Hauling Like A Brooligan

Stephen Gallagher

The Thirty-Nine Steps

I recently went back to John Buchan’s novel The Thirty Nine Steps, the template for all modern on-the-run thrillers from The Fugitive to 24 to the entire Jason Bourne trilogy.

The re-reading confirmed my remembered impressions. The book has terrific narrative velocity. It also falls apart to an utterly unmemorable end, and the story doesn’t hold up under anything but the most uncritical scrutiny.

But somehow, it’s still has greatness in it.

Though the execution can be shambolic, the overall shape is a classic one. The glue that holds it together is Buchan’s portrayal of his hero, Richard Hannay – an impressive achievement in the light of the fact that the author shows no discernible ability to characterise anyone else. The other players are all the stock types of Clubman’s fiction. They’re mostly defined by rank and class, to the extent that some of them don’t even get names.

Buchan has obviously sensed from a distance the arc that he wants to achieve. It starts in the bustle of the city and loops out across the far wide country, where Hannay discovers with a rug-from-under-the-feet feeling that, far from making his way to safety, he’s made his way to the heart of the conspiracy that he’s been running from. In the final act our hero, with his good character restored, leads the forces of right in the final showdown.

I suppose my contention here is that The Thirty-Nine Steps, in its combination of personal conflict and open landscape, offers the closest thing we have to the Great British Western.

That Buchan falsifies process and reality at every turn in order to achieve this is actually something of a key to how the book works. It operates on a level of almost pre-adolescent magical thinking. How else to explain the way in which authority figures hand control of their operation over to the man they’ve been chasing, on the basis that “He’s been doing a pretty good job of it so far”? That’s the kind of thinking that has the Chief of Police calling on eleven-year-old Johnny Atom in order to beg him to take a look at the case that has his best men baffled.

People are recognised as good sorts and bad sorts without any need for qualification or demonstration. It’s a story completely without women. Oh, there’s Julia the Czech girl, who gets a promising mention at the beginning. Her name provides the key to a cipher, but she herself makes no appearance.

My antenna says that Buchan had a vague idea that she would, but then went ahead and found no place for her in the execution. I’m convinced that he didn’t pre-plan his story to any great degree. I think that’s the reason for the looseness and breeziness of the writing, but also the dissatisfaction that you’re left with at the end. It’s a bit like realising that you’ve been entrusting your education to a teacher who’s only two chapters ahead of you in the textbook.

Charles Bennett’s screenplay for the Hitchcock feature essentially took the framework of the novel and laid an almost unrelated romantic comedy over it. Comparing book to film is a bit like watching Noises Off on stage, where the old warhorse of a story is playing on one side of the flats and the enjoyable stuff with the lighter touch is playing only inches away on the other. The surprising thing is that the combination of thriller and romcom works so well, a fusion of genres that was to become a genre in its own right.

I’ve only a dim recollection of Ralph Smart’s 1950s version. Memory suggests that it was a remake of the Bennett screenplay that rested almost entirely on the cheery personality of Kenneth More, one of those actors that I always feel pleased to see. For the rest of it, what I remember is a lot of two-dimensional staging and unconvincing back-projection at precisely those points where tension and thrills are required.

As for the ’80s Robert Powell version, I’ve no memory of that at all apart from the image of Hannay dangling from the hands of Big Ben at the end. Though that’s not to knock it. Production values appear to have been high and I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

The pic shows Charles Edwards, who appeared as Richard Hannay in both the West End and Broadway productions of Patrick Barlow’s spoof/homage to Buchan’s novel and the Hitchcock film. Edwards also played the young Conan Doyle in my Murder Rooms story for the BBC Films series. And everyone else’s, for that matter.

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7 responses to “The Thirty-Nine Steps”

  1. I thought the rights had been optioned for a remake – I’m sure someone said David Koepp was writing it – but no doubt it’ll be set in the states. Maybe they should actually make it into a western proper!

  2. When I checked into the situation a while back, Castle Rock had the secured the rights for Robert Towne to write and direct a version in Australia. Reading between the lines, it had the air of a project that was never going to happen. I don’t know what may have happened since then.

  3. Oh, it might’ve been Robert Towne come to think about it. It’s amazing how many times we hear something has been optioned and nothing happens though – Joe 90, Hell Drivers and The Prisoner to name but a few. The one that looks promising is the touted update of ‘The Champions’ by Guillermo Del Toro (if I’m still around by the time he’s finished all the other projects he’s got on). I found the original series a bit stagey and bland but the central idea is pretty good and might make a good feature…as long as it doesn’t come out like remake of ‘The Avengers’, that is!

  4. A few weeks back I was whiling away some time in a marvellous bookshop in Marylebone and came across Penguin Books’ The Complete Richard Hannay. There were a lot of well-to-do old ladies, obviously on their way to lunch, who were jostling for books around the same shelves so I only got to skim through.

    Looking at the chapter headings of The Thirty-Nine Steps, the final ‘Various Parties Converging on the Sea’ elicited a head-scratching, “Huh?” because of course, having been indoctrinated by the movies, the ripping yarn would lead to Wylie Watson’s Mr Memory. At least in the Hitchcock version.

    Having seen Ralph Thomas’ 1959 remake a good many years back, I can’t remember a thing about it. Shame he didn’t get Dirk Bogarde playing Hannay, given the long working relationship Thomas, producer Betty Box, and Bogarde had. Brilliant as good old Kenneth More probably was, I always picture him as Ambrose in Genevieve.

    Any memory of the 1978 version is the same as yours: Robert Powell hanging about on the clock face, obviously trying to stop Big Ben from chiming. Obviously no Mr Memory there, but they do have the title as Buchan wrote it, rather than Hitch’s The 39 Steps.

    Can the second and third version beat the original? Robert Donat gives a great performance. It has John Laurie and a very young Peggy Ashcroft as the crofter and his wife. Best of all, Donat gets to be handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll…

    Lucky blighter.

  5. “Brilliant as good old Kenneth More probably was, I always picture him as Ambrose in Genevieve.”

    Yeah. Hence the name of the blog. Although technically I suppose it ought to be “hawling”.

    The Kenneth More performance that sticks in my mind is The Comedy Man, but I’ve always been a sucker for seedy backstage atmosphere. Despite the title it’s a serious, quite dark piece of showbiz drama.

  6. Oh, good grief! What an idiot I am, I just didn’t make that connection.

    Good old Dinah Sheridan!

    The Comedy Man doesn’t ring a bell. Douglas Bader aside, Mr More always used to turn up on weekend afternoons trying to sink the Bismark.

  7. I spent about two years working on a film restoration of ‘Genevieve’, viewing it God knows how many times, and I never made the connection to your blog title until you’ve just stated it. Mr Memory I’m not…