I'm not a big fan of remakes. In particular, the act of remaking a film that is already considered a classic seems pointless. If the original is so good that everyone speaks highly of it, what's the point in trying to retell the story again? Surely a better idea would be for the remake brigade to pick films that had good potential first time round but didn't quite come off as well as they might. This 1978 adaptation of The Thirty Nine Steps is one of the few films, I think, that has valid justification for revisiting a story that had already found critical and commercial success in an earlier version. Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 version of the story was a truly outstanding film cinematically-speaking, but it was not a very faithful rendition of John Buchan's source book. The 1959 remake, with Kenneth More, merely copied the Hitchcock version. This third stab at the story, directed by Don Sharp and scripted by Michael Robson, is the first to go back to the novel and attempt to use the original plot closely and faithfully. For once, we have a remake that exists for a purpose:- to tell the story as envisioned by Buchan.
Mining engineer Richard Hannay (Robert Powell) befriends a man named Scudder (John Mills) who is on the run from enemy agents in 1914 London. Scudder is murdered for his troubles, but not before passing a notebook on to Hannay and giving him a few clues as to the nature of the enemy. Hannay finds himself suspected of the murder and is forced to flee by train to the north, eventually eluding his pursuers by hiding from them in the rolling slopes of the Scottish wilderness. After various adventures, Hannay discovers that his enemies are actually German spies plotting a terrible atrocity in London. Aided by a lady he has picked up during his escapades, Alex Mackenzie (Karen Dotrice), Hannay attempts to foil the sinister plot, culminating in a terrifying fight on the face of Big Ben as the clock ticks towards a catastrophic disaster.
Powell is excellent as the hero, and isn't upstaged (as one might expect) by the stellar supporting cast. (In fact, Powell went on to portray the character in a successful series on British TV a few years later). Good character work is provided by the likes of Eric Porter, David Warner, George Baker and John Mills, while Dotrice makes an agreeable leading lady. The period detail is evoked reasonably well throughout. The climax on the face of Big Ben has been frequently criticised - it is one of the only parts of the film that differs significantly from the events in the book, which is perhaps why purists have been quick to "knock" the sequence. However, I find the Big Ben sequence to be both exciting and memorable. If anything, the film's weakness is a lack of urgency during the opening half-hour or so. For those who make it past the slightly stodgy opening act, this emerges a very enjoyable and worthwhile retelling of Buchan's celebrated novel.