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Years Before Jurassic Park, The Boys from Brazil Presented Cloning as a Terrifying Possibility
The twisted pseudo-science of the Third Reich took center stage in the 1978 adaptation of Ira Levin's bestselling thriller.
Between the years of 1974 and 1978, Hollywood produced an unofficial trilogy of films centered around thwarting Nazi conspiracies — The Odessa File, Marathon Man, and The Boys from Brazil — all of three of which were adapted from bestselling novels.
It's not hard to see why the idea of battling escaped war criminals hiding out in South America captivated the public's imagination. After all, the history-making trial of Adolf Eichmann had just taken place the decade prior, and what's more, Americans were finally waking up to the fact that their own government offered asylum to Hitler's followers after the war in exchange for their scientific know-how. A year after The Boys from Brazil (now streaming on Peacock) hit theaters, the U.S. Justice Department opened the Office of Special Investigations, whose sole purpose was to track down "former" Nazis living comfortably in this country, strip them of citizenship, and prosecute them for atrocities committed during the Holocaust.
Why The Boys from Brazil Was Ahead of Its Time
Out of the three titles mentioned above, The Boys from Brazil is the most ambitious from a narrative standpoint. Based on the 1976 thriller of the same name by Ira Levin, the film offers up a uniquely gonzo premise: Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) — the sadistic physician notorious for horrific, pseudo-scientific medical experiments at the Auschwitz concentration camp — plots to restore the Third Reich with clones of Adolf Hitler strategically placed throughout the globe. Mind you, this was about two decades before Jurassic Park brought genetic engineering to a much wider audience.
"It's so interesting now, because in those days, who knew from cloning? The book was radical," The Boys from Brazil screenwriter Heywood Gould tells SYFY WIRE over Zoom. "That whole idea was so incredible and had not even been touched by any other writer."
Since cloning was still so novel at the time, Gould and director Franklin J. Schaffner (famous for helming the original Planet of the Apes) insisted on retaining the exposition scene from the book, where a scientist outlines the general process to the protagonist, Ezra Lieberman (Sir Laurence Olivier playing a character based on real-world Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal).
Hoping to write knowledgeably on the subject, Gould did his homework. In addition to reading Levin's novel, he also researched laparoscopic surgery and sought out the guidance of a Pennsylvania scientist who had successfully cloned shrimp. "I got an idea of how cloning was done and put it in the script. I felt like a scientist, although I wasn’t," the screenwriter continues. "He told me how they did it and said, 'They're gonna be cloning people in no time.’ I thought, ‘No, it can’t happen.’ But he said, ‘No, it’s gonna happen. It’s a technological process and at a certain point in history, everybody will be able to do it,’ which is what’s happening now."
The studio, however, wasn't sold on the idea of having to bring the action to a halt for a lecture on genetic duplication. "[They] said, ‘We can't do this. We're stopping the movie cold. The movie drops dead for 10 minutes while you talk about some scientific thing that the audience won’t know,'" Gould recalls.
He and Schaffner ultimately won the battle and were vindicated once "people watched it with great attention and applauded it," the writer adds. Indeed, the sequence they fought so hard to include makes the ludicrous notion of resurrecting Hitler sound terrifyingly plausible. The character who does the explaining, Professor Bruckner, is played by Bruno Ganz, who would go on to portray Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall (also streaming on Peacock). Talk about irony.
Did The Real Mengele See The Boys from Brazil?
Of all the Nazi fugitives who escaped any form of justice, Josef Mengele is, perhaps, the most famous. He became known as the "Angel of Death" among the inmates of Auschwitz, stemming from his authority to decide whether incoming prisoners lived or were sent directly to the gas chambers for liquidation. Despite many coordinated efforts to find and bring him to trial, the man eluded capture for decades until he drowned on the coast of São Paulo, Brazil in early 1979. He was 67.
While he's got no one way of proving it, Gould has a nagging suspicion the real Mengele watched The Boys from Brazil. "I never heard that he saw it," the writer clarifies. "I never got any information about it, obviously, but people tend to see the movies that they’re in."
Will The Boys from Brazil Ever Get a Remake?
In the summer of 2006, director Brett Ratner announced his intentions to re-adapt the source material for New Line Cinema after production wrapped on Rush Hour 3. "The original was a flawed film with a brilliant concept,” the now-disgraced filmmaker said in a statement at the time. "You no longer have to spend time explaining cloning as you did then." For unknown reasons, the remake — which was billed as a contemporary take from co-writers Richard Potter and Matthew Stravitz — never materialized. Not entirely surprising, given how many high-profile studio projects end up languishing in development hell.
When we broach the topic of a potential remake, Gould reveals that he once attempted to sell TNT on the idea of a television movie, also set in present day. Unfortunately, the writer wasn't able to track his script down before publication of this article (understandable since the file is hidden away on some long-forgotten floppy disk), but he's still able to give us the broad narrative strokes.
His vision reimagined the Mengele character as world-renowned bioengineer and supposed "benefactor of mankind," who has built a sterling reputation around the cloning of salmon and other livestock. "Everybody thinks he’s the greatest, but he’s secretly planning to take over the world with his newly-made Hitlers," Gould says. "These clones have become different people in the world. They’ve become star athletes or actors; they've become very popular and famous, and are gonna eventually take over the world. Then a sheriff finds out about it and tries to do an investigation into the whole thing."
The network ended up pulling the plug, fearing the core concept was just too large a pill for audiences to swallow. "They felt it was kind of far-fetched, and this was 20 years later [after the movie had been made]," the screenwriter laments. "I said, ‘Far-fetched?! They’re doing it right now!’ They said, ‘Ehhh, we don’t know.’ So anyway, they chickened out."