Let’s kill Hitler

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(c) BBC
(c) Penguin Books

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For a novel whose plot hinges around an attempt to kill Adolf Hitler, there’s remarkably little about Hitler in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male.  In fact, the genocidal German dictator isn’t mentioned once.  Presumably this is because although Rogue Male first appeared in print in late 1939, after war had broken out between Britain and Germany, it was written before the outbreak of war when Household evidently felt it would be diplomatic not to name names. 

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Thus, the book’s hero goes boar-hunting in Poland, crosses the border into a neighbouring country that isn’t identified, and one day ends up with the brutish leader of that country, also not identified, in the sights of his hunting rifle.  Is he actually in Germany and on the point of bagging Hitler?  Or could he be somewhere else, Russia say, where he’s targeting Joseph Stalin?  But although Household keeps it ambiguous, given historical events soon after the story’s late-1930s setting, it’s impossible to read Rogue Male now and not visualise in those sights a bloke with a square-shaped scrap of a moustache, an oily side-parting and a swastika armband.

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Incidentally, when Rogue Male was brought to the screen afterwards, the filmmakers didn’t follow Household’s ambiguity.  A 1941 Hollywood adaptation called Manhunt, directed by Fritz Lang – who’d bailed out of Germany in 1933 after Joseph Goebbels started taking an interest in him – depicted the target as Hitler and, viewed today, the film feels like an unabashed wartime propaganda piece.  (It was, however, made just before the USA entered the war and its anti-German stance caused the studio some nervousness.)  Meanwhile, a 1976 adaptation by the BBC, directed by Clive Donner, was also unequivocal that its hero was going after Hitler.  There’s a still from the BBC version at the top of this entry and the actor playing Hitler is none other than Michael Sheard, fondly remembered by kids of my generation for playing Mr Bronson, the hard-nut deputy headmaster on the BBC’s much-loved school drama / soap opera Grange Hill (1978-2008).

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Just as the book’s target is anonymous, so is its hero, even though he tells the story in the first person.  (Again, the film versions differ from the book in giving him an identity.  In 1941’s Manhunt, he’s called Captain Thorndyke and is played by Walter Pidgeon.  In 1976’s Rogue Male, he’s called Sir Robert Hunter and is played by the late, great Peter O’Toole.)  There’s even vagueness about whether or not he ever intended to pull the trigger in the first place.  Perhaps, it’s suggested, he only wanted to have the Führer in his sights for a moment to satisfy his instincts as a hunter. 

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Whatever his intentions, he’s apprehended by a guard and subjected to a brutal interrogation, before his captors decide that the easiest way to deal with him is to bump him off and make his death look like an unfortunate hunting accident.  The ensuing story can be divided into two parts, with each part having a similar, funnelling structure where the action begins in an expansive setting but ends in a cramped, claustrophobic one.  First, Rogue Male’s hero manages to escape from his captors and is pursued by them across the countryside of whatever foreign nation he’s in – okay, for the sake of simplicity, let’s just say his captors are the Gestapo and the nation is Germany.  His pursuers close in but he manages to elude them by stowing away on a London-bound ship, hiding on board inside an empty water tank. 

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Then begins the second, longer part of the narrative.  Back in Blighty, he discovers that Hitler’s agents are still on his trail.  They don’t just want to eliminate him but also want to make him sign a document saying that he carried out his attempted assassination with the blessing of the British government.  Again, the pursuit begins against a broad vista, this time the streets of London and landscapes of southern England.  But again, his options narrow and eventually he goes to ground – literally to ground, because he digs himself a little cubbyhole under an unruly and remote hedgerow marking the boundary between two farms in Dorset and hides there.

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(c) BBC

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One thing that surely inspired Rogue Male was Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game (1924) about a big-game hunter who gets hunted as game by another, even bigger-game hunter.   However, while Household borrows this ironic scenario of a hunter becoming the hunted, he explores it in surprising depth.  His hero obviously grew up in a rural aristocratic culture of shooting and foxhunting but he’s strangely empathetic with the creatures on the receiving end of the bullets and bloodhounds.  He mentions once or twice that he got sick of hunting rabbits because of their defencelessness and, holed up in his Dorset burrow, he becomes rabbit-like himself. 

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He also bonds with a cat living wild in the hedgerow above him, whom he names ‘Asmodeus’ (presumably after the ‘worst of demons’ described in the Book of Tobit).  At one point he speculates of Asmodeus, “there is, I believe, some slight thought transference between us…  back and forth between us go thoughts of fear and disconnected dreams of action.  I should call these dreams madness, did I not know they came from him and that his mind is, by our human standards, mad.” 

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Later, he comments, “I had begun to think as an animal; I was afraid but a little proud of it.  Instinct, saving instinct, had preserved me time and again…  Gone was my disgust with my burrow; gone my determination to take to open country whatever the difficulties of food and shelter.  I didn’t think, didn’t reason.  I was no longer the man who had challenged and nearly beaten all the cunning and loyalty of a first-class power.  Living as a beast, I had become a beast, unable to question emotional stress, unable to distinguish danger in general from a particular source of danger.”

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While Rogue Male’s central character becomes unhealthily animal-like, his main adversary is a sinister caricature of a gentleman hunter.  A German agent masquerading as a tweedy English major called Quive-Smith appears on the scene, displaying impeccable upper-class charm towards the civilians he encounters whilst pursuing his quarry with extreme ruthlessness.  Quive-Smith books a room in one of the farms adjacent to the hedgerow and burrow, pretending that he wants to spend a few weeks in the area doing some shooting.  Spying on him from afar, Household’s narrator notes uneasily that “the major carried one of those awkward German weapons with a rifled barrel below the two gun barrels… the three barrels were admirably adapted to his purpose of ostensibly shooting rabbits while actually expecting bigger game.”

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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In addition to The Most Dangerous Game, Household was probably influenced by a novel about another manhunt, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915).  But while there’s more to Buchan’s story than its conventional action-adventure reputation would suggest (due to its recurrent themes of disguise and imposture), I think Rogue Male is superior in terms of characterisation and psychological tension.  Buchan’s Richard Hannay is an outsider in that he’s a veteran of the African colonies who finds life back in the ‘Old Country’ stuffy, pretentious and tedious; but the hero of Rogue Male is an outsider in more complex ways.  He comes from a world of wealth and entitlement but treats that world indifferently and it’s noticeable that when he’s back in London he has a lack of friends in high places to call upon for help.  Indeed, he’s such a loner that at times you wonder if he wants to resign from the human race itself. This is even without the mental and physical stresses of being hunted making him feel more like an animal than a man.  Household provides a few clues about a past tragedy that may explain his misanthropy but wisely doesn’t get bogged down in too much backstory.

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And though Richard Hannay is no shrinking violet, it’s doubtful if he could put up with living for long in the burrow that the narrator digs for himself in Dorset and where he spends a good part of 90 pages – first hiding in it from Quive-Smith and his men, and then besieged in it by them.  Household doesn’t excessively describe the dirt, muck and claustrophobic darkness of this hideaway but he still manages to imply its squalor.  His hero gets accustomed to it while he’s inside it but realises how horrible it is when he leaves and then comes back: “The stench was appalling.  I had been out only half an hour, but that was enough for me to notice, as if it had been created by another person, the atmosphere in which I had been living.”  Then again, like many men of his generation, he’s already undergone something traumatic that puts this experience in perspective: “…my God, I remembered that there were men at Ypres in 1915 whose dugouts were smaller and damper than mine!”

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I’ve known the story of Rogue Male for a long time thanks to seeing the two film adaptations.  I didn’t much like the 1941 Hollywood version, which downplays the rawness of the novel and turns it into a typical espionage thriller, reducing the amount of time Walter Pidgeon spends in the burrow and padding things out with extra characters and plot twists elsewhere.  (When Pidgeon gets off the ship, he’s promptly greeted by a parade of Cockney Pearly Kings and Queens waltzing and singing down a foggy street – the filmmakers’ way of assuring American audiences that, yes, he is back in London.) 

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But I enjoyed the 1976 BBC version.  Its scriptwriter, Frederic Raphael, streamlines parts of Household’s narrative and embellishes others – most notably, adding a new character, a pompous and unhelpful representative of the British government sublimely played by Alastair Sim – but it’s gritty and, for the time, brutal, even if Peter O’Toole never quite becomes the desperate, filthy, animalistic figure that his counterpart in the book becomes.  It also has a great cast (John Standing, Harold Pinter, Michael Byrne and Mark McManus as well as O’Toole and Sim) and it even slips in a cheeky visual reference to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s wartime classic, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943).  

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However, I only read the novel a few days ago after discovering a battered old Penguin edition of it in Priorsford Books, a charming second-hand bookshop that opened recently in my hometown of Peebles.  And coincidentally, it looks like Rogue Male could soon be back in vogue for a while back it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch plans to produce, and presumably star in, a new version of it.  Let’s hope the Cumberbatch version, if it appears, is closer to the sombre tone of the 1976 adaptation than the anodyne, crowd-pleasing tone of the 1941 one.  Or, better still, it makes a real effort to capture the fascinatingly introspective, misanthropic and grimy mood of the novel that inspired those versions in the first place.

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(c) BBC

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