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


A half-dead man (Richard Chamberlain, TV’s Shōgun and The Thorn Birds) washes ashore on a French beach. The stranger seems to be suffering from amnesia — he doesn’t remember his name or 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:

“Wealth is relative to the time we have to enjoy it.”

This is the first adaptation of author Robert Ludlum’s popular espionage novel of the same name. I’ve seen the first two Bourne movies, starring Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting), and I liked this mini-series much more than those movies. I haven’t read the book, 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.

I enjoy films that take the time to develop the plot and characters. This version of Ludlum’s cloak and dagger adventure neatly spreads out the goodies across three hours. Directed by Roger Young (Lassiter), written by Carol Sobieski (Fried Green Tomatoes), the intricate plot is allowed to breathe on its own and the main character is fleshed out nicely — it is all done smoothly and without any gimmickry.

Richard Chamberlain was nicknamed “King of Mini-series” for good reason. I loved him in the limited series Shōgun (1980) and The Thorn Birds (1983), and he didn’t disappoint me here. It’s really a clever piece of casting. The middle-aged and lanky Chamberlain looks more like an unassuming college professor than a skillful spy, so when he suddenly turns into a brutal killing machine, you are surprised to say the least.

Jacklyn Smith (Kelly Garrett from iconic TV show Charlie’s Angels), who plays an economist from Canada, is less effective. She’s a gorgeous woman, but I’m not sure if she was the right person for the role of Chamberlain’s love interest.

Smith plays a cliché character anyway — the kidnapped lady who falls for her captor. I’ve always found the much-used “Stockholm Syndrome romance” 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 risen above the inherited ridiculousness of such a character, but Smith and Chamberlain look good together, so it’s all good.

Chamberlain and Smith are 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, and Donald Moffat (John Carpenter’s 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 astounding — 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:

The Bourne Identity is an old-school, plot-driven espionage tale. I’m always game for a stylish piece of escapism, but as I get older, I’m much more inclined to like something less flashy. Call it midlife crisis or escapism fatigue, but I thought this mini-series was better than the Matt Damon movies. In any case, all versions of Robert Ludlum’s book 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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s