Alistair MacLean: Scottish novelist (1922 - 1987)
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Alistair MacLean
Scottish novelist

Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Scottish novelist
Known for The Guns of Navarone
A.K.A. Alistair Stuart MacLean, Ian Stuart
Was Writer Teacher Screenwriter Biographer
From United Kingdom
Field Academia Film, TV, Stage & Radio Literature Science
Gender male
Birth 21 April 1922, Shettleston, United Kingdom
Death 2 February 1987, Munich, Germany (aged 64 years)
Star sign Taurus
Residence Switzerland, Switzerland; Daviot, United Kingdom
Adventure novel
The details (from wikipedia)


Alistair Stuart MacLean (Scottish Gaelic: Alasdair MacGill-Eain; 21 April 1922 – 2 February 1987) was a 20th century Scottish novelist who wrote popular thrillers and adventure stories. His works include The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare – all three were made into popular films. He also published two novels under the pseudonym Ian Stuart. His books are estimated to have sold over 150 million copies, making him one of the best-selling fiction authors of all time.

According to one obituary, "he never lost his love for the sea, his talent for portraying good Brits against bad Germans, or his penchant for high melodrama. Critics deplored his cardboard characters and vapid females, but readers loved his combination of hot macho action, wartime commando sagas, and exotic settings that included Greek Islands and Alaskan oil fields."

Early life

Alistair Stuart Maclean was descended from Clan Maclean. He was born on 21 April 1922 in Shettleston, Glasgow, the third of four sons of a Church of Scotland minister, but spent much of his childhood and youth in Daviot, ten miles south of Inverness. He learned English as a second language after his mother tongue, Scottish Gaelic.

In 1941 at the age of 19 he was called up to fight in World War 2 with Royal Navy, serving with the ranks of Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Leading Torpedo Operator. He was first assigned to PS Bournemouth Queen, a converted excursion ship fitted for anti-aircraft guns, on duty off the coasts of England and Scotland. Beginning in 1943, he served on HMS Royalist, a Dido-class light cruiser. There he saw action in 1943 in the Atlantic theatre, on two Arctic convoys and escorting aircraft carrier groups in operations against Tirpitz and other targets off the Norwegian coast. He took part in Convoy PQ 17 on Royalist. In 1944 he and Royalist served in the Mediterranean theatre, as part of the invasion of southern France and in helping to sink blockade runners off Crete and bombard Milos in the Aegean. During this time MacLean may have been injured in a gunnery practice accident.In 1945, in the Far East theatre, MacLean and Royalist saw action escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. (MacLean's late-in-life claims that he was captured by the Japanese after blowing up bridges and tortured by having his teeth pulled out have been dismissed by both his son and his biographer as drunken ravings). After the Japanese surrender, Royalist helped evacuate liberated POWs from Changi Prison in Singapore.

MacLean was discharged from the Royal Navy in 1946. He then studied English at the University of Glasgow, working at the Post Office and as a street sweeper. He graduated in 1953, and briefly worked as a hospital porter, and then worked as a school teacher at Gallow Flat School in Rutherglen.

Writing career

Early Works

While a university student, MacLean began writing short stories for extra income, winning a competition in 1954 with the maritime story "Dileas". He sold stories to the Daily Mirror and The Evening News. The wife of Ian Chapman, editor at the publishing company Collins had been particularly moved by "Dileas", and the Chapmans arranged to meet with MacLean, suggesting he write a novel. The school teacher responded with HMS Ulysses, based on his own war experiences, as well as credited insight from his brother Ian, a master mariner. The book was written over three months.

MacLean later described his writing process:

I drew a cross square, lines down representing the characters, lines across representing chapters 1–15. Most of the characters died, in fact only one survived the book, but when I came to the end the graph looked somewhat lopsided, there were too many people dying in the first, fifth and tenth chapters so I had to rewrite it, giving an even dying space throughout. I suppose it sounds cold blooded and calculated, but that's the way I did it.

MacLean was paid with a large advance of $50,000 which resulted in headlines at the time. Collins were rewarded when the book sold a quarter of a million copies in hardback in England in the first six months of publication. It went on to sell millions more. Film rights were sold to Robert Clark of Associated British for £30,000 though a movie was never made. This money meant MacLean was able to devote himself to writing full time.

His next novel, The Guns of Navarone (1957), was about an attack on the fictitious island of Navarone (based on Melos). The book was very successful, selling over 400,000 copies in its first six months. MacLean followed it with South by Java Head (1958), based on Maclean's experiences in the South East Asia seas in World War Two, and The Last Frontier (1959), a thriller about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Film rights for Java Head were sold but no movie resulted. His next novels were Night Without End (1959) and Fear Is the Key (1961). The Last Frontier was turned into a movie, The Secret Ways (1961), which was not very successful while the film version of The Guns of Navarone (1961) was hugely successful.

In the early 1960s, MacLean published two novels under the pseudonym "Ian Stuart" in order to prove that the popularity of his books was due to their content rather than his name on the cover. These were The Dark Crusader (1961) and The Satan Bug (1962). They sold well, and MacLean made no attempt to change his writing style. He also continued to publish novels under his own name such as The Golden Rendezvous (1962) and Ice Station Zebra (1963).

"I'm not a novelist," he once said. "That's too pretentious a claim. I'm a storyteller, that's all. I'm a professional and a craftsman. I will make that claim for myself." Maclean also claimed he wrote very fast (35 days for a novel) because he disliked writing and the "sooner he finished the better". He never re-read a book after it was finished. His novels were notable for their lack of sex. "I like girls," said MacLean. "I just don't write them well. Everyone knows that men and women make love, laddie – there is no need to show it."


In 1963 MacLean decided to retire from writing, saying he never enjoyed it and only did it to make money. He decided to become a hotelier and bought the Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor and then bought two more hotels, the Bank House near Worcester and the Bean Bridge at Wellington in Somsert.

MacLean focused on his hotel career for three years. He was not a success and wound up selling all three hotels by 1976. During this time a film was made of The Satan Bug (1965).

Return to Writing

MacLean returned to writing with When Eight Bells Toll (1966).

Cinema producer Elliot Kastner was an admirer of MacLean and asked him if he was interested in writing an original screenplay. MacLean agreed and Kastner sent the writer two scripts, one by William Goldman, one by Robert and Jane Howard-Carrington, to familiarize himself with the format. Kastner said he wanted a World War Two story with a group of men on a mission to rescue someone, with a "ticking clock" and some female characters. MacLean agreed to write it for an initial $10,000 with $100,000 to come later. This script was Where Eagles Dare.

In July 1966 Kastner and his producing partner Jerry Gershwin announced they had purchased five screenplays from MacLean: Where Eagles Dare, When Eight Bells Toll, and three other unnamed ones. (Kastner made four MacLean movies.) MacLean also wrote a novel for Where Eagles Dare after the screenplay which was published in 1967 before the film came out. The book was a best seller and the 1968 film version was a huge hit.

"MacLean is a natural storyteller," said Kastner. "He is a master of adventure. All his books are conceived in cinematic terms. They hardly need to be adapted for the screen; when you read them, the screen is in front of your mind." MacLean wrote a sequel to Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone (1968). A film version was announced in 1967 but did not result for another decade. The same year saw the release of an expensive film based on Ice Station Zebra (1968).

In 1967 MacLean formed a partnership with Geoffrey Reeve and Lewis Jenkins to make films for MacLean to write and Reeves to direct. They planned to make a sequel to Guns of Navarone only to discover Foreman had registered the title After Navarone. This led to a falling out with Foreman and a delay in the Navarone sequel.

Maclean wrote a thriller about narcotics, Puppet on a Chain (1969), and Caravan to Vaccarès (1970). These books all began as screenplays for Kastner.

MacLean then wrote Bear Island (1971), the last of his first person narratives.

MacLean moved to Switzerland in 1970 as a tax exile.

Kastner produced a film version of When Eight Bells Toll (1971), based on a script by MacLean, and Fear Is the Key (1972), adapted by another writer. Another producer made Puppet on a Chain (1971), directed by Reeves, from a script by MacLean.

Neither performed particularly strongly at the box office. This delayed plans announced in 1972 for MacLean's then-wife Marcelle to produce three films based on his books. One of these proposed films was The Way to Dusty Death, which was to star Jackie Stewart. It ended up being a 1973 novel and a 1995 film.

Geoffrey Reeve directed a film of Caravan to Vaccarès (1974). By 1973 MacLean had sold over 24 million novels. "I am not a writer," he said in 1972. "I am a businessman. My business is writing." MacLean had spent a number of years focusing on screenplays but disliked it and decided to return to being predominantly a novel writer. "Hollywood destroys writers," he said. He wrote a biography of James Cook which was published in 1972. He wrote Breakheart Pass (1974), Circus (1975), The Golden Gate (1976), Seawitch (1977), Goodbye California (1979) and Athabasca (1980).

"I read a lot, I travel some," he said in 1975. "But mostly what I don't know I invent." In 1978 MacLean said he "just can't understand" why people bought his novels. "It's not as if I write that well: I do feel my English isn't very good. In fact, I'd rather write in Gaelic or Spanish than English." He said his stories tended to pit "character against character as a kind of intellectual chess game" and that he found writing "boring" and "lonely" but "I guess it all boils down to that rather awful philosophy of take the money and run." "I am just a journeyman," he said. "I blunder along from one book to the next always hopeful that one day I will write something really good."

Films were still being made out of his novels including Breakheart Pass (1975) (from Kastner), Golden Rendezvous (1977), Force 10 from Navarone (1978), and Bear Island (1979) but none did very well.

In 1976 Maclean's second wife Mary former 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. This company still owned these film rights after MacLean divorced Mary in 1977. However the rights soon passed to Snell.

MacLean decided to focus on American television, writing a novella titled Air Force One is Down, which was turned down by the American television network NBC (it would be produced in 2012). He then pitched six new ideas to networks, each with a 25–30 page synopsis to see which was commercially viable before. The Hostage Tower was approved by CBS, and aired on America television in 1980.

Later Career

His later works include River of Death (1981) (filmed in 1989), Partisans (1982), Floodgate (1983), and San Andreas (1984). Often these novels were worked on by ghost writers specializing in drama, with MacLean providing only the plots and characters. His last novel was Santorini (1986), which was published after his death. His estate left behind several outlines. One of them was filmed as Death Train (1993). His later books were not as well received as the earlier publications and, in an attempt to keep his stories in keeping with the time, he sometimes lapsed into unduly improbable plots.


MacLean died of a stroke at the age of 64 in Munich on 2 February 1987; his last years were afflicted by alcoholism. According to one obituary, "A master of nail-chewing suspense, MacLean met an appropriately mysterious death: when he died in the Bavarian capital after a brief illness, no one, including the British Embassy, knew what he was doing there." His body was buried a few yards from Richard Burton's grave in Vieux Cemetery at Céligny, Switzerland.

Personal life

He was married twice and had three sons (one adopted) by his first wife, Gisela, viz., Lachlan, Michael and Alistair. He married for a second time in 1972, the marriage being divorced in 1977. His niece Shona MacLean (also published under S.G. Maclean) is a writer and historical novelist.

MacLean was awarded a Doctor of Letters by the University of Glasgow in 1983.

Critical appraisal

The writer Algis Budrys described MacLean's writing style as: "hit 'em with everything but the kitchen sink, then give 'em the sink, and when they raise their heads, drop the plumber on 'em".

List of works


Year Title Notes High
1955 HMS Ulysses #8 17
1957 The Guns of Navarone #12 3
1958 South by Java Head
1959 The Last Frontier in the US The Secret Ways
1959 Night Without End #13 2
1961 Fear Is the Key
1961 The Dark Crusader in the US The Black Shrike (as Ian Stuart)
1962 The Golden Rendezvous #13 8
1962 The Satan Bug as Ian Stuart #16 1
1962 All About Lawrence of Arabia Non-fiction
1963 Ice Station Zebra #10 1
1966 When Eight Bells Toll He also wrote the screenplay.
1967 "Where Eagles Dare" He also wrote the screenplay - -
1968 Force 10 From Navarone #4 18
1969 Puppet on a Chain Also wrote screenplay #5 17
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès #6 12
1971 Bear Island #5 14
1972 Alistair MacLean Introduces Scotland Non-fiction, edited by Alastair Dunnett
1972 Captain Cook Non-fiction
1973 The Way to Dusty Death
1974 Breakheart Pass
1975 Circus #5 12
1976 The Golden Gate #8 2
1977 Seawitch #15 1
1978 Goodbye California #10 9
1980 Athabasca #3
1981 River of Death
1982 Partisans #15 1
1983 Floodgate #12 3
1984 San Andreas
1985 The Lonely Sea Collection of short stories (2 stories added in 2009)
1986 Santorini #13 2

UNACO books by other authors

Year Title Author, using
MacLean's notes
1980 Hostage Tower John Denis
1981 Air Force One is Down John Denis
1989 Death Train Alastair MacNeill
1989 Night Watch Alastair MacNeill
1990 Red Alert Alastair MacNeill
1991 Time of the Assassins Alastair MacNeill
1992 Dead Halt Alastair MacNeill
1993 Code Breaker Alastair MacNeill
1995 Rendezvous Alastair MacNeill
1997 Prime Target Hugh Miller
1998 Borrowed Time Hugh Miller

Golden Girl series by other authors

Year Title Notes
1992 Golden Girl by Simon Gandolfi
1993 Golden Web by Simon Gandolfi
1994 Golden Vengeance by Simon Gandolfi

Films with screenplay contribution

Year Title Notes
1968 Where Eagles Dare book author/screenplay
1970 Puppet on a Chain book author/screenplay
1971 When Eight Bells Toll book author/screenplay
1975 Breakheart Pass book author/screenplay

Other films

Year Title Notes
1961 The Secret Ways book author
1961 The Guns of Navarone book author
1965 The Satan Bug book author
1968 Ice Station Zebra book author
1972 Fear Is the Key book author
1974 Caravan to Vaccares book author
1977 Golden Rendezvous book author
1978 Force 10 from Navarone book author
1979 Bear Island book author
1980 The Hostage Tower story
1989 River of Death book author
1993 Death Train story
1995 The Way to Dusty Death book author
1995 Night Watch story

Allegedly written by Alistair MacLean

Year Title Notes
1962 Bloody borderland by Tadeusz Kostecki in 1946 as Droga powrotna Płowego Jima
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 23 Mar 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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