The picture was notable for its grand finale with Richard Hannay (Robert Powell) hanging off the clock-face of London's Big Ben clock-tower a sequence which doesn't even occur in John Buchan's source 1915 novel. The sequence was actually inspired by both the earlier Harold Lloyd silent 1923 comedy Safety Last! (1923) as well as the 1943 British black-and-white farcical comedy My Learned Friend (1943) which interestingly were each both made around twenty years apart.
The picture is considered the most faithful of the three screen versions of John Buchan's source novel despite the addition of the Big Ben clock-tower finale story element which was not in the original 1915 book.
Lord Tweedsmuir, son of "The 39 Steps" source novelist John Buchan, according to producer Greg Smith, apparently liked the movie, was glad that the adaptation utilized more content from his father's source novel, and felt that his dad would have liked the added on ending with the Big Ben clock-tower.
The familiar story element of the man and woman being on the run hand-cuffed together was removed for this film version of John Buchan's source story of "The 39 Steps". Other story elements removed for the film from earlier versions included the characters of Mr Memory and the spy with the short finger.
The Big Ben clock-tower seen in the film utilized for long-shots and exteriors the real London landmark but for close-ups for the action sequences the Big Ben clock-tower was a replica built on a sound-stage at Pinewood Studios.
Tony Williams of the Rank Organisation, this film's production studio, said of this remake in 1978: "The old films suffer technically against today's. The pace of modern films is much faster. The style of acting is different. Those old actors were marvelous, but if you consult the man in the street, he's more interested in seeing a current artist than someone who's been dead for years . . . You have to go back in time to tell a story that doesn't have to face seventies problems. What people are nostalgic for isn't necessarily any particular period, but the happier values that are missing today".
The only big-screen cinema version of John Buchan's "The 39 Steps" novel which was not set in the same year that the movie was made and released (which was 1914) as was the case with the two earlier films, 1935's The 39 Steps (1935) and 1959's The 39 Steps (1959).
The film had a Royal World Charity Premiere hosted in the presence of Mark Phillips and Her Royal Highness Princess Anne held on Thursday 23rd November 1978 with proceeds from the special launch event going to aid and benefit The Save The Children Fund.
The lead central role of Richard Hannay (cast with Robert Powell) was a much sought after part within the British film industry and the international movie scene at the time of the film's development and pre-production.
The film was made and released about forty-three years after the first version of the movie The 39 Steps (1935), about nineteen years after the first remake and second version, The 39 Steps (1959), and about thirty years before the fourth made-for-television 2008 version The 39 Steps (2008).
Producer Greg Smith once said of this film: "The Hitchcock version was about 20 percent Buchan and 80 percent Hitchcock. Our goal was to turn it around and make the film 80 percent Buchan and 20 percent invention".
Producer Greg Smith was a fan of the novels by John Buchanand wanted to make a film version of Buchan's 'The 39 Steps' that was "true to the period in which the novel was set, just prior to World War I, when Europe was one huge powder-keg and nobody knew what a world war was".
Though not in the source John Buchan novel, the use of famous London landmark Big Ben clock in this film, was a Hitchcockian type story element. Alfred Hitchcock directed the first filmed version The 39 Steps (1935) and a number of Hitch's films notably had suspense sequences set on famous landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942), Mt Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959), and the Golden Gate Bridge in Vertigo (1958). Other Hitchcock films featured such famous landmarks as the Albert Hall, Piccadilly Circus, the British Museum, and the Forth Rail Bridge.
The character of Sir Richard Hannay (played by Robert Powell), also appears in another John Buchan story which has been filmed, "The Three Hostages", which has been shot twice, for television on both occasions, as a series, The Three Hostages (1952), and as a tele-movie, The Three Hostages (1977), the latter of which was first broadcast just the year before this motion picture debuted.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The meaning and relevance of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978) title in this film version refers to the run of steps to the various levels of the Big Ben clock-tower each existing in ranges of thirteen running from the Lauderdale Door to the belfry of Big Ben itself.
The film's closing epilogue states: "Edmund Appleton (David Warner) was convicted of treason in May 1914. And thanks to Richard Hannay [Robert Powell], Britain gained valuable time to prepare for the Great War".