J. Lee Thompson went from serious British auteur to Hollywood “A” list helmer to penny-pinching Cannon Pictures favorite who worked regularly with Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris. On paper, it appears to have been a topsy-turvy career, filled with extreme highs and lows; but he endured, remaining busy over the decades until he passed away in 2002 at the age of 88. If he had lived, he’d have turned 100 years old this August.
Born John Lee Thompson in Bristol, Somerset, England, the future filmmaker was something of a prodigy, getting plays produced at an early age, then working as an actor and a screenwriter until 1950, when he helmed his first film Murder without Crime, a gritty crime thriller he adapted from his own play. Follow-up films in his homeland included Young and Willing, a no-holds-barred women-in-prison film; Cocktails in the Kitchen with Dirk Bogarde; Tiger Bay, which introduced child actor Hayley Mills to the world; North West Frontier (aka Flame Over India), an adventure yarn about British rule in India with a top-notch cast (Lauren Bacall, Kenneth More, Herbert Lom); and I Aim at the Stars, a fictionalized look at the life of Dr. Werner von Braun, the scientist who pioneered space exploration.
His next effort, however, catapulted him into the international limelight: 1961’s The Guns of Navarone, a big-budget World War II adventure opus in which Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn and Anthony Quayle are among the group of commandos attempting to bring down huge Nazi cannons threatening British troops on the cliffs of an Aegean island.
Adapted by Carl Forman (High Noon, The Bridge on the River Kwai) from the Alistair McLean novel, the film delivers the action-packed goods in terms of intensity, wartime intrigue and colorful casting, all set to a memorable Dimitri Tiomkin score. While the The Guns of Navarone runs a whopping 159 minutes, it remains entertaining and surprisingly light on its feet throughout. The result was seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and the crown of box-office champion of the year.
Thompson did an about-face, however, on his next project, bringing John D, McDonald’s novel The Executioners to the big screen as Cape Fear. He reunited with Guns of Navarone star Peck, who portrayed a Georgia lawyer who battles a psychopathic ex-con (Robert Mitchum) out to get him, his wife (Polly Bergen), and his adolescent daughter (Lori Martin) because he testified against the menacing Mitchum. The suspenseful drama turns the cat-and-mouse game between good man and deviant up to uncomfortable levels while making salient points about flaws in the justice system.
“If you want to be horrified, that’s your business. But don’t expose the youngsters to the ordeal of watching this film,” warned Bosley Crowther, the New York Times film critic, upon Cape Fear’s release. Yet it was Thompson’s telling—the noirish atmospherics, the subtle performances, an expert supporting cast that included Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas—that made the film terrifying and subtle at the same time. In fact, when the film was about to be released in England, British censors requested several cuts be made. Thompson railed against it, but Peck agreed with them, and the two didn’t speak for some time. The irony is inescapable when you look at Martin Scorsese’s ultra-violent, over-the-top 1991 remake with Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte in the leads.
Throughout most of his career, Thompson rotated large epics with smaller films, mixing up genres regularly as well. He next knocked out two historic adventures: Taras Bulba (1962), with Tony Curtis as the son of Cossack chief Yul Brynner, who battles the Poles in the 16th century Ukraine; and Kings of the Sun (1963), with Brynner as a Native American leader who bonds with rival Mayan chief George Chakiris to battle a violent tribe wielding deadly metal blades. Colorful and comic-booky, with narration by James Coburn and impressive location work, the film failed to click with audiences or critics.
Thompson rerouted his career yet again with the one-two farcical punch of Shirley MacLaine in What a Way to Go! (1964), a black comedy scripted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1965), scripted by William Peter Blatty, who later rose to fame penning The Exorcist.
The former features MacLaine as a wealthy woman who has a cursed touch with men—everyone she marries seems to die, but she becomes richer in the process. Among the star-studded stable of hubbys are Dean Martin, Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, Dick Van Dyke and Robert Mitchum. This expensive production didn’t fare well critically (“a big, gaudy, gimmicky comedy which continually promises more than it delivers by way of wit and/or bellylaffs” reported Variety) or at the box-office, but it works well today as an elaborate try at invoking 1940s screwball comedy.
Meanwhile, John Goldfarb offers MacLaine as an investigative reporter who goes undercover in a Middle Eastern harem to get the goods on how football-obsessed sheik Peter Ustinov wants former gridiron star/ U-2 airplane pilot Richard Crenna to coach his team against Notre Dame’s squad in a big game. The film is even wackier than it sounds—in fact, too wacky for Notre Dame; their getting a court injunction over its unflattering depiction of the school held up release for three months. When finally released, the film failed to score at the box-office, divided critics, and somehow to this day has eluded video release of any kind.
The filmmaker next did another about-face turning with two distinctive thrillers. Return from the Ashes (1965) is one of the oddest efforts of Thompson’s—or anyone’s!—career, as Maximillian Schell plays a chess master, romantically involved with stepdaughter Samanatha Eggar, who gets a surprise when believed-dead wife Ingrid Thulin returns from a concentration camp. This truly one-of-a-kind film mixes a number of genres around, resulting in an altogether creepy confection.
Meanwhile, Eye of the Devil (1966) showcases David Niven as a British aristocrat who heads back to his family estate and vineyard when his crops go bad. Joining him are wife Deborah Kerr and his two children, who soon discover that the locals are involved in strange rituals. David Hemmings, Donald Pleasance and Sharon Tate also star in this unsettling saga with some similarities to The Wicker Man.
Thompson also called the shots for 1970’s Brotherly Love, a perverse tale of an incestuous relationship between heavy-drinking siblings Peter O’Toole and Susannah York. Adapted from the play “Household Ghosts,” the film floundered at the box-office, although O’Toole reportedly did some method acting for his role as an alcoholic.
The director switched gears once again in 1969 with The Chairman (aka The Most Dangerous Man in the World), a thriller that reteamed him with Gregory Peck. The actor essays the part of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist doing spy work for the U.S. government, who goes to China to help a colleague with agricultural experiments as Chairman Mao monitors his actions. Thompson later went on record about studio interference dulling the final film’s impact. Noted The New York Times: “The Chairman, an ambitious new thriller with Gregory Peck, begins so brilliantly that nothing in the rest of the title could match it. As the title credits of this 20th Century-Fox release unfold, to some tingling music by Jerry Goldsmith, the screen fairly bursts with fragmented images depicting Communist China. It is an extraordinary start for a film that makes provocative entertainment for the first half, hits a snag, begins to fall apart and came in for a tame, wobbly landing yesterday.”
Reteaming with several Guns of Navarone principals—Peck, producer-screenwriter Carl Foreman and composer Dmitri Tiomkin (who co-produced here) —Thompson got back into the big-budget Hollywood game with 1969’s western MacKenna’s Gold. Peck plays a sheriff in possession of a map to a mythical valley of gold that is sought by Native-Americans, prospectors and outlaws, including Mexican bandido Omar Sharif. Despite an impressive cast filled with cameos, and European sexpot Camilla Sparv and Julie Newmar as a rowr-rowr half-breed, the big-scaled oater did not strike gold at the box-office.
Thompson, who had drug and alcohol problems throughout his career, added one last western project to his resume: The White Buffalo (1977), an oddball epic with Charles Bronson as Wild Bill Hickok and Will Sampson as Crazy Horse, both obsessing over the title creature, a “Moby Dick”-like beast that haunts them in their dreams and waking hours. A major financial disappointment, the film remains one of the strangest efforts in either Bronson’s or Thompson’s career.
Despite The White Buffalo’s lackluster returns, Thompson and Bronson forged ahead, making seven other films together, from the slick crime thriller St. Ives with Jaqueline Bisset to the Casablanca salute Cabo Blanco.
There were also the violent 1980s Bronson crime dramas such as The Evil That Men Do and, for penny-pinching Cannon Pictures, 10 to Midnight, Murphy’s Law, Messenger of Death, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. Cannon’s efforts were produced by colorful Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus—the Washington Post said that “Aaron Spelling looks like Francois Truffaut next to them”—and are not fondly remembered among the best in the either the filmmaker’s or actor’s canon. Also on the director’s resume for Golan-Globus was the Richard Chamberlain/Sharon Stone remake of King Solomon’s Mines, the Chuck Norris/Louis Gossett Indiana Jones-inspired Firewalker, and The Ambassador, an extremely loose adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 52 Pick-Up, with Robert Mitchum, Ellen Burstyn and Rock Hudson.
At one time, the filmmaker held the rights to the first Planet of the Apes film, but when another project delayed his involvement in the picture, producer Arthur P. Jacobs took over and handed the directing reins to Franklin J. Schaffner. Thompson came on board later, helming Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for Planet of the Apes (1973), the two last films in the original series.
For the former, in which apes have become slaves and revolt against their human owners, the New York Times cited the direction as giving the series an expected jolt. ”J. Lee Thompson’s direction furiously propels the action in a compact chromium-and-glass setting—and wait till you see that last battle royal,” wrote critic Howard Thompson (no relation).
But Battle for the Planet of the Apes, in which an ape-propelled military junta disrupts the peace between the humans and simian population, didn’t fare as well with anyone. Wrote Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times at the time: “The movie is incompetently made, which is something of a surprise considering that it was directed by an old and good hand, J. Lee Thompson. Transitions are ragged, a lot of the dialog is inaudible and the rest is listless, and the apes spend a lot of time sitting around discussing abstractions. The battle footage looks cheap. And the story is painfully thin.”
Between the dross of Thompson’s golden age assignments stands some of the director’s most unusual work. The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975) is a chilling reincarnation thriller with Michael Sarrazin facing frightening events while tracing his disturbing nightmares. The Passage (1979), a deliriously campy all-star World War II drama, showcases Malcolm McDowell as a Nazi officer who wears a jockstrap with a swastika emblazoned on it. The Greek Tycoon (1978) works as an enjoyably trashy roman a clef of the Aristotle and Jackie Onassis romance, with Anthony Quinn playing a fictionalized “Ari,” Jacqueline Bisset as “Jackie O.” and James Franciscus as “President James Cassidy.”
And as if that wasn’t enough, Thompson’s Happy Birthday to Me, a 1981 slasher film noted for its elaborately grotesque murders and co-starring Glenn Ford, has gained a strong cult following over the years. Recalling its production, producer John Dunning said Thompson was hell-bent on upping the gore quotient by splashing blood “all over the place.”
Thompson and his films never fit neatly into a category. Critics have noted that he was generally not from the David Lean camp—although The Guns of Navarone came close—nor was he part of the “Kitchen Sink” crowd of such angry, young filmmakers as Tony Richardson or Karel Reisz.
In fact, “all of these might have sneered at Thompson’s middle-budget, middle-brow efforts, yet his lack of pretension was his most cherishable asset,” claimed the British newspaper The Guardian upon his death in 2002. “He was a man who saw his career as a ripple in a vast ocean.”