ALISTAIR MacLEAN – River of Death. Collins, UK. hardcover, 1981. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1982. Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1983.

RIVER OF DEATH. Cannon Films, 1989. Michael Dudikoff, Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasence, Herbert Lom, L.Q. Jones. Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean. Director: Steve Carver.

   I imagine a conversation between Alistair Maclean and his editor going something like this: “Imagine a story where you have an adventurer, an Allan Quatermain sort ripped straight from the pages of H. Rider Haggard, who discovers that a Nazi war criminal is not just hiding in South America, but that he’s hiding in a lost city originally founded by a hitherto unknown Indian tribe!” That is, to be sure, an intriguing premise to a story.

   But there are obvious questions raised by the idea. How did the Nazi get there? What is he doing there? Just hiding out or up to something far more nefarious? And who is this adventurer who gets the honor of serving as the tale’s protagonist?

   Sadly, it’s the near complete dearth of character development, to say nothing of the achingly dull plot, which relegates Maclean’s River of Death to a minor work in the author’s far more distinguished canon. Hamilton, the hero of the story, is introduced to the reader almost simultaneously with other characters, all of whom will play far lesser roles in the plot.

   There’s no real moment in the first third of the novel when the reader gets a feel for Hamilton and learns why he might be so motivated to return to the site of this so-called lost city. That, along with the fact that many of the characters seem to speak exactly alike, is unnecessarily confusing and does very little to keep one engrossed, let alone interested, in what’s transpiring.

   And then there are the Nazis. In the novel’s prologue, which is undoubtedly the best part of the work, Maclean is at his best at least as far as this work is concerned. He paints a picture of two Nazi war criminals. It’s the end of the war, when it’s clear to all but the most deluded fanatics that Germany is about to be a defeated power. Two S.S. officers, Van Manteuffel and Spaatz, decide to abscond to South America with treasures they have looted from a Greek monastery.

   But Nazis aren’t the sorts to play fair. It’s no surprise that Von Manteuffel, a poorly developed arch-villain if there ever were one, decides he’d rather have the loot all to himself and have his would-be partner in crime out of the way.

   Fast-forward several decades. Spaatz, who managed to survive Van Manteuffel’s bullet, is now working and living in Brazil under the laughably generic name Smith. He hires Hamilton, the story’s hero-adventurer, to lead him into the Amazonian jungle under the pretense that he’s interested in seeing the lost city for himself. What he’s really after, of course, is revenge. He knows that Van Manteuffel is living a Kurtz-like existence out in the jungle.

   Most of the novel follows Hamilton and Smith, along with a motley crew of thrill seekers, as they traverse rough terrain, fight off Indian tribes, and learn each other’s deepest secrets. The dialogue is forgettable, as are the descriptions of the group’s infighting. Like slogging through the rainforest, it requires patience to get where you’re going.

   And, unfortunately, the payoff isn’t really worth it. Yes, they find Van Manteuffel and the implication of the ending is that the bastard gets his just desserts. Nevertheless, it all left me with a feeling of “so what.” Unlike Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (reviewed here), which raised all sorts of ethical and political questions, Maclean’s work seems to be content with just following through with a mildly quirky, albeit intriguing, premise.

   The cinematic adaptation of Maclean’s work isn’t much better than the novel itself. What starts off as a sweaty, low-budget adventure film with potential to punch well above its weight, ends up faltering under the weight of so many 1980s action movie clichés. You’ve got some gunfights, some explosions, uncivilized natives, and the cruel and sadistic Nazis.

   Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasence, who portray the two Nazi war criminals, could have put in solid dramatic performances rather than the cartoonish ones they deliver here. Michael Dudikoff, who plays Hamilton, is stilted from the very beginning. He radiates as much personality as his character in the novel. Which is to say almost none. It’s a shame. When given the opportunity to do so, he was capable of so much more than phoning it in.

   The one exception is L. Q. Jones. A veteran of many Sam Peckinpah productions, Jones is a welcome presence in River of Death. He plays a shifty fixer, the type of guy you might very well meet in a small town Brazilian watering hole a million miles from nowhere. It’s a real good role for him and one that I admit kept me watching the movie longer than I would have otherwise.