The Boys from Brazil is a 1978 British-American thriller film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. It stars Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, and features James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Anne Meara, Denholm Elliott, and Steve Guttenberg in supporting roles. The film is based on the 1976 novel of the same title by Ira Levin, and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
Young, well-intentioned Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) stumbles upon a secret organisation of Third Reich war criminals holding clandestine meetings in Paraguay and finds that Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck), the infamous Auschwitz doctor, is with them. He phones Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier), an aging Nazi hunter living in Vienna, Austria, with this information. A highly skeptical Lieberman tries to brush Kohler's claims aside, telling him that it is well known that Mengele is living in Paraguay.
Having learned when and where the next meeting to include Mengele is scheduled to occur, Kohler records part of it using a hidden microphone, but is discovered and killed while making another phone call to Lieberman. Before the phone is hung up with Lieberman on the other end, he hears the recorded voice of Mengele ordering a group of ex-Nazis to kill 94 men in nine different countries. These 94 men targeted for assassination by Mengele consist of 16 men in West Germany, 14 men in Sweden, 13 men in the United Kingdom, 12 men in the United States, 10 men in Norway, 9 men in Austria, 8 men in the Netherlands, 6 men in Denmark, and 6 men in Canada.
Although frail, Lieberman follows Kohler's leads and begins traveling throughout Europe and North America to investigate the suspicious deaths of a number of aging civil servants. He meets several of their widows and is amazed to find an uncanny resemblance in their adopted, black-haired, blue-eyed sons. It is also made clear that, at the time of their deaths, all the civil servants were aged around 65 and had cold, domineering and abusive attitudes toward their adopted sons, while their wives were around 42 and doted on the sons.
Lieberman gains insight from Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen), an incarcerated former Nazi concentration-camp guard who worked with the adoption agency, before realising during a meeting with Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz), an expert on cloning, the terrible truth behind the Nazi plan: Mengele, in the 1960s, had secluded several surrogate mothers in a Brazilian clinic and implanted them with zygotes each carrying a sample of Adolf Hitler's DNA preserved since the Second World War. 94 clones of Hitler had then been born and sent to different parts of the world for adoption. In the hopes that one or more of the boys will turn out like the original Hitler, Mengele has arranged for all of them to be placed with foster parents similar to Hitler's own, and is assassinating their foster fathers at the same age at which Hitler's own died.
As Lieberman uncovers more of the plot, Mengele's superiors become more unnerved. After Mengele happens to meet (and then attacks) one of the agents, he thought was in Europe implementing his scheme, Mengele's principal contact, Eduard Seibert (James Mason), informs him that the scheme has been aborted to prevent Lieberman from exposing it to the authorities. Mengele storms out, pledging that the operation will continue.
Seibert and his men destroy Mengele's jungle estate after killing his guards and servants. Mengele, however, has left, intent on trying to continue his plan. He travels to rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where one of the Hitler clones, Bobby Wheelock (Jeremy Black), lives on a farm with his parents. There he murders the boy's father (John Dehner), a Doberman pinscher breeder, and waits for Lieberman, who is on his way to the farm to warn Mr. Wheelock of Mengele's intention to kill him.
The instant Lieberman arrives and sees Mengele, he attacks the doctor in a fury. Mengele gains the upper hand and shoots Lieberman. He taunts Lieberman by explaining his plan to return Hitler to the world and that he started the operation in Berghof in 1943. Then, with one desperate lunge, Lieberman opens the cupboard where the Dobermans are held and turns them loose. The dogs corner Mengele and attack him. Bobby arrives home from school and calls off the dogs and tries to find out what has happened.
The injured Mengele, having now encountered one of his clones for the first time, tells Bobby how much he admires him, and explains that he is cloned from Hitler. Bobby doubts his story, suspicious of Mengele because the dogs are trained to attack anyone who threatens his family. Lieberman tells Bobby that Mengele has killed his father and urges him to notify the police. Bobby checks the house and finds his dead father in the basement. He rushes back upstairs and sets the vicious dogs on Mengele once again, coldly relishing his bloody death. Bobby then helps Lieberman, but only after Lieberman promises not to tell the police about the incident.
Later, while recovering from his injuries in a hospital, Lieberman is encouraged by David Bennett (John Rubinstein), an American Nazi-hunter, to expose Mengele's scheme to the world. He asks Lieberman to hand over the list (which Lieberman had taken from Mengele's body while Bobby was calling for an ambulance) identifying the names and whereabouts of the other boys from around the world, so that they can be systematically killed before growing up to become bloody tyrants. Lieberman objects on the grounds that they are mere children, and he burns the list before anyone can read it.
- Gregory Peck as Dr. Josef Mengele
- Laurence Olivier as Ezra Lieberman
- James Mason as Col. Eduard Seibert
- Lilli Palmer as Esther Lieberman
- Raúl Faustino Saldanha as Ismael
- Uta Hagen as Frieda Maloney
- Steve Guttenberg as Barry Kohler
- Denholm Elliott as Sidney Beynon
- Rosemary Harris as Frau Doring
- John Dehner as Henry Wheelock
- John Rubinstein as David Bennett
- Anne Meara as Mrs Curry
- Jeremy Black as Jack Curry, Jr. / Simon Harrington / Erich Doring / Bobby Wheelock
- Bruno Ganz as Dr. Bruckner
- Walter Gotell as Capt. Gerhardt Mundt
- David Hurst as Strasser
- Wolfgang Preiss as Lofquist
- Michael Gough as Mr Harrington
- Joachim Hansen as Fassler
- Sky du Mont as Friedrich Hessen
- Carl Duering as Maj. Ludwig Trausteiner
- Linda Hayden as Nancy
- Richard Marner as Doring
- Georg Marischka as Gunther
- Günter Meisner as Farnbach
- Prunella Scales as Mrs Harrington
- Wolf Kahler as Otto Schwimmer
The book came out in 1976 and was a best seller. In August 1976 it was announced the Producers Group (Robert Fryer, Martin Richards, Mary Lee Johnson and James Cresson) had optioned the film rights to the novel and would make the movie in association with Lew Grade. Fyer had just made Voyage of the Damned for Grade. According to producer Martin Richards, Robert Mulligan was originally offered to direct the film.
In May 1977, it was announced Laurence Olivier would star. By this stage Franklin Schaffner was attached to direct. Gregory Peck joined the film in July. Olivier had recently been ill and was taking as many well paying movie jobs as he could get in order to provide for his wife and children after his death. Peck agreed to portray Mengele only because he had wanted to work with Olivier. Mason initially expressed interest in playing either Mengele or Lieberman. Lilli Palmer also accepted a small role just to work with Olivier. To prepare for the roles of the European clones, Jeremy Black was sent to a speech studio in New York City by 20th Century Fox to learn how to speak with both an English and a German accent.
"The emphasis of the film is not on Nazis," said producer Fryer. "It is really about cloning, a logical extension of existing facts. And it's about the hatred that two men have for each other."
Although the bulk of the film is set in South America, Fryer says actually filming in that continent was "logistically impossible" so the decision was made to shoot it in Lisbon, Portugal. Filming started in Portugal in October 1977, with additional filming in England and the US.
The altercation between Lieberman and Mengele took about three or four days to film due to Olivier's ailing health at the time. Peck recalled that he and Olivier "were lying around on the floor" laughing at the absurdity of having to film such a fight scene at their advanced ages.
A brief end segment with Bobby Wheelock in a darkroom was restored to some versions in later years. In this alternate ending, after Lieberman burns the list in his hospital bed, the scene transitions to Bobby in a darkroom developing photographs of Lieberman and Mengele, with a piercing glare coming from his steely-blue eyes as he focuses on Mengele's jaguar claw bracelet before fading to the end credits.
Despite its title, none of the film was shot in Brazil. Instead, the film was shot in Portugal, London, Vienna, the Kölnbrein Dam in Austria, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The scenes that were set in Massachusetts were shot in London.
The film had 25 minutes cut when released in West Germany, theatrical as well as all subsequent TV, video and some DVD releases. In 1999, by Artisan Entertainment, and 2009 by Lionsgate Home Entertainment, the film was released uncut on DVD in the U.S. and uncut in Germany on its DVDs.
Lew Grade, who partly financed the film, was not happy with the final result, feeling that the ending was too gory. He says he protested but Franklin J. Schaffner, who had final cut rights, overruled him.
In 2015, Shout! Factory released the film on Blu-ray.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 69% based on 32 reviews, with an average rating of 6.3/10. The site's consensus states: "Its story takes some dubious turns, but a high-caliber cast and a gripping pace fashion The Boys from Brazil into an effective thriller." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 40 out of 100 based on reviews from 7 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews.
Variety wrote "With two excellent antagonists in Gregory Peck and Lord Laurence Olivier, The Boys from Brazil presents a gripping, suspenseful drama for nearly all of its two hours — then lets go at the end and falls into a heap." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film one-and-a-half out of four stars and called it "old-fashioned filmmaking at its worst," with "one of the phoniest stories you can imagine." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote "It is penny-dreadful stuff, sumptuously executed but still as shallow as a Saturday serial. One exasperation of The Boys From Brazil is that, even accepting the biological possibility of the premise, the script by Heywood Gould never confronts any of the interesting questions raised." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called it "admirably crafted and surprisingly effective," and "a snazzy pop entertainment synthesis of accumulating suspense, detective work, pseudoscientific speculation and historical wish fulfillment." Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote "If the film wants to be taken as a cautionary fable—another one!—about the ever-present dangers of Nazism, then it should leave viewers with a sense of menace that Mengele's 'boys from Brazil' constitute. Instead, we get Lieberman's fuddy-duddy humanism and vague assurances that the boys are not really dangerous. And this is supposed to be a movie." Jack Kroll of Newsweek wrote that "the thoughts aren't quite deep enough even for a thriller...Heywood Gould's reasonably suspenseful screenplay blows it by suddenly turning Lieberman into a kindly old Jewish uncle instead of a man who is willing to face the tough paradoxes of good and evil."
Some scholars have used the film's idea of controlling an individual's genetics and upbringing to illustrate the difficulties of reconciling traditional views of free will with modern neuroscience.
- Academy Awards Nominations
- Academy Award for Best Actor – Laurence Olivier
- Academy Award for Film Editing – Robert Swink
- Academy Award for Original Music Score – Jerry Goldsmith
- Golden Globe Awards Nomination
- Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama – Gregory Peck
- Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films Saturn Award Nominations
- Best Science Fiction Film
- Best Actor – Laurence Olivier
- Best Director – Franklin J. Schaffner
- Best Music – Jerry Goldsmith
- Best Supporting Actress – Uta Hagen
- Best Writing – Heywood Gould
- Other honors
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
- 2001: AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
- 2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
- Dr. Josef Mengele – Nominated Villain