John Buchan

Genres - Spy Film, Action, Drama

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In our time, John Buchan is known for just one accomplishment, as the man who wrote the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, which has sustained his influence on the cinematic world across more than 70 years. In his own time, however, Buchan was also a diplomat, lawyer, historian, and poet, and one of the most prominent men in the intelligence and foreign services of several British governments. The son of a Calvinist minister, Buchan was born in Scotland in 1875, the oldest son of the Rev. John Buchan and the former Helen Masterton. He attended Glasgow University and Brasenose College, Oxford, where he distinguished himself as a writer. He entered the legal profession in 1901 and served as an aide to Lord Miner, the British High Commissioner for South Africa. Buchan subsequently had a career in as a tax attorney in London and began writing in his spare time, initially non-fiction about his field and about England's South African colony, but by 1910, he'd begun emerging as an author of popular fiction with his book Prester John, which was inspired by his experiences in South Africa. By the middle of the teens, he'd also written books for younger readers, but was, by then, concentrating on non-fiction concerning WWI, initially serving as a war correspondent before joining the army.

It was in late 1914, shortly after going into uniform, while recovering from an illness in a military hospital, that he wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps. A tale of espionage and intrigue in which an innocent bystander finds himself up to his neck in danger, pursued by the authorities for a crime he didn't commit, as well as by the enemy agents. The book caught the public's imagination and became one of the most enduringly popular pieces of adventure fiction ever written, remaining permanently in print. Buchan later served on the French headquarters staff of the British Army, and held a high-ranking post in the information and intelligence services late in the war. After his war service, he worked for Reuters as a director, and served as a Conservative member of Parliament from 1927 through 1935. He also wrote books about British history -- he was a dedicated imperialist of the old school -- and was noted for his speeches and scholarly writing as well. Buchan was later the Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland, and subsequently moved to Canada, where he was appointed the first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and Governor General. He served in that capacity until February of 1940, dying of a brain hemorrhage shortly after completing what may have been the most important official act of his political career, signing the document officially bringing Canada into WWII. In the years since, Buchan's other accomplishments faded -- his historical writings have receded in importance, and in any case, he'd never talked about his military and intelligence work during WWI, which might have made for an interesting movie themselves -- but his fiction remained popular into the '40s and early '50s. None of it, however, could touch The Thirty-Nine Steps, thanks in part to the 1935 film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock, who counted himself a great fan of Buchan's writing. One of Buchan's other books, Huntingtower, was filmed in 1927, but the latter -- though a thriller -- was more a vehicle for its star, Sir Harry Lauder, than representative of Buchan's work.

It wasn't until the advent of the sound era, with Hitchcock turning his professional attention to his books, that Buchan's work was fully realized on the screen. His film of The 39 Steps, starring Robert Donat as Hannay, was the director's first massive international success and remains his most definitive film; it should be pointed out, however, that the plot of the Hitchcock movie -- as the director was wont to do with adaptations of literary sources -- essentially threw out most of Buchan's book (especially the meaning of the title) in favor of something more contemporary to the postwar era and also more cinematically appealing. Hitchcock resonated most strongly to the central notion of an innocent man falsely accused (he had done one prior movie, The Lodger, built on that same premise), and that element of Buchan's story became central to such subsequent Hitchcock efforts as Saboteur and North by Northwest.

There were later films featuring that book's hero, Richard Hanney -- who was reportedly inspired by Edmund Ironside, an officer Buchan met during WWI -- in other adventures, but none were filmed until much later. Buchan's The Three Hostages was finally done as a TV movie in 1977; there were also two later adaptations of The Thirty-Nine Steps. The second, by director Don Sharp in 1978, starring Robert Powell as Hannay, followed the book much more closely than the other versions and proved popular enough to generate a British television series called Hannay, also starring Powell.