John Guillermin: Action Man

November 17, 2020
Stephen Vagg looks at the career of one of his favourite action directors, John Guillermin.

In my younger film buff days, I used to regularly get John Guillermin mixed up with J. Lee Thompson. Both were directors, both started off in British B-pictures then moved to “A”s then made the jump across the Atlantic in the ‘60s, both were best known for action films, both critically dismissed (on the whole), both associated with some legendary stinkers and timeless classics. I’ve previously written about Thompson (in particular his collaboration with Joan Henry), so I thought I would shine a light on the oeuvre of Mr Guillermin.

He was actually French, or as he described it, “a bloody Frog”. His parents were French, living in England (dad worked in the perfume industry!) when John was born in 1925 under the name “Yvon Jean”. Guillermin grew up in Surrey, attending the City of London then the University of Cambridge. He served in the RAF during the war, demobilising when he was 22, then moved to France briefly, where he worked in documentaries.

In the late 1940s, Guillermin returned to England where he teamed up with another young filmmaker, Robert Jordan Hill, who was making movies for a small company called Adelphi Films. These were boom times for the then-quota-protected British picture industry and a quick way to break in was to turn out short features at a cheap price. That’s what Guillermin and Jordan did: little-remembered titles like Bless Em All (1948) with Max Bygraves, Melody in the Dark (1949), and High Jinks in Society (1949). Guillermin helped write and produce these; incidentally, they were musicals and comedies, completely different to the material which would make his reputation. Guillermin’s first solo credit as a director, however, was more prophetic: Torment (1950), a thriller starring Dermot Walsh, that Guillermin also wrote.

He was hired to direct three movies back-to-back for a low-budget outfit, Vandyke Productions, who also released through Adelphi. The pictures were Smart Alec (1951), Four Days (1951) and Two on the Tiles (1951), and they’re the ones that really established the Guillermin style.

Smart Alec (1951) was based on a script and play (Mr Smart Guy) by Australia’s own Alec Coppel (the play’s world premiere had been in Sydney, where Coppel spent World War Two). It starred Peter Reynolds as a cad who tries to pull off the perfect murder by using a bullet made of ice. The film is only 55 minutes and is a little silly, but races along. Guillermin does an outstanding job as director, keeping things pacy and brisk; actors are always moving around, the low budget is covered by keeping the action in a few rooms or doing it via close ups (eg  the trial sequence) and there’s a neat final shot with a camera on a car (or something pulling away).

Reynolds was also in Four Days (1951), a terrific thriller about an adulterous couple who decide to bump off the woman’s husband, but things go haywire. It’s short, taut and lots of fun; Guillermin’s direction is energetic, and there are excellent performances from Kathleen Byron and Reynolds (who later emigrated to Australia and died in a fire).

Two on the Tiles (1951) was from another script by Coppel; this was a comedy of “wry humour and sexy angles”, starring Herbert Lom.

Guillermin went on to make two more films for Vandyke: Song of Paris (1952), a musical comedy set in France starring Dennis Price, and Strange Stories (1953), which he co-directed with Don Chaffey.

He then received an offer to direct a project for the short-lived production company, Group 3 Films, established by the NFFC to develop new talent. The movie was Miss Robin Hood (1952), a comedy starring Margaret Rutherford. Are there any decent Group 3 pictures? I’m sure there’s some. This was hard going, for me at any rate. It has a decent enough central idea – Margaret Rutherford running an orphanage engaged in crime – but it doesn’t have enough faith in the idea, so all this other extraneous stuff is added. I found it annoying – but it was Guillermin’s first film to receive decent distribution in America. You might have a less critical opinion; the full movie is here.

Guillermin directed episodes of the TV series Your Favorite Story (1953), then went to work for another low-budget outfit, Nettleford, helming the thriller Operation Diplomat (1953). This stars Guy Rolfe as a chain-smoking doctor forced at gunpoint to operate on a mysterious foreign figure (the same plot as two 1950 films, Crisis and State Secret). The suspense doesn’t really build, but it’s crisply done and has plenty of story for its 70 minutes; it’s definitely got much more pep than many British “A”s around this time. Film Comment, in a profile of Guillermin, argued that the film was “so tautly directed that every image counts, every detail matters, every actor’s movement feels perfectly timed-a true gem.”

Vandyke hired Guillermin to direct a film for the Children’s Film Foundation, Adventure in the Hopfields (1954). It starred Mandy Miller, who had leapt to (short-lived, as it turned out) fame in Mandy (1952). Hopfields is a decent, brisk, efficient movie, with Miller very good as a girl who smashes her mother’s china, then goes picking to pay for it. No one seems to bat an eye as she gets on a train and then goes to work – what was the labor market like in 1954 England?

By this stage, Guillermin appears to have established himself as one of the leading directors of “B” pictures in Britain. As an indication of that reputation, Adelphi hired him to make their attempt to break into the “A” league, The Crowded Day (1954). This starred two quasi-stars under contract to Rank, John Gregson and Joan Rice, and is a decent “three girls” movie set in a department store. Empathetically written by Talbot Rothwell, it juggles a number of plots with skill, one of the storylines in particular being particularly dark: Josephine Griffin plays a single girl who gets pregnant, is called a slut, and is almost raped; when her boss discovers she’s in the family way, he tells her that she’ll have to go away and gives her a home where she can have the baby and says she can have her job back after she’s given up her child for adoption. Full on!

The film was (undeservedly) not the success Adelphi hoped, and the company would soon wind up. Television was eating into the market for “B” pictures, so Guillermin directed episodes of two ITV series aimed at the American market, The Adventures of Aggie and Sailor of Fortune.

Guillermin returned to features when producer Maxwell Setton (a figure with a strong list of credits who should be better known) hired him to make a film in Spain, Thunderstorm (1956) with Linda Christian.

Setton liked the job Guillermin did and used him again on Town on Trial (1957), starring John Mills as a detective investigating a small-town murder. This is a little gem, a good, tough British crime film with no cosiness, a lot of pace, plenty of flourishes and energy in the direction.

According to the BFI “Detractors have too often accused Guillermin of being merely a journeyman, lacking any real style of his own. The defence would do worse than to offer Town on Trial as its Exhibit A, drawing particular attention to its breathtaking PoV shot of the killer stalking a second victim that anticipates the camera gymnastics of Dario Argento.” Maureen Connell had a small role; she would soon marry Guillermin.

Town on Trial was financed by Columbia, who also made Guillermin’s next movie (in association with Romulus, the company run by the legendary Woolf brothers). This was The Whole Truth (1958), a thriller produced by Jack Clayton starring Stewart Granger and George Sanders. Many critics said that this was similar to Dial M for Murder and I can see why – it was based on a TV play which became a stage play, and has a few twists and turns. It’s not as skilled, though Guillermin does a good job and it has a brilliant first half; there’s also strong performances from the stars, including Granger as a more neurotic type character than he normally played.

Guillermin was reunited with producer Maxwell Setton in I Was Monty’s Double (1958), based on a real wartime story when a low ranking Australian-born soldier M. E. Clifton James impersonated General Montgomery. Both Clifton-James and Montgomery were alive when the film was made, meaning the filmmakers’ hands were tied with what they could show but what they came up with was splendidly entertaining. The script was written by thespian-turned-scribe Bryan Forbes, and there’s some lovely “actor” character stuff in the film, eg. James thinking he’s being hired for a film role and bringing along a scrapbook of his reviews, James having last-minute nerves, James getting up on stage and worrying about blowing it. There’s an exciting fictitious third act where James (who plays himself, incidentally) is kidnapped; this is extremely well handled by Guillermin, who was now established as one of the most exciting action/thriller directors in Britain.

He was hired by producer Sy Weintraub, who had just bought the film rights to Tarzan, and wanted to reinvigorate what had become a very tired franchise (there had been a Tarzan movie at least every second year since 1932). Guillermin rewrote the script and directed; Tarzan was given dialogue, a greater sex drive, and an excellent array of villains to combat (including Anthony Quayle and Sean Connery), and the story was filmed on location in Africa. The result was Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959), a masterpiece in the series, the best Tarzan film since Tarzan and his Mate (1934), and perhaps the most remarkable “turnaround of a franchise” in Hollywood history. Trust me on that one – I once saw the whole series in chronological order and the leap in quality after what had been over a decade of steady decline is remarkable.

MGM hired Guillermin to direct a period heist movie, The Day they Robbed the Bank of England (1960) starring Aldo Ray who helps the IRA commit the crime of the title in the year 1900. There’s two spectacular performances: one from Albert Sharpe as a tunnel digger and the other from Peter O’Toole, full of youth and life as an  idiotic upper class twit who gives Ray all this inside information, then begins to twig that he’s accidentally assisted a crime. The period detail is a joy.

Guillermin followed it with another thriller, this one contemporary, for Independent Artists, a British company: Never Let Go (1960), starring Richard Todd and Peter Sellers, the latter in a rare dramatic part. The movie wasn’t a hit, but time has been very kind, in part because we know now that Peter Sellers would not make many more dramatic performances. It’s a gripping crime tale, with modest ambitions but made with terrific pace by Guillermin. Sellers gets the most attention, and he is a terrifying, shouty villain, smacking around Adam Faith and Sellers’ mistress Carol White. However, Todd is excellent too as a weakened, battered-down man, a cosmetics salesman facing the sack, whose car is stolen by car thieves led by Sellers. It turns out Todd has a tradition of quitting, but in this one he’s determined to guts it out. It’s a brave performance by Todd, who plays a weak and hopeless person, although by the end, he becomes a man by beating up Sellers.

Sy Weintraub used Guillermin again on Tarzan Goes to India (1962), shot on location (guess where) with a new Tarzan (Jock Mahoney). It has two interesting concepts, neither really developed – Tarzan as a stranger in a strange land, and Tarzan is played by someone over 40. However, the action is excellent, the visuals spectacular and Mahoney ideal in the lead.

Guillermin was reunited with Peter Sellers and Independent Artists in Waltz of the Toreadors (1962), based on a Jean Anouilh comic play about an adulterous army officer. Guillermin complained that producers cut up the film, damaging its quality. Nonetheless, it was a hit at the British box office. Did people really care about adulterous army officers? Or was it Sellers? I found this a struggle to sit through. Maybe you had to be there. Sellers is always worth watching but I don’t think comedy was Guillermin’s strong suit.

Sellers had an unexpected impact on Guillermin’s next movie, Guns at Batasi (1964), an adventure-drama set in the last days of British rule of an unnamed African country. Sellers’ then-wife Britt Ekland was meant to play the ingenue, but her husband objected, so she pulled out of the film; Mia Farrow took over instead, launching that actor’s career.

The story concerns a British military outpost caught up in a coup. Richard Attenborough gives a career-highlight performance as  the martinet RSM in charge, who is initially depicted as a figure of fun, obsessed with regulations and the army, but when the pressure is on, is the only one who really seems to know what to do. A subject like this is a political minefield, with its hot topic subjects of imperialism, militarism, race, emerging democracies, etc. It works best as a siege story, on which basis it is very exciting. The cast includes Australia’s own John Meillon as a sergeant (called “Aussie”), singer Joe Leyton and a just-before-his-throat-operation-that-ripped-out-his-cancerous-vocal-chords Jack Hawkins.

The film was released by 20th Century Fox, whose head of production Darryl F. Zanuck admired Guillermin’s work and hired the director to make Rapture (1965). This little-remembered picture was shot in France (Zanuck was a Francophile) and starred Patricia Gozzi (who had become famous in Sundays and Cybele), Dean Stockwell and Melvyn Douglas. It’s an odd film and head scratching why Fox made it. I know Zanuck was on a French kick but still… Maybe he liked the idea of Patricia Gozzi having a crush on runaway crook Dean Stockwell. I think Gozzi was 14 when she made this and she gets into bed with Stockwell for the third act, which is awkward. Guillermin’s directing is atmospheric; the film didn’t work for me but has its fans, including Guillermin himself (according to his widow this was his own favourite of his movies.)

That film was barely seen, but Guillermin’s next movie, also for Fox, was a huge success: The Blue Max (1966). This was a World War One aerial epic, shot in Ireland, starring George Peppard, Ursula Andress and James Mason. It feels like a sports movie at heart told from the point of view of a “team” of German pilots – cocky kid George Peppard wants to be the champ, and doesn’t care about anything else really. The film is on Peppard’s shoulders and he carries it – he was ideal in these big movies, as he proved in The Carpetbaggers (1964), especially if he played a bastard. The running time is dragged out rather mercilessly (James Mason doesn’t appear until 40 minutes in and there’s too little of him); it would have made a fantastic 90 minute movie. The scenes between Andress and Peppard are electric.

The prickly Peppard enjoyed working with Guillermin and the two men made their next two films together, both for Universal: the detective story PJ (1968) and thriller House of Cards (1968). PJ, Guillermin’s first film shot in the US, seems to have been made with one eye on being a new Harper (1966) – only it doesn’t have Ross MacDonald, William Goldman, an all star cast or Paul Newman. It does have Raymond Burr in while hair who is great fun, as is Brock Peters as a Bermudan cop and Gayle Hunnicut as the girl. George Peppard is an ideal private eye but the film seems unsure how tough or comic to make his character – one minute he’s a clown, the next a smart arse, the next a tough guy, the next someone who gets beaten up by patrons of a leather bar. The movie doesn’t feel like a Guillermin work – such was the smothering blandness of films made at Universal in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

Guillermin returned to war with The Bridge at Remagen (1969), a World War Two story shot in Czechoslovakia until the Soviets invaded, after which it had to be completed in Germany and Italy. It’s tough and fast and looks great. I loved the opening scene with tanks hurtling down the road (you rarely see them going fast in a film – because it’s not historically true admittedly but it looks awesome) – and Robert Vaughan has a brilliant death sequence. Ben Gazzara and George Segal are excellent as soldiers.

Guillermin went to Spain to make a Western for National General, El Condor (1970), starring Lee Van Cleef and Jim Brown. The film was written by Larry Cohen, who later said Guillermin had a fistfight with producer Andre de Toth during filming. Ah, the good old days…

MGM offered Guillermin the job of directing Skyjacked (1972), a thriller with Charlton Heston. This is a solid piece of classical entertainment which is one of the best movies made at MGM under the regime of James Aubrey. It is hard, after Flying High (1980), to take the disaster film tropes seriously but it’s all good drama: the passengers include a heavily pregnant woman, a stewardess who used to date Heston, a black singer, a nubile young starlet. I loved the third act of the plane arriving in Russia and Charlton Heston was born to play a pilot.

Guillermin stayed at MGM to make Shaft in Africa (1973), the third in the Shaft series and an attempt to reinvent the character as a sort of James Bond figure. It has location filming in Ethiopia which looks amazing, but the picture was a box office disappointment.

Guillermin then received an offer from producer Irwin Allen to direct The Towering Inferno (1974), an all-star disaster movie. For me, this is one of the most purely entertaining films of the 1970s. It has so much going for it: an exciting storyline, a skilled script by Sterling Silliphant that juggles a lot of balls in the air, confident handling from Guillermin, decent stunts and effects, and a genuinely starry cast: some B-listers, sure (Robert Vaughan, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Blakely, Robert Wagner), and camp casting (OJ Simpson) but two genuine former A-listers (Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones), one on the slide (Bill Holden) and three at the top of their game (Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway). It’s just brilliant fun and the film made a deserved pile of money.  Vincent Canby of the New York Times said, snottily, “John Guillermin directed the film, but it’s difficult to know exactly what he might have done aside from suggesting a few line readings. Movies like The Towering Inferno appear to have been less directed than physically constructed.”

This sort of ignorance was awe-inspiring from a reviewer in a major paper: films like The Towering Inferno are extremely difficult to execute well. As if to prove it, Irwin Allen’s three subsequent movies, all made without Guillermin, were dire flops: The Swarm (1978), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and, When Time Ran Out (1980).

Guillermin’s next movie was for another high-profile producer, in this case Dino de Laurentiis on King Kong (1976). Few movies of the 1970s were more publicised or critically divisive. I think it’s a fabulous film, a genuinely fresh interpretation of a classic. The sense of adventure is high; Charles Grodin is fun as the oil exec; Jessica Lange is beautiful and Jeff Bridges is handsome; John Barry’s score is lush; the animal suit antics are fine; the ending is moving (Guillermin never lets the spectacle overwhelm the love story). I missed dinosaur island but at least there is a killer boa. I think people will remember this fondly a lot longer than Peter Jackson’s version which seems to have vanished in collective memory.

In 1976, Guillermin said his fee for directing was one million dollars plus 10% of the profits. “I’ve outlived most of my contemporaries who are either destitute or gone on to other things,” he said. “I may have been anonymous but I’ve been working with quiet satisfaction and I’ve made a lot of money.”

Guillermin did a third blockbuster in a row, Death on the Nile (1978) for EMI Films, shot in Egypt. This is delightfully civilised entertainment – it’s got a strong story (thanks to Agatha Christie); a cast of familiar faces; some broad comedy courtesy of Bette Davis and Maggie Smith’s hilarious double act (I wish they’d be given their own vehicle) and Angela Lansbury; sex appeal via Lois Chiles and some very low cut gowns; location shooting in Egypt; David Niven as his exposition man; Mia Farrow being a crazy nutter very convincingly. The unravelling of the murderer is very satisfactory, and the dialogue is witty.

After an extremely strong 1970s, including three big hits, one would have assumed Guillermin would have had his choice of projects by the end of the decade. And his name was linked with some choice assignments: an adaptation of James Clavell’s Tai Pan, and a proposed Godfather III. But Guillermin’s next movie was Mr. Patman (1980), a psychological thriller/character study shot in Canada. This was part of that country’s tax-break-driven film boom which consisted of projects featuring ageing stars that couldn’t find finance in Hollywood. It’s a really terrible movie, dull and lacking in atmosphere, the first bad picture Guillermin made in over a decade.

I get that all careers have their ups and downs, but to go from three massive films to a Canadian tax shelter movie indicates that perhaps something else was going on. Guillermin had a notoriously bad temper; most anecdotes about him involve him yelling at someone, cast, crew and/or producers. People will put up with this sort of behaviour to a point; Guillermin clearly had talent, and his methods brought results. But if he went around yelling at people all the time then it’s not unreasonable, I feel, to surmise that possibly filmmakers who might otherwise have hired him would shy away. Or maybe he just had bad luck.

Not that he was unemployed. He was hired to direct Sheena (1984), a $25 million adaptation of the comic book, starring Tanya Roberts. The film was a flop and critically mauled. Personally (and I know I’m in a minority here) I think it’s terrific. It looks gorgeous, was beautifully shot on location, has a wonderful score, the script flies along, and Guillermin’s direction is excellent. Tanya Roberts’ method-like intensity takes some getting used to but once you tune in, she’s great fun and has the body of an athlete; Ted Wass is an engaging hero, handsome and a bit klutzy, but an ideal partner (as in King Kong, Guillermin never loses sight of the central love story). I’m aware it’s problematic with its white saviour heroes; I will argue in the film’s defence, at least it’s in present day Africa and there are a lot of positive black characters, it’s just most of them are killed.

Guillermin’s last feature was King Kong Lives (1986), a film I would love to say is a hidden gem, but it is awful. There’s no sense of adventure or danger: the bulk of the film takes place in the USA, and the rampage of Kong is played for laughs (being whacked on the head by a golf ball, etc). The leads, Linda Hamilton and Brian Kerwin, could have been cut out of the film entirely. Who wants to see a King Kong movie where the apes are in love with each other and not a human? The characters lack decent motivation and differentiation. The music score is nice and John Ashton chews scenery with aplomb. But it’s bad, bad, bad..

Guillermin’s last film was the cable TV Western The Tracker (1988), starring Kris Kristofferson. This was a polite late ‘80s western, a variation on The Searchers (1956) with some baddies kidnapping women and Kristofferson leading a posse, and his son learning the importance of killing people. The dust feels clean. Look, it’s fine.

There were no more movies – it’s hard for directors to find work after they turn sixty and Guillermin’s last three cinematic features were big flops. He was a long time retired, dying in 2015.

Unlike many directors, he seemed unconcerned with propagating his reputation through interviews and memoirs. He was married twice and had two children; a son predeceased him. A rare interview is here. His widow has recently completed a book about her husband’s life and films.

Guillermin doesn’t sound like a particularly pleasant person to work for – according to some accounts he was a flat-out bully. But revisiting his filmography for this article was a pure enjoy. At their best, his movies are energetic, beautiful and compulsively entertaining. He wasn’t known as an actor’s director, but career-high performances were given in his films by John Mills, Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough, and Richard Todd; his strike rate with women wasn’t as high, but Tanya Roberts was never better than in Sheena.

Olaf Miller wrote a 2014 profile on Guillermin for Film Comment which said: Guillermin is something of a melancholic: in his coolly unflinching cinema, tired, traumatized men in desperate situations fight with dour determination for a few shreds of dignity. There’s nothing conventionally uplifting about his films; his tales of violence, grimy glory, and defeat conceded with stoicism, don’t make for easy viewing experiences. At their finest, Guillermin’s films are howls from the soul’s darker recesses – theirs is a savage heart.

 

And they’re fun to watch, too!

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Comments

  1. Holger Klopsch

    Thanks for this essay on John Guillermin! There are really some movies of him I would love to see, e.g. PJ and by the way, thanks for the portrait of J.Lee Thompson. Here in Germany, we don’t know much about the British film industry after the wwar, so this is really eye-opening for me!

  2. S.P Krause

    Good stuff! Town on Trial is cool. Fully intend to rip it off at some point. LOVE Never Let go. Like Bicycle Thief except built around a shitty little car. Ripe for a remake that one. Damn fine article!

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