Just who are The Boys From Brazil? They definitely have something to do with Nazis who escaped justice after the Second World War. What is their connection to the vile, evil (and unfortunately not fictional) Doctor Josef Mengele? The eponymous boys are, in fact, none other than clones of Adolf Hiter himself, grown from embryos created by the evil Mengele. Yes indeed, this is the premise of 1978’s The Boys From Brazil, directed by Franklin J Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, Patton) from the novel of the same name by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby).

In an effort to create the perfect leader for the Fourth Reich, Mengele created 94 cloned embryos of Der Furher, and implanted them in surrogate mothers using shaky film science. Through an adoption agency created as a front, the boys are farmed out to parents of similar circumstance; doting young mothers and distant older civil servant fathers, replicating Hitler’s family experience. But in his striving for verisimilitude, Mengele must despatch his assassins to murder the fathers, ensuring the proto-Hitlers have the same formative moment after the deaths of their fathers, just like the real thing. It’s incredibly convoluted, and ends violently in a confrontation between Mengele, Ezra Lieberman: Nazi Hunter, and some dobermans.

Like so many all-star cast films, The Boys From Brazil is high on style. It’s brilliantly edited, stylishly shot, and the script contains some genuinely decent tension. But also like so many all-star cast films, it is unhealthily low on credulity.

Peck schmeck.

The first stumble comes from the casting choice for Mengele. On the page, it’s a horrifying concept. The Nazi scientist to end Nazi scientists still on the loose, still funded, still wreaking unbelievably hideous inhumane havoc on human beings born and unborn. Who to cast as this abomination of a man in a 1978 blockbuster? I definitely thought of Gregory Peck! Atticus Finch. Ambassador Thorn from The Omen. And speaking ofThe Omen, how did Peck age so badly just two years hence? His hair dye job is utterly appalling, but it’s still a better actor than Peck himself. He lurches from scene to scene, occasionally showing signs he might know how to play a deranged maniac. “Shut up, you ugly bitch!” is a notable quote. But it’s not until the final confrontation with protagonist and Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman that Peck finally shines, and only because he suddenly realises how to be unhinged, screaming about “A Hitler tailor-made for the 1980s! 1990s! 2000!”

James Mason doing what he always does best – looking good in suits, and sighing.

James Mason is better in his role as Mengele’s overseer. Obviously distressed by Mengele’s inhumanity, but willing to collude in it to further the Fourth Reich, he has some level of depth. Mason was always a damn fine actor, especially at seeming exasperated, and here he shines as a war-weary Nazi who just wants it all to end. Compare him to any number of bit-part Wehrmacht generals on film – army men who want to do their army jobs, unsullied by Nazi fanaticism. The film could have used a little more of his breathy charm.

“Nein, zat is not nearly enough marks for me to play zis role!”

In an Academy Award-nominated performance (though goodness knows why), Sir Laurence Olivier is Ezra Lieberman, an ageing Nazi hunter still searching for those elusive war criminals who escaped down the ODESSA steps (now there is an obscure reference for you, he said, self congratulatorily). Lured into action by a chance to catch Mengele, Lieberman discovers the cloning plot after hearing about the murders of several 65 year old male civil servants in suspicious circumstances. When he discovers all those men have 14 year old adopted children with bright blue eyes, black hair with a distinctive side part, and bad, bad attitudes, he suddenly makes the connection. Olivier wanders geriatrically through the film, always one or two steps behind Mengele and his assassins, looking incredibly lost. Just once there is that fire which made him a renowned thespian – he interviews the woman who had been in charge of the adoption agency before Lieberman outed her for her war crimes (before he knew of the clones). The conclusion, after Lieberman utterly gets the drop on this convicted war criminal, is chilling. You really believe Olivier is a Nazi hunter. Cold, calculating eyes and a flat expression – “I may leave here empty handed, but you…are not going anywhere.”

Schaffner can certainly direct. Gregory Peck is determined to ham everything up as much as possible – he chews the scenery like the hungriest man in the world – but the rest of the cast are generally tolerable. It’s a taut thriller; you don’t feel like there’s wasted time. But Shaffner can’t end the film coherently. It feels like there are gigantic pieces missing from the plot. What of British Boy Hitler, both of whose adoptive parents (Sybil Fawlty and 1990s cinematic Alfred from Batman, everybody) are killed? And the other 93 clones? Perhaps their careers stalled as spectacularly as their performer – Jeremy Black has a Wikipedia page, but someone has done a good job squeezing information from a stone to populate it.

Just Adolf! in “Public School Prig”

There’s one thing above all else the film does very well – it makes you hate Hitler even more. By showing what he may have been like as a child, it humanises him. And because those children are class-A brats who need a damn good telling off, you feel no sympathy whatsoever.

Incidentally, notice how the tone of this review is all over the place? Same as The Boys From Brazil. This is not helped by the irritating score by Jerry Goldsmith. Again, Academy Award-nominated but goodness knows why.

Should you waste your two hours on this film? As a piece of speculative fiction it definitely deserves a place at the table. As an all-star cast film it’s probably in the B-list. It’s horrific, violent, unsettling, and perversely amusing. If you’re looking for a mildly incomprehensible but peculiarly enjoyable romp which ultimately leaves more questions asked than answered, this is the film for you.