Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel Rogue Male – and the 1976 film version of it – feel like a less well-known variant on The 39 Steps, both stories being an eve of war adventure in which an innocent man finds himself hunted both by Nazi spies and, having been falsely accused of murder, the British government. Rogue Male is the less action-packed of the two, having a rather more dour ending than The 39 Steps, and is arguably the less gripping of the two stories, but there’s a lot to enjoy in it nevertheless, and the BBC version is an interesting curiosity.
In the 1970s – and for decades beyond – the BBC clung to a somewhat theatrical tradition – it made ‘plays’ rather than movies, and very much stuck to the idea that the writer was king, generally crediting their dramas as being ‘by’ whoever wrote it, the director credit being relegated to the bottom of the closing credits. They also had a somewhat stagey feel, mostly shot on sets and with little room for retakes, meaning that fluffed lines and wobbly props were left intact. Much BBC drama might as well have been broadcast live, in fact, and the actors – very much of the British theatrical tradition, often – would boom to the back, apparently unaware that on TV, a more subtle performance was possible.
But Rogue Male feels very different. It’s shot on film, for one, avoiding the flat and instantly-dating videotaped interiors of. out BBC drama, and it was made as a one-off drama (albeit originally conceived as part of a series of films featuring British heroes of literature), with top talents both in front of and behind the camera. It’s no surprise, then, that the BBC began to wonder if this film didn’t have the potential to play cinemas before broadcast. However, in the union-dominated TV world of the 1970s, this was never going to happen – Rogue Male was made on a TV budget, which meant TV wages, and no one was going to sign off on it having a theatrical release. Instead, it was shown on 22nd September 1976, and then – like many a TV production – all but forgotten outside of a small fan base.The new BFI release is the first time that the film has been seen in decades.
The story of Rogue Male is, on paper, classic Boy’s Own adventure. It opens with Sir Robert Hunter (Peter O’Toole) pointing his gun at none other than Adolf Hitler as the Fuhrer swans around the Berghof Terrace. In the book, we are told that the hero (unnamed in the novel) is a sport hunter who is simply stalking his prey, with no real intention of shooting (the prey in the book remains equally unnamed, and could be Hitler, Stalin or some other dictator, though Household later confessed that he had Hitler in mind), but the film is more ambiguous about what was going on in the aptly-named Hunter’s mind – flashbacks to a lost love suggest that he really was planning on shooting the Nazi leader. Unfortunately for him, he is discovered and tortured by an SS officer before being left for dead. Miraculously surviving, he escapes back to England, only to find that the Nazis have followed him. Eventually fleeing to the Dorset countryside, Hunter is literally chased to ground by nazi sympathiser Major Quive-Smith (John Standing), eventually hiding out in a foxhole for the grim final act.
As a pursuit drama, Rogue Male works very well for the most part, with a series of tense set pieces as Hunter flees Germany, trying to secure passage out of the country, and later has to shake off pursuers in an unsettlingly empty Holborn underground station. We find ourselves caught up in his plight, even though in truth, he seems like a pretty unpleasant snob, and this is entirely down to O’Toole, giving one of the performances of his career. He manages to take this rather arrogant toff and make him human, if not exactly likeable, and as the story goes on, he does a fine job of showing how Hunter has become traumatised by his experience – this is no stoic hero, but a damaged man (arguably, he is already damaged at the start of the film, hence his foolhardy assassination attempt), and his terror is palpable. By the end of the film, he’s a broken man, stripped of everything that made him who he was – his sense of superiority, his fancy clothes and even his trust in the class that he is part of. He’s matched in the second half of the film by Standing, who is every bit the jolly upper class fascist, trying to pull Hunter onto his side by breaking his resistance down.
Unlike The 39 Steps, which also puts its hero through the ringer but doesn’t seem to leave him especially damaged, Rogue Male doesn’t offer much hope for Hunter, with the establishment (represented by Alastair Sim as a relative of Hunter) happy to throw him to the wolves; only his solicitor, played by Harold Pinter, offers any help. It’s clear that the powers that be know only too well that Hunter is innocent of murder (well, sort of – he does kill one of his pursuers), but will sacrifice him as a pawn to help keep the peace with Germany. This seems all too plausible an idea.
Clive Donner’s direction brings a cinematic feel to the low-budget production, while Frederic Raphael’s screenplay avoids sensationalism, and instead becomes increasingly dark. The scenes with Hunter in the fox hole are particularly bleak, and the film might well be too grim if it wasn’t occasionally leavened with touches of humour. It’s a curious thriller, because in a sense, it slows right down towards the end when other films might be cranking the action up, but that’s no bad thing.
The new BFI blu-ray comes with fascinating extras that fit with the theme of the film – Eva Braun’s home movies, shot as (in the world of this film), Hunter was pointing his rifle at Hitler, and newsreel footage of the British Union of Fascists marching in London and the opening of a Dorset fox hunt.