The Way to Dusty Death (1995)

For years, I'd searched for the made-for-TV movie of MacLean's novel The Way to Dusty Death, with no success. Amazon has a listing for it, but every time I looked, a notice said "This video is currently unavailable".

On an autumn evening in 2023, though, I made what I thought would be the nth futile search on YouTube ... and discovered a video listed with the full 1:53 run length. I hit the "Play" icon, and an auto-racing scene began, with clear visuals and a track announcer's voice. Bingo!

(Caveat: I know basically nothing about intellectual property laws, and I have no idea whether the person who posted the video did so legitimately, or whether they are violating someone's rights.)

So now I've watched this film at long last. Short review: it's not good. Longer review: it bears little resemblance to the book, and it's so hackneyed and heavy-handed and weird and generally unlikeable that I won't be watching it again, but I'm still glad to have seen it.

The film and book can both be encapsulated as "Race driver Johnny Harlow puts his life on the line to investigate deadly sabotage of cars and discovers an international smuggling ring." But that's where the similarity pretty much ends.

Harlow begins the book as the world's top driver. In the film, he has served jail time for a lethal auto accident (off the track) and is wallowing in booze and self-destruction. He gets invited to resuscitate his career as a driver for the Coronado team. Harlow is played by Simon McCorkindale, somewhat known for TV series such as "Falcon Crest" but perhaps not the type of name likely to attract many viewers. His film transformation from disheveled drunkard to debonair man of action strains the viewer's credulity.

The Coronado team's owner, James MacAlpine, is portrayed as a shouty jerk, rather than the mannered millionaire in the book. And his wife is not missing, but plays a main role in many scenes. That is natural because the moviemakers would have wanted to get full use from their one A-list star, Linda Hamilton, famous from the Terminator films. Her presence as Beth MacAlpine is initially puzzling, because we assume that such a prominent actress is going to be the main character's love interest, but she's happily married to "Mac." Well, without overly spoiler-ing the film, let's just say that things change.

Speaking of change: while an intelligence agent named Alexis Dunnet played a leading role in the book's plot, the film transforms him into a mysterious (and slim and beautiful) young Russian woman, Alexis Dunetskaya. Almost everything she does or says is puzzling, and yet Harlow allows himself to be drawn into her net -- a net that contains lots of violence and Russian mafiosi, but little sense.

We keep being teased by scenes of Harlow with Beth or Alexis, but nothing much happens with either couple. Meanwhile, there is a brief gratuitous bit of female nudity in a scene featuring two turncoat members of the Coronado camp.

By the end, one comes to understand why this film disappeared from view. It's too self-serious to be campy, but too campy to be serious. If you're a completist like me, you'll want to give it a viewing; just don't expect to add it to your best-of-MacLean list.


(2 out of 10)