With the writers’ strike currently raging in the US, we’ll be showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters for the next weeks in the Unsung Auteurs column. Each week, we could pretty much just close our eyes and pick any writer working (apart from godheads like Paddy Chayefsky, William Goldman, Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet and a few others), but this time out we’ve picked a scribe who until very recently was pretty much forgotten. While the late Alan Sharp has certainly been celebrated lately courtesy of Quentin Tarantino and The Video Archives Podcast (with the famed cineaste literally raving over the writer’s work), prior to that, his name would have meant little to most movie lovers.
Though best known for his screenplays for some truly fascinating American westerns and crime films, Alan Sharp was born (in 1934) and raised in Scotland, where he was adopted by a Salvation Army family from his single mother. Sharp took a considerable time to come to writing, working initially in the shipyards of his hometown of Greenock, before taking on a variety of odd jobs, including dish washing, English language teaching, labouring, packing, and switchboard operating. Sharp also served in the army, had a role in technology at IBM, and worked as an assistant to a private detective, which very well may have had a bearing on his later writing work. Though planning to train as a teacher, Sharp shifted gears into writing, and eventually moved to London from Scotland via Germany.
After already having lived a full life, Sharp wrote successfully for live British television from 1963, with his play A Knight In Tarnished Armour, drawn from his experiences in Greenock’s shipyards, broadcast in 1965. Instantly prolific, Sharp’s debut novel, A Green Tree In Gedde, was published in 1965 to much fanfare, even experiencing a ban due to its graphic and confronting sexual content. The sequel, The Wind Shifts, was published in 1967, but the proposed final entry in the trilogy, The Apple Pickers, was abandoned by Sharp when he moved to Hollywood, and shifted his attentions to screenwriting.
Sharp came out of the gate hard with 1971’s The Last Run, a largely forgotten existential thriller directed by Richard Fleischer and starring George C. Scott as a veteran getaway driver who comes out of retirement to pull off one final job. Pretty much setting the template for Sharp’s future work, The Last Run sounds like a seen-it-all-before genre flick, but the screenwriter enrichens, deepens, and subverts expectations with unusual characters and a plot full of twists and turns, allied with a true sense of profound thoughtfulness.
Ratcheting up that process, Sharp’s next screenplay was even more existential in tone. The deeply cerebral qualities of the screenwriter’s 1971 western, The Hired Hand, were punched up even further by director Peter Fonda, still flying high after the era-defining success of Easy Rider, and making his debut as director. A slow, poetic western with limited gunplay, The Hired Hand follows Fonda’s cowboy, who returns to his family home after an extended period as a drifter, and is forced to make a series of life-changing decisions. Atypical in every way, the barely remembered The Hired Hand was followed by a far more brutal western. Directed with characteristic muscularity by Robert Aldrich, 1972’s Ulzana’s Raid stars Burt Lancaster, and follows a cavalry troop’s pursuit of a vicious Apache leader who has been terrorising and torturing his way across the west. Exploding western tropes and ripped through with extraordinary violence, Ulzana’s Raid is one of the most damning films ever made on The American Indian Wars.
Sharp penned another unconventional western with Ted Kotcheff’s fascinating 1974 effort Billy Two Hats (starring Gregory Peck as a Scottish outlaw and Desi Arnaz Jr – !!!! – as his “half-breed” Indian sidekick) before turning the noir-detective genre inside out with 1975’s dark, deeply existential Night Moves, directed by the great Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde) and starring the brilliant Gene Hackman as a private detective who starts out looking for a missing teenager and ends up in the middle of a labyrinthine conspiracy. As frustrating as it is hypnotic, Sharp called Night Moves “an attempt to use the classic detective format, the private eye, and then set him in a landscape in which he was unable to solve the case.”
After some slightly less personalised writing work (Sharp co-wrote and co-adapted the 1977 sci-fi cult flick Damnation Alley, and Sam Peckinpah’s final bow, the unlikely and truly bizarre 1983 Robert Ludlum adaptation, The Osterman Weekend), Sharp delivered his sole writing/directing effort with 1985’s completely forgotten Little Treasures, an action-adventure-romance about a search for lost riches starring Margot Kidder, Ted Danson and Burt Lancaster. For the following decades, Sharp worked principally in television, with co-write jobs on a host of superior telemovies, including 1990’s Descending Angel with Eric Roberts, Diane Lane and George C. Scott, and 1993’s The Last Hit with Bryan Brown.
There were, however, two excellent feature films in amongst Sharp’s small screen work. In 1995, the native Scotsman returned to his roots with the captivating and uncompromising historical drama Rob Roy, starring a towering Liam Neeson as the eponymous 1700s Scottish outlaw and folk hero. Another superb exercise in genre subversion, the film romps along wonderfully courtesy of director Michael Caton-Jones, and features a gallery of terrific characters, brought to vivid life by the likes of Jessica Lange and Tim Roth, who essays a true villain for the ages. Unfortunately, the truly excellent Rob Roy was completely overshadowed by that same year’s Oscar winning classic Braveheart, which tilled similar swashbuckling soil. Sharp’s final big screen writing credits would be his adaptation of Lord Dunsany’s novel for Toa Fraser’s 2008 film Dean Spanley, and a co-write with director Michael Caton-Jones on 2019’s Little Ladies, which was released six years after Sharp’s death at the age of 79 in 2013.
A man ready, willing and able to walk bravely into familiar genre territory and then ingeniously rearrange everything that makes it familiar, Scotsman Alan Sharp proved himself an astute chronicler of America’s dark heart, and captured it with a stunningly honed outsider’s eye.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Leslie Dixon, Jeremy Podeswa, Ferd & Beverly Sebastian, Anthony Page, Julie Gavras, Ted Post, Sarah Jacobson, Anton Corbijn, Gillian Robespierre, Brandon Cronenberg, Laszlo Nemes, Ayelat Menahemi, Ivan Tors, Amanda King & Fabio Cavadini, Cathy Henkel, Colin Higgins, Paul McGuigan, Rose Bosch, Dan Gilroy, Tanya Wexler, Clio Barnard, Robert Aldrich, Maya Forbes, Steven Kastrissios, Talya Lavie, Michael Rowe, Rebecca Cremona, Stephen Hopkins, Tony Bill, Sarah Gavron, Martin Davidson, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot Silverstein, Liz Garbus, Victor Fleming, Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton,Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly,Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher,Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.