Terror from the Skies in John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock

by Mark Wallace

Alfred Hitchcock worked on the script of most of the films he directed but he almost always adapted pre-existing stories, rather than creating from scratch.  At the same time, his adaptations were always loose.  As he said himself:

What I do is the read a story once, and if I like the basic idea I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema. (Hitchcock Truffaut, Faber 2017, p. 71)

Yet there are some books he read with more attention.  The novels of John Buchan are a case in point, specifically the series of novels featuring Richard Hannay.  It becomes clear in Hitchcock Truffaut that one of the pivotal authors for Hitchcock was Buchan.  He only adapted a Buchan novel once.  This was a massive hit and many consider it the first truly classic Hitchcock film: The 39 Steps (1935), based on Buchan’s 1915 novel, The Thirty-nine Steps.

Hitchcock had initially planned to film Greenmantle (1916), Buchan’s sequel to Steps, but changed his mind:

In fact, Buchan was a strong influence a long time before I undertook The Thirty-nine Steps, and some of it is reflected in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  He had written Greenmantle, a novel that was probably inspired by the strange personality of Laurence of Arabia.  Korda bought this novel, but he never made the picture.  At first I considered this book, but on second thought I chose The Thirty-nine Steps, which was a smaller subject.  Probably for the very reason we mentioned in connection with Dostoevsky — my respect for a literary masterpiece. (Hitchcock Truffaut, p. 95)

Interestingly, Hitchcock not only notes that Buchan was a strong influence, he even goes so far as to call Greenmantle ¨a literary masterpiece¨.  It is a book I have written on before, and I agree with Hitchcock that it is superior to the (nowadays) better known Steps.  Ironically, Hitchcock´s decision to leave the ¨literary masterpiece” aside in favour of  filming the smaller work has contributed greatly to the current state of affairs where Buchan is remembered for Steps, and Greenmantle is rarely read or discussed.

Not only that, but Hitchcock much later tried to adapt yet another Hannay novel (there are 5 in total), The Three Hostages (1924), dropping it after much deliberation when he realized that the importance of hypnosis in the plot, as well as a central episode where Hannay is pretending to be hypnotised, made the book unfilmable (Hitchcock Truffaut, p. 307).

Hitchcock’s quote above signals that The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934; remade by Hitchcock himself in 1955) had a strong element of Buchan.  Another film that has a strong element of Buchan is one of Hitchcock’s most popular and influential, North by Northwest (1959).  In particular, the majorly iconic scene where Roger O Thornhill (Cary Grant) is waiting on a roadside on a massive midwestern plain when an airplane appears out of the sky and attacks him has its genesis in a couple of episodes in The Thirty-nine Steps:

From my vantage-ground I could scan the whole moor right away to the railway line and to the south of it where green fields took the place of heather.  I have eyes like a hawk, but I could see nothing moving in the whole countryside.  Then I looked east beyond the ridge and saw a new kind of landscape—shallow green valleys with plentiful fir plantations and the faint lines of dust which spoke of highroads. Last of all I looked into the blue May sky, and there I saw that which set my pulses racing….

Low down in the south a monoplane was climbing into the heavens.  I was as certain as if I had been told that that aeroplane was looking for me, and that it did not belong to the police.  For an hour or two I watched it from a pit of heather.  It flew low along the hill-tops, and then in narrow circles over the valley up which I had come.  Then it seemed to change its mind, rose to a great height, and flew away back to the south.

I did not like this espionage from the air, and I began to think less well of the countryside I had chosen for a refuge.  These heather hills were no sort of cover if my enemies were in the sky, and I must find a different kind of sanctuary.  I looked with more satisfaction to the green country beyond the ridge, for there I should find woods and stone houses.  (Chapter II)

This passage places our hero in a desolate moor in Scotland, nothing moving in the whole countryside.  Into this silence and stillness comes the unexpected sight of a distant airplane.  This brings Hannay to the realization that the uninhabited moors are not such a perfect hiding place as he supposed, for the heather hills are no sort of cover.  The beautiful and peaceful natural setting becomes threatening once the airplane enters the scene.  And it comes back to look for Hannay in a later chapter:

It was now about seven o’clock, and as I waited I heard once again that ominous beat in the air. Then I realized that my vantage-ground might be in reality a trap. There was no cover for a tomtit in those bald green places.

I sat quite still and hopeless while the beat grew louder. Then I saw an aeroplane coming up from the east. It was flying high, but as I looked it dropped several hundred feet and began to circle round the knot of hill in narrowing circles, just as a hawk wheels before it pounces. Now it was flying very low, and now the observer on board caught sight of me. I could see one of the two occupants examining me through glasses. (Chapter V)

The circling airplane, wheeling like a hawk, is another powerful image transmitting the agorophobia of the situation.  The plane is now so low that he can see one of the occupants examining him through glasses. (As mentioned in the previous excerpt and at other points in the book, Hannay has excellent eyesight.)

Suddenly it began to rise in swift whorls, and the next I knew it was speeding eastward again till it became a speck in the blue morning.


I have said there was not cover in the whole place to hide a rat.  As the day advanced it was flooded with soft fresh light till it had the fragrant sunniness of the South African veld.  At other times I would have liked the place, but now it seemed to suffocate me.  The free moorlands were prison walls, and the keen hill air was the breath of a dungeon.

(Chapter V)

Later, having spotted him, the watchers from the plane bring word back to their accomplices and they set out to capture Hannay from the ground.  Hannay´s encounter with the airplane does not find its way into Hitchcock´s The 39 Steps, but it seems clear that he kept it in mind.  In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill is menaced by an airplane in much the same way.

The Scottish moor gives way to an even flatter and more expansive land, the prairie of the US Midwest.  The harsh sun adds another element to the anxious discomfort of the scene.  Thornhill gets off a bus on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, no houses around.  He looks around him and a plane appears in the distance, slowly resolving into an object of terror as it approaches and then  swoops down on Thornhill, and one of the occupants shoots at him.  The rest is the stuff of cinematic legend, a scene that has been copied incessantly ever since.

The genesis of this piece of cinematic history is Buchan’s scene, which was gestating in the back of Hitchcock’s mind until it came out in this film.  Perhaps Hitchcock had forgotten Buchan’s scene, as far as conscious memory goes.  Certainly he does not mention it in Hitchcock Truffaut, despite several references to Buchan.  But the sense of mounting unease and finally terror that comes with being exposed in an unpeopled and unsheltered landscape while dark forces threaten from above is one that is easily recognised as having migrated across decades and media from Buchan’s novel to Hitchcock’s film.

Hitchcock under Mount Rushmore during the filming of North by Northwest.