The list of actors who have been considered for the part of James Bond is just plain huge. It includes names like Michael Caine, David Niven, Liam Neeson, Hugh Jackman…even yanks like Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. But what about Anthony Hopkins? Yep, Hannibal Lecter. Well, from what I can see, he’s never been in the running for the part, however he did appear in a film that was clearly an attempt to piggyback on 007’s success. He stars as naval secret service agent Philip Calvert in 1971’s “When Eight Bells Toll.”
As the film opens, Calvert is already in the midst of a mission, attempting to rendezvous with two undercover agents on a ship. See, there has been a rash of ships being hijacked lately, primarily ships carrying gold bullion. Unfortunately, when Calvert locates his pals he finds they are dead, and he must fight his way off the ship.
He manages to make his way back to his ship, where he joins Hunslett (Corin Redgrave), a somewhat bookish fellow agent. The two are posing as marine biologists working off the coast of Scotland as they try to discover what is happening to the hijacked ships. But it seems like their cover may be blown. As Calvert tries to report to their superior, Uncle Arthur (Robert Morley), they are interrupted by an inspection by the local police…a couple of whom look an awful lot like the goons Calvert battled the night before.
Later, and in true Bond fashion, Calvert and Hunslett are invited over to a neighboring yacht for cocktails. There they meet Sir Arthur Skouras (Jack Hawkins), his very young 2nd wife Charlotte (Nathalie Delon), and his somewhat shifty associates (Ferdy Mayne and Edward Burnham). Calvert decides to run a check on Skouras, which infuriates Uncle Arthur since they are both members of the same club.
Uncle Arthur then sends a helicopter to bring back Calvert. But instead, the resourceful agent uses it to scope out the coast for locations where a huge cargo ship could be hidden. That is, before the copter is shot down. He manages to make it back to the boat, however, where he finds no sign of Hunslett. Who he does find is Uncle Arthur. The two now set out to find the missing gold, which they believe Skouras is hiding in a nearby castle. They also get some help from the sexy Charlotte, who they find swimming toward their ship one day. Though she seems to be willing to help them nab Skouras, there may be more to her than meets the eye.
At the time this film would’ve gone into production, the future of the James Bond series was somewhat in question. Connery had left the role and Lazenby hadn’t really caught on. The producer’s of “When Eight Bells Toll” no doubt saw and opportunity to create a new spy movie franchise. But, Bond returned, with Connery in the roll, in “Diamonds are Forever,” released a few months after this film. The comparisons to Bond are unmistakable. From the dangerous woman to the cocktails with the villains to Robert Morley’s M-like Uncle Arthur. But that’s not to say that they don’t do a good job with the whole thing. As Bond knock-offs go, this is darn good one!
If Hopkins really was never considered for the role of 007, this film certainly leaves one wondering why. He makes a quite crafty and appealing spy. Though I really enjoyed his performance, the real scene stealer is Robert Morley. His character is essentially M, but with the pomposity level cranked up to 11. What’s great, though, is that he isn’t stuck behind a desk. Putting this type of character into the field, so to speak, is a great little twist on the usual spy format. It makes for a wonderfully comedic performance which plays perfectly off of Hopkins’ smoothness.
Just like with a Bond film, there are a few moments where the plot gets a bit muddled, but I gotta admit, I kind of expected that. I did think the film fell a bit short in the female department. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Nathalie Delon, but the small amount of sparks between her and Hopkins felt a bit tacked on. Kind of like the filmmakers realized after the fact that they didn’t quite have the girl quotient of that other, more famous, British agent.
Overall, “When Eight Bells Toll” is a very enjoyable spy flick. It may have come as a response to 007, but it’s strong enough to earn a licence to kill all on it’s own..