The Movie Men

In 1970 David Wickes directed THE MOVIE MEN, a 6 part documentary series for Thames Television focusing on the directing styles of the era’s outstanding film directors. These iconic directors were:

JOHN HUSTON (1906-1987) Movies include: The Maltese Falcon(1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) The Asphalt Jungle(1950), The African Queen (1951), The Misfits (1961)

SIR DAVID LEAN (1908-1991) Movies include: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970), A Passage to India (1984)

JOSEPH LOSEY (1909-1984) Movies include: The Servant (1963),Accident (1967), The Go-Between (1970)

JOHN SCHLESINGER (1926-2003) Movies include: Darling (1965), Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Marathon Man (1976)

RICHARD LESTER (b 1932) Movies include: A Hard Day’s Night (1964),Help (1965), The Three Muskateers (1973)

BRYAN FORBES (b1926) Movies include: Whistle Down the Wind(1961), The Stepford Wives (1975), International Velvet (1978)

Fronting the documentary was the charismatic film critic of the London Evening Standard, Alexander Walker. With his love of film and unparalleled knowledge of his subject, Walker’s sharp critiques meant that he wasn’t always in favour with filmmakers. This resulted in David Wickes conducting three of the interviews (LEAN, HUSTON & SCHLESINGER) as well as directing the documentary series as a whole.

Equipped with an Auricon camera and a Thames TV van, Wickes and Walker set off on a road trip to interview their subjects on location, at studios or at their homes.

DAVID LEAN was an influential and cinematic hero of David Wickes’ so it was a privilege to be invited to interview him on the set of Ryan’s Daughter in Ireland. Lean was a fascinating subject himself, gentlemanly and always seeking perfection. When Wickes arrived on the sprawling set, he was directed up a hill where Lean was found, gazing out over the Dingle Peninsula working out his next shot, having noticed that at a certain time during sunset, a rock in the sea turned an agreeable shade of mauve. Lean wished to capture that. And it was from this vantage point that the interview took place. The film was already putting MGM under financial pressure for going over schedule and over budget. An entire village had been constructed on location at a boggling £1million and Lean’s perfectionism, ‘difficult’ actors and the bad weather caused long delays. So wet was Ireland that Lean had to go in search of dryer weather, shooting many beach scenes in Cape Town.

When Wickes interviewed John Mills (whom he later cast in his own TV movie Frankenstein for TNT), Mills told Wickes that he had just celebrated his third birthday on the movie. The first was when he was cast, the second at the beginning of principal photography and the third had just passed and they were still filming.

Interviewing Robert Mitchum wasn’t easy. One had to catch him ‘coming out’ (of a drinking session), not ‘going in’. Walker and Wickes caught him ‘going in’. His answers to Walker’s erudite, polite questions were minimal so Mitchum was merely peppered throughout the final cut. He had at his side a hugely muscled, tattooed ex-Marine. Apparently, because Mitchum had played so many hard men, drunken eejits would square up to him for a fight. The Marine was the antidote.

Wickes also interviewed Robert Bolt (1924-1995), the legendary screenwriter who had collaborated with Lean on Lawrence of Arabia and later Doctor Zhivago, and Sarah Miles, the eponymous Ryan’s Daughter, who was twice married to Robert Bolt.

When the time came to cut the documentary, David Lean was hard to get hold of as he had no permanent address. This was fine when he was on location but not so easy between productions. He stayed in the best hotels and kept his clothes in the boot of his Roll-er. His words to Wickes when he saw the final cut version of his interview were, “Thank you. Very sympatico.”

Alexander Walker’s interviews with JOSEPH LOSEY focused on his collaboration with Harold Pinter and his own earlier career as a theatre director. The period Losey spent studying under Bertolt Brecht hugely influenced his filmic style of expressionism and naturalism. Losey was genuinely blacklisted by Hollywood in the McCarthy Era – a claim made by many as an excuse to get out of Dodge and set up somewhere where they might be more appreciated. The interviews took place in Losey’s apartment on Royal Avenue, Chelsea. One day Losey asked David Wickes how his own movie was going as he was about to direct a film for EMI. Wickes said, “It’s been cancelled” (there had been a change of executives at EMI and all up-coming projects were swept off the slate). This was shattering as his film was about to start shooting the following week. Losey replied, “That’s terrible. Come and share mine.” Followed by, “Do you know Julie?” The film he was offering to ‘share’ was The Go-Between (Julie Christie and Alan Bates). Wickes did indeed know Julie Christie, having interviewed her in her dressing gown at home in Chelsea regarding not only her work with John Schlesinger during the making of Darling and Far from the Madding Crowd but also with David Lean in Dr. Zhivago. The following week, suddenly having time on his hands, Wickes went to Melton Constable in Norfolk, where The Go-Between was being shot and stayed in a pub for four days. When Wickes came to pay the bill he was told it had already been paid. Losey had kindly remembered to tell the production office to make sure this was take care of. Amazed at the director’s thoughtfulness DW got into his Morgan and drove back to London.

Wickes learned a lot about directing actors from watching Losey on The Go-Between. Following rehearsals during the scene in which Julie Christie bathes the boy’s injured knee, Wickes watches takes #1 and #2. Something’s not right, so there’s a quiet discussion between Losey and Christie. They go for take #3. Christie looks up at Losey and says “Oops”. Losey just stares at her intensely. No words. They shoot take #4 and Christie gets it right. Such was Losey’s control over his actors.

When David Wickes interviewed JOHN SCHLESINGER he had recently made the ultimate Swinging 60s London movie Darling written by Frederic Raphael starring Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde. Schlesinger followed Darling with an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd also starring Julie Christie, with Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Peter Finch. But perhaps Schlesinger’s most iconic movie of the era was Midnight Cowboy starring John Voigt and Dustin Hoffman. It was shortly after the release of this film that David Wickes interviewed Schlesinger in his Kensington home.

It was two decades later when David bumped into John Schlesinger in South Kensington and offered him an episode or two of The New Professionals. Failing health and other commitments prevented what would have been a directorial coup for the series.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring and idiosyncratic of the directors interviewed for THE MOVIE MEN was JOHN HUSTON. David Wickes interviewed Huston at his home in County Galway. Huston had adopted Ireland as his home in response to the HUAC ‘witch hunt’ targeting his Hollywood peers. Huston’s life at St. Clerans, a porticoed Georgian mansion, offered a very different existence from the turmoil of a movie set. Here Huston kept racehorses in his extensive stables and was Master of Foxhounds of the local hunt, the Galway Blazers. Wickes’ interviews with Huston mostly took place around his horses, but come dinner time, Wickes would be a guest at St. Clerans, with Huston holding court with guests such as Paul McCartney, Edna O’Brien and other artists. Dressed as ever in a safari jacket, Huston presided over his dinner table – oysters and Guinness – like a Bond villain. He didn’t stroke a cat, but had a button under the table to summon butlers – or to open the floor to the shark pool below. Maybe. When not dining at home, Huston and his guests would be at a lock-in at the local pub for more oysters and a lot more Guinness. The local Garda turned a blind eye, and usually joined in. One night Huston, who had spent time as a portrait artist in Paris, sketched a picture of Wickes but sadly it has been lost.

When editing the documentary, there’s a moment before a cut to footage from The African Queen of Huston laughing on screen and Wickes dubs the whinny of a horse over the laugh. The editor was worried but Wickes risked it and left it in the final edit. Huston loved it. Indeed, he continued to invite and pay for Wickes to visit St. Clerans following the documentary.

We’ve tried and failed to unearth any surviving footage of what must have been a unique and rich documentary and since the passing of Alex Walker in 2007, David Wickes, Richard Lester and Bryan Forbes are the last surviving members of The Movie Men documentary dramatis personae. (See Derek Malcolm’s obituary of Alexander Walker in The Guardian