Action! The John Sturges Story

You might not recognise the name, but director John Sturges was a man who understood what men wanted from their big screen idols: a motorcycle maverick, a renegade gun for hire and a one-armed karate expert. More gold from the Jack mag archive.
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In The Magnificent Seven, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen gather a gang of desperadoes to protect a defenceless Mexican village in a death or glory battle against marauding bandidos. Each man's fears and foibles get put to the test - from knife-throwing James Coburn to haunted murderer on the run Robert Vaughn. But, when the time comes, they are not found wanting: the live and die by an unwritten primal code of warrior honour.

The theme of men working together for a common cause using stealth and ingenuity to thwart a shared enemy is repeated in The Great Escape. A wily group of Allied Prisoners - including irrepressibly cocky Yank McQueen, tormented, muscle-bound Charles Bronson and blind forger Donald Pleasence - pool their strengths and weaknesses to outwit their Nazi captors. In Ice Station Zebra a US submarine provides the perfect crucible for the male psycho in high-pressure conditions. Though largely uncelebrated as an auteur, Sturges' best movies rely on charismatic, naturalistic performances and are concerned with men asserting their core strengths and values in trying circumstances. Critics claim his 1955 Oscar nominated Bad Day At Black Rockis the greatest (perhaps the only great), but that downplays Sturges' cinematic impact. Both there and in his later box-office triumphs, Sturges blazed a trail for the best of the Seventies and Eighties brat pack generation of directors.

Before Coppola had put together the Corleone family for The Godfather, Sturges had shown how to handle serious concerns and an ensemble cast in The Magnificent Seven. Before Sam Peckinpah explored the dying west, there was Sturges uncompromising adaptation of the legend of the Gunfight At The OK Corral and an equally unflinching sequel Hour Of The Gun.

There are reasons why Sturges isn't held in the same esteem as the movie-making legends - John Ford, Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks - he admired. His filmography covers 30 years from The Man Who Dared in 1946 to The Eagle Has Landed in 1976. But it took him a long time to find the scripts that allowed him to focus on the themes and subject matter that really engaged his passions. He spent his first decade as a director churning out forgettable production-line fodder, a cog in the wheel at Columbia studios. But his life before that defined Sturges' best work.

Today, when so many American remakes are a pale shadow of the original, The Magnificent Seven stands tall; a worthy companion piece to the movie it was based on.

Born in the same Chicago suburb as Ernest Hemingway and raised by a single mother during The Depression in Los Angeles, he paid for his schooling by working at San Rafael Theatre. Drawn to the moive business, he worked at RKO and was promoted to work as an editor. The advent of WWII could have cut his career short, but it was while serving as a captain with the US Air Corps that he first got his chance to make movies. He shot a total of 45 films in Africa, Italy, Corsica and England, including a feature-length documentary, Thunderbolt with Wild Bill William Wyler, a buccaneering, larger than life character who became a role model and inspiration for Sturges.

Sturges's wartime experience left a deep impression on his work. Violence, fear and the search for vengeance surfaces again and again in his movies. But the actual process of making movies under pressure and under fire also informed his approach to cinema.

"I must tell you," he reflected towards the end of his career, "I have always been totally nerveless. I have never found a problem that I could not solve. If I encounter such a problem, I decide I don't want it." He gloried in his reputation as "one shot Sturges", a tough, brawny, cinematic gunslinger whose athleticism was reflected in the action sequences he choreographed with steely precision. McQueen on a motorbike vaulting over Nazi barbed wire; the legendary final shoot out at the end of Gunfight At The OK Corral; or one armed Spencer Tracy's karate duel with brutal Ernest Borgnine in Bad Day At Black Rock.

Between 1945 and 1955 Sturges directed 19 movies, including Fast Company, a musical about a dancing horse. "I'd rather make three pictures a year. It makes your chances of making a good one better," he said in 1965, while supping cocktails aboard the 21ft sloop purchased after The Magnificent Seven - his first movie as an independent producer - had become a massive hit. But those early films range from ineffectual to merely mediocre. The movies he made with Frank Sinatra for instance, hardly rank among his best, but his relationship with Ol' Blue Eyes proved a mixed blessing. It was thanks to Frank that Sturges began a working relationship with he man who became central to his most spectacular movies: Steve McQueen. It was while shooting Never So Few that Sinatra had a bust up with Sammy Davis Jr and introduced the director to McQueen who he favoured as a replacement.

The relationship was symbiotic: Sturges made McQueen a star, but it was by allowing McQueen's innate sense of cool and timing to take a hold on screen that Sturges' reputation as the greatest action director of the early Sixties was made. The Magnificent Seven was the making of not only McQueen and Sturges, but also several other cast members.

James Coburn had been to see Akira Kurosaw's The Seven Samurai about 12 times when it first came out. "When Sturges told me he wanted me to play the character who in the original was the greatest swordsman in Japan, I couldn't believe it," he recalls. "It was the part I always wanted. It was like Christmas, Thanksgiving and my birthday rolled into one."

Sturges understood the dynamic of a feisty young group of actors and how it could relate to the movie. Yul Brynner, fresh from a starring role in The King And I, arrived on set full of pomp, ceremony and regal airs, determined to be the dominant presence in the movie. The rest of the cast had other ideas. "We all wanted to take the film away from Brynner," admits Robert Vaughn.

Today, when so many American remakes are a pale shadow of the original, The Magnificent Seven stands tall; a worthy companion piece to the movie it was based on. The was a fact acknowledged by Kurosawa himself who sent Sturges a kabuki doll as a thank you when the film opened, a token of his respect for the way the reworking kept faith with the original film's values. What must also have impressed the Japanese maestro was the grandness of Sturges's vision; The Magnificent Seven is still one of the most dazzling, sumptuously mounted explorations of the wild western landscape ever filmed.

His filmography covers 30 years from The Man Who Dared in 1946 to The Eagle Has Landed in 1976. But it took him a long time to find the scripts that allowed him to focus on the themes and subject matter that really engaged his passions.

Sturges also had a knack for spotting future stars early in their careers. The young Dennis Hopper was given a small but pivotal role in Gunfight At The OK Corral as the youngest member of the Clanton gang. Sturges was also quick to spot the feral intensity of Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine's brutal boorishness and used them to give Bad Day At Black Rock its seething core of twisted hatred.

All his major films were centred on studies of male teamwork, but he was equally drawn to the ability of an individual to change the course of events. Both preoccupations evidently sprang from his wartime experience. Though his no nonsense approach to movie-making meant he always denied any artistic pretensions or personal slant, his movies are hallmarked by a recurring attempt to find, in modern parlance, "closure" for what he saw and felt during the war. Bad Day At Black Rock looks at the consequences the war had on the home front, while his final film, The Eagle Has Landed, focused on a plot that would have resulted in Allied defeat.

This leaves The Great Escape as his pivotal work. Indeed it was a project he nurtured for ten years before it got off the ground. Sturges read Paul Brickhill's account of escape from Stalag Luft III shortly after it was published and determined it was a movie that he wanted to make, Brickhill was offered more for the book rights from other moguls, but fearing the story would be altered and impressed by Sturges's enthusiasm and honesty, he sold it to the tenacious director. The writer's fears were well founded because when Sturges insisted on staying faithful to history, he had trouble convincing financial backers. "What kind of escape is this? Seventy-six set out but only three get away?" said Louis Mayer at MGM.

Sturges saw it as something else - an exciting but instructive lesson from history. As in The Magnificent Seven he uses early scenes to stake out the territory where the battle for freedom will take place in later stages and highlights the character quirks that define and draw the escapees together. For successive post-war generations the film became talismanic; an initiation into the bonds of friendship that carry man through battle and life itself. It was also a depiction of the sort of sacrifice, grit and maverick determination that was needed to take on the great evil of the 20th Century. The Great Escape still stands as a fitting testament to a filmmaker not feted in books or with retrospectives but deserving a special place in movie history.

"It was the perfect embodiment of why our side won," Sturges said of The Great Escape near the end of his life. "Here was the German military machine with smart uniforms and absolute obedience to orders. On the other side were men from every country, every background, make-up and language doing everything they pleased. With no arbitrary rules they voluntarily formulated an organisation that eventually clobbered the German machine."

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