Second Look: “THE BOURNE IDENTITY” (1988)

Second Look: “THE BOURNE IDENTITY” (1988)

Years after Robert Ludlum’s famous literary trilogy about an amnesiac CIA agent was published, Matt Damon starred in the movie versions of those novels between 2002 and 2007. Naturally, they became big box office hits and turned Damon into a full fledged action star. The ironic thing is that the three movies bore scant resemblance to the novels they were based upon. 

Fourteen years before Damon’s first movie was released in the theaters, ABC Television aired a two-part miniseries based upon the first novel – “THE BOURNE IDENTITY”. This miniseries starred Richard Chamberlain as David Webb aka Jason Bourne, the amnesiac CIA agent. And Jacyln Smith portrayed Marie St. Jacques, a Canadian economist who becomes his ally and lover.

As you can see, the first difference between the miniseries and the 2002 movie has been spotted. In the miniseries, Marie was an economist from Canada. In the movie, Franka Potente portrayed Marie as an unemployed German traveler trying to get into the U.S. Another major difference between the miniseries and the movie is that in the former, Chamberlain is a CIA operative who works for a black-ops organization called Treadstone 71. Treadstone’s job is to flush out the notorious assassin named Carlos. They recruit another assassin named Jason Bourne. But the real Bourne proves to be an uncontrollable asset and they kill him. Treadstone replaces the real Bourne with David Webb – Chamberlain’s character – who impersonates the dead assassin. In the movies, Bourne is nothing more than an alias for CIA/Treadstone assassin David Webb (Damon). As anyone can see, the miniseries’s plot – which adhered a lot closer to Ludlum’s novel – is a lot more complicated. Both versions begin with the shooting of one David Webb aka Jason Bourne aboard some boat in the Mediterranean. In this version, Webb/Bourne floats toward a fishing village off the coast of Southern France, where he is turned over to an alcoholic former doctor played by Denholm Elliot. The doctor discovers a chip embedded in his hip that contains a Swiss bank account number. Once Webb/Bourne recovers, he heads for Zurich to access the bank account. And there, his troubles begin. By the second half of the story Bourne/Webb finds himself not only hunted by Carlos and his minions, but by the police and the CIA.

From the first time I saw this miniseries in February 1988, I fell in love with it. It was an exciting and well written thriller about a man trying to come to terms with his past, while struggling to find his identity. Many critics tend to point the length of this version of ”THE BOURNE IDENTITY”. Considering that this version was created as a two-part miniseries and the complexities of the plot, I fail to understand why they have made such a fuss. Yes, ”THE BOURNE IDENTITY” is long in compare to the 2002 movie. It has a running time of three hours and five minutes. But this version’s length gave the producers the chance to air a rather close version of the novel without cutting out too much. And if I must be honest, I was never aware of the miniseries’ length, considering how well paced it was, thanks to director Roger Young and screenwriter Carol Sobieski.

Another criticism directed at the miniseries by certain fans was that the miniseries seemed outdated in compare to the 2002 version. Chamberlain’s version had been filmed fourteen years before Damon’s version. What did they expect? The only aspect of the miniseries’ plot that seemed outdated was the main villain, Carlos. Although the real Carlos was at large when the miniseries aired in February 1988, he was eventually caught six years later. The Alfred Hitchcock thriller, ”NOTORIOUS” was filmed and released in 1946. In fact, there is a moment in which the film reveals the time period in which the film began – April 1946. Yet, hardly anyone complains about this.

As I had stated before, the miniseries is a tight and exciting thriller boasting fine performances from Chamberlain and Smith. The pair – who has been featured in a score of television miniseries and two successful TV series in the past – created a sizzling chemistry on the screen. I am amazed that they had never worked together before . . . or since. Chamberlain’s Bourne is a more openly emotional character than the one portrayed by Matt Damon.

One could say that Chamberlain has a more theatrical style of acting. Although there were moments I found it a bit hard to take, I really enjoyed his theatricality in a scene that featured him and Anthony Quayle, who plays a high-ranking French general married to Carlos’ mistress. Another thing I noticed about Chamberlain’s version of the character is that he seemed more inclined to use aliases and disguises to reach those he need information on – whether he is an employee of a New York furniture moving company, a Texas millionaire or a harried American businessman. Although I have never been that impressed by Jacyln Smith as an actress, I believe that she did some of her best work in this miniseries. As Marie St. Jacques, Smith was able to overcome her usual monotone style to infuse a great deal of passion and emotion into the role of a woman who desperately wants to help her lover, yet is constantly repelled by his profession. The supporting cast seemed to be top-notch. I especially enjoyed Anthony Quayle as the passionate French patriot who discovers the truth about his wife’s connections to Carlos; Denholm Elliot as the drunken ex-doctor who befriends Webb/Bourne at the beginning of the story; Peter Vaughn as Carlos’ Swiss-born right-hand man, and Donald Moffat as Webb/Bourne’s compassionate yet very harried boss/mentor, David Abbott.

Most fans of the Bourne saga seem to be divided on their preference between the two versions. There are some who prefer Damon’s take on Bourne as a super spy/assassin who tries to distance himself from the villainous Treadstone/Blackbriar black-ops operations. And there are those who prefer Chamberlain’s take on the character, which adheres a lot closer to Ludlum’s original novel. Frankly, I am a fan of both the miniseries and the movie. And I hope that one day, I might encounter Jason Bourne fans who harbor the same views as me.

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One Response

  1. I absolutely loved the minseries and never read the book.

    Only saw portions of the movie with Matt Damon, the parts I saw in the first movie of the trilogy kept my attention and intrigued me to want to see more. I saw all of the second movie but was somewhat lost because I didn’t see all of the first one. I lost interest by the third one.

    I have the DVD version of the miniseries and love the charactization. Jaclyn Smith did an excellent job portraying the ally and lover of a man that desperately needed someone to trust. Richard Chamberlain was the quintessential confused gentleman with a rough streak when necessary.

    Though I’m not a lover of violent movies this is one I can watch over and over because of the tender scenes and growing comraderie of the male and female lead characters. The Damon trilogy I would only watch one time and be done with it.

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