In the trailer for the espionage film Killer Elite, which includes Jason Statham flipping on top of Clive Owen while tied to a chair before jumping through a glass window, a 68-year-old Robert De Niro kicking the asses of people less than half his age armed with only his jacket, and explosions galore, it says in big, bold letters “BASED ON A TRUE STORY.” Wait …what?
The film, in theaters now, is based on Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s controversial 1991 novel The Feather Men, about four British Army soldiers, including a pair of SAS agents, who are assassinated by a hit squad in retaliation for the murder of the son of a Dubai sheikh, who was killed in Oman by British Army forces. A shadow organization called “The Feather Men,” which exists to protect ex-SAS operatives, then sends out hit men of their own to protect the targets. The book stirred up major controversy upon its release, as Fiennes claimed it was based on real events, and at one point, went so far as to claim that he himself was targeted by the hit squad—dubbed “The Clinic” in the book—and saved by “The Feather Men.”
But is there any truth to Fiennes’s story? In an interview with The Daily Beast, the 67-year-old author—who is not only a former SAS operative but also arguably the world’s greatest living explorer—opens up about what inspired him to write The Feather Men. He talks about why he’s upset with the film, how he was almost cast as James Bond, his famous actor cousins, and what scares him.
Why did you decide to join the SAS (Special Air Service)?
I thought I’d join them because I was very bored with the Cold War in Germany and the constant tank training and gunnery with tanks in the British Army. We were there to defend the Warsaw Pact, and when someone attacked, we would deal with them. And they never did attack! So it was boring.
And you specialized in demolitions?
When you go into a regiment like the SAS you have a choice of four different specialties: jungle, mountain warfare, and so on, and I went for “demolition.” I just preferred it to the others. With mountain warfare I get vertigo and parachuting I get vertigo.
But you’ve climbed Mt. Everest three times!
But anybody who climbs Everest knows that there aren’t drops. It isn’t like a big cliff where you look down and there’s a void. On Everest, if you look down there’s a gentle, white shoulder sloping away.
I heard of this great story that when you were in the SAS, you and a friend blew up an ugly dam that the movie studio had built for the film Doctor Doolittle.
That was 20th Century Fox, and a schoolmate of mine was selling wine in a lovely village, Wiltshire, which had been voted Europe’s “prettiest village,” and the villagers were complaining to the studio that they had dammed up their little street to make a lake for filming, and showed no signs of promising to remove it after they left. So he decided to make that complaint known generally by blowing up the dam at the mouth of the 20th Century Fox lake. He telephoned me to ask if I would help having done an explosives course in the army very recently. We were taught in the army to blow up as much as was possible using as little explosives as possible, and I was fairly good at this so I had quite a lot leftover. Maybe this was incorrect but I kept it instead of signing it into Her Majesty.
On the subject of films, you were also one of the final choices to replace George Lazenby as James Bond in Live and Let Die.
There were about 250 people who auditioned in London with Guy Hamilton, the director, and I somehow got into the final six. Then, I was looked at by Cubby Broccoli [producer], and he didn’t even attempt to be polite. He said to Hamilton, looking at me, “This guy looks like a farmer and his hands look like a farmer’s hands.” Roger Moore got the job instead. But the trip down to London from the North of Scotland that was paid for by 20th Century Fox enabled me to do my first big expedition with the BBC. It was in Northern Canada—British Columbia—and was the first river journey from their northern border with the Yukon, to their southern border with the United States, entirely by nine rivers.
And you’re related to the actors—and brothers—Ralph Fiennes and Joseph Fiennes.
Ralph’s grandfather was the younger brother of my grandfather. There were eight children and our grandfathers were some of them. Ralph is great. He’s recently given a lot of money to a charity I run for cancer, and Joseph I’ve only met once or twice. I don’t know him very well. Fifteen years ago, I thought it would be nice if Ralph was in the film version [Killer Elite] of the book that I wrote [The Feather Men], but it didn’t work out. I haven’t yet seen it, though. But a friend of mine in Pittsburgh who did see it said he didn’t like the guy who played me before I ended up dead. I don’t understand this! I don’t see how I could be in the film, or how I could be dead!
Who would you want to play you in a movie?
Cousin Ralph! He did once do a film called The English Patient, and an attractive lady at a lecture I was giving once told me, “You know, you look exactly like your cousin Ralph in The English Patient.” I thought that was very nice. And she then said, “After he had the accident.” So that wasn’t so good.
Ouch. So why did you end up transferring to Oman, where much of The Feather Men is set?
When I was thrown out of the SAS for misuse of explosives on civilian property [for the dam incident], I was thrown back to Germany and the tanks. I tried to escape after a year, and one of the people in that regiment that had been to the then-secret war in Oman, let me know that it was a wonderful place to be and so, having been taught Arabic, I went out there.
What inspired you to write The Feather Men?
Now that you’ve started to ask me about the book, my answers to your questions will become evasive.
Do the best you can.
When the book came out 20 years ago, on the cover in big letters it said, “Fact or Fiction?” It left it to the reader to decide whether it was fact or fiction, but it complicated the issue by putting photographs of people with a lot of real names in the book. It was probably confusing to readers as to what was fact and what was fiction. I had chose to change my mind from time-to-time in terms of answering people, and at the moment, I choose to say that the book, and therefore the film, are total fiction. In 20 years time, I might change my mind.
The idea was to sell more books and at the time, the person who was going to put new books in the bookshop was told to put it in the “fiction” side of the shop or the “non-fiction” side of the shop, and at the time people only read one or the other, so if you put it on both sides of the shop you got both sets of book buyers.
You had previously claimed in interviews around the time of the book’s release that this shadow organization called “The Feather Men,” which protected ex-SAS operatives, did exist.
If I did, that’s what I did. Yes. But I’m telling you now that it was all fiction.
How do you feel about the film Killer Elite being marketed as “based on a true story?”
The publishers and literary agents have written to them and said it was quite clear that they shouldn’t have done that, and that they should change it to words like “inspired by” instead of “based on.” Maybe they’ll change it, but I don’t know.
There was also an incident where you were confronted by the angry mother of one of the real-life men in the book who you claimed was murdered, when he wasn’t.
There was a guy who I said was killed in the U.K. in very bad weather in Wales on the mountains during an SAS selection course, and I’m saying that he wasn’t killed. He died of hypothermia up there, and that is what the inquest said. At the time I wrote the book, I went to the lady in question and showed her the text of the book because Bloomsbury, who later published the Harry Potter books, would not publish the book unless the next of kin of the dead officers signed every page of what I was saying about their late relatives. I still possess the signatures in question. That lady signed every page, and when this film came out recently and a newspaper asked her about it, she said that I never correlated the text with her. I’ve found her signature and showed it to her, and she apologized and said it was a long time ago and she had forgotten about it.
Were you always adventurous, even from a young age?
No. I was once in South Africa and not collected from school when I was 6 years old, and apparently I walked all the way back home. There was that. Also, Cape Town was discovered by Jan van Riebeeck and so every 100 years on the day that he discovered Cape Town, they have a thing called the Van Riebeeck Festival. I was taken there at 8 years old by my mom’s good friend and neighbor, and she took me there and she said, “This is called a ‘rickshaw,’ and this guy is a Zulu,” and he’s six-foot-nine with his ostrich feathers on, and I looked up at this big black guy and I screamed and said I wasn’t going to go on the rickshaw.
Lastly, you’ve climbed Everest three times, served in the SAS and embarked on dangerous expeditions all over the world. What scares you?
My wife’s driving. If I’m not in control and she’s driving, that does. But if I make comments she shuts me up, so that makes me horrified.