1957
    - Navaronen tykit (suom. Aaro Vuoristo, 1958)
    - film: The Guns of Navarone, 1961, dir. by J. Lee Thompson, starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn. "When students of movie form foregather to study ways of mingling suspense with maximum melodramatic excitement henceforth, they will have to analyze The Guns of Navarone." (Archer Winsten in the New York Post)
  • South by Java Head, 1957
    - Pako yli Jaavan meren (suom. Aaro Vuoristo, 1958)
  • The Last Frontier, 1959 (U.S. title: The Secret Ways, 1959)
    - Viimeinen rintama (suom. Aaro Vuoristo, 1959)
    - film: The Secret Ways, 1961, dir. by Phil Karlson, screenplay Jean Hazlewood, starring Richard Widmark, Sonja Zieman, Charles Regnier, Walter Rilla
  • Night without End, 1960
    - Loputon yö (suom. Aaro Vuoristo, 1960)
  • Fear Is the Key, 1961
    - Pelko on aseeni (suom. Aaro Vuoristo, 1961)
    - film: Fear Is the Key, 1972, dir. by Michael Tuchner, screenplay by Robrt Carrington, starring Suzy Kendall, Barry Newman, Ben Kingsley, John Vernon
  • The Dark Crusader, 1961 (as Ian Stuart;  U.S. title: The Black Shrike, 1961)
    - Taivaan nuoli (suom. Aaro Vuoristo, 1961)
  • All About Lawrence of Arabia, 1962
  • The Golden Rendezvous, 1962
    - Miljonäärien laiva (suom. Aaro Vuoristo, 1962)
    - film: Golden Rendezvous, 1977, dir. by Ashley Lazarus, screenplay by Chris Bryant, Stanley Price, John Gay, Allan Scott, starring Richard Harris, Ann Turkel, David Janssen, Burgess Meredith
  • The Satan Bug, 1962 (as Ian Stuart)
    - Kalmankoura (suom. Aaro Vuoristo, 1964)
    - film: The Satan Bug, 1964, dir. by John Sturges, screenplay by James Clavell, starring George Maharis, Richard Basehart, Anne Francis
  • Ice Station Zebra, 1963
    - Jääasema "Zebra" (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1963)
    - film: Ice Station Zebra, 1968, dir. by John Sturges, starring Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgine, Jim Brown
  • When Eight Bells Toll, 1966
    - Kun kello lyö... (suom. Timo Martin, 1966)
    - film: When Eight Bells Toll, 1971, dir. by Etienne Perier, starring Anthony Hopkins, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Nathalie Delon
  • Where Eagles Dare, 1967
    - Kotkat kuuntelevat (suom. Timo Martin, 1967)
    - film: Where Eagles Dare, 1969, dir. by Brian G. Hutton, screenplay by Alistair MacLean, starring Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton .  "You have to put your brain on hold to watch this, so many are its implausibilities. But despite the fact that it should have been at least half an hour shorter, there is plenty of stirring action to be enjoyed." (Simon Rose in Classic Film Guide, 1995)
  • Force 10 from Navarone, 1968
    - Navaronen haukat (suom. Timo Martin, 1968)
    - film: Force 10 from Navarone, 1978, dir. by Guy Hamilton, screenplay by Robin Chapman, starring Robin Shaw, Edward Fox, Harrison Ford
  • Puppet on a Chain, 1969
    - Kahlenukke (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1969)
    - film: Puppet on a Chain, 1971, dir. by Geoffey Reeve, screenplay by Alistair MacLean, Don Sharp, Paul Wheeler, starring Sven Bertil Taube, Barbara Parkins, Alexander Knox, Patrick Allen
  • Caravan to Vaccares, 1970
    - Takaa-ajo Vaccarèsiin (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1970)
    - film: Caravan to Vaccares, 1974, dir. by Geoffey Reeve, screenplay by Paul Wheeler, starring David Birney, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Lonsdale
  • Bear Island, 1971
    - Karhusaari (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1971)
    - film: Bear Island, 1980, dir. by Don Sharp, screenplay by David Butler, Don Sharp, Murray Smith, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Donald Sutherland, Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee
  • Alistair MacLean Introduces Scotland, 1972
  • Captain Cook, 1972
    - Kapteeni Cook (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1972)
  • The Way to Dusty Death, 1973
    - Katkuinen kuoleman tie (suom. Risto Lehmusoksa, 1973)
    - TV film: The Way to Dusty Death, 1995, dir. by Geoffrey Reeve, starring Linda Hamilton, Simon MacCorkindale, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Anthony Valentine
  • Breakheart Pass, 1974
    - Särkyneen sydämen sola (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1974)
    - film: Breakheart Pass, 1975, dir. by Tom Gries, screenplay by Alistair MacLean, starring Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland
  • Circus, 1975
    - Kuolonhyppy (suom. Eero Huhtala, 1975)
  • The Golden Gate, 1976
    - Kaappaus San Franciscossa (suom. Hilkka Pekkanen, 1976)
  • Seawitch, 1977
    - Merinoita (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1977)
  • Goodbye California, 1978
    - Hyvästi Kalifornia (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1978)
  • Athabasca, 1980
    - Alaskan musta kulta (suom. Arto Häilä, 1980)
  • Hostage Tower (with John Denis)
    - Kaapattu torni (suom. Virpi Luukkonen, Teija Rinne)
  • Hostage Tower, 1980 (television play)
    - TV film: The Hostage Tower, 1980, dir. by Claudio Guzmán, starring Peter Fonda, Maud Adams, Billy Dee Williams, Keir Dullea, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
  • River of Death, 1981
    - Kuoleman joki (suom. Aulis Rantanen, 1981)
    - film: River of Death, 1990, dir. by Steve Carver, screenplay Andrew Deutsch, starring Michael Dudikoff, Donald Pleasence, Robert Vaughn, Herbert Lom
  • Airforce One Is Down, 1981
    - Kaappaajan paluu (suom. Teija Rinne, 1982)
  • Partisans, 1982
    - Partisaanit (suom. Kimmo Linkama, 1982)
  • Floodgate, 1983
    - Tulvaportti (suom. Erkki Hakala, 1983)
  • Alistair MacLean: Six Complete Novels, 1984
  • San Andreas, 1984
    - Saalistus Barentsinmerellä (suom. Risto Mäenpää, 1984)
  • The Lonely Sea, 1985
    - Armoton meri: kertomuksia miehistä ja merestä (suom. Risto Mäenpää, 1985)
  • Santorini, 1986
    - Santorinin hauta (suom. Aulis Rantanen, 1986)
  • Death Train,1988 (by Alistair MacNeill)
    - Kuoleman juna (suom. Seppo-Risto Lindfors, 1988)
    - film 1993, dir. by David S. Jackson, starring Pierce Brosnan, Patrick Stewart, Alexandra Paul, Ted Levine, Christopher Lee
  • Night Watch, 1989 (by Alistair MacNeill)
    -Yövartio (suom. Irmeli Ruuska, 1989)
    - TV film: Night Watch, 1995, dir. by David Jackson, starring Pierce Brosnan, Alexandra Paul, William Devane, Michael Shannon, Kay Siu Lim
  • Red Alert, 1990 (by Alistair MacNeill)
    - Kuoleman kauppiaat (suom. Jukka Jääskeläinen, 1990)
  • Time of Assassins, 1991 (by Alistair MacNeill)
    - Salamurhaajien aika (suom. Irmeli Ruuska, 1991)
  • Dead Halt, 1992 (by Alistair MacNeill)
    - Pyörremyrsky (suom. Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 1992)
  • Golden Girl, 1992 (by Simon Gandolfi)
  • The Lonely Sea: Collected Short Stories, 2011 (1st Sterling ed.)

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