Having played a sadistic Nazi doctor only two years earlier in Marathon Man, Laurence Olivier is once again on the Allied side in The Boys From Brazil. Larry plays Ezra Lieberman, famed Nazi hunter. Lieberman is a thinly veiled fictionalization of Simon Wiesenthal, the Austrian Jewish concentration camp survival who later dedicated his life to hunting down Nazi war criminals, most famously tracing Adolf Eichmann to Argentina, which lead to his eventual capture, trial and execution by the state of Israel in 1962.
The Boys From Brazil takes place in modern (1978) times when Lieberman is more or less the last man standing in the Nazi hunting game. He's no longer the headline-grabbing crusader he was in the '50s and '60s; thirty odd years after the Holocaust, the world wants to bury the past. Lieberman himself is something of a doddering old man, living in a creaky Vienna apartment with his sister and having more or less resigned himself to the fact that even though he may know where the Nazis are, he's past his prime in nabbing them.
The action hero role, then, is taken up by a new generation of Jewish-American avengers, among them an improbably young Steve Guttenberg in one of his first screen roles.
On the hunt in Paraguay, Guttenberg more or less stumbles upon the biggest fish of all: infamous "Angel of Death," Dr. Josef Mengele. The good doctor is assembling various former Nazis (among them James Mason, wrestling mightily with a German accent) for that one last Aryan hurrah. As the film unfolds, we learn what we more or less knew from the start: that Mengele, with his inhuman genetic experiments and cartoonish obsession with racial purity, is trying to create a race of blue-eyed, baby Hitlers (stop me if you've heard this one before). The premise is potentially awesome (in a comic book-ish kind of way), but never fully realized, partly because the film devolves into histrionics (as many films about Hitler tend to) and partly because the kid they got to play Baby Adolph is a pretty terrible actor (sorry, kid).
In an interesting bit of casting, one of the all-time greatest American good guys Gregory Peck plays Mengele. Dressed in white with a pitch-black mustache, Peck is totally demonic in the role. (The Boys From Brazil marks the second time Peck played the "father of the devil." Only a few years earlier, he'd been tortured by a similarly pale-skinned, dark-haired evil in the form of Damian, The Omen's Hitlerian spawn of Satan.) More than once, Pecks ridiculously affected Teutonic accent (one of many in the film) threatens to drag the film's high-strung theatrics into pure camp. Giving Peck a run for his marks in the "Schnell! Schnell! Schnell!" Bad Nazi Accents Memorial Hall of Fame is Olivier, whose high-pitched Viennese plays like some combination of "The Animaniacs"' Dr. S
"Ja, sat ist what you sink, eh?"
It's a testament to the level of actor Olivier was that, somehow--and I really don't know how--he manages to pull it off. The film itself is by no means good, but even in a bad film like The Boys From Brazil, and even in a role that requires so much arch overacting, Olivier comes away more or less unscathed, perhaps because, whatever he is doing, be it bad or good, is never indifferent. He's always an interesting actor, which is more than I could say for the picture as a whole.
The film fancies itself something of a mystery thriller, a plausible categorization, except it is neither thrilling nor mysterious. After Guttenberg kicks the bucket, Olivier gets back in the game, traveling down old South America way. There he learns that Mengele’s plan is to kill 94 seemingly random, seemingly innocent 65-year old civil servants. Why? Well, that’s the mystery, silly! Larry globe-trots around for a while investigating the newly assassinated, learning that they all have young sons, and these young sons all have pale skin, black hair, blue eyes and baaad attitudes. Hey, I recognize that M.O.! Baby Hitler! Yes, friends, Josef Mengele’s genius plan was to clone Hitler!
James Mason is in this movie.
In a hilariously dated scene, a young geneticist (played by Bruno Ganz of all people!) explains to the 1978 audience the most basic facets of cloning—the terrible reality (questionable) that with a pint of blood or a scraping of skin from the inside of a cheek, a talented (and mad) scientist could implant any number of famous gene sequences (Mozart! Picasso!) into any number of fertile, anonymous wombs and—voila!—a ready-made army of clones at your disposal. Why Mengele needed 94 little Hitlers running around is unclear. (Even given the scientist’s odds that 1 in 10 implanted cells survive to clone-hood, why would you need 9.4 Hitlers? Unless the key to world domination lies in an Adolf Hitler All-Stars baseball team.)
Suffice it to say, The Boys From Brazil is a rather silly film, rather shoddily directed by Franklin J. Schaffner who came to prominence directing The Planet of the Apes (1968) and actually won an Oscar for Patton (1970). The film remains more interesting for its collection of prestigious old veterans (Olivier, Peck, Mason, as well as great characters actors like Denholm Elliott and Rosemary Harris) engaged in ridiculous dialogue and outrageous situations. It is a film that strains credulity, even as it tries to be deadly serious in its pious, anti-Nazi, anti-cloning lecturing.
The climatic showdown between Mengele and Lieberman, which has Peck and Olivier, beaten and bloodied, wrestling around on the floor in a rather poorly choreographed and photographed display, perhaps best illustrates what is wrong with The Boys From Brazil. Watching the scene, which also features a gang of Doberman pinschers ripping Peck to shreds, you can’t help but wonder: what the hell did I just watch? Why are these great actors (and, let’s face it, old men) grunting and panting and bleeding on the floor—for what? Bad, bad, bad.