There has long been a theory that at the end of World War 2 a group of leading Nazis escaped to South America rather than commit suicide.
This film, adapted from the novel by Ira Levin, takes this as a starting point to spin off into an intriguing science fiction thriller. The premise itself is already worthy of interest, but The Boys From Brazil goes one further – Mengele is planning on cloning 90+ copies of Adolf Hitler. Because, if you have the power to do so, why not?
Not only do we have the delights of Gregory Peck playing Dr Mengele, a delightfully sinister turn in his white suit, but there are other joys to be found elsewhere. A scarily young Steve Guttenberg. Jemmz Merrsson (James Mason). Denholm Elliott. That guy who played the Russian official in the Bond films. That guy who played the fake Slugworth in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And, of course, Sir Laurence Olivier.
He plays Ezra Lieberman, a Nazi hunter who is put on Mengele’s trail by Steve Guttenberg’s character.
And an added bonus, Richard Marner who played Colonel von Strohm in Allo Allo also makes a brief appearance. And Bruno Ganz too as a cloning expert. He would later go on to play Hitler in Downfall. Quite frankly, the cast is incredible.
It’s slow in actually revealing Mengele’s true plans. It starts with an overheard conversation where he plans the deaths of 94 men across the globe, all aged 65, over the course of the next 2 years. A mysterious beginning, one that is pure thriller narrative. The science fiction aspect of it only rears its head at the halfway point, and it’s a doozy.
Women aren’t best served by the script – their purpose is to be servile to men, or to react with a shriek or take part in a bit of wailing. Prunella Scales in particular is wasted, having a brief few moments of screen time. That can be said about all of the other notable faces other than Mason, Olivier and Peck – a brief
The most notable female face in the film is Lilli Palmer as Lieberman’s sister Esther, and even she’s limited to merely offering a bit of exposition here and there.
At the time of release, the improbable plot was still plausible. It’s ridiculous, of course, and if you peel away a good thirty minutes of the script you’ll still reach the same finale, but it was something that conspiracy theorists could easily invest time into.
In some ways I feel that they could have emphasised Mengele’s plot more. If you take that away we end up with a serviceable but very low key thriller. If you strip that plot away it is little more than two elderly men slowly going about their business before having a bit of a scuffle. The title and plot summary suggest a little more in the way of action, plot elements that are genuinely thrilling. If the cast didn’t include these heavyweights then it would be far less remarkable.