Whether serving as the punching bag of Indiana Jones or as the thorn in Rick Blaine’s side, Nazis have proven themselves time and time again to be perfect fodder for cinematic villainy. This potential is exploited to the fullest in director Franklin J. Schaffner’s bizarre thriller, The Boys From Brazil, which stars two heavyweights: Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier. A good but not great film from the late-70’s, The Boys From Brazil suffers somewhat from its outlandish premise and occasionally laborious pace. That being said, the film does possess a gonzo allure and is defined by one of Olivier’s stellar final performances. It is also an interesting companion piece to Marathon Man. That film (made in 1976) also featured Olivier, but occupying a role that is literally the total opposite of this one.
Set thirty or so years after the blessed fall of Hitler and his gang of miscreants, The Boys From Brazil spins a disturbing yet outrageous sci-fi yarn about an attempt to resurrect the Third Reich. Cloaked in dazzling white garments that are sharply contrasted with impossibly dark hair, Gregory Peck portrays the infamous physician (and everyone’s favorite Nazi) Dr. Joesph Mengele, who is in charge of spearheading the Nazi’s return to power. The esteemed Laurence Olivier play’s Mengele’s antithesis, the once venerable Nazi-hunter Ezra Liberman. Once this old coot becomes alerted to Mengele’s resurgence in South America, he sets out to track him down, or at least to figure out why the good doctor has ordered the assassination of 94 civil servants across the globe.
It’s difficult to know what to make of The Boys From Brazil, which seems to be a composite of a goofy thriller and a deadly serious drama. These two tones are encapsulated fully in the dialectically opposed performances of Peck and Olivier – who were clearly not on the same page as to what type of movie they were making. Peck, who once was a cinematic beacon of quiet integrity, plays Mengele as broadly and pulpy as possible. Clearly he was under the impression that he was making some sort of cartoonish B-picture, or perhaps even a full-blown parody. Conversely, the gaunt Olivier, despite initially endowing Liberman with a cranky demeanor and high-pitched verbal affect, gradually morphs into a figure of implosive pain and anger. His work grounds the film and conveys how the scars of events like WWII and the Holocaust continue to linger decades after they came to an end.
In a directorial sense Schaffner work is adequate albeit unsurprising – barring the impressive finale. The film’s story is a globe-trotting one, and Schaffner moves throughout a whole host of European locations with relative ease as Mengele’s assassination plans are put into motion. Some of these sequences are richly evocative – such as an assassination deep within a frigid mountain pass. Other aspects of the film however, such as a lengthy sequence which explains the inner workings of Mengele’s plot, feel onerous; they bog the film down.
Perhaps the film’s most virtuoso section comes at the very end – which features a face off like nothing I had seen before. This sequence is defined by its sharp editing, genuine intensity and the manner in which Peck’s bombast is able to play off Olivier’s subtle, internalized agony. But more than anything else the sequence is marked by how it subverts your expectations of a thriller and especially of an action sequence. This level of unpredictability enlivens the proceedings significantly, capturing something only present sporadically in the rest of the film. The lack of this quality in certain sections isn’t enough to derail the film as a whole, but it is enough to relegate it into little more than a bizarre, 2 hour distraction.