Honey, I cloned the kids
Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier, The Marathon Man) has devoted his entire life to hunting down Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice. Though many of the significant members of The Third Reich have been captured, one particularly notorious figure remains at large: Dr. Joseph Mengele (Gregory Peck, The Guns of Navarone), who is currently conducting a strange and sinister experiment. What Lieberman knows is that Mengele has ordered the execution of 94 men in different countries across the globe… but why? As Lieberman digs deeper, he begins to uncover the terrifying details of Mengele’s master plan. Will the Nazi hunter find a way to corner his target before it’s too late?
The Boys from Brazil is a film with numerous virtues, but in order to appreciate them you’re going to have accept the fact that the film is built on a fundamentally ridiculous premise. I won’t spoil that premise (it’s hinted at – but not confirmed – until after the film’s halfway point), but odds are if you’re even casually familiar with the film, you’re well aware of what that premise is. Even if Mengele’s plan works as well as he thinks it should (and there’s no reason to believe that it would), how are we to believe that the public would actually go along with his scheme? It’s no secret to say that helping the Nazis regain power is Mengele’s ultimate goal, but c’mon: some serious rebranding would be required in order to achieve such a thing. It may be possible to convince a large segment of humanity to support Nazism again, but not if you just come straight out and call it Nazism. You’d need a name change, a costume change and most certainly a change in terms of… ah, but I’ll bite my tongue.
The sheer preposterousness of the film’s premise might have worked well in a campy B-movie, but The Boys From Brazil positions itself as a prestigious, serious affair. Indeed, the movie actually managed to garner some critical acclaim at the time of its release, landing three Oscar nominations in the process. It’s a sci-fi thriller built around a shocking hook ala Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green – and it offers a level of craftsmanship on par with those movies (it was helmed by Apes director Franklin J. Schaffner) – but the big twists offered by those flicks made perfect sense within the context of the worlds they presented. The Boys From Brazil is set in something which very much resembles the real world circa 1978, but the twist it delivers doesn’t feel even remotely plausible.
On the positive side, the movie is stacked with acting talent. One of the film’s Oscar nominations went to Olivier for his turn as the meek-but-intelligent Ezra Lieberman. It’s a little startling to see how convincingly frail and soft-spoken Olivier seems in the role, particularly after his menacing turn just a couple of years earlier in The Marathon Man. Ezra is a most unconventional action hero, and an above-average one as a result. Various exposition-heavy supporting roles are filled by the likes of James Mason (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Michael Gough (Batman), Denholm Elliot (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Rosemary Harris (Spider-Man) and Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire), all of whom elevate the material considerably. Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy) is also in the movie.
Alas, one of the film’s most significant roles suffers from a severe case of miscasting: Gregory Peck is a flat-out terrible choice to play Mengele. The actor is often effortlessly effective playing men of unflappable decency, but his work as as mustache-twirling villain feels hammy and unpersuasive. It’s not that Peck can’t play a bad guy – I’m a big fan of his stormy turn as Captain Ahab – but he can’t play this sort of bad guy. The role originally belonged to George C. Scott, who bailed before production began. Scott seems an odd fit for the part, too, but he almost certainly would have managed to bring more terror to the role than Peck does. An even better fit might have been James Mason, whose genial calm generates more menace than Peck’s growling villainy.
The Boys from Brazil (Blu-ray) offers a solid 1080p/1.78:1 transfer which crops the original image just a little bit (it was originally shown in 1.85:1). While I strongly disapprove of any sort of cropping as a general rule, it must be admitted that there’s far less visual information lost here than in cases where a 4:3 or 2.40:1 transfer is being cropped to fit 16×9 screens. Detail is solid throughout despite the film’s general softness, and the original grain structure has been left intact. Flesh tones look warm and natural. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track highlights Jerry Goldsmith’s terrific Oscar-nominated score, which offers considerably more devious wit than the film itself does. It’s a classic effort on par with the likes of Goldsmith’s work on Chinatown and The Omen, if a bit less celebrated than those scores due to the fact that it was written for a much less iconic film. Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout, though louder scenes can sound just a wee bit tinny. The only supplement is a trailer.
The Boys from Brazil is a classy bit of nonsense which ranks as one of Schaffner’s lesser (if not lesser-known) films. It’s kinda fun, but rarely credible.