The Fourth Protocol
Sir Michael served well as a good, performative little cold warrior, even if his vehicles for the cause invariably met with a tepid response, post-60s. By the time The Fourth Protocol limped round, he was best known for picking movies based on the pricing of holiday homes, any aspirations to great reward (an Oscar) or cause being strictly incidental. Indeed, that a movie on East-West divisions should become a big hit a few years later (starring another stalwart of selling the Cold War during its ’60s heyday) – The Hunt for Red October – was something of a surprise, particularly since the Wall had come down by that point. Perhaps it was partly relief, that nostalgia for a decades-long charade could now be indulged.
Frederick Forsyth had yielded a few prior big-screen adaptations, although they’d mostly been from his early successes (The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War). He had history of blending fact – or reported fact, at any rate – and fiction, hence the popularly acclaimed Jackal, and here he’d be back at the same thing, featuring defector Kim Philby and various expansions of nuke lore. Since the nuke narrative is fictional*, it seems entirely legitimate that Forsyth should make up some additional rules regarding its dos and don’ts of waging, particularly since such details are always about what you don’t see, feel or have evidence for, serving to underpin the ongoing state of fear/terror/distress. We are told:
1963 – top British Agent Kim Philby defected to Moscow. 1968 – America, Britain, Russia signed an agreement to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. This treaty continued four secret protocols. Today – only one remains.
This fourth one relates – very decently – to prohibiting non-conventional delivery of nukes, so other than being dropped from a plane or powered with a missile. Quite why this is, you’d have to ask Fred, but it’s the kind of absurd etiquette that has the ring of plausibility. In the book and movie, steely-eyed Major Petrofsky (Pierce Brosnan) has been tasked with putting one together and detonating it on British soil. British soil being the highly atmospheric and exciting locale of Milton Keynes, a bizarrely popular movie destination at the time (see also Superman IV: The Quest for Peace).
Why, you may ask? Other than Russians being Russians? It seems it’s a false-flag ruse – lest we assume that’s a modern phenomenon – whereby “If an atomic bomb explodes in an American base they’ll be blamed for a nuclear accident, and the British will kick them out. That will destroy NATO. But if Petrofsy is caught with those components, Russia will be blamed for breaking the fourth protocol”. The latter part making it sound like a win-win (“Govorshin will force us back into the Cold War”). Indeed, when Preston (Caine) foils the plot, it appears the event will be kept quiet; his superior Irvine (Ian Richardson) meets with opposite number Karpov (Ray McAnally), the latter with designs on Govorshin’s role as head of KGB and the opportunity to depose him.
Preston: You don’t give a shit about anything except your lousy careers, neither of you It’s about time they put you in fucking museum!
Disgusted at his superiors, Preston repeats a telling mantra oft found in matters of war, cold or otherwise (“It’s all a game to you, isn’t it?”) This scene is pretty good, as is the first half hour, focussing on Preston’s internal conflicts with superior Harcourt-Smith (Julian Glover) while Irvine acts in his corner. Richardson’s unsurprisingly commanding, seemingly effortlessly so, particularly a sequence where he visits Berenson (Anton Rodgers), who has been providing secrets, he believes, to the South Africans, to aid the “fight against world communism”: it turns out he’s been feeding a Soviet agent in the South African Foreign Service (a “Very clever the false flag recruitment”). This also feeds into the “Michael bashes racist punks” scene (hoist those Hegelian dialectics aloft).
Unfortunately, what appears to be a Caine movie veers into being a Brosnan one for vast chunks. Brosnan had just missed out on Bond at this point, due to his Remington Steele commitments, and while he isn’t bad as the vicious Russian, killing with impunity (including Joanna Cassidy’s fellow agent) and dazzling with one of the best coiffeurs in the business, his character isn’t actually very interesting. He’s set up as a lethal machine per Edward Fox in Jackal, but the mechanics of Petrofsky’s operation simply aren’t thrilling enough (an interlude includes American neighbours Matt Headroom Frewer and Betsy Mrs Soderberg Brantley).
Caine, who exec-produced, opined that they wound up “making a talking picture when it should have been a moving one”, but I rather think it’s the lack of talk for long sections, where we are closer to The Day of the Jackal in following the assassin/bomber around, that cripples it. When there’s exposition, it comes in unwieldy globs, so there’s never a sense of the audience working out an intricate plot at the pace of the protagonist, as you might get with a Le Carré. Caine is side-lined for much of the middle act, and his performance, sporting comfortable dad wear, isn’t the most riveting (John Mackenzie, who earlier paired with Caine on The Honorary Consul, is a serviceable director, but I’m baffled why Preston hoisting his son aloft merited a freeze frame ending – even as an indication of his motivation in not talking, its cheez-e incarnate).
Sir Mike was pals with Forsyth, and he had history with other fictionalised real characters. This was his third Cold War tale of the decade, after The Jigsaw Man and The Whistleblower (by some distance the best of the three), and it’s notable that he played antagonist Phil Kimberly (why not Phim Kliby?) in The Jigsaw Man. Here, Philby is shot dead in the head in the first scene – rather different to the novel – the kind of unconcealed glee in dispatching a living person more commonly reserved for base comedy fare like South Park or The Interview.
The novel’s plot included such additional threads as a plan “to enable the Labour Party to win the general election and allow for a communist takeover of the party and the country”. Which isn’t that far from the suggestion of Victor Rothschild’s hopes for the UK in the days of the Cambridge Five. John Frankenheimer had originally been lined up to direct (previously with George Axelrod; he’d helm another Cold War picture, The Fourth War, a couple of years later), but financing the film proved an issue and led him to dropping out.
Also in the cast are Ned Beatty as an unlikely Russian, Michael Gough, Mark Rolston (Aliens) and Caroline Mon Mothma Blakiston. Time Out’s Wally Hammond called it “neither fish nor fowl” and suggested it was missing “any real tension or psychological detail that might lend plausibility to all the hocus-pocus about East-West political and military intrigue”. Interesting that magic and illusion were being invoked with reference to the stagecraft of spycraft even then (the movie is, after all, revolving around back-channel relationships, all smoke and mirrors). The Fourth Protocol was a limited success, hitting the Number 1 spot in the UK, but this kind of fare was looking exhausted even when the novel was published (1984). It was time to switch from Russkie nuke scares to something else…
*Addendum 24/06/23: I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with that one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response). The concomitant threat of mutually assured destruction is another matter, however, since one does not necessarily follow on from the other.