J Lee Thompson


Suggested Films:


Yield to the night (1956)
Ice cold in Alex (1958)
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Cape Fear (1962)

With a forty year history of filmmaking behind him, British born director J. Lee Thompson has had one of the most diverse and successful careers in Hollywood. Thompson directed movies that have long become such classics, such as ‘Cape Fear’ and ‘The Guns of Navarone’.

J.L. Thompson was born in 1914 in Bristol and started out as a playwright who produced his own plays. When the war came he joined the RAF and he initially served as a tailgunner and then later as a wireless operator. At the end of the war he returned to Elstree as a scriptwriter and in 1950 was given the opportunity to direct his first film, Murder Without Crime (1950) a movie based on his own play.

During the early 1950’s he directed a number of films including ‘The weak and the wicked’ (1953) which took an interesting look at life in a woman’s prison. 'Woman in a Dressing Gown' (1957) was also impressive as a domestic drama that treats with equal sympathy, the harassed, no longer glamorous housewife, the adulterous husband, and the young woman who seems to offer an attractive alternative. All this in an era when divorce required a guilty party.

After a remake of The Good Companions (1957) Thompson made ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ (1958), a war movie which portrayed the very best characteristics of human nature. Four people trek over the Libyan desert in a Landrover. Beautifully shot and moved along with pace - it is truly a superb film.

A few years later Thompson put together an all star cast for ‘The Guns Of Navarone’ (1961) including Peck, Niven, Quayle, Quinn, Baker, and a very young Richard Harris. It was not greeted with wild enthusiasm at the time –

‘the film got some serious criticism mostly because of the way we portrayed the Germans’,

Thompson recalls.

‘At that time, it was still felt that all the Germans should be considered very, very evil and some critics resented the fact that the heroes of Navarone showed sympathy for some of them – although we gave the SS a hard time’.

The film was a massive box office success and confirmed that Thompson had indeed reached the big time.

Moving to Hollywood, Lee Thompson directed a string of successful films, beginning with the chilling Cape Fear (1962). Still a highly effective and spine chilling movie it featured Gregory Peck as the affable easy going father and Robert Mitchum as the psychopath. It opens up a raft of questions about life, liberty and the American way and was revolutionary for its time.

As the sixties and seventies wore on the number of notable films Thompson was working on began to diminish. He worked with Charles Bronson on a number of projects including ‘10 to midnight’ (1983) and ‘The evil that men can do’ (1984).

It is his films of the 1950’s and early 60’s which reflect the more personal side of J Lee Thompson, but they also reflect the more serious nature of post-war Britain, when filmmakers were part of a wider sense of idealism and there was a pervading belief that films could change society. His versatility gave rise to criticism, yet he was remarkably consistent in the way he made his films and the preoccupations these encompassed.

While Lee Thompson's early films confronted social issues, his films are not political in the sense that they espouse a particular set of political principles. The Second World War taught him the importance of mutual responsibility within society and offered an object lesson in the consequences of prejudice and intolerance. But his own experience of an insecure way of life made him sensitive to life's complexities. His films sometimes argue the case for those whom society disapproves of or fails, such as the mistreated and misunderstood women and children of his '50s films.

Lee Thompson shows the world as a complex place, where people are often confronted with difficult choices and the innocent get hurt. While acknowledging the existence of evil, he shows people as misguided and subject to temptation rather than intrinsically evil. Often his characters have to choose between doing what the law requires and what they feel is right. Lee Thompson empowers his protagonists, and by extension the audience, to make their own decisions according to their conscience, not according to the values of society.

J Lee Thompson died in Sooke, British Columbia, Canada on 30 August 2002.














Guy Hamilton, british film, british director, british movie