The Boys from Brazil (1978)

Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) is in Paraguay, where he’s discovered a group of war criminals of the Third Reich holding secret meetings, led by the infamous Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck).

Barry contacts Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier), a man coined “the Nazi hunter” by the press. Lieberman, a Holocaust survivor living in Austria, is skeptical of Barry’s claims… until Barry is killed by Mengele’s men during one of their phone calls.

(Image via IMFDB)

(Image via IMFDB)

Despite his old age, Lieberman is as determined as ever to bring justice to these war criminals, so he begins investigating the leads that Barry gave him, with the help of Barry’s friend David (John Rubinstein). The two uncover Mengele’s plans to kill a seemingly random assortment of 65-year-old civil servants throughout the globe.

What is Mengele trying to accomplish by having these men killed? Lieberman will soon find out the shocking answer in The Boys from Brazil, a 1978 film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Ira Levin and was adapted for the screen by Heywood Gould.

I love Gregory Peck and he was an interesting casting choice to portray Josef Mengele. From the very honorable character of Atticus Finch to one of the world’s most despicable war criminals… you can’t accuse Peck’s filmography of lacking range in characters! It is because of this casting that I decided to watch The Boys from Brazil after coming across it on Netflix.

Peck’s fake German accent leaves much to be desired. (Olivier is much more convincing in this respect — I didn’t even realize it was him until about thirty minutes into the film!) However, aside from the accent, Peck’s performance is very good. He delivers his dialogue in a matter-of-fact way, as though his ideas are the most sensible in the world, which makes his character even more chilling than if he had gone over the top and overtly menacing.

Classic film fans will delight in the opportunity to see three major stars share the screen here. Alongside Peck and Olivier, James Mason also makes an appearance in the film, in a small supporting role as one of the men working with Mengele.

The subject matter of the film is very emotional and at times disturbing. One may assume that, though released in the 1970s, this film would be set soon after the war, since it deals with a “Nazi hunter.”

Gregory Peck portrays Josef Mengele, a man who carried out experiments on humans during World War II. (Image via Views from the Edge)

Gregory Peck portrays Josef Mengele, a man who carried out experiments on humans during World War II. (Image via Views from the Edge)

That is not the case. This is a film about people hanging on to the ideals of the Third Reich three decades after the war’s end. The Boys from Brazil was released just months before the real Josef Mengele’s death, and he had never been tried or punished for his human experimentation. There was an air of mystery surrounding his exact whereabouts and what he was doing, so the murder plots and experiments carried out by the Mengele character in this film probably seemed very plausible at the time of the film’s release.

Despite its fascinating/horrifying subject matter and its strong cast of classic players, The Boys from Brazil is not a great film. The music is often overbearing, and there are some scenes of unintentional corn (including one declaration I never thought I’d hear from Gregory Peck’s mouth: “Shut up, you ugly b****!”). The plot gets a little far-fetched when the nature of Mengele’s plan is revealed, but I do give the film credit: this twist is effectively frightening.

The Boys from Brazil is a pretty good alternate-history thriller with a very strong cast. It’s worth a watch for the cast alone, but it also has an interesting story to back up all of that star power. The score: 3.5/5

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6 thoughts on “The Boys from Brazil (1978)

  1. Todd Benefiel says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this one, so I remember nothing about it except for the dobermans! And a correction: if I’m not mistaken, I believe Peck used the “ugly b****” line in ‘Roman Holiday’ many times.

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  2. movierob says:

    saw this years ago and recall loving it. (also read the book)

    Have it on my watchlist, so you have helped me bump it up a few notches.

    Thanks LIndsey!

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  3. geelw says:

    Nice review. Still, I think you should re-watch this for the comic value (if you don’t take the plot seriously, it’s hysterically funny in spots) AND do a double feature with Marathon Man, which has Oliver playing an ex-Nazi dentist/torturer on the hunt for some missing diamonds he thinks Dustin Hoffman’s character has some info on. “Is it safe?”

    I’ve always loved Jerry Goldsmith’s overblown score for this film because I think he saw some chances for humor in the dramatic bits enough to have a little fun with his score. Making the opening titles a waltz? That’s worth a grin right there, I say.

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