The High Bright Sun (1965): colonial spy thriller with Dirk Bogarde

21 AUGUST 2023

JBC rating: ****

James Bond Connections (4):

  • Featuring Joseph Furst (Professor Doctor Metz in Diamonds Are Forever) as Dr Andros.
  • Featuring George Pastell (Train conductor in From Russia with Love) as Prinos.
  • Featuring Paul Stassino (Palazzi in Thunderball) as Alkis.
  • Production Designer Syd Cain (From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service & Live and Let Die).

Set in British ruled Cyprus in 1957, the UK produced colonial spy thriller The High Bright Sun follows Dirk Bogarde as Major McGuire, an English intelligence official wooing Susan Strasbourg’s American heroine Juno Kozani in the hope she will aid him in his fight against Greek rebels. Aside from numerous James Bond connections in the cast and crew credits, the film remains highly relevant for 007 fans due to its end of empire setting. Ian Fleming’s anxieties regarding the loss of the British empire feature strongly in his novels, reaching a crescendo with You Only Live Twice (1964). Indeed, the very creation of his famous secret agent can be viewed as a reaction to the UK’s loss of status in the real world, with espionage depicted as a way to reassert influence. Whilst Dr No (1962) shows the British operating in a relatively peaceful colony (ironically in the same year Jamaica gained independence), The High Bright Sun provides Bond fans with the chance to see British intelligence operating during a far more complicated end to British colonial rule.

The High Bright Sun is set part way through the ‘Cyprus emergency’, when British rule was challenged by a guerilla movement which received widespread support from the Greek-Cypriot population. The striking American star Susan Strasbourg effectively provides the emotional core of the film as archaeology student Juno Kozani, a naturalised Cypriot-American staying on the island with her father’s friend Dr Andros. The good doctor, played in typically slightly frantic form by Professor Doctor Metz himself Joseph Furst (above, left), is secretly helping the guerilla movement from his villa home despite outwardly showing support to the British in the form of Major McGuire. The story takes off when Juno unwittingly discovers rebel leader General Stavros Skyros is hiding in the house (a character clearly based on the real-life rebel leader George Grivas). In a James Bond-esque move, a suspicious McGuire uses his burgeoning romantic connection with Juno to gain information about goings on in the villa. The true villain of the film is Greek sponsored freedom fighter Haghios, menacingly played by Academy Award winning actor George Chickiris (of West Side Story fame). Haghios (above, right), a frequent visitor to Dr Andros’ villa, is soon gunning for Juno’s execution, convinced she will betray secrets to McGuire.

The serious tone is in marked contrast to Bogarde’s previous collaboration with director Ralph Thomas, the light comedy spy thriller Hot Enough for June. Here, Bogarde is far more engaged as the steely Major McGuire, ruthless in his pursuit of the terrorists. However, the closest character to Bond is McGuire’s ‘honest friend’ Baker. Nicely played by a young Denholm Elliot (above), in a minor subplot the hard drinking intelligence agent even admits to having had an affair with McGuire’s estranged wife. Baker is involved in an exciting chase sequence taking up the last third of the film, with Juno fleeing for her life from Haghios and his accomplices. Thunderball‘s Paul Stassino (below) has a brief role as a sleazy salesman who tries to assault Juno after agreeing to give her a lift in his car. There is later a tense shoot out with Juno hiding out in McGuire’s apartment. Throughout the film McGuire is tailed by a mysterious character played by George Pastell, the actor who played the train conductor in From Russia with Love (1963). His role in the story is only revealed after the climactic showdown at Athens airport. Soon after his work on the second James Bond film, production designer Syd Cain presents characteristically grounded interiors which reflect the period whilst providing exciting settings for the action.

Modern audiences may assume the film depicts a simple independence movement, with the British guilty for being an occupying power. However, contemporary audiences would have appreciated the long and complex background to the conflict. Britain had been ‘gifted’ Cyprus in 1878 as part of the provisions in the Treaty of Berlin, a Europe-wide settlement which avoided war between European allies and Russia. Cyprus remained strategically important as a staging post for the Royal Navy to help deter Russian aggression in the eastern Mediterranean into the early 20th century. Inevitably, the local Cypriot population eventually demanded greater autonomy which the British as the colonial power had to balance against a plethora of geopolitical considerations. Crucially, the Greek-led rebellion in the 1950s argued not for Cypriot independence but for union with Greece (Enosis). The film possibly errs in having Haghios refer to himself as ‘Cypriot’, when in reality he (and most of the populace) would have identified as either ‘Greek-Cypriot’ or just ‘Greek’. Enosis was not supported by the Turkish-Cypriot population, who feared for their position as the ethnic minority given historic animosities between Greece and Turkey. Though no Turkish characters appear in the film, an early scene features Haghios flatly refusing an offer of Turkish coffee in a demonstration of his hatred for the country. The conflict also had a Cold War dimension. Whilst Juno’s naturalised American heroine is depicted as someone from a neutral nation, in fact the US firmly backed the British military response given their wish to avoid enosis, a development which would hugely endanger peace between Greece and Turkey, both NATO members.

The British would negotiate an end to the emergency by granting independence to Cyprus in 1960, in exchange for keeping military bases on the island (which remain to this day). Tragically, animosities between Greece and Turkey would end with war in 1974. Following a Greek backed coup in Cyprus in a military attempt to enforce enosis, the Turkish state invaded the north of the island to protect the Turkish-Cypriot population. Turkey came to occupy a third of the island, an impasse which continues into the 21st century. James Bond would visit Nicosia, presently the last divided capital in the world, in the Raymond Benson continuation novel The Facts of Death (1998). The island (presumably the Turkish occupied North) also featured in the backstory to The World Is Not (1999) as the hostage location for the kidnapped Elektra King. However, despite potentially providing a fascinating setting, the films are highly unlikely to ever truly use the island, given EON’s understandable preference to avoid depicting unpredictable political situations and the fact Nicosia would be unlikely to pay what other capitals can afford to showcase themselves to the world via 007.

All but forgotten since its release, The High Bright Sun remains a tense and exciting colonial spy thriller with excellent performances from Dirk Bogarde, Susan Strasbourg and George Chakiris. Beyond the presence of Syd Cain and several actors from the EON series, the film remains highly relevant to any true James Bond fan given 007’s origins as a colonial hero and the fact the ‘end of empire’ motivated so much of Ian Fleming’s work. Recommended.

Have you seen The High Bright Sun? Please leave a comment or an alternative review below.

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