Author Don Pendleton created his iconic hero Mack Bolan in 1969, and saw him through 37 of his first 38 adventures in 11 years. Now that’s prolific. Eventually he sold the rights to the character and, until his death in 1995, consulted on the hundreds of books that followed. The series and its spin-offs are still going strong, and it’s now headed (again) to Hollywood, with Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper and Shane Salerno chasing it to the screen. Here are the facts on cinema’s latest prospective hero…
Mack Bolan’s creator had, if anything, a more interesting life than his hero. Don Pendleton was born in 1927 and served in the US Navy in World War II and in the Korean War. His post-war jobs included work as a telegrapher for the Southern Pacific Railroad and an air traffic control specialist for the FAA, before he worked on the Titan Missile Program and became an engineering administrator at NASA during the Apollo missions.
In addition to the Bolan series and two detective series – one about a character called Joe Copp and the other about Ashton Ford, Psychic Detective – Pendleton also wrote a number of non-fiction and spiritualist books, sometimes with his author wife Linda Pendleton. The most successful of these was probably To Dance With Angels, which chronicled a series of discussions (via a medium) with a deceased clergyman called Dr James Martin Peebles on the meaning of life. Huh.
Thanks to his Bolan series, Don Pendleton apparently became known as “the father of action adventure” – a term he himself apparently coined. Linda Pendleton said of the series, “Within his Bolan stories are strong values, with an underlying theme of a higher morality that Bolan follows. More than once Don said about the Executioner novels, ‘My biggest job throughout writing the series was to keep faith with Bolan–that what he is doing is right. I wanted an enemy beyond redemption–an enemy that all civilized procedures had failed to put down. The Mafia was ready-made. They embodied all the evils of mankind.’” After Pendleton left the series, with Satan’s Sabbath (the 38th novel), Bolan went to work for the government and widened the scope of his targets to include terrorism and state enemies.
!%28/images/uploaded/mack-bolan-the-executioner-7-nightmare-in-new-york.jpg%29 BOLAN'S ORIGINS
In the books, Mack Bolan was born in 1939 and fought in the Vietnam War as a Green Beret. There, he killed over 90 targets as a sniper, earning his nickname The Executioner, but was also kind to innocent villagers and children, earning the second nickname Sgt. Mercy. Ooh, the dichotomy of man, eh?
Back home, however, things were less rosy. Bolan’s father Sam lost his job at the steel mill after suffering a heart attack and turned to a savings-and-loan outfit to get by. Just one problem: it turned out that that business was a front for the Mafia. Soon they started hounding Bolan Sr. for their money and forcing Cindy Bolan, sister of our hero, into prostitution to pay off her father’s debts. When Sam discovered this he kills his daughter and himself, leaving the youngest Bolan, Johnny, wounded but alive in hospital.
Given compassionate leave, Mack returns home and decides to exact revenge on the Mafia, who he holds responsible for the deaths. But he doesn’t just hold the immediate loan sharks responsible: Bolan goes after all the Mafia across America, travelling city by city to take them apart and execute hundreds of the gangster bastards. Pendleton claimed Bolan’s killings were “a consecration of the life principle”, since they merely emphasised what was truly important in life (not being a Mafiosi, basically) but he sure did a lot of consecrating during those first 38 missions.
Bolan speaks at least five languages and understands a few more, and is adept at intelligence gathering, guerrilla warfare, marksmanship and munitions. In his spare time, Bolan enjoys re-reading Don Quixote, canoeing in flood waters and dating women who, if he falls in love with them, are certain to be kidnapped or killed.
!%28/images/uploaded/mack-bolan-tiger-war.jpg%29 COL. JOHN PHOENIX
After a certain amount of mayhem in his war against the Mafia, during which the authorities had occasionally pursued Bolan and sometimes supported him, the US government offered the former soldier an amnesty on condition that he take a job for them. Under the identity Colonel John Phoenix, he heads the Stony Man organisation, a super-secret group that tackles the stuff that’s just too tough for the CIA, NSA and FBI. They’re answerable only to the White House, dammit, and fight both terrorists and less lofty criminals. Bolan’s immediate boss is Hal Brognola, who spends all his time chewing antacid tablets or chewing on cigars like a cross between Lloyd Bridges in Airplane! and Carl Weathers in Predator.
The group had two specialist teams working for it: Able Team and Phoenix Force. It should surprise none of you to learn that both these groups are kick-ass crews made up of experts in their respective fields, manly men even when they’re women.
But they face formidable opposition from rogue agents, renegade industrialists and the KGB, who have on occasion raided Stony Man’s Virginia Base with devastating consequences (they paralysed the team’s computer expert and killed Bolan’s girlfriend, who blocked a bullet intended for the man himself). It turned out that the KGB had a mole in a rival intelligence agency, and after presenting the evidence of this to the President Bolan executed the dude in the Oval Office – because that’s how he rolls. Basically, Bolan seems like a guy who would make Jack Reacher think twice. In the books to date he has survived two nuclear blasts, multiple stab-wounds and nearby grenade explosions, and several warehouse roofs that fell on his head.
THE SPIN-OFF SERIES
!%28/images/uploaded/don-pendleton-phoenix-force.jpg%29 First, there were the Executioner books focusing on Bolan himself. Then he took that Phoenix identity and two series spun-off from the main trunk, focused on Able Team and Phoenix Force. Those two were folded back into one series, Stony Man, in 1991, which runs alongside what’s now called the ‘Super Bolan’ series, longer stories centred on the man himself. Clear? We hope so.
More than a dozen of the Bolan books are published each year by Gold Eagle, a division of Harlequin Books. You might think that that makes these the male equivalent of the latter’s bonkbusters, but that would be enormously reductive, of course. Mack Bolan has shorter hair than the average Harlequin cover star, and many more guns.
The series boasts the most fantastically macho titles in fiction history, although several have been used already by unrelated film and game properties – Assassin’s Creed, Crimson Tide and Splinter Cell all appeared here. We’re partial to Hostile Proximity and Cleveland Pipeline, but there’s something to be said for Death Has A Name too (surely it’s ‘Death’?). However, when it comes to choosing film titles we suspect that the more sensible likes of War On The Mafia or Death Squad will be higher on the wish list.
A FILM FRANCHISE?
Attempts to make a Mack Bolan film date back almost to its origins. Joseph E. Levine had Richard Maibaum write a script way back in 1972, based on the fifth and sixth books in the series, in the hope of getting Steve McQueen to star as the hero. In the early 1980s, Burt Reynolds tried to get it off the ground for Clint Eastwood, followed by Sylvester Stallone, and in the early 2000s Vin Diesel tried for it.
For the new project, we know that Shane Salerno is planning to write the script, having secured the rights to the character from Pendleton’s estate. He wants to make “a relevant, grounded and gritty, real-world PG-13 action-drama film series" – a vision we assume is shared by Bradley Cooper and Todd Phillips, who are producing via their Warners-based production company and potentially starring and directing respectively.
The Expendables aside, attempts to launch new action franchises in recent years have been met with mixed success: Jack Reacher, perhaps the most comparable case, stumbled at the box-office. But given the slightly subdued marketing of that film and the fact that hardcore fans complained that Tom Cruise was a bad fit for their hero, perhaps this can do better. With over 600 books to choose from, 200 million copies in print and forty-five years of history, there should be enough of an audience to make this a success, and enough source material to find a great plot.