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The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

This third film version of The Thirty-Nine Steps stays much closer to the plot of John Buchan's novel than previous adaptations and moves the story's setting back to the eve of The First World War.

Colonel Scudder (John Mills) is a British spy who has uncovered a plot to assassinate the Greek premier on his visit to London, something that will spark a crisis in the Balkans and likely lead to war in Europe. When he finds himself pursued by enemy agents determined to kill him and take possession of his evidence against them, Scudder seeks sanctuary in the apartment of a neighbour in his building, Richard Hannay (Robert Powell). 

Hannay is a mining engineer visiting London from South Africa. But having wisely looked into his background beforehand, Scudder believes that he is trustworthy and can be relied upon to help. All he needs is 24 hours to hide from the men trying to kill him. Hannay agrees, but unsure if Scudder is telling the truth, he takes the fateful precaution of removing the bullets from his guest's gun. 

When Scudder leaves the apartment, he is recognised and followed to the railway station, where he is about to meet up with Hannay. But he is then stabbed by his pursuers and, to the dozens of witnesses, it looks as if Hannay is the man responsible. This sets into motion a man hunt, as Hannay escapes by train to Scotland, pursued by the police intent on arresting him and the enemy spies determined to kill him and claim Scudder's valuable notebook. 

Robert Powell hanging off clock face of Big Ben in The Thirty Nine Steps
Richard Hannay (Robert Powell) gets a closer look at Big Ben in the film's finale

John Buchan's seminal 1915 spy novel had already been filmed twice at this point, most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. The Hitchcock film, though, bore little relation to the plot of the novel, swapping the male spy Scudder for a glamorous female agent, adding a love interest in Madeleine Carroll, and leaving out the actual steps of the title altogether - among many other changes. 

The 1959 version starring Kenneth More was literally just a remake of the Hitchcock film, with little new added plotwise and certainly nothing taken from the book. So while another screen version might seem redundant, the 1978 film makes a good case for itself by hewing much more closely to John Buchan's novel and by turning the story into an eve-of-war period piece. 

In truth, it's still not that close an adaptation and the meaning of the title is again changed. In the original novel, the 39 steps lead down to a coastal rendezvous. They became the name of a spy network in the 1935 film and then, more literally, the steps leading down to the headquarters of the spy network in the 1959 one. This time the steps lead up to the clock tower of Big Ben.

The general London to Scotland and back trajectory of the narrative remains from the book and the previous films, as does the classic double pursuit of the hero by both the police and by enemy spies. Other elements are also familiar, including the chase across moorland landscapes in southern Scotland. Like the previous film versions, this film features a scene where Hannay escapes from a train by stopping it on a bridge, although this time it isn't the Forth Bridge, but a smaller, single span metal bridge. Hannay again has to address a Liberal Party political meeting, when he poses as their guest speaker in order to escape from his pursuers. This is an idea from the Hitchcock film that was turned into a speech at a girls' school in the Kenneth More version. 

Robert Powell as Richard Hannay
Hannay (Robert Powell) is left holding the body at Euston Station

There are some other nods to Hitchcock, particularly the plane that tracks and then menaces Hannay on the moors and the scene where Scudder is stabbed at the railway station. Both recall Hitch's 1959 film North by Northwest, with Hannay in the latter scene left cradling a body with a knife in the back - although he doesn't quite pull it out and wave it around, Cary Grant style.

There are also some major new elements, not featured in either of the two previous films or in the book. David Warner's character disguises himself as establishment worthy Sir Walter Bullivant (George Baker) in two high level meetings and no one notices - thanks to the simple use of a false beard and glasses. This is a particularly improbable idea that should have been dropped.

Equally fanciful, if more entertaining, is the film's climax, when Hannay has to stop a bomb exploding in the clock tower of Big Ben. The bomb will detonate when the clock reaches 11.45 am. The only way to stop it, or at least the most exciting way, is by climbing out onto the clock face and holding back the hands, with Hannay left dangling on the clock, Harold Lloyd style. 

Meanwhile, the police, led by Hannay's former detective nemesis Lomas (Eric Porter), burst into the tower and shoot it out with the German spies. This whole Big Ben sequence is sometimes criticised for its improbability, but it does make for a spectacular finale and is at least as entertaining as it is absurd. 

According to the film's producer Greg Smith, this was apparently intended partly as a metaphor, with the ticking clock (and bomb) representing the state of Europe in 1914. It also obviously provided the film with a more visual and distinctive finale than previous versions. This use of a famous landmark for a dramatic scene is also somewhat Hitchcockian.

Robert Powell, Ronald Pickup, Donald Pickering and David Warner
Hannay with Prussian agents Ronald Pickup, Donald Pickering and David Warner

The idea of stopping a bomb by stopping Big Ben was previously used in the 1943 Will Hay comedy My Learned Friend, when Mervyn Johns's psychopath determines to blow up Parliament, leading to a similar finale with Hay dangling from the clock face. This idea was even used again in 2003 in the Jackie Chan comedy Shanghai Knights

Other than a bit of iffy back projection, the stunt work and technicalities in the Big Ben sequence of The Thirty Nine Steps are fine. The stunt doubling for Robert Powell in the film's fight scenes, though, is generally poor. This is particularly apparent in his tussle with a Scottish gamekeeper earlier in the film. 

Casting in the film is good. Robert Powell had just made his screen breakthrough in Lew Grade's 1977 TV epic Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, when he was cast here as Richard Hannay. As with Robert Donat in the Hitchcock film, there's an air of vulnerability about Powell, despite some of Hannay's heroics, that helps to humanise him as a man beset from all sides and with few allies.

The film wisely picks a name actor to play Scudder, in this case Sir John Mills. The casting of Mills makes the character more than just a dupe or a victim to be got out of the way for the plot to begin and it's possible to believe in his character as someone who might have uncovered a grand conspiracy.

Instead of the freelance American agent of the novel, this version of the character is a British Colonel and a retired spy. Mills's costuming, with a flowing black coat and floppy, broad-brimmed hat, marks him out as something of an outsider and his own man among the sea of top hats and formal wear of the other characters.

John Mills on a British lobby card for The Thirty Nine Steps
An original British lobby card featuring John Mills as Colonel Scudder

On chief villain duties is David Warner as Sir Edmund Appleton, here towards the end of his most interesting period as a film actor. Warner is not particularly physically threatening, but he does make an effectively sinister villain hiding in the ranks of the British establishment.

Warner's two chief agents are played by Ronald Pickup and Donald Pickering, who stalk Hannay across Britain with hunting rifles and an unusual degree of persistence. When Hannay stumbles across a shooting party in Scotland he meets Alex (Karen Dotrice), to add some love interest, and her fiancé David (Miles Anderson), to add some plot complications. Karen Dotrice is probably best known as one of the two children in Disney's 1964 film Mary Poppins and The Thirty Nine Steps was her only significant feature film as an adult.

The film's period setting gives it quite a different flavour to other spy films, including the previous film versions of this story. There are splendid old cars, steam trains and an early monoplane. The period trappings are not completely authentic, and the railway train is a 1950s one with "Midland" painted on the carriages to represent the more period appropriate Midland Railway. But the film has good production values, with a generally convincing sense of period and a pleasing score by Ed Welch. The film's locations are attractive enough and the Scottish moorland looks authentically damp. 

Studio filming for The Thirty Nine Steps took place at Pinewood Studios, with location filming in Dumfriesshire for the Scottish scenes. The railway sequence was filmed on the preserved Severn Valley Railway in the English Midlands, with the railway's Victoria Bridge used for the bridge scene. At 200 feet long, this was apparently the world's longest single span bridge when it was built in 1861.

British poster for The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)
This British poster for The Thirty Nine Steps plays up the film's period appeal

The film was directed by Don Sharp, an Australian who had worked in British films since the 1950s, mostly on thrillers, adventure films and the occasional horror movie. These included some Hammer horrors and a 1978 version of The Four Feathers, co-starring Robert Powell. 

The Thirty Nine Steps was among the last films made for the venerable Rank Organisation in its return to feature film production in the late 1970s, and was one of the few commercial successes of its later production programme. Petty jealousies and turf wars inside Rank meant that its distribution arm was reluctant to release Rank's own films, and when it did it was with the minimum of effort. This not only stymied them at the British box office, but also made the films difficult to sell to overseas distributors, who had noted Rank's own lack of interest.

British cinema was dusting off other old spy stories around this time, including a remake of The Lady Vanishes, with miscast US imports Elliot Gould and Cybill Shepherd, and a belated film version of Erskine Childers' 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands, which is usually considered to be the first modern spy novel. The new versions of both The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes were apparently made to help the Rank Organisation retain copyright of the Hitchcock films. TV versions of John Buchan's novels The Three Hostages and Huntingtower were also made by the BBC around this time. The former is another Richard Hannay story and starred Barry Foster as Hannay.

After the 1935 Hitchcock film, the 1978 film is the most successful screen version of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Its shifting of the setting to turn it into a period piece makes it visually quite distinct from the other versions and it appealingly blends John Buchan with knowing nods to Hitchcock. 

A fourth screen version of the story was made for the BBC in 2008 with Rupert Penry-Jones in the lead. Robert Powell returned to the Richard Hannay character for two seasons of an ITV adventure series, Hannay, in 1988-89.


The Thirty Nine Steps

Year: 1978
Genre: Spy Thriller / Period drama
Country: UK
Director: Don Sharp

Cast Robert Powell (Hannay), David Warner (Sir Edmund Appleton), Eric Porter (Lomas), Karen Dotrice (Alex), John Mills (Scudder), George Baker (Sir Walter Bullivant), Ronald Pickup (Bayliss), Donald Pickering (Marshall), Timothy West (Porton), Miles Anderson (David), Andrew Keir (Lord Rohan), Robert Flemyng (Magistrate), William Squire (Harkness), Paul McDowell (McLean), David Collings (Tillotson), John Normington (Fletcher), John Welsh (Lord Belthane), Edward de Souza (Woodville), Tony Steedman (Admiral), John Grieve (PC Forbes), Andrew Downie (Stewart), Donald Bisset (Renfrew), Derek Anders (Donald), Oliver Maguire (Martins), Joan Henley (Lady Nettleship), Prentis Hancock (Perryman), Leo Dolan (Milkman), James Garbutt (Miller), Artro Morris (The Scot), Robert Gillespie (Crombie), Raymond Young (Guide), Paul Jerricho (PC Scott), Michael Bilton (Vicar)

Screenplay Michael Robson, based on the novel by John Buchan  Producer Greg Smith  Cinematography John Coquillon  Production designer Harry Pottle  Editor Eric Boyd-Perkins  Music Ed Welch  Special effects supervisor Ron Ballanger  Stunt co-ordinator Colin Skeaping

Running time 102 mins  Colour Eastmancolor

Production company Norfolk International  Distributor Rank Film Distributors (UK)



This post is part of the 8th Rule Britannia British film blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. You can find the rest of the entries here


See also:

The 39 Steps (1935)
The 39 Steps (1959)

Comments

  1. I don't believe I was aware of this version of the Buchan story which you make sound immensely entertaining and something worth seeking out.

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    Replies
    1. It is entertaining and it's definitely worth seeking out. It's surprising how little known it seems to be outside the UK. When I wrote about the distribution issues at Rank and the lack of enthusiasm from overseas buyers, I almost wrote " ... which is why you've probably never heard of it!"

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  2. This sounds very intriguing, but an updating of a Hitchcock classic, regardless of its more faithful adherence to the source material, is an uphill battle. It's interesting that it was more or less a commercial success. I'm predisposed to liking anything John Mills or David Warner is in. And Robert Powell starred in some beloved '70s horror, including Asylum, The Asphyx, and Brian Clemens' Thriller TV series.

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    Replies
    1. The producer of this said that the Hitchcock film was about 80% Hitch and 20% John Buchan, while their aim was to reverse the proportions. I think they got it about right - which means that this is definitely its own thing, but it still has some nice Hitchcockian touches too.

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  3. Really need to revisit this one, that a cast!

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    Replies
    1. Watching it this time, I did notice how unusually well cast it is. I didn't even mention that it also has Timothy West, Andrew Keir, Robert Flemyng, etc..

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  4. I read the book in high school, and yes, this version makes a valiant effort to stay close to the spirit of the book. The changes didn't bother me. I actually liked the new ending, which seemed to be more Hitchcock than Buchan. And Robert Powell is pretty good as the hero (I didn't know about the TV series). Great review!

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    Replies
    1. I agree that it's in the spirit of Buchan and that's perhaps the most important thing. I quite like the ending too, it does work. The original ending of the book was probably not exciting enough for the seventies or quite visual enough.

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  5. I have long been aware of the 1978 version, but I have never seen it. Now I am convinced I really should. Never mind the cast, it would be interesting to see a version of The Thirty Nine Steps that remains a bit more faithful to the book than Hitchcock's version (as great as it is). Thank you for taking part in the blogathon!

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    Replies
    1. It's worth seeking out. Thanks for running the blogathon.

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  6. I had no idea there was a remake from the late 1970s – and with this cast, too! Not that it matters, but the costumes look fabulous, based on the images you posted.

    As an old film lover, it was disappointing to hear about the pettiness at the Rank organization. That is really, really too bad.

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    Replies
    1. The production values are good, it's all very visually appealing. The in-fighting at Rank is strange. You'd think it would be obvious that one part of the company succeeding will help the other parts (especially film production, which feeds into distribution), but people don't always see things that way.

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