Bear Island
Cinema poster
Directed byDon Sharp
Written byDon Sharp
David Butler
additional material
Murray Smith
Based onnovel Bear Island by Alistair MacLean
Produced by
CinematographyAlan Hume
Edited byTony Lower
Music byRobert Farnon
Selkirk Films
Canadian Film Development Corporation
Bear Island Films
Distributed byUnited Artists (Canada)
Columbia Pictures (International; through Columbia-EMI-Warner Distributors in the UK[1])
Taft International Pictures (U.S.)
Release dates
  • 1 November 1979 (1979-11-01) (United States)
  • 5 December 1979 (1979-12-05) (South Africa)
  • 26 December 1979 (1979-12-26) (UK)
Running time
118 minutes
CountriesUnited Kingdom
LanguagesEnglish, German
Budget$CAD12,100,000 (estimated) or $9.3 million[2]

Bear Island is a 1979 thriller film loosely based on the 1971 novel Bear Island by Alistair MacLean. It was directed by Don Sharp and starred Donald Sutherland, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee and Lloyd Bridges.


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An expedition of United Nations scientists from different countries travel to Bear Island, between Svalbard and northern Norway, to study climate change. However, several of them are equally interested in the former German U-boat base located on the island, including American marine biologist Frank Lansing as his father was a U-boat commander who died there. Expedition leader Gerran places several parts of the island off-limits, including the U-boat base.

Lansing and fellow scientist Judith Rubin disobey instructions and venture into the area near the U-boat base. Someone triggers an avalanche using explosive charges, the resulting avalanche kills Rubin but Lansing survives. Lansing survives another mysterious incident when his snow mobile explodes while traveling the island with Smithy, a US Navy veteran who has previously visited the island.

Lansing finds a way into the U-boat base by diving underwater. Inside he finds the U-boat his father served on, and his father's skeletal remains inside it. He also finds signs that someone has visited the base recently. He takes the logbook and confides in the expedition doctor, Lindquist. Lindquist finds a secret message left by Larsen, a Norwegian agent who was killed before the expedition arrived. The message says that expedition members Jungbeck and Heyter are neo-Nazis operating with a third person identified only by the codename Zelda.

Lansing takes Lindquist to the U-boat where they find crates marked as containing explosives, but on opening one they discover it is full of gold. Back at the base, there are more suspicious incidents; the radio mast collapses, and an explosion destroys the electrical generator, apparently killing Smithy as well. Lansing and Lindquist head out from the base, luring Jungbeck and Heyter into an ambush. While lying in wait, Lansing realises that Gerran's deputy, Hartman, is Zelda. Jungbeck and Heyter are killed by Lansing.

Smithy has secretly moved the gold to his boat and starts to leave. Hartman pursues him, followed by Gerran, who is repentant ex-Nazi who wants to return the gold to Norway. Hartman fatally wounds Gerran and forces Smithy to leave with him, later killing him in a struggle. Lansing boards the boat and, in a final confrontation, kills Hartman.




The original novel was published in 1971 and became a best-seller, selling over eight million copies. "It will make a whopping good movie," wrote the Los Angeles Times.[3]

In 1976 Maclean's second wife Mary formed a company with producer Peter Snell, Aleelle Productions, who aimed to make movies based on MacLean novels including Golden Gate, Bear Island, The Way to Dusty Death and Captain Cook.[4]

Film rights came solely into the hands of the Canadian-born Peter Snell who had lived in England since 1961. Snell set up the film in Canada, which was experiencing a film boom due to the assistance of tax concessions in 1976 allowing the write-off of losses on films that qualify as sufficiently Canadian.[5] Snell wanted to make a film that targeted the international market; there would be no Canadian characters and the film was not set in Canada. However Snell and several of the actors and most of the crew were Canadian.[6]

"Three in every eight households have a MacLean novel," said Snell. "He's certainly sold better than Ian Fleming. The James Bond pictures are fast running out of gimmicks. Action-adventure will always work better in the long run if you stay away from gimmicks."[2]

Peter Snell enlisted director Don Sharp, who had worked on an adaptation of MacLean's Puppet on a Chain. They developed the project for several of months in the mid 1970s but Snell was unable to raise finance. However some time later the project reactivated.[7]

Sharp decided to change the film crew in the novel to a scientific unit. "I don't think you can make films about film units," he later said adding "I think possibly we tried to put too much meaning and too much cast into an action adventure story. I think if we cut some of the character interaction and just played it for speed and thrills it might have made more money."[8] Other changes from the novel included altering the characters, and arriving at the island earlier.[9] Snell said MacLean was supportive of the changes.[2]


In November 1978 it was announced the movie would be the most expensive made in Canada until that time, costing over $9 million.[10][11] "You've got to come up with something television can't," said Snell. "You've got to come up with spectacle."[2]

Of the budget, $3.3 million came from the British arm of Columbia Pictures, $3 million from the Canadian radio and cable television company, Selkirk Holdings, $1.8 million from the Toronto Dominion Bank, $1.2 million from the Bank of Montreal, and $100,000 from the Canadian Film Development Corporation (the latter was seed money for pre production and was paid back when the film was financed).[2]

The Bank of Montreal lent the producers money to make the film. When the producers could not raise finance, the bank was forced to become investors.[12][13]

Snell wanted to make the movie on location, feeling audiences would not react well the shooting "studio snow" which had been the method used on an earlier MacLean adaptation, Ice Station Zebra. "Audiences can tell styrofoam snow," said Snell.[2]

It was the thirteenth film made from a MacLean novel. Snell said "He complained of no continuity" with the previous films "but with me he's close to being a partner. Usually his books get bought and he's invited to the premiere. In his case I'm on the phone regularly to him in Geneva where he lives and he's getting a kick out of it."[2]


Filming started 22 November 1978 in Stewart, British Columbia.[14] The unit were based at Stewart for seven weeks then moved to Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska.[2]

Location filming in Stewart and Glacier Bay took three months. A Soviet ship was used to transport the unit. It was hired for three weeks but because of bad weather was needed for another week at $6,000 a day. The cast and crew numbered 103 and there were 101 Russian crewmembers, 66 of whom were women.[2]

The shoot was difficult. Vic Armstrong was put in charge of the second unit. One day he went on a location scout up the mountain in a helicopter with Sharp, and three others and they were stuck for four days due to bad weather without food or proper clothing; they survived by staying in the helicopter and by eating the pilot's lunch over several days. When they returned, six feet of snow fell overnight and a week's filming was lost as they dug out of snow.[15] Later on during the shoot, helicopter pilot John Soutar was killed in an accident.[16][2]

The Swedish invention called Larven (The Caterpillar) by Lennart Nilsson is used in the chases around the island.

"We're delighted to be working on an international picture", said second unit director Alan Simmonds. "But co-productions can be a one-way street. The whole mentality of the film is English or American - the style, the amount of money. We're good, we know we're good, but the moneymen won't take a risk on Canadians."[6]

The unit then moved to London where interiors were completed at Pinewood Studios.[2]

Sutherland called his character "an intelligent, humorous, lonely man."[17]

The film went a million dollars over budget, which Sharp says was the first time it had happened in his career. He later called the location "silly" because although it was spectacular visually and right for the story it was logistically difficult.[8]



The Quarterly Review called it "murder on the Alaska Express... but, in search of something to take the children to which doesn't feature a scene of bestiality, you could do a lot worse".[18] The Observer said it "has the same numbing effect as frost bite."[19] MacLean's called it "a clinker if there ever was one."[20]

The Globe and Mail said "one could perhaps be excused for expecting it to be a major disaster. It isn't: the Arctic landscapes are breathtaking, and some of the action sequences are not only active, but also exciting" but that "when compared to The Guns of Navarone... it's routine adventure- flick stuff: blood, guts and (a little) suspense intercut with acting of appalling quality, and dialogue that makes one yearn for the days of silent movies."[21]

The Los Angeles Times called it "best left to the easily satisfied".[22]

Box Office

The film was a flop at the box office.[23]

Sharp says the film "did alright" but had a lot of success on video.[8]

During pre production, Snell announced he had the film rights to six other MacLean novels, three of them not written.[2] Snell and Selkirk were so positive about Bear Island's prospects that at one stage they planned a series of Alistair MacLean adaptations for annual Christmas release, starting with The Way to Dusty Death.[6] That film was never made but Snell did go on to make The Hostage Tower and Air Force One is Down based on MacLean stories.[2]


  1. ^ "Bear Island (1979)". BBFC. Retrieved 22 October 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Adilman, Sid (11 March 1979). "Bear Island: The Film That Stayed out in the Cold". Los Angeles Times. p. m6.
  3. ^ Hughes, Dorothy B. (5 December 1971). "MacLean Writes as Man of the Sea". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif. p. z72.
  4. ^ Dempster, Nigel (19 January 1977). "Why my husband and I have parted—by Mrs Alistair MacLean". p. 13.
  5. ^ FILM CLIPS: Canadians Shooting for the Big Leagues Lee, Grant. Los Angeles Times 13 Jan 1979: b10.
  6. ^ a b c Plommer, Leslie (30 March 1979). "Canada among the victims in the big Canadian films". The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ontario. p. 13.
  7. ^ Sharp, Don (2 November 1993). "Don Sharp Side 6" (Interview). Interviewed by Teddy Darvas and Alan Lawson. London: History Project. Retrieved 14 July 2021.
  8. ^ a b c Sharp, Don (2 November 1993). "Don Sharp Side 7" (Interview). Interviewed by Teddy Darvas and Alan Lawson. London: History Project. Retrieved 17 July 2021.
  9. ^ Vagg, Stephen (27 July 2019). "Unsung Aussie Filmmakers: Don Sharp – A Top 25". Filmink.
  10. ^ Medved & Medved, The Hollywood Hall of Shame (1984), p. 204
  11. ^ Backstage MOVIE-GO-ROUND The Globe and Mail 25 Nov 1978: P.37.
  12. ^ Harmetz, Aljean (20 November 1979). "Boom in Canadian Film Making Hits Snag: Explosion in Canadian Movies Stuck With the Movie 'A Necessary Shakeup' Begging for Distribution Shortage of Producers'". New York Times. p. C7.
  13. ^ Lee, Grant (13 January 1979). "FILM CLIPS: Canadians Shooting for the Big Leagues". Los Angeles Times. p. b10.
  14. ^ Kilday, Gregg (11 December 1978). "FILM CLIPS: Is O'Neal Set to 'Suffer or Die'?". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. p. f21.
  15. ^ Backstage The Globe and Mail 16 Dec 1978: P.33.
  16. ^ Armstrong, Vic; Sellers, Robert (2011). The true adventures of the world's greatest stuntman : my life as Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman and other movie heroes. Titan. pp. 120–125.
  17. ^ Sutherland: No More Goofy Roles: No More Goofy Roles For Donald Sutherland By JORDAN YOUNG. New York Times 23 Sep 1979: D19.
  18. ^ Quarterly Film Review Morton, James. The Contemporary Review; London Vol. 236, Iss. 1369, (Feb 1, 1980): 96.
  19. ^ Cycling along to Mendelssohn PHILIP FRENCH ' Bear Island'; Zanuck, Darryl F. The Observer (1901- 2003); London (UK) [London (UK)]30 Dec 1979: 12
  20. ^ "Bear Island" Maclean's; Toronto, Canada Vol. 93, Iss. 24, (Jun 16, 1980): 52.
  21. ^ Accents fall thick and fast on Bear Island Scott, Jay. The Globe and Mail 7 June 1980: E.7.
  22. ^ MOVIE REVIEW: 'Bear Island'--Defrosted Leftovers Thomas, Kevin. Los Angeles Times 30 Aug 1980: b5.
  23. ^ Adilman, Sid (30 December 1985). "Worst Canadian performers of the year award". Toronto Star. Toronto, Ontario. p. D1.