Classic Film Review: A WWII escape via “The Passage”

Nothing in all your or my years of watching movies prepared me for the utter glee Malcolm McDowell expresses the moment of his “big reveal” in the 1979 WWII action pic, “The Passage.”

As an SS sadist chasing a runaway scientist and his family, he’s as tickled showing off his swastika-bedecked jock strap as we are at seeing it.

Sure, he was playing the latest variation of his Madman Malcolm roles of the ’70s, which started with “A Clockwork Orange.” But he was also having a laugh. He knew, they all had to know, that by the time this one rolled around, director J. Lee Thompson was a long way from “The Guns of Navarone” and a lot closer to bad “Planet of the Apes” sequels, Charles Bronson slaughterfests and garbage like “The Greek Tycoon” and “White Buffalo.”

“The Passage” also stars Oscar winners Anthony Quinn and Patricia Neal, three time Oscar nominee James Mason, horror legend and Mr. “Should Have Been Given an Honorary Oscar” Christopher Lee, and as a Nazi bit player with no lines — future Oscar winner Jim Broadbent.

And if you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. It’s a loopy, long-in-the-tooth formula film about smuggling that outspoken scientist (Mason), his wife (Neal) and two adult children (Kay Lenz of “The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday,” and Paul Clemens) from Occupied France into “neutral” fascist Spain.

McDowell tackles his part with the sort of “give’em their money’s worth” villainy that would become a trademark in later films such as “Blue Thunder.” But everybody else is earnest, if a bit old to be engaged in the bravado we see on display here.

Quinn was in his mid-60s, playing “The Basque” shepherd who apparently established his heroic bonafides during the Spanish Civil War just a couple of years before. He keeps his sheep and his dogs in the same one-room farmhouse, high in the snowy Pyrenees in the north of Spain, and it takes a lot of money for a French Resistance organizer (Bond villain, “Ronin” rescuer and “Jackal” hunter Michael Lonsdale) to get him to leave it.

The Basque takes on the job, gripes about the unwieldy, unathletic and feeble family (a post-stroke Neal was a high-mileage 53 when this came out) he must hike up and over the mountains, and does that derring do that Anthony Quinn had been doing since the 1930s to save them.

“They will all die,” he complains, time and again.

“One hears the most terrible things about the Basques,” the daughter wonders.

“They’re all true,” he grouses.

The Basque must outwit and ambush Gestapo thugs, Wehrmacht regulars and that nasty SS goon on their trail. A train will blow up, a partnership with The Gypsy (Lee) will prove fraught and people will be captured, tortured and murdered — sacrifices will be made, willingly and unwillingly.

And McDowell? He’ll do a lot of that murdering, and raping and torturing. A kitchen cooking lesson is carried out in which he wears his Iron Cross on his chef’s apron.

“You French have NO interest in other people’s cooking!”

It’s a bad bordering on terrible movie, but the action is handled well enough, the French village and Pyrenees locations are stunning. Quinn always gave good value even as he walked the fine line between Larger than Life and Mexican jamon. Mason soldiers through it and Neal has a couple of decent moments.

McDowell? He wears the leather, black hat and the cigarette holder as if he’s sure he’ll start a new fashion trend, at least in camp cinema circles.

MPA Rating: R, violence, sexual assault, nudity

Cast: Anthony Quinn, Malcolm McDowell, James Mason, Patricia Neal, Michael Lonsdale, Christopher Lee and Jim Broadbent.

Credits: Directed by J. Lee Thompson, script by  Bruce Nicolaysen, based on his novel. An MGM release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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