This expedition to Bear Island, miles off the north coast of Norway, is a scientific one to judge the detrimental effect on the Arctic’s polar ice cap of certain Russian moves to divert rivers away from that ocean, but no sooner has their ship arrived at the remote, wintry location than they receive a message from one of their number who was already there, and it’s some kind of emergency call abruptly cut off before any details can be imparted. The leader, German scientist Otto Gerran (Richard Widmark) doesn’t think it’s anything to worry about, not knowing the man has been murdered, and besides he has other pressing matters to concern him, such as the arrival of Frank Lansing (Donald Sutherland)…
That’s because his arrival by abseiling from a helicopter is very nearly a swift exit, but Lloyd Bridges as adventurer Smithy rescues him before real disaster can strike. If this was sounding just a little contrived, then that’s pretty much how it played out, with a big serving of convoluted into the bargain, and that proved costly to this British-Canadian production for which a lot had been riding on, not least a whole series of films based on the same author’s works. That author was Alistair MacLean, at one time possibly the most popular adventure writer on the planet but having seen a large amount of his books adapted for the screen, Bear Island signalled that golden age was now over and the public had had enough.
MacLean’s world of derring-do simply wasn’t cutting it at the box office anymore, not really his fault, but tastes change and his efforts were a casualty of that shift towards different ways of telling stories and indeed different stories. Time was you only had to mention Nazi gold and you’d have a loyal readership clamouring for more, but as the decades moved to the nineteen-eighties, it was all sounding a bit old hat, and Raiders of the Lost Ark illustrated that something particularly special had to be done with the villains of so many years from the thirties onwards to make a genuine impact from then on. Director Don Sharp was no Steven Spielberg, and his brand of thickeared action was about to mutate into that very distinctive form of eighties action that he would have little part in.
As you might have surmised, Bear Island lost a lot of money, but some time later proved ideal for settling down in front of afternoon television to pass a couple of hours with, and it’s that audience who would appreciate it the most. Certainly the producers had amassed as starry a cast as they could, with Sutherland the most famous Canadian actor around so a shoo-in for the lead (William Shatner presumably unavailable), though he was playing an American, and Vanessa Redgrave as the team doctor and love interest for him was a Brit playing Norwegian, complete with a singularly odd accent. Widmark too, as the German leader of the excursion, spoke in an obviously fake cadence that jarred every time he opened his mouth, and Christopher Lee was there demonstrating his Russian accent as heard when he played Rasputin a decade and a half ago, though you had to assume that was at least authentic-sounding.
Not that you had much of a chance to hear it, as his character wound up vanishing early on, before even establishing himself as a possible suspect for the evildoers behind the apparent sabotage of the scientists’ investigation. That the actual explanation and bad guys were such a cliché by that stage did little to endear the film to viewers in 1979, but now they come across as staples of the sort of thriller that you can waste time with on the small screen, only with perhaps more novelty thanks to it being a more relatively modern project, and in colour to boot. Aside from that, there wasn’t much inspired about Bear Island, throwing in fist fights and grappling as if it had been sponsored by some wrestling group, and when that palled, adding explosions, swiftly becoming the ideal way of waking up a dozing audience who had been lulled into a soothing state of mind by the lack of any real drama in what was happening. A curious thing to say about a film that threw in an avalanche or a U-boat stuffed with Nazi corpses, but it was very ho-hum. Music by Robert Farnon.