Sunday 16 June 2019

Movie Review: The Passage (1979)

A World War Two escape thriller, The Passage features a stellar but poorly utilized cast struggling against a feeble script and the stench of a low budget production.

With France under Nazi occupation, hardy Basque sheep farmer (Anthony Quinn) is reluctantly recruited by the French resistance for a dangerous mission to smuggle American scientist Professor Bergson (James Mason) across the Pyrenees and into Spain.

Bergston is hiding in Toulouse, and the Basque is shocked to learn that the frail Mrs. Bergson (Patricia Neal) and the couple's two grown children (Kay Lenz and Paul Clemens) are accompanying their father. Meanwhile, sadistic SS Captain Von Berkow (Malcolm McDowell) is intent on hunting down the Professor. After receiving help from a gypsy leader (Christopher Lee), the escape party start their perilous journey across the snow-covered mountains, with Von Berkow in hot pursuit.

A British production directed by veteran J. Lee Thompson, The Passage collects an impressive cast and aims for an old-fashioned but smaller-scaled World War Two adventure in the vein of Thompson's The Guns Of Navarone from 1961. With a decent premise and impressive mountainous scenery supplementing the stars, the raw ingredients are promising.

But The Passage suffers from production values that appear cheap and hurried, and the script (by Bruce Nicolayson, adapting his own book) ignores everything related to backstories and personal dynamics. Most of the characters are hardly afforded a name, let alone rounded into individuals, with James Mason's Professor Bergson the primary victim. All of the dialogue is of the plastic variety, while Thompson's directing is muddled, his handling of the action scenes bordering on inept.

The void of quality is filled with shock value, and The Passage is notorious for all the wrong reasons. The main eye-popping excuse to watch the film is a misplaced Malcolm McDowell performance. His full-on British accent unexplained and unconstrained, McDowell mushes Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange with Caligula and enters World War Two with ridiculous madness. His Captain Von Berkow is an all-time over-the-top experience, a star running amok with no guidance from his director.

And Von Berkow steers The Passage to a second claim to infamy as an exercise in excess violence and gore. The SS Captain perpetuates on-screen rape, torture, immolation and mass murder, and on a couple of occasions punctuates his atrocities with pantomime-level outfits. His articulated chef chop-chop scene is admittedly compelling as an indecorous horror-comedy routine.

The Passage is thankfully a mostly forgotten curiosity, a lost opportunity buried in the jagged mountains.

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