When Eight Bells Toll (film)

When Eight Bells Toll is a 1971 action film directed by Étienne Périer and starring Anthony Hopkins, Jack Hawkins, Robert Morley, and Nathalie Delon. Set in Scotland, it is based upon Scottish author Alistair MacLean's 1965 novel of the same name. Producer Elliott Kastner planned to produce a string of realistic gritty espionage thrillers to rival the James Bond series, but the film's poor box office receipts ended his plans.

When Eight Bells Toll
DVD cover
Directed byÉtienne Périer
Produced byElliott Kastner
Jerry Gershwin
Written byAlistair MacLean
StarringAnthony Hopkins
Jack Hawkins
Robert Morley
Nathalie Delon
Music byAngela Morley (credited as Walter Stott)
CinematographyArthur Ibbetson
Edited byJohn Shirley
Distributed byJ. Arthur Rank (UK)
Release date
  • 9 March 1971 (1971-03-09)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$1.8 million[1]


British Treasury secret agent Phillip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) is sent to investigate the hijacking of five cargo ships in the Irish Sea, tracking the latest hijacked ship—the Nantesville, carrying £8 million in gold bullion—to the Scottish Highlands and the sleepy port town of "Torbay" on the "Isle of Torbay" (patterned after Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull).

Posing as marine biologists, Calvert and his partner Hunslett (Corin Redgrave) find the local inhabitants suspicious and hostile. They suspect that Cypriot tycoon and shipping magnate Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins), whose luxury yacht Shangri-La is anchored off the coast, may be behind the pirating of the gold bullion. While searching the surrounding area in a Royal Navy Helicopter, Calvert makes contact with a group of remote shark fishermen who appear more friendly than Torbay's locals. Calvert also meets the occupants of a castle, Lord Kirkside and his teenage daughter, who behave strangely as well as being hostile.

As the helicopter brings Calvert back to Torbay it comes under attack from the shore and the Royal Navy pilot is killed. The helicopter crashes, explodes and plummets into the sea. Calvert escapes from the helicopter after it sinks to the bottom. When he returns to his research yacht Firecrest he finds Hunslett is missing.

Operating out of his yacht, Calvert is joined by his boss Sir Arthur Arnford-Jones, known as "Uncle Arthur" (Robert Morley). Together, they combat boarders and make ready for sea. On raising the anchor they find the dead body of Hunslett tied to it.

They are joined by Skouras's wife, Charlotte (Nathalie Delon), and when a pirate speedboat approaches, Calvert rams it, shoots the occupants and blows up the boat in vengeance for Hunslett's death.

Calvert recruits the shark fishermen to deal with Skouras and his modern day pirates. Guessing that the missing bullion ships are being sunk to allow the gold to be offloaded invisibly, Calvert dives in the bay and finds the Nantesville. He fights and kills one of the divers, whom he has previously encountered and who he suspects killed Hunslett.

He then secretly enters Kirkside's castle and questions the Lord's daughter, discovering that Skouras is an innocent victim whose real wife is being held hostage along with other locals down in the castle's dungeons. He then sneaks into the underground dock of the castle where the gold is being offloaded.

At midnight (eight bells) the shark fishermen ram the gates of the underground dock with their boat. The pirates are expecting them because Charlotte has been transmitting Calvert's plans to them by secret radio. A fire fight ensues in which the pirates are wiped out, after which Calvert lets Charlotte escape with a single bar of gold in her possession.


Charles Gray, uncredited, dubbed the voice of Jack Hawkins, whose larynx had been removed when the actor was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1966. Due to the similarity between their voices, Gray dubbed him in other films as well.



In July 1966 Kastner and his producing partner Jerry Gershwin had purchased five screenplays from MacLean: Where Eagles Dare, When Eight Bells Toll, and three other unnamed ones.[2]

In November Kastner announced they would make the film as part of a 14-film slate over two years. Among the 14 movies were Maclean's Where Eagles Dare, which was a big hit in 1968, leading to high expectations for When Eight Bells Toll.[3]

Kastner saw When Eight Bells Toll as a combination of The Guns of Navarone, Gunga Din and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. "There was a strong character and a great adventure in there," said Kastner.[4]

MacLean elected to adapt his novel for the cinema himself, and kept the adaptation close to the novel. The story is very close to the source text, and features some of the same witty dialogue. Some of the twists in the ending have been changed, however, and a shootout replaces MacLean's original Agatha Christie-style summation.

Producer Elliott Kastner hoped that the film would be the first of a series of spy adventures films featuring MacLean's Philip Calvert character by capturing James Bond series fans after the anticipated demise of that series (Sean Connery was believed to be planning to quit the Bond role, and some thought that the Bond series would end after his departure). [5]

The director was a Belgian, Etienne Perier who had done low budget films. Kastner later said hiring him was "probably the one mistake" he made on the film.[6]


Kastner says he raised the budget by ringing "a guy I read about in Fortune magazine and I went and saw him and said 'I need one point eight million dollars to make this second Alistair Maclean project.' And he heard me out and he wrote the damn cheque."[7]

Hopkins was paid £8,000.[8]


Kastner wanted a Celtic actor to play the hero Calvert, having had a big success with Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare. "I saw the agent Calvert as a very exciting characterisation," said Kastner. "A lot could be done with him. But I didn't want a Tony Curtis. I didn't want a star. I wanted a classical actor. A real actor."[9]

He considered Michael Jayston and Anthony Hopkins for the role. Hopkins, then best known as a stage actor for his work at the National Theatre, was chosen on the basis of his performance in The Lion in Winter.[10]

Hopkins says he turned down the role at first, worried about being an action star. "It seemed too fast for me," he said. "I could hear myself saying, 'Now wait a minute'. Then when I had finally overcome my fright I said to myself 'I'd be mad to turn this chance down.' I didn't."[11]

Kastner wanted Hopkins to lose weight for the role. Bond film stunt arranger Bob Simmons helped him slim down to become a convincing Royal Naval officer trained as a commando and frogman.[12]


Filming started in September 1969[13] and went for sixteen weeks. It was done partly on location in Scotland with studio work at Pinewood.[14]

The main helicopter used in the film is a Westland Widgeon painted in Royal Navy Rescue helicopter colours.

During filming Hopkins fell in love with one of Kastner's assistants, Jennifer Lynton, and left his wife and child for her.[15]


Box office

When Eight Bells Toll performed poorly in cinemas in the US, although it was more popular in Europe[16] and was the 11th most popular film at the British box office in 1971.[17][18]

Kastner said the film "tripled its money" but admitted it was a disappointment.[19]


The Guardian described the film as, "All thoroughly silly but routine rather than rotten".[20]

Proposed series

Connery returned to the Bond role and appeared in the successful Diamonds Are Forever, and the Bond series producers decided to continue the series when Connery left. The projected Phillip Calvert series was cancelled.


  1. Callan p 131
  2. Gene Kelly to Do 'Married' Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times 30 July 1966: 18.
  3. Martin, Betty (30 November 1966). "Movie Call Sheet: Team to Produce 14 Films". Los Angeles Times. p. D16.
  4. Callan p129
  5. Callan p 128
  6. Callan p 130
  7. Callan p 131
  8. Callan p 131
  9. Callan p 129
  10. Hopkins, Anthony (22 October 1969). "Anti-hero from the National". The Guardian. London, UK. p. 11.
  11. Aba, Marika (22 August 1970). "Hopkins Wants to Be Self". Los Angeles Times. p. A8.
  12. Simmons, Bob (1987). Nobody Does It Better: My 25 Years of Stunts With James Bond and Other Stories. Blandford. ISBN 978-0-713-71908-6.
  13. Martin, Betty (19 September 1969). "Three-Film Deal for Ross Martin". Los Angeles Times. p. G17.
  14. "When Eight Bells Toll". Scotland the Movie Location Guide. 2015. Retrieved 21 May 2016.
  15. Callan p 133
  16. Lewin, David (11 May 1980). "Alistair MacLean's Eiffel Tower Drama". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 May 2016.
  17. Waymark, Peter (30 December 1971). "Richard Burton top draw in British cinemas". The Times. London, UK. p. 2.
  18. Harper, Sue (2011). British Film Culture in the 1970s: The Boundaries of Pleasure: The Boundaries of Pleasure. Edinburgh University Press. p. 269.
  19. Callan p 131
  20. Malcolm, Derek (11 March 1971). "Where love is a many vendored thing". The Guardian. London, UK. p. 8.


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