The Fourth Protocol (1987)

This Cold War thriller was based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth and gives an early lead role to future James Bond star Pierce Brosnan. This time, though, Brosnan plays a Soviet spy, working on a plot to detonate a nuclear bomb in Britain, and Michael Caine is the British agent who has to stop him.

Caine plays John Preston, an agent of Britain's internal security service MI5. Preston is one of those troublesome mavericks so popular in the movies, who are always breaking rules and clashing with their bosses. Preston is barely tolerated by the acting head of the service, the unctuous Brian Harcourt-Smith (Julian Glover), and when the opportunity arises Preston is shuffled off to the relative backwater department overseeing airports and ports. 

In his new post, Preston is sent to investigate when a sailor is killed in an accident while trying to leave a Soviet ship in Glasgow docks at 2 am. The Russian sailor was challenged as he tried to leave and ran into an oncoming lorry. Among the dead man's effects Preston finds a curious silver disc that the science boffins tell him is part of the trigger mechanism for a nuclear bomb.

The trigger was destined for ruthless KGB agent Petrofsky (Pierce Brosnan), who has been sent to Britain undercover under the alias "James Ross". He has rented a house overlooking the Baywaters US Air Force Base in East Anglia, and is collecting the component parts for a nuclear bomb. They are being smuggled into the country by Soviet sailors, airline crew and other agents piece by piece. He is also awaiting the arrival of a fellow agent and nuclear explosives expert, Irina (Joanna Cassidy). She is posing as his wife and will help him to assemble and prime the bomb. 

Petrofsky's mission is part of a plan by a rogue KGB chief to detonate a bomb by the base at Baywaters, home to US F-111 bombers carrying tactical nuclear weapons. A nuclear explosion at a US air base will surely be blamed not on the Russians but on the Americans, something that would lead to calls for the withdrawal of US forces from Europe and a fracturing of the NATO alliance. 

US one sheet poster for The Fourth Protocol
US one sheet poster for The Fourth Protocol

The Fourth Protocol is based on the 1984 novel by Frederick Forsyth and scripted by the author himself. Forsyth was a former RAF pilot and later journalist, who embarked on a new career as a novelist in the 1970s, beginning with the bestselling blockbuster The Day of the Jackal in 1971. 

He followed up with The Odessa File and The Dogs of War. All three books were turned into feature films, in 1973, 1974 and 1980 respectively. Excepting The Jackal, a bastardised 1997 re-jigging of The Day of the Jackal, the last (so far) feature film version of a Forsyth novel came in 1987, with The Fourth Protocol. Those familiar with The Day of the Jackal will note some similarities with Forsyth's earlier hit, with both stories focused on a chase to track down an assassin before he can complete his deadly mission. 

In a contemporary interview with Douglas Keay in The Times, Frederick Forsyth explained that he raised the financing for the film of The Fourth Protocol himself. This was because he wanted to write the screenplay and his friend Michael Caine was keen to play the lead role. He and Caine deferred their salaries of £1 million, leaving the author to find a further £7 million for the budget.

Forsyth and Caine are both credited as executive producers on the film, together with the financier Wafic Said, who was a fan of the book and put up £3.5 million himself. Another chunk of the budget, around £2.25 million, came late in the day from the film distributor Rank.

By this time Michael Caine had obviously become the go-to star to play British spies not called James Bond, having established himself as a leading man as the insubordinate spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File in 1965 and followed that with two sequels, Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). 

Caine returned to British spy roles on and off, in The Black Windmill in 1974, Blue Ice in 1992 and Kingsman: The Secret Service in 2015, but peak spy for him came in the mid-1980s. In that period he made the choppy thriller The Jigsaw Man (1984), a poor Robert Ludlum adaptation The Holcroft Covenant (1985) and the underrated espionage drama The Whistle Blower (1986), before rounding off his '80s spy quartet with The Fourth Protocol

Michael Caine standing in front of a Land Rover
Michael Caine as MI5 agent John Preston

Although always a consummate pro, the quality of Caine's films had become increasingly erratic by the mid-1980s, ranging from Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986, for which he won his first of two Best Supporting Actor Oscars, to the famously dire Jaws - The Revenge the following year.

The Fourth Protocol, though, is an efficient thriller and one of his better efforts of the decade, even if the script doesn't always give him a great deal to work with as an actor. His character in the film can be seen as a development of his signature spy role Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File in 1965. 20 years later and Palmer is now middle aged, a bit broader across the waist, and still battling with his condescending superiors. Although his abilities are recognised by some, he is still insubordinate and unable to toe the line or learn to keep his mouth shut even when it's for his own good. Although his character has been given a young son who appears in a couple of scenes, Caine's is generally an underwritten part, and any interest in the role derives almost entirely from his casting. 

The film was directed by John Mackenzie, who had worked with Caine before on the Graham Greene adaptation The Honorary Consul (released as Beyond the Limit in the US) in 1983. Mackenzie had also been responsible for directing Pierce Brosnan in his film debut in 1980, in a brief appearance in the crime thriller The Long Good Friday. In directing The Fourth Protocol, Mackenzie is careful to ensure that his camera is mobile and that the film has plenty of movement, given that there are many dialogue scenes and a lot of exposition.

The plot of The Fourth Protocol is rather more convoluted than the brief synopsis given earlier made it sound, since there are also two senior Soviet intelligence officers involved, General Karpov (Ray McAnally) and General Borisov (a curiously cast Ned Beatty).

Borisov asks to see his old comrade Karpov when his intelligence assets in Britain are being taken away and used for some secret purpose. Karpov knows nothing about this, which leads him to carry out investigations himself and to slowly learn the truth about the secret plan involving Petrofsky.

Matthew Marsh and Michael Caine
MI5 agents Barry (Matthew Marsh) and Preston (Michael Caine)

The film's storyline is simplified from the novel and significant parts of the original plot are dropped. These include those dealing with the infiltration of the British Labour Party by communists, and Preston's travelling to South Africa as part of his investigation into the mole in the civil service. 

The script is credited not only to Frederick Forsyth, but also to the American screenwriter George Axelrod, who has an "adaptation by" credit, with "additional material" by Richard Burridge, meaning that this script was worked on quite a bit. 

Burridge had written the script for Absolute Beginners (1986), and was brought in to work on the screenplay by Mackenzie. George Axelrod had written screenplays for films including The Seven Year Itch (1955), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Less memorably, he had also written Michael Caine's 1985 thriller The Holcroft Covenant, although Caine doesn't seem to have held it against him. 

The film's characterisations are not particularly strong and the British secret service mandarins seem a little more sweary than you might imagine they would be (although they are British, so you never know). The screenplay generally does a decent job at eking out the necessary exposition and keeping the audience involved in the unfolding story. But it could have done with some more streamlining and there are seemingly random elements that should have been omitted. 

These include the appearance early on of one of Britain's most infamous defectors, Kim Philby, who is played a little incongruously by Michael Bilton, probably best known as old Ned the gardener in the sitcom To the Manor Born

Philby had a more important role in the novel, but his very peripheral involvement in the film's plot will not be clear to the uninitiated and it's hard to escape the feeling that somebody (presumably Forsyth) just wanted to include a scene where Kim Philby gets shot. 

Michael Caine going through a dead man's effects
Preston examining the Russian seaman's effects

The film includes one of those scenes popular in the 1980s, when the hero puts some street punks in their place - the most famous example of this type of scene is a comic version in Crocodile Dundee, released the year before. In The Fourth Protocol it's two loutish skinheads who are racially abusing a silently suffering black woman on a tube train. Caine gives them a couple of punches, and leaves them rolling around on the floor of the carriage, before strolling off the train at his stop. Unsurprisingly, this brief but irrelevant scene of sweary racial abuse and violence is often cut from TV screenings.

There are other extraneous characters, including the former head of the Secret Service Sir Bernard Hemmings, played by Michael Gough in one scene, and an American couple from the airbase, Tom McWhirter (Matt Frewer) and his wife Eileen (Betsy Brantley), who enjoy a night out with Brosnan's Soviet spy. There is also a moderately interesting subplot involving Anton Rogers as a senior civil servant who is passing secrets to the Russians, while believing that he is actually working for the South Africans.

Despite all of these extraneous elements, the film forgets to tell us exactly what the Fourth Protocol itself is. The opening title blurb explains that in 1968 an agreement to halt the spread of nuclear weapons was signed by the US, Britain and the USSR, but only one of its four secret protocols now remains, although it doesn't explain what the secret protocol actually is. According to the book, the Fourth Protocol is intended to forbid the delivery of nuclear weapons by non-conventional means, as in the film where a nuclear bomb is sneaked into Britain piece by piece. 

Some interesting themes are teased in the film about loyalty and national identity and the suggestion that both the Americans and the Russians are using Britain in a proxy war and that perhaps neither quite belong there. Although none of these themes are much more than hinted at. There's also irony in the fact that Brosnan is seen by his slightly unsophisticated American neighbours as a typically smooth Englishman, when in fact he is just as much a foreigner in England as they are. 

John Mackenzie has decided not to have his Russian characters have Russian accents, so the film's Russian generals are allowed to use a vaguely American accent, in the case of Ray McAnally, and an actual American accent in the case of Ned Beatty. 

This sounds a little odd at first, but it's perhaps intended to suggest some sort of equivalence between the Russians and the Americans. Which is a little surprising, given the involvement in this film of Frederick Forsyth, a well known voice on the political right. 

As in the Cold War era James Bond films, the danger in The Fourth Protocol comes not from the official opponents in the Cold War themselves, but from the efforts of rogue elements to tip the balance of power in one direction or the other. 

Pierce Brosnan and Joanna Cassidy assembling a bomb
Petrofsky (Pierce Brosnan) and Irina (Joanna Cassidy) assembling the bomb

The film's most eye-catching role is for Pierce Brosnan as the lead Soviet spy. At the time, Brosnan was principally a television actor, whose greatest claim to fame outside his American TV series Remington Steele was that he had just lost out on the role of James Bond.

Brosnan had been chosen to replace Roger Moore in the Bond role, but had lost the part after Remington Steele was recommissioned. Ironically, that series was only revived because Brosnan was now a hot property - having just been named as the new James Bond. Brosnan would not take on the Bond role for nearly another decade, but his alternative spy role in The Fourth Protocol provided an effective Bond audition for him and a preview of how he might look and act in the part. 

It's sometimes claimed that Brosnan would have been too young in 1987 and would not have been as successful as James Bond as he was in the 1990s. But The Fourth Protocol proves that he could have handled the part perfectly well. His character in the film is clearly the bad guy, and much less sympathetic than Bond, but Brosnan has obvious screen presence and gets to do most of the regular Bond stuff. He plays a tall, dark and handsome (faux) Englishman, who is ruthless when he needs to be, dispatches enemies with aplomb and seduces sexy lady spies when the opportunity arises. In one scene Brosnan even gets to show off his luxuriant chest hair, which is impressive enough to make Sean Connery jealous. Or even Austin Powers. 

There's no real humour in his part though, except of the driest possible kind. As in one scene, when an estate agent reluctantly mentions that the house she's showing him has jets flying over all the time and the only view from the window is of the US Air Force base next door. Oh don't worry, he tells her, he doesn't mind about that at all. 

Brosnan's Soviet spy seems to be a lot more ruthless than he really needs to be, killing people off left, right and centre. Even a man who catches him being handed a radio in a mens' toilets is followed by Petrofsky and killed. You would assume that the possibility of being arrested for murder would be more of a risk to his mission than the fact that he was seen being given an apparently ordinary radio. 

Brosnan's character does suffer from sexual frustration on his mission, which is obviously not something that James Bond ever had to worry about. Until Joanna Cassidy appears as a fellow Soviet agent, he is reduced to spying on the swingers' party over the road, while having to turn down the advances of Betsy Brantley as his neighbour's amorous wife, presumably as he is worried that an affair would jeopardise his mission (although, again, it never bothered James Bond). 

Joanna Cassidy is another of the film's American actors playing Russians, although unfortunately a not insignificant portion of her role involves her lying naked in the bath pretending to be dead, as Brosnan's character makes preparations for the bomb in the background. 

Michael Caine and Ronald Pickup
Preston with a British government scientist (Ronald Pickup)

The casting of Caine and Brosnan as unexpected antagonists means that their characters can almost be seen as sort of a middle aged Harry Palmer versus a Soviet James Bond, which is weird but agreeably twisted, when you think about it. 

The Fourth Protocol is a British spy thriller, so Bond connections are perhaps inevitable by the 1980s. Aside from Brosnan, there are some other Bond personnel involved, including Julian Glover, who had a leading role in the Bond film For Your Eyes Only in 1981. Phil Meheux was John Mackenzie's regular cinematographer, working with him on The Long Good Friday (1980), The Honorary Consul (1983) and Ruby (1992). But he also later joined the Bond series for the debuts of Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye in 1995 and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale in 2006. Production designer Allan Cameron was another veteran of The Honorary Consul. His Bond film would come in 1997 with Tomorrow Never Dies, starring Pierce Brosnan.

Bond aficionados will note that the villains in The Fourth Protocol have the same basic scheme as those in the contemporary Bond film Octopussy (1983). Both films feature rogue Soviet generals who are planning to detonate a nuclear bomb on a US air base in Europe, in order to undermine the NATO alliance.

Pedants might argue that even Octopussy's bomb plot is more convincing than The Fourth Protocol's, as the nuclear bomb in that film is actually smuggled onto the American base itself. I've seen it argued that the source of the nuclear blast in The Fourth Protocol could be traced to the housing estate next door, rather than the air base itself (although you can call me sceptical on that one). But if a nuclear explosion destroyed a US Air Force base where nuclear weapons are stored, it seems unlikely that many people would believe any protestations that it wasn't one of theirs. 

The film's supporting cast has some interesting actors, including Ray McAnally, Julian Glover and Ian Richardson. The impeccably precise Richardson gets an unusually good part as Sir Nigel Irvine, one of Caine's slightly more sympathetic spy bosses. Richardson was not that well used by the cinema and his greatest successes were on television, especially in the original House of Cards and its sequels in the 1990s. 

Ian Richardson as Sir Nigel Irvine
Ian Richardson as Preston's boss Sir Nigel Irvine

The cast also includes Anton Rodgers in an unusual dramatic role, as the civil service man who is unwittingly spying for the Soviets under a "false flag" operation. The scene where his character is tailed by Caine and his fellow agents on his way to a drop-off effectively conveys the paranoia and distrust engendered by involvement in the spying game. 

Rogers eyes just about everyone he sees en route with suspicion, from a middle aged woman coming towards him on an escalator to a young man hanging around listening to a Walkman. A brief scene in the back of Caine's surveillance van then reveals that Rogers wasn't paranoid, because they were all MI5 agents keeping tabs on him.

The film's biggest misstep is its final scene with a too-abrupt ending. The denouement, with Ray McAnally's KGB chief turning up in person in England, seems a little unlikely and the film suddenly becomes confused in its implications and tone. McAnally and Richardson's characters have been working together through back channels to try and stop the nuclear bomb plot from succeeding. Caine is disgusted, giving a typically sweary response and suggesting that their collusion is wrong and that both men are simply trying to advance their careers. But for anyone closely following the plot, it's obvious that the British and Soviet spy chiefs have been trying to avert a nuclear disaster. 

Joanna Cassidy, Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan
Joanna Cassidy, Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan pose for a publicity shot

The film's obviously genuine feel of the 1980s era is added to by the radio and TV news reports that Brosnan's character has on in the background as he makes his preparations in the film's later scenes. These include reports of anti-nuclear protests, the Soviets' war in Afghanistan, riots in South Africa and, inevitably and amusingly since it's a Soviet news broadcast, "further record grain harvests this year" in Russia. 

With this background of the Cold War, British Rail trains, Ford Transit vans, US bases in East Anglia, anti-nuclear protesters, skinheads on the tube, fat men wrestling on the TV and Pierce Brosnan's fancy blue Ford Escort with its wind-up sun roof, The Fourth Protocol is surprisingly evocative of the 1980s era for Britons of a certain age. 

Talking of Ford Transits, there is one obvious and slightly sloppy continuity error in the film. The scene where Caine's Transit van pulls out of a traffic jam, off the road and onto a pedestrian area, is marred by the fact that the van's number plate is knocked off completely to begin with, then reappears partly broken, before mysteriously reappearing intact again at the end of the scene. It's so obvious that you would think that somebody would have noticed. 

Incidentally, the name of the fictional US Air Force base in Suffolk - Baywaters - is presumably inspired by the real base at Bentwaters, near Rendlesham Forest. This was the scene of the famous "British Roswell", a surprisingly well-documented alleged UFO sighting, where a US Air Force patrol either encountered an alien space ship or, according to some, just got confused by the light from the Orford Ness lighthouse.

Most of The Fourth Protocol was filmed in the south east of England, particularly Milton Keynes (where Petrofsky's house is located), and Suffolk for the air base scenes. Studio scenes were filmed at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire and there was a detour to the Midlands to film the airport scenes in Birmingham. The wintry Russian scenes were filmed in Finland, which was a popular double for Russia in the Cold War era.

The Fourth Protocol got some decent reviews on its original cinema release in 1987. 

In the US, Roger Ebert described it as:

"... first-rate because it not only is a thriller, but it also pays attention to its characters and shows how their actions grow out of their personalities. Like Michael Caine's other recent British spy film, "The Whistle Blower," it is effective not simply because it's a thriller but also because for long stretches it simply is a very absorbing drama."

Desson Howe in the Washington Post called it:

"... an absorbing, intelligent and suspense-filled film" and "streamlined and rich at the same time -- like the best of the James Bond films, but serious."

Despite one or two missteps, The Fourth Protocol is a decent spy thriller that was successful enough in its day, but is now quite overlooked. Other than a probably more cluttered plot than it really needs and some extraneous bits, its only serious flaw is that slightly rushed ending that sets the wrong tone, undermines its own plot a little, and ends the film on an unsatisfactory note.

The Fourth Protocol

Year: 1987
Genre: Spy Thriller
Country: UK
Director: John Mackenzie

Cast Michael Caine (John Preston), Pierce Brosnan (Valeri Petrofsky / James Edward Ross), Ned Beatty (Borisov), Joanna Cassidy (Irina Vassilievna), Julian Glover (Brian Harcourt-Smith), Michael Gough (Sir Bernard Hemmings), Ray McAnally (General Karpov), Ian Richardson (Sir Nigel Irvine), Anton Rodgers (George Berenson), Caroline Blakiston (Angela Berenson), Joseph Brady (Carmichael), Betsy Brantley (Eileen McWhirter), Sean Chapman (Captain Lyndhurst), Matt Frewer (Tom McWhirter), Jerry Harte (Professor Krilov), Michael J. Jackson (Major Pavlov), Matthew Marsh (Barry Banks), Alan North (Govershin), Ronald Pickup (Wynne-Evans), Aaron Swartz (Gregoriev), Octavia Verdin (Jill Dunkley), Johnny Allan (Night porter), Roy Alon (Russian seaman), Michael Bilton (Kim Philby), Sarah Bullen (Dorothy), Rebecca Burrill (Nurse), Peter Cartwright (Jan Marais), Rosy Clayton (Mrs Adrian), David Conville (Bursham), Nancy Crane (Karpov's secretary), Joanna Dickens (Woman shopper), Sam Douglas (Russian soldier), Mick Ford (Sergeant Bilbow), Ronnie Golden (Busker), Steve Halliwell (Plastercast courier), Gordon Honeycombe (Television announcer), John Horsley (Sir Anthony Plumb), Boris Isarov (Dresser), Philip Jackson (Burkinshaw), Julian Jacobson (Conductor), Alexei Jawdokimov (Aeroflot pilot), Clare Kelly (Landlady), Sally Kinghorn (Girlfriend), Ronnie Laughlin (Driver at scene), Renos Liondaris (Greek cafe owner), Peter Manning (Violinist), Kenneth Midwood (Chaplain), John Murtagh (Scottish policeman), James Older (Timmy Preston), William Parker (Cruiser), Stephen Persaud (Black kid), George Phillips (Mr Adrian), Neville Phillips (Man in overcoat), Richard Ridings (Skinhead), Mark Rolston (Russian decoder), Michael Seezen (Joey), Patsy Smart (Preston's housekeeper), Phil Smeeton (Boyfriend), JirĂ­ Stanislav (Winkler), Christopher Walker (Skinhead), Juanita Waterman (Black girl on underground train), Tariq Yunus (Immigration officer), George Zenios (Greek cafe owner)

Screenplay Frederick Forsyth, screen story adapted by George Axelrod, additional material Richard Burridge, based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth  Producer Timothy Burrill  Cinematography Phil Meheux  Production designer Alan Cameron  Art director Tim Hutchinson  Editor Graham Walker  Music Lalo Schifrin

Running time 119 mins  Colour

Production Company Fourth Protocol Films  Distributor Rank Film Distributors (UK), Lorimar (US)


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