Herman C. McNeile

Biography

Herman Cyril McNeile was one of the most popular authors of adventure fiction in the English-speaking world during the early to mid-20th century. Writing under the pseudonym "Sapper," he created the adventure hero Bulldog Drummond and sold millions of books, which were adapted into more than a dozen movies (and a play) from the 1920s through the 1960s. Additionally, his Drummond stories became the models upon which one reader/fan -- future author Ian Fleming -- based his own popular fiction in the same genre. McNeilewas born in 1888, to a Belfast family of Scottish descent, at the Naval Prison in Bodmin, Cornwall, where his father, Captain Malcolm McNeile, was the prison governor. Herman was educated at Cheltenham College and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and joined the Royal Engineers in 1907. By 1914, on the eve of war, he was a lieutenant, and he earned the Military Cross during the First World War. McNeilebegan writing while the war was still on, while serving in France; at the time, army regulations prohibited active duty officers from writing for publication under their own names, so he used the pseudonym of Sapper, the unofficial term for military engineers. His earliest stories and books, dating from 1915, told about life among soldiers in the trenches, and these proved popular. It was after he retired as a lieutenant colonel that McNeileconceived his most popular character, Hugh "Bulldog" Drummon}. McNeile himself had found the return to civilian life, after the four years of combat, to be rather dull, and he built Drummond's character from there. A retired army captain who found life in peacetime England too sedate, Drummond advertises for any job that promises adventure. He finds that and more on his first case, involving kidnapping, murder, and an international conspiracy against British interests; he also finds a wife, Phyllis, whom McNeilelater pushed into the background of the stories, in order to keep his hero unfettered. Drummond was a man's man, a gentleman who was at home in the best clubs, but not afraid to use his fists if necessary; who knew how to order a vodka martini, but was also quite capable of killing an enemy, with his bare hands, and with full premeditation; and a complete believer in the rightness of all things British, but most especially the Empire. In McNeile's fiction and Drummond's world, England was the greatest country and the British Empire the light of the world, and as such, attracted enemies who either envied or hated the Empire (usually both), with foreign-sounding names and accents, their motives varying between communistic ideals or, in some instances, they were misguided, corrupt capitalists fomenting war and instability. They had as their dupes or allies the swarthier Central European (or, worse yet, Eastern European) immigrants who either didn't know or didn't care about English ideals (including, from McNeile's standpoint, the all-too-numerous displaced Jews). These were the prejudices of his time and class, and can be found as well in such books as John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, and the work of other rivals of his time -- such as the now all-but-forgotten Dornford Yates -- among many others. Needless to say, the anti-Semitism and racism of the Drummond books do not travel well today, and even in their own time were impossible to accept in the screen adaptations, from which they were excised (all of the filmed versions of Buchan's well-known novel also leave out Scudder's anti-Semitism). As brisk, exciting fiction, however, they are impeccable, if that flaw in their ethnic and racial sensibilities can be understood and overlooked. On many levels, McNeile's work was derivative of the adventure fiction that had come before it, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. What made McNeile's work unusual and popular was his exceptionally brisk storytelling -- McNeile could move a narrative across days or weeks in a paragraph, without leaving a reader feeling cheated in the least; his best work had the pacing of a great movie serial, and the sense of detail expected in a man-of-action on the hunt. (Fleming would later turn this attribute on its head, and take two pages to describe a sight confronting his hero James Bond as he entered a room, or even the clothes worn by an adversary [or, just as likely, a female participant in the caper].) Beginning with the book Bulldog Drummond, a quick and exciting read, McNeile's writing found an audience around the world, and the first film adaptation followed in 1922. It wasn't until the end of the 1920s, when Samuel Goldwyn licensed the first of the novels and cast Ronald Colman in an early sound version of the story, that the hero found a lasting niche in movies. Bulldog Drummond (1929) was a success, and Colman later reprised the role in the technically superior Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934), directed by Roy Del Ruth at Fox. The latter, arguably the best of the Drummond films, has been kept out of distribution since the mid-'40s. There were also Drummond movies from England, starring Ralph Richardson and depicting the hero's so-called "Black Gang," a small army of black-clad combatants introduced in the novels, upon which the hero could call to assault an appropriate target. Few people in charge seemed to recognize the unsettling parallels between the screen image of Drummond's black-clad paramilitary unit and the Black Shirts and Brown Shirts of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. And there was even a British parody, Bulldog Jack, in which an amateur substitute fills in for the indisposed hero. The most familiar of the Drummond movies, however, were the series of B-pictures made at Paramount in the mid-'30s, mostly starring John Howard (who, curiously, played Colman's brother in Lost Horizon), produced by Stuart Walker, and principally directed by James Hogan. These briskly paced features, running around an hour each, weren't very distinguished, but they were exciting and popular, and the series pulled off the coup of getting acting legend John Barrymore into the cast as the hero's police ally and sometime nemesis, Colonel Neilson of Scotland Yard. He also successfully adapted the character to the stage on both sides of the Atlantic, in collaboration with George du Maurier, and the hero's adventures eventually became a kind of mini-industry. At the time of McNeile's death in 1937, at the age of 49, McNeile had been planning a new play. Following the author's death, his friend and fellow novelist Gerard Fairlie wrote a series of Drummond books under the pseudonym Sapper, thus keeping the franchise alive. The character's main influence after the 1940s was as the direct source of inspiration for James Bond. Fleming's Bond is a successor to Drummond, as is, to a great degree, Leslie Charteris' Simon Templar (alias "The Saint"), who came along in books at the other end of the 1920s and also found a fresh audience in the 1960s, as personified by Roger Moore (himself a future James Bond) -- although both The Saint and Drummond owe debts of varying sizes to the earlier literary hero Raffles, created by E.W. Hornung (1866-1921). Many of McNeile's Drummond books remained in print in the early 2000s, more than 80 years after the origins of the character, radio adaptations of the character still continued to be done, and the films, especially the Ronald Colman and John Howard movies, continued to attract an audience. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi

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