Unsung Aussie Filmmakers: Don Sharp – A Top 25

July 27, 2019
Don Sharp (1921-2011) was an Australian writer, producer, actor and director whose career spanned five decades and included several classics but who is still mostly unknown at home, even among film buffs. Part of this is because he rarely worked in Australia – the bulk of his movies were made in Britain. Still, several of them are terrific, so Stephen Vagg has put together a quick primer on perhaps the greatest ever director from Tasmania!

1) Smithy (1946)

Sharp was born in Hobart in 1921. His parents wanted him to be an accountant, but he fell in love with the theatre, and became involved in amateur productions. He served in the air force during World War Two and was assigned to Singapore but became ill and was sent home just before that city fell to the Japanese. Sharp performed in shows for the armed services, then when he was discharged he decided to become an actor. He pops up in an unbilled role in Smithy (1946), the biopic of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith directed by Ken G Hall (Charles Tingwell was another recently-returned serviceman who made his film debut in this movie).

Sharp went on to have a decent career as an actor on Australian radio dramas and the stage, appearing in a number of shows for J.C. Williamsons. However, Sharp wanted to make movies and in the late 1940s about two films a year at most were in shot in Australia.

He headed to London.

2) Ha’penny Breeze (1950)

Like many an Australian artist then (and now), Sharp found the going tough when he got to England, but he had drive and nous. He teamed up with a friend to make a low budget film, Ha’penny Breeze, and succeeded in raising the money and getting it made. Sharp wrote it and starred. It was a slight comedy about a small town revitalised by yachting, but it was cinematically released and helped establish Sharp in England. A clip featuring Sharp’s acting is here:

3) Journey into Space (1953)

Sharp’s career was almost derailed when he fell ill with tuberculosis and spent over a year in hospital. Fortunately, the NHS had kicked in by then and he recovered. For the next few years, Sharp worked as a writer and actor in films, radio and television. His film roles were mostly small parts as military types in war stories, such as The Cruel Sea (1953). However, he had a leading gig on the radio serial Journey into Space which is adored by a generation of British kids who grew up listening to it.

4) Conflict of Wings (1954)

Sharp continued to write, selling several scripts to a new company, Group Three. One of them was an original story, The Norfolk Story, which Sharp turned into a novel, Conflict of Wings – which was the title under which the movie was shot. Sharp had ambitions to direct and was allowed to work as assistant director.

5) The Stolen Airliner (1955)

Sharp wrote two films for children at Group Three, Child’s Play (1954) and Blue Peter (1955), and worked as assistant director on both. He was then given the chance to direct The Stolen Airliner by the Children’s Film Foundation (CFF), a non-profit production company that made lower budgeted films for kids. It’s a minor movie but launched Sharp as a director.

He would go on to make The Adventures of Hal 5 (1959) for the CFF.

6) The Golden Disc (1959)

To earn a living as a director in England, then (as now), one couldn’t specialise in the one genre. So Sharp made documentaries, did second unit directing work (Carve Her Name With Pride, Harry Black and the Tiger), then accepted a job directing the rock and rock musical The Golden Disc which tried to make a film star out of Terry Dene. (

It is arguably the first British rock n roll movie.

The film was not a hit but at least Sharp got to marry the leading lady, Mary Steele. Sharp later went on to direct another British pop star, Tommy Steele, in another rock musical It’s All Happening (1963).

7) The Professionals (1960)

Sharp then directed some low budget “B” drama movies, of which this thriller was the most noticeable. It was sold to American television, and received excellent reviews. More specifically it led to him being hired on Kiss of the Vampire.

8) Kiss of the Vampire (1963)

Alright, now for the first film people reading this might have actually heard of. Sharp’s work had not gone unnoticed. Tony Hinds at Hammer needed a director for a new vampire film they wanted to make, and Sharp was offered the gig despite having never made a horror movie before. The result was a wonderful gothic chiller about a couple in Europe who get caught up with some vampires, Sharp’s first great film. It wasn’t spectacularly received at the time – it did not feature Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing – but now it is one of the most highly regarded Hammer horrors. How is this for an opening sequence:

9) Witchcraft (1964)

Success begets success – Sharp was now a “horror guy” and received an offer to direct a film for Robert L. Lippert, a legendary producer of low budget movies. This atmospheric effort starring Lon Chaney Jnr also went on to have a small cult.

Sharp went to make The Curse of the Fly (1965) for Lippert.

10) The Devil Ship Pirates (1964)

Sharp’s second film for Hammer wasn’t a horror, though it did star Christopher Lee: it was a swashbuckler, a sort of pirate version of The Desperate Hours where a ship from the Spanish Armada winds up at an isolated English town and the sailors trick the locals into thinking that the invasion was successful. It’s an exciting, well-made film with plenty of action – Sharp’s first action movie. Brian Trenchard Smith talked about the movie in Trailers from Hell.

11) The Face of Dr Fu Manchu (1965)

Sharp got a call from notorious producer Harry Alan Towers, who wanted Sharp to revive the Fu Manchu franchise with Christopher Lee in the role. The resulting film is a fast paced highly enjoyable action thriller, though as politically correct as you’d imagine a Fu Manchu movie made in the ‘60s would be.

It led to four sequels starring Lee, though Sharp only directed the first one, The Bride of Fu Manchu (1966).

12) Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966)

Sharp’s third collaboration with Hammer, and with Lee, resulted in this semi-classic. A biopic of the notorious Russian religious figure, the script had to be heavily fictionalised to avoid lawsuits, but it features a tremendous performance by Lee in the title role, and (like all Hammer films from this period) sumptuous art design. Apparently, Lee loved the part and no wonder – in the first 15 minutes he bursts into an inn, sculls a drink, brings someone back from the dead, gets drunk, does a dance, makes love to a busty wench, gets in a brawl. The film isn’t up to his performance but is still good fun.

13) Our Man in Marrakesh (1967)

Harry Alan Towers got Sharp to direct this lively knock-off of spy films from the period. It’s a breezy, hugely entertaining film, helped by a smart script from fellow Australian Peter Yeldham, a superb cast that includes Senta Berger, Herbret Lom, Klaus Kinski and Wilfrid Hyde Whyte, and location work in Morocco. It is a little weird to see Tony Randall trying to be Cary Grant…

14) Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967)

Sharp occasionally did second unit directing gigs to help pay the bills, notably the flying sequences on Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965). The success of that movie prompted Harry Alan Towers to try his luck at the period-adventure-romp genre, with his loose adaptation of a Jules Verne novel. Sharp does what he can but it’s not a good movie, sunk under the weight of lead Troy Donahue’s performance (trying too hard to be funny) and a dumb script. It was known in the US as Blast Off.

15) The Violent Enemy (1968)

The IRA did not feature in many films of the 1960s (that was a relatively quiet decade for them) but they were the object of this little-known thriller, based on a novel by Jack Higgins. It wasn’t widely seen; neither was Sharp’s other feature around this time, Taste of Excitement (1969), so he turned to television directing to pay the bills.

16)  Puppet on a Chain (1971)

Sharp was brought back to features when offered to do some “director doctoring” on this adaptation of an Alistair Maclean novel. Among the additions Sharp made was shooting a marvellous boat chase on the Amsterdam canals which everyone pretty much agreed was the best thing about the (not very good) movie.

17) Psychomania (1973)

Delirious, over the top, nutty fun that you have to watch to believe exists. It’s about the leader of a biker gang (Nicky Henson) who discovers his mother (Beryl Reid) and butler (George Sanders) are into the dark arts and know how to revive people from the dead. Henson decides to kill himself so he can come back to life. He succeeds and things only get weirder from there. At one stage this was mostly known for being Sanders’ last film but it’s actually great fun and is a deserved cult favourite.

18) Callan (1974)

In the early 1970s, the most popular genre at the British box office was big screen adaptations of popular TV shows. Callan was a superb show but, oddly, doesn’t translate as well as some of the others, at least not here – in part because the script feels like what it was, a padded out re-do of the pilot episode. Callan worked best when it was cramped and intimate which suits TV; Sharp’s attempts at opening it out (he throws in a car chase, see below) are not that successful. At least it’s better than another film Sharp made around this time, the awful thriller Dark Places (1973).

19) Hennessy (1975)

In contrast to Callan this feels like a proper movie – an exciting, fast paced knock off of The Day of the Jackal with Rod Steiger as an Irishman determined to avenge the death of his wife and child at the hands of a British soldier by blowing up the Queen at an opening of Parliament. It’s very well done, a gripping thriller, which earned controversy when Buckingham Palace sold footage of the Queen to the filmmakers without realising why they wanted to use it, and kicking up a stink later.

20) The Four Feathers (1978)

One of a series of TV movies based on classic novels by producer Norman Rosemont. He’d make them for American TV then release them theatrically overseas. This was based on AEW Mason’s novel, filmed several times previously. Once you get used to chubby cheeked Beau Bridges in the lead it’s quite good. (Bridges actually seems like a coward, unlike pretty much every other version of this story, giving it extra tension) I wish they hadn’t used Richard Johnson in brownface though.

21) The 39 Steps (1978)

Sharp takes on another classic adventure tale, John Buchan’s famous “wrongly accused” thriller superbly adapted by Hitchcock in 1935 and less well filmed by Ralph Thomas and Kenneth More in 1959. This version is closer to the book than either of those, but is not that faithful. It stars Robert Powell who was in The Four Feathers and was a kind of star for a few years in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

22) Bear Island (1979)

The Canadian film industry decided to go for gold with this expensive adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel. Like the South Africans who filmed Golden Rendezvous, no doubt the filmmakers dreamed of easy money from a MacLean adaptation, and like them, they were disappointed. It had the biggest budget of any Canadian film to that date – $9 million – but the money was wasted. I mean, I appreciate they went and shot in the icy wilds – there’s some spectacular locations: glaciers, fjords, all that stuff – but at its heart this is a film about a bunch of people stuck in a room struggling to get outside. Cast wise, it’s very much a B team – good actors to be sure but hardly big box office, and all so old: Donald Sutherland is the hero, Vanessa Redgrave is wasted as the girl (basically), Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee and Lloyd Bridges. There’s decent action – snowmobiles zipping around, the odd fight, a chase on a boat at the end – but far too many scenes of people in parkas. Sharp helped write the script, so he’s got to take some of the blame and the box office failure of this sent him back to television.

23) What Waits Below (1985)

Sharp’s last feature film is a pulpy exciting horror-action film for legendary producer Sandy Howard, about a caving expedition that discovers a mysterious race of creatures down below. Location filming helps tremendously, as does Robert Powell having the time of his life in a role seemingly meant for Chuck Norris. It was also known as Secrets of the Phantom Caverns.

23) A Woman of Substance (1985)

Sharp revitalised his career with this hugely popular mini-series based on a novel by Barbara Taylor Bradford. It made a star (ish) of Jenny Seagrove, and led to a series of gigs for Sharp in this genre – Hold the Dream (1986), Tears in the Rain (1988, with Sharon Stone!), Act of Will (1989, with Liz Hurley!) – before he retired.

25) Tusitala (1986)

Sharp’s one Australian production – actually it was an Australian-English co production, a mini-series about the last years of Robert Louis Stevenson. Based on a script by Peter Yeldham, it was respectable, solid drama which is why it’s not as well remembered today as, say, Psychomania.

Sharp retired at the end of the 1980s. He passed away in 2011 leaving behind a pretty decent legacy.

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