Tuesday, October 8

The Directors: John Sturges

He was known primarily as an action director, focusing mainly on westerns and war films and it is those westerns, of course, that originally caught my attention.  He did some routine work in both categories but would go on to make one of the best westerns and best war films of alltime, both starring Steve McQueen.

John Sturges came into his own in the 1950s and 1960s which, of course, were the decades when movies began to fascinate me. He was one of the first directors to enlighten me on the importance of focusing on the work of those who helm films rather than just show their pretty faces in them.  It was obvious early on to me (let's not forget I was a kid) that he did stories about men mainly, usually hard-nosed, tough hombres who had to extricate themselves from troubling circumstances. 

At the time I first learned of Sturges, my old man was trying like hell to toughen me up.  Put down that book, grab that ball and glove.  He did everything he could think of... force feed me sports, enlist his rough-hewn buddies, insult me, even take me to manly movies, which, yes, included those cowboy and soldier romps.  When we walked out of 1955s Bad Day at Black Rock, about a hard-nosed guy in a small town surrounded by some equally bad-ass dudes, my father said to me, You wouldn't last five minutes in a town like that.  I've always remembered the film because of that.  Of course, John Sturges was its director.

Like Dad and me, Sturges was born in Illinois but to a family of architects and lawyers.  Also, as in my household, manliness was stressed in all its various forms.  Young John took to it like a duck to water, developing a strong, sturdy body, enjoying physical activities, learning to like control and responsibility, eager to make a mark in the world.  He liked women but was more comfortable in the company of men.  Football was a passion and it would win him a small scholarship to college.

The college was in California and from it he would gain access to film studios.  His brother worked in the art department at RKO and would get John on there.  His film career, which he yearned for, was on its way, it seemed, when the military called on him.  While he was a captain in the Army Air Corps, he would direct nearly forty documentary films.

That directing stuff took hold.  He hired on at Columbia Studios, directing what was known as 12-day wonders or more to the point, B pictures that took only 12 days to shoot.  This obviously gave birth to his later acclaim for being a one-take wonder, usually completing a scene on one take.  Take one for spontaneity, he would often say.  For some actors, like the no-nonsense, let's-get-it-done Sinatra, Sturges was a dream director.

His earliest work is fairly undistinguished.  But in 1949 he made his first western and I have to assume never looked back.  It was a perfect blending of the man and the material, the gentleman and the genre.  The Walking Hills starred Randolph Scott, tough-talking Ella Raines (she must have been Sturges' type of actress), John Ireland, Arthur Kennedy and Edgar Buchanan.  About an unsavory crew of prospectors looking for lost gold in the desert, it had, interestingly, a film noir quality to it.  If you've not seen it (or more to the point heard of it), check it out sometime on the tube.  It's worth a look.

He engineered three good B crime dramas, The Capture, Mystery Street and the Barbara Stanwyck-starrer Jeopardy, and turned out a sincere biography on Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Magnificent Yankee.

In 1953 it was a return to westerns and the colorful cavalry tale Escape from Fort Bravo with the equally beautiful Eleanor Parker and William Holden.  And two years later, when I came to know of Sturges, so did the rest of the world, really, with his dramatic foray into raging testosterone, Bad Day at Black Rock.  What really rocked was its cast... Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Walter Brennan and Dean Jagger... five former and future Oscar winners and one who should have been.  Residents of a whistle-stop of a desert town resent a one-armed stranger who has arrived with a secret they don't want exposed.  Sturges put his large cast through its emotionally-tense paces and received his only Oscar nomination for doing so.

If the old man liked that Sturges film, it was Mama's turn next for Underwater!, a perfectly silly bit of Jane Russell fluff dealing with buried treasure beneath the sea.  With Richard Egan, Gilbert Roland and those aqua lungs of Jane's, it was a popular pic but did nothing for anyone's career.  With a female in the lead, it certainly wasn't the arena for Sturges.

It was back to more familiar territory... specifically the west... for the next four.  Richard Widmark signed up for two of them as did Kirk Douglas.  Donna Reed joined Widmark for Backlash as a duo roaming the sagebrush for survivors of an Indian massacre.   Then came a fine western, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral with Burt Lancaster signing on to play Wyatt Earp to Douglas' Bat Masterston.  The two actors breathed life into the familiar tale with great flourishes of friendship and loyalty and Sturges was certainly in his element.

Widmark teamed with Robert Taylor in The Law and Jake Wade, a run-of-the-mill opus about a marshall and his outlaw prey.  Another men-at-odds drama, although considerably better, came when Douglas and his former Lust for Life costar Anthony Quinn reteamed for The Last Train from Gun Hill

Sometimes a director and an actor (or actress) team up and magic occurs.  When that happens, each is likely to want to repeat the process and see if the magic continues.  I mentioned such a thing in my piece on director John Frankenheimer and his long professional association with Burt Lancaster.  That sprinkling of fairy dust happened with Sturges and cocky Steve McQueen.  What a pairing that was.  I'll bet they arm-wrestled when the cameras weren't rolling.  Today they would bump chests. 

The first of their three films together was Never So Few, a 1958 war film about O.S.S. operatives in Burma.  Adding their own manly aroma were Frank Sinatra and Charles Bronson.  I quite liked it, especially and oddly (for me) the war sequences.  The love story involving Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida was not up to par.  McQueen more than held his own in a small role.

The magnificent Magnificent 7

Next came one of the best westerns ever made, The Magnificent Seven.  McQueen and Bronson are joined by Yul Brynner, Horst Buchholz, James Coburn, Brad Dexter, Robert Vaughn to slug it out with Eli Wallach and his band of cutthroats against a weak Mexican village.  After fun episodes introducing the seven, it's a thrill-a-minute watching the melee.. and all the while that triumphant musical theme blasting away in our ears.  It is a film that delivered on all levels.  It is based on director Akira Kurosawa's famed Seven Samurai.  When the great Japanese director told Sturges he quite admired his film, Sturges said it was the greatest compliment he'd ever received. 

Arguably my favorite of all war films is the next and final McQueen-Sturges collaboration, The Great Escape.  Bronson and Coburn were also back, joined by James Garner, Donald Pleasence and a large cast of men.  They all must have been in their element.  Everything about this film worked... the directing, writing, acting, editing, suspense, excitement, locales.  The escape transformed into several exciting stories.  A truly wonderful film.  When I hear myself say I don't like war films, I need only remind myself of this one. 

Sturges and some of his Great Escape cast

Unfortunately, Sturges would never see the likes of this period again.  If you're forte is westerns and war films, perhaps you simply can't top The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.  The director then ventured into territory that was not exactly familiar to him.  How about a Lana Turner soap opera, for example, By Love Possessed?  He must have gulped and broken out in a sweat when he told his cronies he was behind a film with this title.

He didn't do much better with A Girl Named Tamiko, but I confess to admiring it even though it was a rather formulaic forbidden east-west love affair, and right up my alley.  It may have had a little something to do with the fact that it starred the ethereal France Nuyen and my favorite rakish sob, Laurence Harvey.

He tried his hand at a comedy western, The Hallelujah Trail, which has its moments but is mainly a bloated misfire.  With Garner he would revisit the O.K. Corral in Hour of the Gun.  He would work with Bronson again in Chino, with Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd and with John Wayne in the cop drama, McQ.  Not one was hugely successful.  His biggest and best from this period is the Rock Hudson-Ernest Borgnine war film, Ice Station Zebra.  After his 1976 Michael Caine-Donald Sutherland-Robert Duvall war film The Eagle Has Landed failed to ignite, he quit making films.

Sturges was sometimes criticized, as some often are and as I have mentioned before, for not putting out an identifiable product.  It's about having a trademark, a la Hitchcock, Ford.  But I say, hey, what a minute here.  Let's talk Ford.  Isn't he closely identified with westerns and even war films?  Huh?  Let's give Sturges a break then.  He's done the best in each category.  He's an auteur to me and furthermore, his films have been vastly entertaining and the stories told so well.

A lifelong smoker, John Sturges died of emphysema and a heart attack in San Luis Obispo in 1992.

Review of Captain Phillips

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