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