We all think we know a celebrity quite well. But when, one gets down, to really know, about him, in the minutest of details, one finds, there are many things one doesn’t about the celebrity. A case in point is Alistair Maclean. Alistair Maclean full name Alistair Stuart MacLean (Scottish Gaelic: Alasdair MacGill-Eain; Lifespan: 21 April 1922 – 2 February 1987) was a Scottish novelist who wrote popular thrillers and adventure stories. His works include The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare – all three were made into popular films. He also wrote two novels under the pseudonym Ian Stuart. His books are estimated to have sold over 150 million copies, making him one of the best-selling fiction authors of all time.
Alistair Maclean descended from clan Maclean. MacLean was the son of a Church of Scotland minister and learnt English as a second language after his mother tongue, Scottish Gaelic. He was born in Glasgow but spent much of his childhood and youth in Daviot, ten miles south of Inverness. He was the third of four sons.
In 1941, during World War II he joined the Royal Navy in the ranks of Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Leading Torpedo Operator. He was first assigned to Paddle Steamer Bournemouth Queen, a converted excursion ship, fitted for anti-aircraft guns, on duty off the coasts of England and Scotland.
Beginning 1943, he served on HMS Royalist, a Dido-class light cruiser. There he saw action in 1943, in the Atlantic theatre, on two Arctic convoys, and escorting, aircraft carrier groups, in operations against Tirpitz and other targets off the Norwegian coast. He also took part in Convoy PQ 17 on Royalist.
In 1944 he and the Royalist served in the Mediterranean theatre of the World War-II, as part of the invasion of southern France and in helping to sink blockade runners (a merchant vessel) off Crete and bombard Milos near Greece in the Aegean sea. During this period, MacLean, may have been injured, in a gunnery practice in an accident.
In 1945, in the Far East theatre of World War-II, MacLean and the Royalist, saw action, escorting carrier groups in operations, against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. (MacLean’s late-in-life claims that he was captured by the Japanese after blowing up bridges and tortured by having his teeth pulled out have been dismissed by both his son and his biographer as drunken ravings.) After the Japanese surrender, Royalist, helped evacuate, liberated POWs from Changi Prison in Singapore.
MacLean was discharged from the Royal Navy in 1946. He then studied English at the University of Glasgow, working at the post office and as a street sweeper. He graduated in 1953, and briefly worked as a hospital porter, and then worked as a school teacher at Gallow Flat School in Rutherglen.
As a university student, MacLean began writing short stories for extra income, winning a competition in 1954 with the maritime story “Dileas”. The publishing company Collins asked him for a novel and he responded with HMS Ulysses, based on his own war experiences, as well as credited insight from his brother Ian, a master mariner. The book was written over three months.
Maclean later described his writing process in a very interesting manner:
I drew a cross square, lines down representing the characters, lines across representing chapters 1–15. Most of the characters died, in fact only one survived the book, but when I came to the end the graph looked somewhat lopsided, there were too many people dying in the first, fifth and tenth chapters so I had to rewrite it, giving an even dying space throughout. I suppose it sounds cold blooded and calculated, but that’s the way I did it.
The book sold a quarter of a million copies in hardback in England in the first six months of publication. It went on to sell millions more. Film rights were sold, though, a movie was never made. MacLean then was able to devote himself to writing.
His next novel, The Guns of Navarone (1957), was about an attack on the fictitious island of Navarone (based on Melos). The book was very successful, selling over 400,000 copies in its first six months. He followed it with South by Java Head (1958), based on his experiences in the South East Asia seas in World War—II, and The last Frontier (1959), a thriller about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Film rights for Java Head were sold but no movie resulted out of it. His next novels were Night Without End (1959) and Fear Is the Key (1961). The Last Frontier was turned into a movie, The Secret Ways (1961), which was not very successful while the film version of The Guns of Navarone (1961) was hugely successful.
In the early 1960s, MacLean published two novels under the pseudonym “Ian Stuart” in order to prove that the popularity of his books was due to their content rather than his name on the cover. These were The Dark Crusader (1961) and The Satan Bug (1962). They sold well, and MacLean made no attempt to change his writing style. He also continued to publish novels under his own name such as The Golden Rendezvous (1962) and Ice Station Zebra (1963).
“I’m not a novelist,” he once said. “That’s too pretentious a claim. I’m a storyteller, that’s all. I’m a professional and a craftsman. I will make that claim for myself.” Maclean also claimed he wrote very fast (35 days for a novel) because he disliked writing and the “sooner he finished the better”. He never re-read a book after he finished. His novels were notable for their lack of sex. “I like girls,” said MacLean. “I just don’t write them well. Everyone knows that men and women make love, laddie – there is no need to show it.”
MacLean’s books eventually sold so well that he moved to Switzerland as a tax exile. From 1963 to 1966, he took a hiatus from writing to run a hotel business in England, purchasing the Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor.
During this time a film was made of The Satan Bug (1965). MacLean returned to writing with, When Eight Bells Toll (1966).
Producer Elliot Kastner approached MacLean looking for film scripts which prompted MacLean to write Where Eagles Dare. 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. (Kastner made four MacLean movies.) MacLean also wrote a novel for Where Eagles Dare which was published in 1967. The book was a best seller and the 1968 film version was a huge hit. “MacLean is a natural storyteller,” said Kastner. “He is a master of adventure. All his books are conceived in cinematic terms. They hardly need to be adapted for the screen; when you read them, the screen is in front of your mind.” MacLean wrote a sequel to Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone (1968). A film version was announced in 1967 but did not result for another decade. The same year saw the release of an expensive film based on Ice Station Zebra (1968).
Maclean wrote a thriller about narcotics, Puppet on a Chain (1969), and Caravan to Vaccares (1970). These books all began as screenplays for Kastner. MacLean then wrote Bear Island (1971), the last of his first person narratives. Kastner produced a film version of When Eight Bells Toll (1971) and Fear Is the Key (1972); another producer made Puppet on a Chain (1971). Neither performed particularly strongly at the box office. This delayed plans announced in 1972 for MacLean’s then-wife Marcelle to produce three films based on his books. One of these proposed films was The Way to Dusty Death, which was to star Jackie Stewart. It ended up being a 1973 novel and a 1995 film.
Geoffrey Reeve, directed a film titled Caravan to Vaccares (1974). By 1973 MacLean had sold over 24 million novels. “I am not a writer,” he said in 1972. “I am a businessman. My business is writing.” MacLean had spent a number of years focusing on screenplays but disliked it and decided to return to being predominantly a novel writer. “Hollywood destroys writers,” he said. He wrote a biography of James Cook which was published in 1972. He wrote Breakheart Pass (1974), Circus (1975), The Golden Gate (1976), Seawitch (1977), Goodbye California (1979) and Athabasca (1980).
“I read a lot, I travel some,” he said in 1975. “But mostly what I don’t know I invent.” In 1978 MacLean said he “just can’t understand” why people bought his novels. “It’s not as if I write that well… I blunder along from one book to the next always hopeful that one day I will write something really good.” Films were still being made out of his novels including Breakheart Pass (1975) (from Kastner), Golden Rendezvous (1977), Force 10 from Navarone (1978), and Bear Island (1979) but none did very well.
Alistair Maclean decided to focus on American television. He wrote a 120-page novella for a television series called Air Force One is Down which was initially turned down by NBC but later filmed in 2012). Maclean then pitched six new ideas to networks, each with a 25–30 page treatment. The Hostage Tower was approved by CBS and aired in 1980.
His later works include River of Death (1981) (filmed in 1989), Partisans (1982), Floodgate (1983), and San Andreas (1984). Often these novels were worked on by ghost writers, with MacLean providing only the outline. His last novel was Santorini (1986), published after his death. His estate left behind several outlines. One of them was filmed as Death Train (1993).
MacLean’s later books were not as well received as the earlier publications and, in an attempt to keep his stories in keeping with the time, he sometimes lapsed into unduly improbable plots. He also struggled constantly with alcoholism, which eventually brought about his death in Munich on 2 February 1987. He died of a stroke. He is buried a few yards from Richard Burton in Celigny, Switzerland. He was married twice and had two sons by his first wife, as well as an adopted third son. His niece Shona MacLean (also published under S.G. Maclean) is a writer and historical novelist.
MacLean was awarded a Doctor of Letters by the University of Glasgow in 1983.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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