Director – Ralph Thomas, Screenplay – Terence Feely, Based on the Short Story Random Quest by John Wyndham, Producer – Peter Eton, Photography – Ernest Steward, Music – Eric Rogers, Ottilie Theme – Peter Rogers, Makeup – George Blackler, Art Direction – Robert Jones. Production Company – The Rank Film Organisation.
Tom Bell (Colin Trafford), Joan Collins (Ottilie Trafford/Tracy Fletcher), Denholm Elliott (Tom Lewis), Laurence Naismith (Sir Henry Larnstein), Juliet Harmer (Geraldine Lambert), Jeremy Child (Dougie Raynes), Ray McAnally (Jack Kahn), Neil McCallum (Jimmy), Geraldine Moffatt (Stella Jordan), Simon Ward (Jeremy), Trudi Van Doorn (Sylvia)
In London, physicist Colin Trafford goes to demonstrate an experiment with a particle accelerator but things go wrong and he blacks out. He comes around but no longer recognises the world and people around him. He finds that he is now meant to be a successful author and playwright, as well as married to the beautiful Ottilie. He finds that in the world of 1971 he is in, there was no World War II or Vietnam War, that John F. Kennedy is still alive and Mount Everest has yet to be conquered. He also discovers that in this life he treats Ottilie badly and has multiple affairs with the actresses from his plays. After talking to a physicist, he realises that he is in an alternate timeline where history has diverged down a different path since 1938. He attempts to convince Ottilie that he is a different person and that he loves her. What he is unaware is that she has a heart condition and only a limited time left to live.
John Wyndham (1903-69) was one of the celebrated British science-fiction writers of the 1950s. Where most of his American contemporaries were publishing in the ghetto of pulp magazines, Wyndham found a reasonable degree of mainstream success. His most famous work was The Day of the Triffids (1951) and he published several other novels such as The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955), The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), The Trouble with Lichen (1960) and Chocky (1968). (A full list of film and tv works adapted from John Wyndham is at the bottom of the page).
Random Quest (1961) was one of John Wyndham’s last stories. The film version here is a slightly altered version of the short story – the original was told through the eyes of the one of the relatives that Tom Bell visits towards the end of the film, for instance, while the ending invents a whole different fate for the alternate world Ottilie that was not in the story. The story has however proven popular as a film adaptation – even if none of the adaptations are very well known – with there also being a now lost episode of the British science-fiction anthology tv series Out of the Unknown (1965-71) and a later BBC tv movie adaptation Random Quest (2006) starring Samuel West and Kate Ashfield.
The alternate history is a relative rarity on cinema screens. The reason may be that the effect of such a story lies in the background detail. You have to have some knowledge of the historical era in question in order to recognise the differences – not something the great unwashed commercial movie-going public are known for. At worst, the alternate history has emerged as the crude tv series Sliders (1995-2000). Although there have been occasional exceptions to this on film with the likes of It Happened Here (1965), Fatherland (1994), White Man’s Burden (1995), C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004), Sliders (tv series, 1995-2000), The Man in the High Castle (tv series, 2015-9), SS-GB (2017), For All Mankind (tv series, 2019- ), Yesterday (2019), The Plot Against America (2020) and Noughts + Crosses (tv series, 2020- ). Quest for Love was not a wide success when it came out.
The film rather fascinatingly takes place in a world where there has been no World War II or Vietnam Wars; where John F. Kennedy is alive and the head of the League of Nations (which in our timeline merged into the United Nations in 1945); where actor Leslie Howard is still alive; where Edmund Hillary has yet to conquer Mount Everest; and where medicine is slightly less advanced than here. The plot plays out along the lines of later alternate timelines films such as Sliding Doors (1998), Twice Upon a Yesterday (1998), Me Myself I (1999) and The Butterfly Effect (2004), which focus less on divergent paths history might have taken and more on what happens to an individual if life choices had turned out differently. Quest for Love does however gets full marks for rooting this inside an alternate historical justification, which none of the other mentioned do. Mostly, Quest for Love plays out as a love story – certainly it does play the alternate history angle well and does not embarrass itself in this regard as Sliders did.
Joan Collins is top-billed on the credits – and was given prominence in the film’s re-release on dvd in the 00s – but Tom Bell is the real star of the show. One is used to Bell in his work in the decades since in British tv and films like The Krays (1990) and Prime Suspect (1991) and sequels, where he is usually cast as a drunken and embittered old man so it is unusual seeing him here as a young, dashing leading man. He does a fine and credible job of portraying someone thrust into a world that is alien to him.
Joan Collins gained a celebrity superstardom in the 1980s after moving to America and appearing on tv’s Dynasty (1981-9). Here she comes from the day when that celebrity was ahead of her and she was a fresh face playing bit parts in a few British horror films – Fear in the Night (1972), Tales from the Crypt (1972), Tales That Witness Madness (1972), The Devil Within Her/I Don’t Want to be Born (1975) – and episodes of US tv series like Batman (1966-8) and Star Trek (1966-9), including also being the tragic romantic lead in that series classic alternate history episode The City on the Edge of Forever (1966). I am not entirely sure if the romance between her and Tom Bell rings true – he seems to fall for her almost instantly and the rest of the film is about him having to disentangle himself from his alter ego’s caddish lifestyle and prove himself to her. It is however the originality of the premise and the strength of the love story across worlds that drives the film.
Other screen adaptations of John Wyndham’s works include:- Village of the Damned (1960), from Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) about alien children; The Day of the Triffids (1962); the BBC tv mini-series The Day of the Triffids (1981); the children’s tv series Chocky (1984) about an alien visitor; the remake of Village of the Damned (1995); the BBC tv mini-series The Day of the Triffids (2009); and the tv mini-series The Midwich Cuckoos (2022).
Ralph Thomas was a British director between the 1940s and 70s, mostly known for the series of comedies starring Dirk Bogarde that began with Doctor in the House (1961). In genre material, Thomas also made the mermaid comedy Mad About Men (1954), the spy film Some Girls Do (1969) and the sex comedy Percy (1971) with Hywel Bennett receiving the world’s first penis transplant and its sequel Percy’s Progress (1974) where Percy becomes the last fertile man in the world.