It is the height of the Second World War but for one Basque shepherd (Anthony Quinn) he has managed to stay out of the conflict almost entirely, living in his cottage next to the Pyrenees in isolation. Until today, that is, when a couple of Resistance agents invite him to contribute to a good cause: all he has to do is assist a Jewish family out of the Nazi-occupied territories and to safety in Spain. At first he is reluctant, pointing out if he does this there will be nobody to look after his sheep, but he is eventually won around by an appeal to his better nature. Now he is taken to France to meet up with the family of Professor John Bergson (James Mason) who are in hiding...
The sole production from James Bond title designer Maurice Binder, if there's one thing The Passage is known for, it wasn't necessarily the quip "Back Passage, more like!" once the film had been seen by some of the British public (it was a widely-distributed flop), but more for one of its cast members who realised in no uncertain terms that the film was "utter rubbish" so decided to do something to lift it out of its arse end of the British war movie genre, and to do so went so far over the top with his performance that he was practically stratospheric. When Malcolm McDowell, for it was he, is introduced as the villainous SS agent Captain Von Berkow, he greets the underling offering a "Heil" salute by striking a match on his exposed armpit; thus the tone is set.
It really was quite remarkable what McDowell did here, stealing the film by chewing the scenery with such abandon that the rest of the cast were reduced to mumbling and fumbling in his almighty wake. Even an acting heavyweight like James Mason was in his shadow, emphasising the noble suffering angle, while Patricia Neal as his wife looked exhausted before she even set foot on the mountain trek, so much so that you feared for the actress's health in real life. As his children, there was future Beast WithinPaul Clemens as a whiner, and the plainly overage "teenager" Kay Lenz as Leah, who suffered the indignity of being spirited away by Von Berkow to his bedroom halfway through and buggered for her trouble.
And not before we got an eyeful of him in a jock strap adorned with a swastika, either. How much of this was taken from Bruce Nicolaysen's script, which he adapted from his own novel, and how much was McDowell running rampant over any good taste lingering in the film was not entirely clear, but the star's excuse was that he was not going to sugarcoat the depravity of the Nazis, therefore saw this as a valid excuse to depict the SS Captain with as much bile and revulsion as he could. Yet for those who actually saw this, there were some chilled to the bone by him "chop chop chop"-ing off fingers or flinging grenades with pithy quips, but for others this was hilarious, an example of an actor completely misjudging the role and perversely creating the sole impetus for anyone to remember it. Let alone actually watch it.
Anthony Quinn was ostensibly the man headlining the drama, who back then was considered rather past it as an action hero but now after so many Expendables sequels and their ilk doesn't seem quite so out of place. He didn't come across quite as wiped out as Neal, but there was only so much setting his levels to "gruff" would do for him, and though he comes up with various ways of both escaping the Nazis and executing them if necessary there was no way you were going to be impressed with him when Malcolm was riding roughshod over everyone and everything. Even Christopher Lee showed up as the leader of a wandering gypsy clan to try and combat this madness, yet even his impressive moustache was not going to upstage the McDowell juggernaut, not when he was tied to a chair and set on fire: you could practically hear the Captain gloating "Take that, Dracula!". What could have been Boys' Own adventure was turned into complete trash, no thanks to director J. Lee Thompson letting the reins go slack: they shot three endings and used them all, so everyone livedies. Or dielives. Sweeping music by Michael J. Lewis.