The Bourne Identity (1988, TV-Mini-Series)


A half-dead man (Richard Chamberlain, The Last Wave) washes ashore on a French beach. The stranger seems to be suffering from amnesia — he doesn’t remember anything about his past. When all sorts of people try to kill him, the stranger embarks on a quest to find out his true identity.

Reaction & Thoughts:

This is the first adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s popular espionage tale. I’ve seen the first two Bourne movies, starring Matt Damon, and I liked this mini-series much, much more than those movies. I haven’t read the books so I can’t tell which ones are more faithful, but I definitely found the mini-series very suspenseful, even exciting, with fine performances by a great cast of character actors in key supporting roles.

To be honest, I didn’t care for the Matt Damon films. I’m not sure why, but as a I get older, I prefer slow-paced narratives. I enjoy films that take the time to develop the plot and characters. The newer Bourne films are a bit too hectic for my taste. In addition, I’ve always been against the overuse of hand-held camera. I think it is an obnoxious trick that takes me out of the film. This version of Ludlum’s cloak & dagger adventure neatly spreads out the goodies across three hours. The intricate plot is allowed to breathe on its own and the main character is fleshed out nicely — it is all done without any gimmickry.

Richard Chamberlain was nicknamed “King of TV Mini-series” for a good reason. I loved him in CentennialThe Thorn Birds and Shogun and he didn’t disappoint me here. It’s really a clever piece of casting. The lanky, middle-aged Chamberlain looks like an unassuming college professor so when he suddenly turns into a killing machine you are surprised to say the least.

Jacklyn Smith (TV’s Charlie’s Angels), who plays Chamberlain’s love interest, is less effective. She’s a gorgeous woman, but she’s not much of an actor. She plays a cliché character anyway — the kidnapped lady who falls for her captor. I’ve always found the much-used “Stockholm Syndrome romance” (e.g. The Thirty Nine-Steps, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Three Days of the Condor) both amusing and offensive. It feels like some weird male fantasy that has nothing to do with reality. I think a better actor would have raised above the inherit ridiculousness of such character, but Smith and Chamberlain look good together so it’s all good.

Chamberlain and Smith were surrounded by a fantastic group of character actors. Anthony Quale (The Guns of Navarone) plays a French General. Denholm Elliott (Raiders of the lost Ark) is a kindhearted but alcoholic physician who helps our hero. Donald Moffat (The Thing) is a CIA agent. Peter Vaughan (Remains of the Day) is a ruthless killer. Greek actor Yorgo Voyag (The Little Drummer Girl) plays the evil mastermind Carlos. It’s a nice ensemble cast.

Laurence Rosenthal’s (Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna) ominous music score is fantastic. It reminded me of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Hitch. I also loved Tony Pierce-Roberts’s (A Room with a View) handsome camera work.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Directed by Roger Young from a script by Carol Sobieski, The Bourne Identity is an old-school character driven, plot driven spy tale, thus more in line with the restrained The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and/or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). As I said before, at this point in my life, I’m hungry for stories that have a lot of meat on their bones. I’m always game for a stylish piece of escapism, but now I’m much more inclined to like something less flashy and more thoughtful. Call it midlife crisis or escapism fatigue, but I thought this mini-series kicked the butt of the admittedly more colorful new franchise. In any case, all versions of Ludlum’s books are catnip for fans of thrillers and/or spy stories. Color, 185 minutes, Not Rated.


4 responses to “The Bourne Identity (1988, TV-Mini-Series)

  1. A good account of an adaptation that I believe has been largely forgotten. Like you I enjoyed this one a lot (although I also enjoyed the first Matt Damon adaptation, albeit in a different fashion). I was surprised by how well Chamberlain handled what was really a casting against type, turning it into one of the movie’s strengths, as you point out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great reminder of a mini-series I would like to see again! I saw it years ago before reading the first novel, which is sensational – the very definition of pageturner! I liked the first film and even the second despite feeling Matt Damon was utterly wrong in the role – the latest is PC dreck. Ludlum’s own horrible demise – burned alive by his alkie wife who had got him to change his will in her favour days earlier – is the stuff of real-life nightmares. It occurred around the time the first film got the greenlight… horrible.

    Liked by 1 person

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