Tag: Richard Attenborough

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A pilot is stranded between Earth and…somewhere else in this brilliant romantic fantasy

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: David Niven (Peter David Carter), Roger Livesey (Dr Frank Reeves), Raymond Massey (Abraham Farlan), Kim Hunter (June), Marius Goring (Conductor 71), Robert Coote (Bob Trubshaw), Kathleen Byron (Officer Angel), Joan Maude (Chief Recorder), Abraham Sofaer (Judge/Surgeon), Richard Attenborough (Pilot)

In the final days of World War II, a plane glides across the Channel in flames. The crew has bailed out, leaving only their skipper behind. Unknown to them, he’s not got a parachute – and is facing a choice between jumping or crashing to certain death. With only moments left to live, when is there a better time to fall in love? Quoting poetry and embracing what life he can in his final moments, Peter Carter (David Niven) falls in love with American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), the last person he expects to talk to. It’s stirring, sweeping, hugely romantic – and then Peter jumps at 50,000 feet.

So that’s it, right? Wrong. Peter washes up on the shores of Britain, not dead and practically on June’s doorstep. Happy ending? Perhaps not: at the end of a huge escalator linking our world to another (maybe the next?) Peter was expected. His “conductor” (Marius Goring), a French fop executed during the Revolution, whose job it was to take his soul “up” lost him in the fog. Now a man who isn’t supposed to be alive is walking around on Earth falling in love. Can it be allowed? Or will Peter need to head up that staircase? Or is all of this in fact in Peter’s head, a product of a head injury diagnosed by Dr Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey)? Either way, Peter faces two trials: life-saving surgery on Earth and a tribunal in that other place to decide whether he stays on Earth or not.

When released in America, AMOLAD was renamed Stairway to Heaven – a title rightly hated by Michael Powell. Part of the magic – and there is a lot of magic realism here in the most beloved of all British filmic fables – is the film’s carefully measured ambiguity. The film superbly doesn’t give any answers. The two worlds are clearly, visually distinguished and when Goring’s Conductor and others descend to Earth to freeze time and converse with Peter, their appearance is always foreshadowed with the same symptoms (smells and headaches) Frank diagnoses as part of Peter’s condition.

The beauty of AMOLAD is how wonderfully gently it explores the struggle of two nations – here represented by Peter and June – to emerge from the trauma of war and return to everyday life. From a world where death lies around every corner – where your plane can plummet to fiery doom in moments – they must readjust to one of romantic picnics, amateur theatricals and games of table tennis. Peter’s struggle to survive his surgery is a beautiful metaphor for returning to a life full of hope, possibility and looking forward rather than backward.

It’s why the visual impact of the film is so important. “Heaven” is shot in crisp black-and-white. As the Conductor says when travelling down to Earth, “one is starved of Technicolor up there”. This Heaven is a place of peace, but also of bureaucratic efficiency. Arrival lounges are staffed with decent but practical Angels (Kathleen Bryon is marvellous as the first of these we meet – and there is a fabulous shot from Powell that frames her in front of a clock, making the edges of its face appear like a halo around her head). There are rules and paperwork – in fact a whole city of clerks and arrival lounges. What it doesn’t have is the warmth and passion – the colour – of Earth. Down here, everything is in luscious, gorgeous Technicolor. Up there life is restful, but monochrome.

Jack Cardiff’s photography of AMOLAD – combined with Powell’s astute visual eye – crafts one of the most ravishing films you’ll ever see. Blues, oranges and reds practically pour off the screen into your eyes. Filters add a golden hue to much of what we see. The ramshackle details of locations – Frank’s cluttered library with its piles of books, June’s country-house-base – see every single detail captured in painterly beauty, colours popping out. Only Peter’s surgery room feels like a bridge between ”Heaven” and Earth, cooler filters stressing their blues and cool icey whites.

This is what Peter is fighting to stay in. A world of colour, of joy and poetry. Perhaps “Heaven” is just his imagination of what the afterlife could be like. It resembles the military operations he has spent the last few years emersed in. It’s filled with the historical generations he taught at university. Familiar faces up there fight his corner and represent him at the great trial to decide his fate. His surgeon on Earth shares the face of his judge in “Heaven”. Powell and Pressburger don’t lean too far either way – it’s all gloriously left open to our imagination.

And who, in 1946, wouldn’t want to believe in a heaven as reassuringly welcoming as this. (On a side note it’s refreshing to see a film from the 40s that depicts such a racially diverse after life). One where all are equal and questions of colour and creed are left aside. “Heaven” is packed with soldiers from all across the world – and the sheer volume of uniforms up there reminds us of the trauma down here.

AMOLAD is all about the world we might decide to live in after the trauma of war. It’s also about forging lasting bonds between two nations bought together to fight. No one feels more English than David Niven: and AMOLAD is, arguably, his finest performance. He makes Peter a man of casual wit and lightly worn intelligence, but with hints of the burdens he has carried across years of war. He’s the best of us Brits – and now he has fallen in love with the best of America. June, wonderfully played by Kim Hunter, is practical, brave and grounded. Their love (and the life they could spend together) becomes the battleground at the heavenly trial.

On the one side: a prejudiced revolutionary American (played with gusto by Raymond Massey) – on the other the perfect embodiment of English decency. There could have been no better choice of actor for this than the glorious Roger Livesey. Livesey’s Frank Reeves becomes a mix of English eccentric, master surgeon and Prospero-like magus. It’s no coincidence that among his hobbies is a large camera obscura with which he observes events on his village streets with a protective, grandfatherly care. His study is lined with books, his knowledge is infinite and he is always open to Peter’s tales of heavenly staircases and visitations from mysterious conductors. Then as his advocate in “Heaven” it is he who has the clear sight and judgement to focus the jury not on what divides us, but what unites us – what makes us all human, not what drives us apart.

AMOLAD is about what brings us together. It’s open about the flaws of Britain – the first trial jury is awash with Boers, Indians and other victims of Empire – but also a celebration of its virtues. It celebrates the melting pot of America – the second trial jury is made-up of an incredibly diverse selection of American citizens – and is a hymn to personal freedoms. Farlan picks up on what divides Britain and America – cricket vs American dynamism – but what unites us is our desire for life. So what does it matter if Brits can be austere or Americans so brash they raid a coke dispenser on arrival in “Heaven”. We’re still cousins.

All this helps capture the film as a universal fable, of love being discovered in the magical boundaries between worlds (its no coincidence we see Midsummer Night’s Dream being rehearsed by an American cast under a British vicar). This is a quiet, decent struggle about emerging from the horrors of war into the chance of a new world of love. It’s a struggle for Peter and June that is both very personal and hugely universal.  Powell and Pressburger’s film captures this perfectly in a film that’s sublimely directed and never-endingly rich in dialogue and visuals. It perfectly offers up a universal fable that speaks to the heart. It’s perhaps why this is their most beloved – and finest – hour.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough are superb in unsettling drama Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Director: Bryan Forbes

Cast: Kim Stanley (Myra Savage), Richard Attenborough (Billy Savage), Nanette Newman (Mrs Clayton), Mark Eden (Charles Clayton), Patrick Magee (Superintendent Walsh), Gerald Sim (Sergeant Beedle), Judith Donner (Amanda Clayton), Ronald Hines (Constable)

Myra (Kim Stanley) and Billy (Richard Attenborough) Savage are a middle-aged couple held together by shared grief for a lost child. Myra works as a medium with the spirit of their son, Arthur, as a spirit guide. But grief has had a damaging impact on them both – and Myra believes her work can bring some life back to their lost son. Keen to gain more recognition – and therefore for their son – she urges Billy to kidnap the daughter of a rich couple, so that she can “discover” the child through her spirit guide. However, events soon spiral increasingly out of control.

Bryan Forbes writes and directs (and produces, with Attenborough) this unsettling and often tense film, which shares DNA with ghost stories (but contains no terrors) and psychological dramas. It’s also a superbly acted chamber-piece, an acute psychological study of two deeply traumatised individuals who have responded very differently to personal tragedy and found themselves locked into cycles of behaviour that are becoming increasingly destructive.

Forbes shoots the film with a fly-on-the-wall intensity, giving the exterior scenes a cinéma verité style, concealed cameras capturing unwitting crowds walking blithely through a kidnap drama. There is a kitchen-sink realism here, and elements of psychological hammer horror, with the viewer never quite sure how far this couple will be willing to go. The eerie score by John Barry, mixes in with hauntingly dominant sound designs (especially of dripping water in the film’s opening moments) to create an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere that leaves you not in the least surprised that the psyche of its two lead characters have been so badly damaged.

That sense of disturbance fits perfectly with the lack of planning around the couple’s entire operation. Despite sparks of ingenuity (many of them dependent on Billy’s bland forget-ability and bank-managerish blending into the crowd), once the child has been kidnapped, they have no idea of the next step or how (or even, it seems, if they want to) exploit the situation. It becomes increasingly clear that the plan is not a grand design, but a final desperate attempt to find meaning in their own lives and (certainly in Myra’s case) to provide some sort of connection to their lost son.

That lost son hangs over the whole film, his pointedly not-real ghostly presence having contributed hugely to Myra’s mental disintegration – and also having crushed the life out of Billy. Myra has clearly never recovered from the shock and grief – more facts of which are revealed as the film plays out, culminating in a scintillating scene of emotional confrontation between the two – and Billy, in a desperate attempt to comfort his wife, has instead become the chief enabler of her fantasies.

It makes for an elegant two-hander of stirring emotion – and requires two actors at the peak of their game. As Myra, the little-known Kim Stanley is a sensation. A Broadway star (the “female Brando”) but with only one film credit prior to this (and only three more after this), Stanley brings a brilliant method technique but also a freshness and theatricality matching perfectly the film’s theatrical roots and heightened sense of reality. Stanley delivers an immersive performance that walks a fine tight-rope between calculation, delusion and psychological collapse. It’s a show-piece role, but Stanley largely avoids overplaying, instead exploring the deep emotional scars in the character with a sensitivity that makes Myra someone to pity as recoil from.

Opposite her, Attenborough delivers one of his finest performances as the complex, conflicted Billy. Seeming at first just a brow-beaten husband, it becomes clear Billy has in fact taken on a great emotional responsibility for protecting and comforting Myra, a dedication that has (step-by-step) led to him catering to her every misguided demand. It’s a generous, very subtle performance, of a fundamentally good man who performs misdeeds because he believes it is for the greater good, confusing love for his wife with refusing to make her confront reality.

These two excellent performers perform a complex dance where our perception of the power dynamics in the relationship constantly shift. At first Myra appears to hold all the aces, brow-beating the meek Billy and lecturing him on everything from the spirit world to classical music. However, it slowly becomes clear – as does Myra’s lack of grasp of reality – that Billy is the quieter but stronger character, whose dedication and strength has kept the couple going.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is at its best when exploring the relationship between these two and provides two fine actors magnificent opportunities which their seize with relish. Its pace flags a bit over the two hours – a tighter 90 minute run time would probably have helped it – and while it’s lack of drive in the plot does reflect the confused ambling scheme at its heart, it does mean the film can drift. But this is a fine psychological study, well-made and superbly performed.

The Great Escape (1963)

Steve McQueen is the Cooler King (King of Cool?) in The Great Escape

Director: John Sturges

Cast: Steve McQueen (Captain Virgil Hilts), James Garner (Flight Lt Bob Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Sqd Leader Roger Bartlett), James Donald (Group Captain Ramsey), Charles Bronson (Ft Lt Danny Welinski), Donald Pleasance (Flt Lt Colin Blythe), James Coburn (FO Sedgwick), Hannes Messemer (Oberst von Luger), David McCallum (Lt-Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt), Gordon Jackson (Ft Lt Andy MacDonald), John Leyton (Ft Lt Willie Dickes), Angus Lennie (FO Archie Ives), Nigel Stock (Ft Lt Dennis Cavendish), Robert Graf (Werner)

Is there a film in Britain more associated with holidays than The Great Escape? While I was growing up it felt like a day-off wasn’t complete unless the BBC screened it as part of their afternoon schedule. In Britain is has a status as a sort of cosy uncle, a part of the furniture of many people’s filmic lives. There is always something comforting and reassuring about The Great Escape. So much so, people forget it ends with a large bodycount and the majority of our heroes further away from freedom than when they started.

But it doesn’t really matter, because The Great Escape is one of the last hurrahs of effective, nostalgic war-films. The sort of hugely enjoyable caper that recognises the cost of war, but also celebrates the pluck, ingenuity and guts of Allied servicemen, running rings around those dastardly cheating Nazis. Where we would all like to look back and remember those days when men-were-men and worked together towards a common goal. Sturges has created a marvellous tapestry of a movie, that pulls together several striking scenes, characters and snippets of dialogue into a true ensemble piece that reflects the camaraderie and unity that exists between the prisoners as they work towards their escape.

In some ways, The Great Escape is such good fun, such well-packaged entertainment and telling such an exciting, uplifting and (in the end) moving story that it’s almost immune to criticism. You’d have to have a pretty hard heart not to enjoy it. And you’d have to be pretty cynical not to enjoy the way it presents a series of obstacles and then carefully demonstrates the fascinating and rewarding ways the prisoners resolve these. It’s also notable that, aside from the shadowy Gestapo types, the film doesn’t really have an antagonist. The enemy is that fence. Most of the Germans are just regular soldiers doing a job – it’s only the brutal final-act Gestapo who are aren’t playing this eccentric game. But this helps us sit back and enjoy the film as a caper – just as it makes the burst of machine-gun fire that (nearly) ends the film even more impactful and shocking.

Sturges’ gets the tone of the film spot-on, and also draws a series of perfectly balanced performances from his all-star cast. I think it’s fair to say a lot of the film’s success was connected to Steve McQueen’s casting in the crucial role of Hilts. McQueen channels a sense of 1960s anti-establishment cool into the film (unlike the rest of the POWs, he seems to be wearing basically his own clothes in t-shirt, chinos and bomber jacket). Iconically bouncing his ball against the wall in a cooler, a natural loner (who of course still does his bit), with a cocky sense of defiance and some exceptional motor-bike skills, Hilts is undeniably cool. He’s the face of the film – and the one you walk away wanting to be.

He also gets the film’s definitive claim to fame, with a series of daring motorbike stunts as he races across Germany to escape. Mostly performed by McQueen himself (although not the most famous fence jump, done by a stuntman) this last act chase is a gripping, action counter-point to the more cagey, paranoid runs of the other escapees. It’s so exciting and feel-good, it’s a surprise to remember that Hilts actually gets caught. But then, if he hadn’t, we’d have lost McQueen’s cool, wry shrug of acceptance as he and his mitt were sent back to the cooler in the camp for another 20 days.

The film tees up plenty of sub-plots for the rest of the cast, with Sturges’ spreading the love very effectively. Charles Bronson gets perhaps the best plot as “tunnel king” Danny Welinski who holds back his crippling claustrophobia almost long enough. I think this might be Bronson’s finest hour, giving a real vulnerability to Danny, with genuinely quite affecting whimpers and fear at confronting the tunnel – making his struggle all the more moving. Bronson makes a wonderful double-act with John Leyton as fellow tunneller Willie Dickes, the two of them forging an affecting bond of loyalty.

A similar bond also forms between James Garner’s suave and playful scrounger Jack Hedley and Donald Pleasance’s professorial forger Colin Blythe (has there ever been a more “Colin” Colin on film than Pleasance?). The final moments between this pair carry perhaps the biggest gut-punch of a film that has a surprising large number of them. Pleasance’s sad attempts to hide and combat growing blindness are genuinely affecting, while Garner is a master at conveying depth beneath a light surface. Sturges’ film taps into the nostalgic memories most of us have (or have picked up) of this war being one where life-long friendships were formed against horror and adversity.

Attenborough does most of the thankless heavy-lifting as Big X, but the film uses his Blimpish authority well. Gordon Jackson has a memorial role as the number #2 famously caught out by his own vocal trap (the sort of irony films like this love). Fans of the TV show Colditz can enjoy seeing David McCallum in a very similar role as a daring young escapee. James Donald channels British reserve as the senior officer. The film’s single truly bizarre performance is from James Coburn, with an Australian accent from the Dick van-Dyke school of ineptitude, so terrible even Sturges surely noticed it when cutting the film.

The Great Escape marshals all these cards extremely well. Any combination of any of these actors produces fireworks. It’s one of the best boys own adventure you can imagine. It in fact gets the perfect balance: you can spend a large chunk of the film thinking that being locked up in a German POW camp looks like the best time ever – and then it chillingly reminds you with its sad coda of the terrible cost of war. But it’s that first hour and half and its celebration of grit, guts, determination and ingenuity that really works – and it’s so entertaining that it solves immediately any mystery as to why any public holiday you’re 10-1 to find this popping up on your afternoon TV listings.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park header
Dinosaurs walk the Earth once more in Spielberg’s classic blockbuster Jurassic Park

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Sam Neill (Dr Alan Grant), Laura Dern (Dr Ellie Satler), Jeff Goldblum (Dr Ian Malcolm), Richard Attenborough (John Hammond), Bob Peck (Robert Muldoon), Joseph Mazzello (Tim Murphy), Ariana Richards (Lex Murphy), Samuel L. Jackson (Ray Arnold), Wayne Knight (Dennis Nedry), Martin Ferrero (Donald Gernaro), BD Wong (Dr Henry Wu)

Can you imagine a more exciting film for a 12-year-old boy, than one with dinosaurs walking the Earth once more? And not the sort of rubbery dinosaurs, that we always knew were really models, in classic films. I was 12 when I first saw this film, and these animals really did look 65 million years in the making: they felt real, with roars that deafened the ears and footfalls that made the cinema shake. Dinosaurs are hugely exciting, awe-inspiring beasts. So much so you can forget many of them were also ruthless killers, with really sharp pointy teeth. It’s that mixture of awe and terror that Steven Spielberg understands so well in this exceptional blockbuster, like he mixed Close Encounters and Jaws together in a lab and then let it run loose.

Boffins have worked out a way to clone dinosaurs from frozen DNA, stuck inside prehistoric mosquitoes. Naturally, what else would you do with this discovery but use it to create the most exciting theme park ever seen. What could possibly go wrong? Avuncular billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has built the park – and he wants scientists and archaeologists Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to give it the thumbs up. Sadly however things are set for disaster during a long, low-staffed weekend when an act of industrial espionage by disgruntled employee Nedry (Wayne Knight) leads to all control over the par being lost and the dinosaurs turning on the guests.

The rights to Chrichton’s novel were sold before the book was published, and it’s classic Chrichton set-up of science trying to play God, and landing us all in a moral quagmire and massacre. But first though, let’s not forget how awe-inspiring dinosaurs actually. It’s a long wait until we see any more detail of one than a fearsome eye. But when we do, Jurassic Park knows that for that brief moment we are all children again. As John Williams’ triumphant theme thunders out, and the characters stagger with breathless, tearful excitement in its wake, a Brachiosaurus towers over the screen. Spielberg’s camera perfectly hammers home the sense of wonder at the size and beauty of this gentle giant. Sure science is arrogant, but then if it wasn’t we’d never reach the stars, right?

Spielberg’s film though isn’t just an awe-inspiring modern-day Planet Earth. Because the makers of this park also created plenty of fierce monsters, from the mighty T-Rex to the scarily smart and vicious velociraptors. And if the first half of the film is about the magic – that imperious brachiosaurus, a sleeping triceratops, a baby velociraptor emerging from its egg – the second half is about the horror of finding out what happens when man’s hubris comes back and (literally) bites him in the ass (and plenty of other places). Because when the Raptors get lose, suddenly this park isn’t magic, but a terrifying death-trap where the guests are the prey to out-of-control exhibits.

The second half of the film – from the moment the T-Rex bursts through its non-functioning electric fence to rip apart two jeeps (and of course eat a lawyer cringing on the toilet) – is a terrifying, giddy, exciting monster-chase, with a director who hasn’t delighted this much in the relentless horror of nature since Jaws. And Spielberg gets to play every game here. Huge dinosaurs stomping on cars. Velociraptors playing ruthless hide-and-seek in isolated power houses. Open spaces becoming terrifying hunting grounds and everyday ones like kitchens become terrible traps. What chance do human beings have when there are “clever girls” like the raptors running around?

Jurassic Park is singularly responsible for elevating the raptor, a previously largely unknown dinosaur, to the front rank of dinosaur fame. There is always a romantic appeal to the T-Rex. It’s the king after all, the biggest and the most famous – and its status in the public perhaps reflects the fact that the film sort of asks us to root for it. After all, it only eats the lawyer. And when the final act comes, it’s the T-Rex’s intervention that saves our heroes bacon. The real monsters are the raptors: supremely clever (they can open doors!), totally ruthless, they hunt in packs, they move super-fast and they look like a disturbing mix between bird, human and lizard. Spielberg makes them one of the most terrifying monsters in film, that more than live up to their extended build-up.

Spielberg directs the entire film with his usual devilish wit and fiendish mastery of the set-piece. The film draws some neat, if simple, story-lines for its human characters. Will Dr Grant overcome his aversion to children? Each of them gets a snippet like this. The actors are often (literally) in the shadow of the dinosaurs, but they are big part of communicating the sense of awe. Neill and Dern go through the motions with a certain charm. Goldblum steals most of his scenes as a rock ‘n’ roll physicist, riffing in the way only he can. Richard Attenborough reinvented himself from a career of creeps to cuddly grandad as a Hammond who shares nothing but his name with the book’s ruthless capitalist.

But the real stars are the dinosaurs. And even almost thirty years on, the special effects are really breath-taking here. These feel like real, living, breathing creatures, and Spielberg knows how to shoot them. Even today it still casts quite a spell. It’s telling that none of the sequels, except Jurassic World (which was made by the people who grew up on this film) gets near to matching the mix of magic and horror that this one hits. Sure, it’s a film so confident of success that it fills one scene with shots of the park merchandise (available in a shop near you now!), but then that’s because it’s got a master at the helm and the greatest attractions in 65 million years.

With its underlying plot of the dangers of mankind’s hubris – plus some rather witty criticism of how a park reliant on wild animals might have struggled to work anyway if the dinosaurs refused to emerge from the shadows of their huge paddocks for the tourists – Jurassic Park gives you something to think about, while still terrifying you with ruthless monsters. It’s a classic.]

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

league of gentlemen
Jack Hawkins plans the perfect crime in The League of Gentlemen

Director: Basil Dearden

Cast: Jack Hawkins (Lt Col Norman Hyde), Nigel Patrick (Major Peter Race), Roger Livesey (Captain “Padre” Mycroft), Richard Attenborough (Lt Edward Lexy), Bryan Forbes (Captain Martin Porthill), Kieron Moore (Captain Stevens), Terence Alexander (Major Rupert Rutland-Smith), Norman Bird (Captain Frank Weaver), Robert Coote (Brigadier “Bunny” Weaver), Nanette Newman (Elizabeth Rutland-Smith)

You throw a gentleman on the scrap heap at your peril. After a lifetime of service, Lt Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) has been made redundant – and, to put it bluntly, he’s pissed off. However, a gentleman doesn’t get mad, he gets even. And what better way to do that than using your army training to mastermind the finest bank heist Britain has ever seen? To pull it off, Hyde recruits a team of similarly disgruntled Army officers (all cashiered from the army for a range of offences, from theft to implied sexual demeanours) all of them highly trained specialists. What could possibly go wrong?

The League of Gentlemen was the first film from a short-lived British production company Allied Films. The company was a partnership between Dearden, Hawkins, Attenborough (who did a lot of the producing) and Forbes (who wrote the film’s witty, playful script). The film is a delight, a wonderfully executed heist movie, told with an archness that turns its criminals into sympathetic rogues. It’s really a sort of dry comedy and gets a lot of fun out of British attitudes at the time.

For starters, who would think that gentlemen like this (war heroes for goodness sake!) would ever be involved in anything so naughty as armed robbery? Especially in a country so deferential that – in a cunning raid to pinch guns from a military base – conman “Padre” (Roger Livesey, riffing delightfully on his Blimpish persona, as a conman with a shady past) simply turns up dressed as a superior officer and is instantly accepted as such. Just to complete the satire of prejudices at the time, the members of the team lifting the guns are ordered to speak with Irish accents as after all “We British never give the Irish the benefit of the doubt”, and even the a whiff of an Irish accent will whack the blame straight onto the IRA.

But this also a film having a bit of fun with demobilised fellows who have never quite found their place in civvie street – and may even miss the glamour and excitement of the war. Most of the team are clearly veterans of WW2, and many of them are struggling with demanding landlords, unfaithful wives or dismally dull jobs. How could they resist saddling up for one more grand adventure? Especially when there is a huge suitcase of money waiting for them at the end of it.

Dearden’s direction is taut, sharp but also gives more than enough room for the character comedy. He stages the heists with a briskness and efficiency that you can imagine Michael Mann being quite pleased with (the gas mask wearing, gun totting soldiers have more than a passing resemblance to the robbers in Heat – enough to make you think Mann may have watched this film somewhere along the line). Dearden’s storytelling is clear, well staged and inventive (the raid on the army base is shown to us without briefing, meaning we work out the plan as it progresses).

He’s helped enormously by Bryan Forbes’ fun and quotable script, that swiftly but skilfully distinguishes the characteristics of each man and their motivations and makes a perfect balance between affectionate comedy and the sharpness of danger (the group make clear they will “do what’s necessary” if pushed, even if they aim is no bloodshed). The film is built around several wonderful set pieces – and has a classic, almost pre-James Bond parody opening as Hawkins emerges from a manhole cover dressed in a dinner suit and climbs into a car.

Hawkins is great here, spoofing the troubled war heroes and authority figures he spent his whole career playing. Here he inverts all this straight-shooting, “Queen and country first” attitude into a man with the outside trappings of decency, but with a bitter heart and cynicism towards the world. He carries most of the film with a deceptive effortlessness, but nails the tone exactly between fun and genuine frustration at the world.

The whole cast follow his lead. Nigel Patrick is very good as a cashiered Major who enjoys mockingly parroting all the eccentric mannerisms of upper-class gentlemen. Livesey enjoys the self-parody almost as much as Hawkins (he spends nearly every seen looking like he’s only a few degrees away from giggling). Attenborough is fun as a chippy junior officer while Terence Alexander is great as a frustrated cuckold lost on civvie street. There isn’t a weak link in the whole cast.

The film is a delight, fun but with more than enough tension. It brilliantly captures a sense of the camaraderie and loyalty between these ex-soldiers, as well as their delight at being used able to use their skills one final time. It’s a film squarely on the side of these criminals thumbing their noses at the system (and who are planning as close as they can get to a victimless crime, albeit at gun point). The film has to give them some sort of comeuppance at the end – but you’ll be sorry to see it, as by then you’ll be invested at pulling off the heist as they are. Well directed, acted and written it’s a perfect entertainment.

Elizabeth (1998)

Joseph Fiennes flirts with a regal Cate Blanchett in this landmark Tudor history flick Elizabeth

Director: Shekhar Kapur
Cast: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth I), Geoffrey Rush (Francis Walsingham), Joseph Fiennes (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester), Richard Attenborough (Lord William Cecil), Christopher Eccleston (Duke of Norfolk), Kathy Burke (Mary I), Fanny Ardant (Mary of Guise), Vincent Cassel (Duke of Anjou), Eric Cantona (French Ambassador de Foix), Emily Mortimer (Kat Ashley), Kelly Macdonald (Isabel Knollys), John Gielgud (Pope Pius V), Daniel Craig (John Ballard), James Frain (Alvaro de la Quadra), Edward Hardwicke (Earl of Arundel), Jamie Foreman (Earl of Sussex), Terence Rigby (Bishop Gardiner)

Not many people would think of Elizabeth as being an influential film. But I would say the roots of all modern costume drama can be found in this British Tudor epic. Classic costume drama before had seen the focus on “thees and thous”, Greensleeves, lovely costumes, well-lit sets and a certain grandeur. Elizabeth re-set the table. Mixing The Godfather with Elizabeth R, Elizabeth turned costume drama into a world of dark schemes, political intrigue, violence and lashings of sex and passion. It would leave prestige Hollywood dramas of the 70s and 80s behind and turn costume drama into something far darker, grittier and sexual than ever before.

The film follows the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett). The queen is young, naïve and passionate. She’s well educated and smart, but still impulsive and too much in thrall to her emotions. She’s far too open about her sex-filled love affair with Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), new-made Earl of Leicester, and too inexperienced to heed the advice of either William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), who is pushing her towards the middle-ground of European alliances, or Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), who argues for Elizabeth to lead a strong nation, willing to take on its enemies. Conspiracies whirl around the court, as disaffected Catholics led by the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) plot to seize the crown and restore the “true religion”.

Elizabeth’s style is triumphant. Many of the scenes take place in dimly lit halls at court, and candlelit private chambers. The palace is seemingly made of nooks and crannies where conspirators and lovers can silently retreat and keep their intentions secret. The music – wonderfully composed by David Hirschfelder – is a mixture of urgent marches and murky sounding chords, which brings a watery effect to the soundtrack, as if every moment could twist into swamp-like traps of treachery. The film is briskly cut, frequently jump-cutting and putting together impressive montages of conspirators or events. 

The film starts with such a montage of protestants being burned: moving swiftly from a death warrant being stamped, to heads being brutally (and bloodily) shaved to an overhead shot of the cart carrying the martyrs to their deaths, culminating in their cries as the fires reach hold and finally overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s a sign straightaway that this will be very different from the traditional taste and decorum of a costume drama – and this film won’t flinch away from the grimness. Shekhar Kapur’s direction throughout is stylish, dynamic and uses editing and cinematic tricks to great effect (if at times with a little too much flash).

And the film is soaking in political intrigue – conspiracies and plots swell and unfold, with the film finally culminating in a clearly Godfather-esque purge of the Queen’s enemies. This is Tudor drama as Mafia flick, the lords of England little better than the heads of the five families, and Elizabeth the young heir they underestimate at their peril. It takes historical action and brings it definitely into a very modern feeling conspiracy thriller, using cinematic tricks and good editing to break away from the more staid period pieces of the 1970s into something much darker and atmospheric.

That also carries across into its exploration of sex, something that has got even more play in costume dramas since. It’s odd to think that the film was quite controversial at the time for showing Elizabeth and Dudley engaged in a passionate sexual affair, or for suggesting that the Queen “became a virgin” as part of piece of political showmanship. The film fronts and centres the young naivety of Elizabeth and her all-consuming fascination with Dudley – well played by Joseph Fiennes as a part romantic dreamer, part tragic weakling – and her slow realisation that there is no place for romance and passion in the world of being a queen.

Because the film is also a coming of age drama: how did Elizabeth become the Greatest Tudor Monarch? Cate Blanchett is inspired casting choice, dominating the film with a multi-faceted performance that sees Elizabeth change from an excited young girl into the distant authoritarian figure. Blanchett gets to play it all here, showing her impressive range, charting this changing personality as not always linear – so a scene of giddy romance can be followed by her sharpness when challenging the lords of England over matters of religion and then back to weakness. While you can argue the film undermines Elizabeth’s intelligence (particularly early on) what it does capture supremely well is her determination and her wilfulness. It also triumphantly turns her into a very human figure, Blanchett brilliantly showing a character forcefully – and consciously – reshaping herself to meet the demands of her office.

Around Blanchett, Kapur assembles possibly one of the most eclectic casts in history. Can you think of another film where you could see John Gielgud one scene and Eric Cantona the next? Richard Attenborough and Angus Deayton side-by-side? Fortunately, the core roles are played by assured and impressive performers. Eccleston makes for a wonderfully imperious, self-important Norfolk. Cassel goes gleefully over-the-top as the camp Anjou. Frain, Craig and others excel in early roles. The pick of the lot is a mesmeric performance by Rush as the sinister but loyal Walsingham, an eminence grise willing to work things in the background Elizabeth wants but cannot ask for, a wartime consigliere, several steps ahead of the rest and whose loyalty to Elizabeth is matched only by his ruthlessness.

Historically the film has only a passing resemblance to reality. Elizabeth’s political astuteness was sharper from the first than the film gives her credit for (although, as its aim is to stress how humanity must be sacrificed for power, there are artistic reasons for this). Bishop Gardiner, leader of the anti-Elizabeth church faction, had died during the reign of Mary I. Cecil is played as an unimaginative old man, when he was in fact in his thirties when Elizabeth came to the throne, and her most trusted and wisest advisor. Numerous events are telescoped and combined – the Ridolfi plot which (roughly) climaxes the film took place 14 years into Elizabeth’s rule, not within at most a year. The film ends with a series of historical captions, not a single one of which is actually true. Michael Hirst’s script plays fast and loose with history (and with the odd dodgy line along the way) but he’s got a flair for bringing out the drama.

But does it matter? After all, who really looks to films for their history lessons? What Elizabeth is trying to do is to turn history into cinema, and this it does to glorious effect. It also managed to change our idea of what a “history film” was. After Elizabeth, history dramas would turn increasingly into darker tales, tinged with sex and conspiracy. But this film remains one of the best, directed with real flair and style by Kapur and powered by a superb performance by Cate Blanchett. Elizabeth gets more or less everything (apart from the facts of course) stylishly right and tells English history with gripping and entertaining intensity.

Gandhi (1982)

Ben Kingsley excels as Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar winning epic

Director: Richard Attenborough

Cast: Ben Kingsley (Mahatma Gandhi), Rohini Hattaggadi (Kasturba Gandhi), Roshan Seth (Jawaharlal Nehru), Pradeep Kumar (VK Krishna Menon), Saeed Jaffrey (Vallabhbhai Patel), Alyque Padamsee (Muhammad Ali Jinnah), Virendra Razdan (Maulana Azad), Candice Bergen (Margaret Bourke-White), Edward Fox (Brigadier General Reginald Dyer), John Gielgud (Lord Irwin), Trevor Howard (Judge Broomfield), John Mills (Lord Chelmsford), Martin Sheen (Vince Walker), Ian Charleson (Reverend Charles Andrews), Arthul Fugard (General Jan Smuts), Geraldine James (Mirabehn), Amrish Puri (Khan), Ian Bannan (Senior Officer Fields), Richard Griffiths (Collins), Nigel Hawthorne (Kinnoch), Michael Hordern (Sir George Hodge), Om Puri (Nahari)

In 1962, Richard Attenborough was approached by Motilal Kothari, an Indian civil servant, who believed Attenborough was the man to bring the life of Mahatma Gandhi to film. All this despite Attenborough having never directed a film. But the life of one of history’s greatest men, and passionate advocate of peace and non-violence, spoke deeply to the socially-engaged Attenborough who dedicated 20 years of his life to bringing the film to the screen, immersing himself in Indian culture along the way and winning the support of Nehru (until his death delayed the project again) and Gandhi’s family. The eventual film was a huge success, cementing the public perception of Gandhi and beautifully capturing both the importance of the story, and its emotional heart.

Opening with Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, the film covers in flashback his life from combatting anti-Indian prejudice in South Africa as a young, British-trained, lawyer to his return to India and long involvement in the campaign to win India its independence from the British Empire, stressing non-co-operation, his eventual success but also his failure to hold the Hindu and Muslim parts of the country together and his attempt as “father of the nation” to put an end to religious violence, a failure that will eventually lead to his assassination. 

Attenborough’s grand, epic film marshals thousands of extras to bring to life pages of history. At times events fly by with speed, but Attenborough never loses sight of the emotional heart of the story – both Gandhi and the status of Indians as not being masters in their own home. Attenborough directs scenes of real power, most strikingly a heart-rending peaceful march on a salt works (the tax on salt use being a major burden on many poor Indians) that culminates in line after line of peaceful Indian protestors walking calmly forward to be beaten down by soldiers. Despite being the grandest and largest of films, it allows questions of pure morality and decency to lie at its heart and, supported by a parade of British acting greats, keeps the Indians at the heart of their own story and the masters of their own destinies.

The film’s impact though may be directly connected to the gloriously transcendent performance of Ben Kingsley in the title role. For years it was believed the film could only work with a British actor in the title role – imagine how it would be received today if Gandhi had been played by (as it nearly was) a browned-up Anthony Hopkins or John Hurt (who famously told Attenborough he looked absurd). Instead half-Indian unknown RSC actor Ben Kingsley took the role. Kingsley so completely and utterly immersed himself in Gandhi – everything, the physicality, the morality, the voice, the intellectualism – that not only has he become so completely associated with the role but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it.

Ageing almost 50 years over the course of the film, Kingsley’s Gandhi is above-all moral, softly-spoken, observant and considerate – the very spirit of the original man seems to be up on the screen. Far from the sort of histrionics you might expect from a subject of an epic movie, Kingsley is not afraid to be quiet, gentle even underplayed. He completely understands that the charisma and power in Gandhi laid in his moral authority, not his speech-making, but his careful example-setting of even-handedness, patience and desire for peace. 

But Kingsley is also willing to show Gandhi as shrewd and stubborn, even while mixing it with both a deep pain at the loss of life. Kingsley is superbly good at the smaller quieter moments – he wrings heart-rending force from the loss of his wife (a similarly impressive and quietly authoritative performance from Rohini Hattaggadi), which partly works because the film quietly centres the truth and faith in their marriage. This is extraordinary work from Ben Kingsley, that seems to carry not just the entire film but the sense of a nation.

Attenborough though was a director who was at his best when working with actors, and his ability to coax truthful and heartfelt moments from quiet scenes are what gives the other sequences the emotional force to make them work. Attenborough seemingly called in every favour to assemble the supporting cast that backs up Kingsley, many of them juggling only a few scenes. Among the stand-outs we have a martially certain Edward Fox as General Dyer, an archly arrogant John Gielgud and a frustrated John Mills as viceroys, Trevor Howard representing decent British rule as an honest Judge and Martin Sheen as a reformist minded journalist. That’s to overlook dozens of others in small roles, all of them clearly committed to the intention of the project.

The film though allows the Indians themselves to take centre stage, even if it is easy to criticise some of the simplifications of many of the issues that would eventually culminate in partition. The film has a clear hostility towards the idea of religion, seeing it as the root of much of the violence that erupted in India in the last years of Gandhi’s life. While Roshan Seth is excellent as Nehru, the character is portrayed more as the faithful follower of Gandhi than the shrewd politician in his own right (it’s a role most of the other leading members of congress are also placed in). Alyque Padamsee carries a high level of charisma as Jinnah, founder of Pakistan – but the film can’t quite resist painting him into the corner as a semi-villain, ignoring Gandhi’s desperation to get Jinnah to invest in a united India.

It’s part of what has been seen since as the film’s more hagiographic stance towards Gandhi. Certainly later historiography has outlined a few shades of grey in Gandhi – although I would argue that seeing him as a man and not a saint only heightens (similar to Mandela) the awe at what he went on to achieve. The film’s whistle stop tour of Indian history – taking in every major event and personality, some in a matter of moments – looks particularly old-fashioned now with our current trend being biographical films that focus only on crucial moments, not the whole life. It adds a slight air of schoolboy history to the project, an unfortunate side-effect of the passionate earnestness with which the story is told.

But then even in 1982 – when it lifted 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor and most of the technicals – it was seen as slightly old-fashioned. Attenborough has generously repeatedly said that he believed Steven Spielberg was more deserving of Best Director for ET. And it’s true that Attenborough was in many ways a producer at heart with these epics than an inspired director like Lean. His marshalling of crowds, finances and simply forcing the will together to make the picture – and to allow it to focus on Indians rather than Westerners – is a tribute to his organisational skills. His strengths as a director were more in performances, and as with many of his epic films the most memorable moments are smaller, intimate ones. The larger moments are shot with an assured professionalism rather than inspiration, but Attenborough understands how to wring emotion from moments and how to let character drive action.

Gandhi works above all because even today you can see it is a passionate labour of love, that everyone involved in clearly believed in passionately. It may well be that at times it is workmanlike or simplistic – and covers the sweep of history with an earnest completeness, even while it is unafraid to be critical certainly of the British – but it still invests it crucial moments with humanity, life and deep emotion. You can’t help but be moved by it – and you are instantly stunned by the sheer brilliance of Kingsley as Gandhi, one of those performances like George C Scott as Patton which seems more like the man than the real thing. Gandhi may be old fashioned, but that’s not a crime when the quality is still there.

Young Winston (1972)

Simon Ward as the Young Winston: episodic but fun look at the early life of the Greatest Briton

Director: Richard Attenborough

Cast: Simon Ward (Winston Churchill), Robert Shaw (Lord Randolph Churchill), Anne Bancroft (Lady Jennie Churchill), John Mills (Lord Kitchener), Jack Hawkins (James Welldon), Ian Holm (George Earle Buckle), Anthony Hopkins (David Lloyd George), Patrick Magee (General Sir Bindon Blood), Edward Woodward (Captain Aylmer Haldane), Pat Heywood (Elizabeth Ann Everest), Laurence Naismith (Lord Salisbury), Basil Dignam (Joseph Chamberlain), Robert Hardy (Headmaster)

Any poll of the Greatest Briton is bound to throw up, near the top, Winston Spencer Churchill. So famous is he, that his surname isn’t even required for Attenborough’s biography of the Great Man – just that name Winston gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get. And you’d be right, because this film gives you a pretty straightforward rundown of Winston Churchill’s early years, in an episodic breakdown that gives us some small insight into what shaped the chap who went on to implore us to “fight them on the beaches”.

Simon Ward is the Young Winston, with Robert Shaw and Anne Bancroft as his parents Lord and Lady Churchill. Lord Randolph is the high-flying MP who throws away his career, catches syphilis, loses his mind and dies aged 37 – all the time disappointed with the son desperate for his approval. Lady Jennie is his loving, supportive but slightly distant mother. Winston himself? A bright lad, but a hopeless academic, struggles at school, needs umpteen attempts to scrap into Sandhurst for a career as a cavalry officer (a dunce’s career in the opinion of Randolph), serves in the Sudan under Kitchener (John Mills) and starts writing books and newspaper articles – because hopeless academic he might be, he’s still gifted with words. A career in Parliament is his dream – helped no end by his escaping captivity during the Boer War, making him a popular hero. 

You can probably tell from that plot summary that this is a somewhat episodic film. Although initially throwing us into a clash in North-West India between the 35th Sikhs regiment and Pashtun rebels – an action during which embedded journalist Churchill wins a mention in dispatches – the film quickly settles into a straight narrative run down of Churchill’s early life, filtered through the great man’s own writings. This makes for an episodic, at times rather dry, box ticking exercise of key moments in his life although it gets enlivened with some decent scenes and some good performances.

The one fact that comes out most strongly from the film is the wretchedly unhappy childhood of Winston himself. A borderline dunce, Churchill is a hopeless student from an early age. His school days are miserable, dispatched to some ghastly boarding school where thrashings from the headmaster (ironically played by later regular – and definitive – Churchill performer Robert Hardy) are handed out as regularly as dollops of gruel. There is a certain emotional impact throughout these scenes, with extensive quotations from the pre-teen Churchill’s letters barely concealing pleas for his parents to visit him (save him) under protestations of his happiness at school.

But this emotional connection doesn’t really last once we get into the adventures of the younger Churchill. This is despite an excellent performance from Simon Ward, who perfectly captures the mood and manner of the more famous older man while splicing in plenty of youthful exuberance and naivete. Ward does a terrific job of holding the film together – so well in fact you are left feeling slightly sorry that he never got a part as good as this ever again. His final speech is a perfect capturing of the speech-making prowess of the young statesman.

The film takes a mixed attitude to Churchill’s parents. It’s very open about the syphilis that afflicted Lord Randolph, and even before that makes clear his career is one governed by rashness and poor judgement. Robert Shaw is excellent as Churchill’s father – a stern taskmaster, constantly disappointed in his dullard, lazy son, but spicing it with enough small moments of affection to make you understand why Churchill worshipped this man whom he surpassed by every measurable factor. Shaw also makes a pre-illness Churchill, sharp, witty and strikingly intelligent: making his later descent into illness and unpredictability all the more affecting. Randolph’s final speech in the House – raddled by syphilis he looks awful and can barely remember his train of thought for longer than a few seconds – is remarkably moving.

The film takes far more of a conventional view of Lady Sarah, presenting her far more as the idealised mother figure she must have been for Churchill. Anne Bancroft is saddled with a rather dull part that never really comes to life, as the more interesting aspects of her colourful life are largely left on the cutting room floor.

Attenborough’s film does try to drill down into the personalities of these three people with a curious device where each character has a scene speaking (direct to the camera) to an unseen journalist asking them questions about themselves and the events around them. This interrogational style looks like a rather dated 1970s innovation today – look how we put the spotlight on these people! – but it does give a chance to see them from another perspective, and give the all-seeing author of the screenplay (Carl Foreman) a chance to ask questions viewers are probably asking. It’s on the nose, but still kind of works, even if the revelations we get barely seem to give us any shocks.

It’s about the only slight moment of invention anyway in a film that is another example of Attenborough’s excellence at marshalling a huge number of actors and locations into something very reassuringly safe and professional that is going to have a long lifespan on Sunday afternoon TV schedules. Young Winston is a decent, enjoyable mini-epic, but it’s not the film for those really wanting to either understand the times or understand the personalities involved.

Shadowlands (1993)

Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins sublime in the moving Shadowlands

Director: Richard Attenborough

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (CS “Jack” Lewis), Debra Winger (Joy Davidman), Edward Hardwicke (Warnie Lewis), Joseph Mazzello (Douglas Gresham), John Woods (Dr Christopher Riley), Michael Denison (Harry Harrington), James Frain (Peter Whistler), Julian Fellowes (Desmond Arding), Peter Firth (Dr Craig), Roger Ashton-Griffiths (Dr Eddie Monk)

“We can’t have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today. That’s the deal”. It’s a sentiment that runs through Shadowlands, a beautifully made, deeply heartfelt, incredibly moving tear-jerker based on the (largely) true story of how the man who invented Narnia, CS Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), fell in love very late in life with an American poet Joy Davidman (Debra Winger) only for her to succumb to cancer early in their marriage.

The story had a been a life-long investment from William Nicholson, who had developed the story first into a radio play, a TV drama (with Joss Ackland and a BAFTA winning Claire Bloom) and then a stage play (which won Nigel Hawthorne several awards in the lead role, including a Tony Award) and finally into this film. A wonderfully tender, profound and genuine exploration of the not only grief but the joy and delight that opening yourself up to love can bring you, Nicholson’s Oscar nominated script was brought to the screen by Richard Attenborough.

Looking back over Attenborough’s CV you immediately notice the vast majority of films he directed were massive, all-star, huge scope epics – A Bridge Too Far, Gandhi – which were as much triumphs of logistics and studio managements as they were displays of directing. Shadowlands is one of the smallest scale, most personal films he ever made – and it’s enough to make you wish that Attenborough had allowed himself to make more intimate chamber pieces like this. It’s a wonderful reminder, not only of how skilled he is at pacing and story-telling, but also what a sublime actor’s director he is. Dealing with material that in lesser hands could have become sentimental, Attenborough turns out a film that is realistic, tender, sad but also laced throughout with a warmth and (figurative and literal) Joy.

And of course the involvement of Attenborough also meant the involvement of his regular collaborator Anthony Hopkins. At the start of the 90s Hopkins was in such a run of form he could plausibly claim to be the best actor in the world. In all of this though, Shadowlands might be one of his finest accomplishments. Superbly detailed, perfectly restrained, gentle, tender, hugely vulnerable and intensily scared (under it all) of connecting with the wider world or allowing himself to feel genuine emotions, Hopkins’ CS Lewis is simply exceptional. With all the discipline of a great actor he never once goes for the easy option, but gently allows emotions to play behind his eyes (the eyes by the way that he can hardly bring himself to settle on other people until half way through the film). And those moments where he weeps – three times in the film, and each increasingly more emotional – are simply beautiful in every way from acting to filming.

Lewis is bashful and repressed, so it’s all the moving to see his face start to relax into excitement and joy when he spots Joy in the audience at a lecture he is giving, or him simply enjoying the intelligence and challenge that she brings to her conversation with him. Debra Winger as Joy Davidman matches Hopkins step-for-step, in a sublime performance of prickily New York attitudes at first out of touch in Oxford, but whose humanity shines through. It takes her time perhaps to feel the love Lewis does (but can’t admit too), but when she does start to feel more for Lewis, she has no patience for his repressed unwillingness to acknowledge them. On top of which, Winger is very funny in the role – she has little truck with the sheltered, clubbish snobbiness of some of Lewis’ friends and takes a wicked delight in shocking the stuffy, unchallenged intellectuals.

The chemistry between these two actors is sublime, and the slightly autumnal relationship between the two of them that builds feels wonderfully genuine. Nicholson’s script makes an astute examination of Lewis’ personality and Christianity. Throughout the film, we are brought back again and again to a lecture Lewis gives – with increasingly less and less disconnection – on why God allows suffering and pain in the world. Pleasingly Lewis’ faith in the film isn’t challenged – only his rather pleased-with-itself lack of doubt and his complacent lack of experience. Experiencing love and loss himself, makes him question the views he has held – and leads him to develop a richer, more genuine understanding of the world.

Which all makes the film sound very heavy, and it’s not. It’s a delightfully light done story that never once leans too hard on the tragedy. Instead it punctures several moments with touches of humour (much of it from Joy’s American clashes with high-table Britishness) and moments of sweet affection. The film gains a lot of balance from Edward Hardwicke’s delightful performance as Lewis’ Dr Watson-ish brother Warnie, a bluff ex-army officer turned academic who reveals himself over the course of a film to have a great deal of hidden love, affection and empathy. It also has a delightful performance from Joseph Mazzello as Douglas Gresham, a child performance that brilliantly avoids all cloying sweetness and feels very real as a shy, nervous boy dealing with his mother dying.

But then, Lewis is also a shy nervous boy (both he and Warnie never really got over the death of their mother as boys – a moment that both wordlessly acknowledge while observing Joy with her son at the hospital), and the film follows him becoming something more than that, a man wh has loved and lost and can deal with it. A neat subplot around James Frain’s difficult working-class student demonstrates his growing ability to relate and empathise with others. A large chunk of the film builds towards Lewis’ tearful outpouring of grief (a scene impossible to watch dry eyed), a reaction that seemed impossible in the opening moments.

But then that’s what the film is saying: We have to accept that the joy of loving people, the wonder and warmth that they bring to our life, will inevitably one day lead to us losing them. Allowing us to experience love and joy is counter balanced by the pain we will feel when they go. It’s a deal – and if it is a deal, it’s the price we pay for having our life enriched. Attenborough’s simply beautiful, romantic film covers all this gently and brilliantly: it’s a film to treasure and hold tight.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

Fury and despair are never far away in brilliant survivalist film The Flight of the Phoenix

Director: Robert Aldrich

Cast: James Stewart (Captain Frank Towns), Richard Attenborough (Lew Moran), Hardy Krüger (Henrich Dorfmann), Peter Finch (Captain Harris), Ernest Borgnine (Trucker Cobb), Ian Bannen (“Ratbags” Crow), Ronald Fraser (Sergeant Watson), Christian Marquand (Dr Renaud), Dan Duryea (Standish), George Kennedy (Mike Bellamy)

Every so often you watch a film and say “where have you been my whole life!”. That’s the case with The Flight of the Phoenix– I can’t even imagine how much I would have loved this film if I had seen it when I was younger. This one has got it all for fans of anything from disaster movies to personality clashes. Aldrich’s film is a Sunday afternoon classic with bite, a brilliantly constructed actors’ piece set in the claustrophobic confines of the only shelter for miles around in the Gobi Desert.

Frank Towns (James Stewart) and Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) are the pilot and navigator on a cargo plane flying to Benghazi, with several passengers. Caught in a sandstorm, the plane crashes in the desert over 100 miles off course. The chances of being located are small and the survivors have only enough water for a little under a fortnight, so long as they avoid exertion. While Towns quietly struggles with the guilt, and different (hopeless) solutions are suggested, German aeronautical engineer Heinrich Dorfman (Hardy Krüger) believes that they can build a new airplane from the wreckage to fly themselves to safety. Towns and Dorfman are incompatible people, leaving Moran to play peacemaker and to support the building of the new aeroplane which may be (as Towns believes) a forlorn hope in any case.

Amazingly the film was a box-office flop on release – but time rewards skill, because you watch the film and marvel at the economy of its storytelling, its expert direction, wonderful acting and fantastically drawn characters. It’s a film of immense tension, with nearly all of this coming from the bubbling potential for deadly clashes between the trapped men. The rest is supplied by the ever-present threat of diminishing resources – none more so than the limited supply of cartridges needed to start the new plane’s engine (they’ve got seven and, best case, need at least five). 

It’s this grim awareness of the knife-edge everyone is living on that powers the film. Every single resource is precious, and the pressure and fatigue show in every scene. As the film progresses, each of the men slowly disintegrates, growing increasingly scruffy, unshaven, dry skinned and weak and more and more susceptible to anger. Aldrich charts all this with professional excellence, the editing skilfully cutting away at several points to reaction shots from the actors as feuds come to a head, helped by some gloriously subtle and intelligent acting. 

And it’s not surprising really – few films capture the grim pressure of the desert better than this. Sand dries out skin and throats, reflecting the beating heat of the sun everywhere. The clear sky and burning sun turn every surface into smouldering heat – even the shade offers little respite. The viewer is left with no doubt about the insanity of spending time out of the shade in these conditions. You know immediately Captain Harris’ plan to walk 500 miles over the desert with a single canteen of water is absurd (it doesn’t end well of course). It’s a beautifully shot film that makes the mystical glamour of the desert beautiful and terrifying.

One of the things I like best about the film is that it is almost impossible to predict who will come out alive and who won’t. Unlike most Hollywood films, characters are not punished for deviating from goodness and purity – some of the most noble characters don’t come out alive, while some of the most self-serving, selfish and cowardly ones do. Even the central heroes are flawed: Towns is struggling with depression and a near crippling guilt that almost leave him fatalistically accepting death; Moran is a drunk possibly to blame for the whole disaster; Dorfman is arrogant, difficult, prickly and in many ways flat out unlikeable. 

Ah yes, Dorfmann. What a superb performance from Krüger (the first actor cast). In a masterstroke of invention, the character was changed from British (in the novel) to German. This opens up a whole world of additional prejudice between Dorfmann and the other passengers. “What did you do during the war?” antagonistic joker Ratbags asks Dorfman pointedly. It’s a tension that underlies most of the clashes. Dorfmann doesn’t help with his almost complete lack of awareness of social etiquette and his Germanic insistence on probabilities of survival: he sees no problem with treating the rest of the survivors like staff, openly debates the wisdom of helping the critically wounded, refuses to explain his thinking until absolutely pressed and has no empathy for their flagging strength and morale. But he also has a strange naivety which plays into a late plot reveal hinging on Dorfmann’s inability to read the reactions of the people sitting next to him. The film and Krüger flirt brilliantly with Germanic stereotypes – is there a more “German” character in film than Dorfmann? He’s about as far from a white knight as you can get.

But then so is James Stewart’s Towns. One of the things I like most about the film is the difficult psychology of survival. Towns is clearly struck with a barely understood guilt about the people killed in the crash, and seems ready to fatalistically accept death. His clash with Dorfmann is powered by numerous factors, not least a sense Towns has of his generation being replaced by a younger, technically minded one and a sense of losing control of his destiny. Nevertheless, Towns almost fanatically opposes the project at one point – and basically only accepts it when Moran and Dr Renard (an immensely noble Christian Marquand) tell him it’s better to have a chance of something to live for than to sit around dying. Stewart brilliantly taps into the ambiguity in his screen persona – a decency beneath the surface, but also a psychological weakness, a need for control under the nice-guy persona, a man struggling to accept he is out of his depth. It’s a brilliantly low-key psychological performance of a man struggling to button up guilt, pressure and unease.

The whole cast is superb. Attenborough plays the closest to type as a loyal number 2, but even he is clearly struggling to hold acres of despair while constantly playing peace-maker. Ronald Fraser is exceptional as a career army sergeant tottering on the edge of open-rebellion throughout the film, who betrays his commander’s trust no less than three times and is the most unknown wildcard in the pack. Ian Bannen was Oscar-nominated for his electric performance as a bitter, sarcastic Scots oil-worker who surprises everyone with his hard work while never letting up for a moment his bitter commentary on events. Peter Finch gives an excellent, ram-rod straight, almost naively decent stiff-upper lip performance as Captain Harris, a man a few degrees away from a noble idiot. Ernest Borgnine is touching as an oil foreman suffering from exhaustion and stress.

All this comes together in a superior package of film making, expertly made and superbly directed, with the actors embracing their well-developed characters with glee, making this in many ways part disaster movie, part chamber piece play. I love the little surprises it throws at you – just as you think you know a character there is a moment that surprises you or makes you reassess them. The tensions and dangers of survival in extreme conditions are brilliantly captured. There isn’t a weak moment in the film, and plot twists and surprises throw curveballs at the audience, some of which bring terrifying consequences. For any lovers of survival stories, acting or tense movies this is an absolute must.