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Bill Hunt interviews
J. Lee Thompson
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with J. Lee Thompson, the
veteran, British-born director of The
Guns of Navarone. I found Lee to be a truly wonderful
person to chat with - very easy going and likable, with more than
his share of funny and interesting stories to tell, amassed over a
life-long career that spans more than sixty years. We talked for
quite a while about his work, and Guns of
Navarone in particular, and what follows are some of the
highlights. I think you'll find them worth a read. Do keep in mind
that there are MAJOR spoilers for the film in the text below -
you've been warned. And you'll just have to imagine Lee's wonderful
Hunt (The Digital Bits): So Lee, how did you become
interested in directing film? I understand theater was where you
first sort of cut your teeth professionally.
J. Lee Thompson: Absolutely.
First of all, I did some acting on stage. Then I wrote a play which
was put on in the West End in London, and it was eventually bought
by a film company. I was asked to do the screenplay for that, and so
I became a screenwriter. I later wrote another play, which was a big
success in London and played in New York, which was also bought to
be turned into a film, and this time, the company asked me to direct
it. It was a film called Murder Without
Crime. And the fact is, that I found directing to be much
easier than writing and I enjoyed it much more that writing as well.
So I became a film director.
Bill Hunt: And you've had
quite an impressive career as a film director. You've done more than
fifty films, is that correct?
J. Lee Thompson: That's right
yes. And The Guns of Navarone
was my first big American film - the one that got me started in
Bill Hunt: As a director who
came from the theater, tell me about your feelings going into this
project. In its day, Guns of Navarone
was one of the biggest films that had ever been done. It must have
been somewhat intimidating...
J. Lee Thompson: Well, I had
some idea of what to expect on such a big film, because I'd just
done a big British film called Flame Over
India [aka North West Frontier],
with Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall. And so I felt comfortable with
the larger scale and difficulties of doing a bigger film. And with
Guns of Navarone, the only
stressful aspect was that I had so little preparation time. The film
was going to be made by Alexander Mackendrick, a famous British
director, but he fell out with Carl Foreman, the producer and
writer. And then they chose me to direct, but I only had ten days to
Bill Hunt: That's from the
time you were hired until you actually started shooting?
J. Lee Thompson: Yes - that's
it. So this was very stressful as you can imagine. Luckily, I had
the most wonderful cast, who were all very supportive of me. And
they immediately liked my way of directing, which was to rehearse
the whole scene that we were about to shoot, and explain each setup
that we were about to do, before we actually shot anything.
Sometimes the rehearsals would take two or three or four hours, and
we'd go a whole morning without having got a shot. But then in the
afternoon, we'd get ten or eleven shots done and complete the scene,
because everyone knew exactly where they were going and knew exactly
what setup was going to follow the previous one. And it became a
delight for the actors - they really liked this technique and they
were supportive to the hilt.
Bill Hunt: Well, particularly
I imagine this was something the actors liked, since they themselves
came from theater backgrounds. That kind of intensive rehearsal
method is very common in that world and it must have very much put
them at ease.
J. Lee Thompson: I think
that's exactly right. So immediately I had this wonderful rapport
with the cast, which made everything else from that point on very
Bill Hunt: Since you came on
board with so little time before filming, I assume the cast was
completely selected and hired by that time?
J. Lee Thompson: All of the
main characters had been cast. Only minor characters hadn't, so I
was involved with that. David, Anthony, Gregory, Stanley Baker -
they were all already on board.
Bill Hunt: Had you worked with
any of these particular actors before Navarone?
J. Lee Thompson: I hadn't
worked with any of them except Anthony Quayle and Gia Scala, with
whom I had done several films previously. But otherwise, they were
all American actors as far as I was concerned and they were new to
Bill Hunt: In watching the
documentary on this DVD, and listening to the commentary, I know
there are a number of interesting stories about what took place
behind-the-scenes. Particularly, I'm thinking of how Anthony Quinn
taught everyone to play chess on the set between takes, and it sort
of brought the cast together.
J. Lee Thompson: Well,
naturally there were tensions. In a film like this, the actors were
watching each other afraid that one might get the advantage over the
other - that's just natural. That's how actors are and how they
should be. But Quinn suddenly introduced this chess game, which they
all loved playing, and they all became very close-knit friends
because of it. And it actually helped the production tremendously.
(laughs) I should say most of the time that was the case. Sometimes
it was difficult to get them away from their chessboards.
Bill Hunt: (laughing) I know
there are a couple of pictures in the documentary where the whole
cast is sitting around tables playing the game. Did you ever get
caught up in it?
J. Lee Thompson: No, I didn't.
I was too busy.
Bill Hunt: Somebody had to
mind the store, right?
J. Lee Thompson: That's it.
But I was quite happy to see them gathered around chess tables
relaxing, rather than gathered around me worrying about the next
scene. And it made them all work very well together.
Bill Hunt: And I understand
that Quinn was the grand master on the set?
J. Lee Thompson: Oh, yes. He
certainly was. I don't know that anyone ever beat him. He certainly
never admitted it if anyone did. That's just Quinn.
Bill Hunt: Now you obviously
worked with Gregory Peck again after Guns
J. Lee Thompson: Yes, several
times. Cape Fear, The
Chairman, Mackenna's Gold
oh, yes. I did four films with Gregory. Over the years, I've stayed
in touch with Greg and the others. They've become good friends, but
I don't get to see as much of them as I would like. But they're good
Bill Hunt: I know that there
was some concern in your mind about casting James Darren as Spyros.
What kind of a risk was that?
J. Lee Thompson: Well, Jimmy
was a really wonderful singer, you know. He did records and cabaret
performances - he was a pop star. So there was some worry that he
wouldn't fit the part, or that his musical fame would make him
difficult on the set. But he turned out to be a delight to work
with. He took direction wonderfully, and he knew exactly what I was
striving for. He just has this instinct - a very natural talent for
acting. He's also become a very dear friend.
Bill Hunt: Now most of the
film was shot at Shepperton Studios in London, is that correct?
J. Lee Thompson: That's right.
And all of the location filming was done in Greece, on Rhodes Island
and some of it in Athens. The guns themselves were built full size
at Shepperton, and at the time it was the biggest set that had ever
been built for a film in England. The shots where the guns were
actually fired - that was all full scale. It was a magnificent
sight. There's a rather funny story
well, now it's amusing,
anyway. We had a storm one day, and the whole set collapsed. A
torrential rain beat down upon it, and the cave portions of the set
started to crumple. It was all just plaster, you know. And it took
three weeks to rebuild. Fortunately, we had plenty of other scenes
we could shoot while the repairs were being completed. But my God
when it happened it was a terrible sight. (laughs) I was just beside
Bill Hunt: Speaking of water,
the entire sequence involving the shipwreck was all shot on stage,
J. Lee Thompson: Yes, indeed.
This took us about four or five weeks to shoot, because we only got
two or three shots a day. We had these huge tanks above the set,
which was built in the main studio tank, and the boat was built on
rockers. This water would hit the artists with such force, that some
of them would get knocked right out of the boat. Then there was the
danger of them slipping underneath the boat, which was rocking. I
remember that Stanley Baker got caught under the boat for a moment
and had to be rescued. Each one of the actors suffered in one way or
another. And of course, the water could not be warmed very much. It
was a very tough sequence, but the actors were absolutely
magnificent. They never complained and went back into the tank for
shot after shot. And I think that it is still one of the best storm
sequences on film.
Bill Hunt: Well, since that
time, other films have done similar scenes, but this was the first
time that jet engines had been used to blow the water across the set
with such force.
J. Lee Thompson: I think it
was the first time that anyone had done a really big storm in the
studio, yes. I have to give the credit to Geoffrey Drake, our
wonderful art director. He designed the setup, placed the tanks just
so, and made sure that the water was churning just right. It was an
amazing engineering job.
Bill Hunt: And the scene where
the team is scaling the cliff face - that was also done on-stage at
J. Lee Thompson: Oh yes
practically all of it, except a little bit of second unit footage
which we used for backgrounds. The cliff was built on the studio
floor, so you put your camera at one end on the floor, and you shot
towards the other side, which was a blue screen - actually against
the wall of the studio. And we had our actors crawl along the floor,
over the rocks, and it would look as if they were climbing
vertically. Again, I have to give the credit to Geoff - he devised
this method. It worked very well. We had excellent results, I think.
Bill Hunt: When you worked in
Greece, you actually had the cooperation of the Greek Army and Navy.
They provided virtually all of the military vehicles you see in the
film. How was that arranged?
J. Lee Thompson: Well, that
was Carl who worked that all out. It was all arranged before I came
on board. But there's another story that is funny now that I can
look back on it, all these years later. At the time it was a
disaster. One of the worst things that happened - we actually sunk
one of the Navy boats.
Bill Hunt: You mention that
briefly in the commentary.
J. Lee Thompson: (laughs) Oh,
yes. In the film, you know, the Nazi ship comes along side and they
blow it out of the water. We were going to do it with models - the
actual sinking bit. But when they showed me what the explosion would
look like on the real boat, which we had to use until right up to
the sinking, I said "It doesn't look big enough." It
wasn't convincing that this little plume of smoke would cause the
ship to sink. So I asked them to make the blast bigger. And they
warned me - the special effects men - that if they put any more
explosives in the boat it would possibly sink. But I insisted.
(laughs) And then I said, "Action!" and the boat blew up
just the way I wanted. But when the smoke cleared, it had
Bill Hunt: (laughing) So you
blew the bottom right out?
J. Lee Thompson: Right out.
Unfortunately, the captain of the boat - and of course nobody was on
it when we blew it up - he was court-martialed by the Greek Navy,
who said it was his fault. So I had to go to his rescue, and say
that it was entirely my fault - that I had been warned it could
happen but, behind the captain's back, I had instructed my crew to
put more explosives on the boat. (laughing) Oh dear
quite a debacle.
Bill Hunt: (still laughing)
But you saved his career?
J. Lee Thompson: Yes,
Bill Hunt: Now, when you were
filming, I understand that the King of Greece and his family came to
J. Lee Thompson: Oh yes
it was quite a fuss. Everyone just swarmed around them. And I got
very angry, because it was holding up the shooting. (amused) Oh
Bill Hunt: I wanted to ask you
about the scene in the film where the team gets captured. The actor
that plays the Nazi officer named Sessler
George Mikell I
think his name was - the one who arrives to interrogate the
prisoners - where did you find him? He was really terrific, I
thought, for having such a small role. Was he a theater actor?
J. Lee Thompson: We had a lot
of people come to see me when casting the smaller parts, and he was
someone we found locally, at a theater near the studio. He was
terrific, as I recall - just a great villain. He was actually in a
play at the time we were shooting in England, and I remember that we
had to let him go early one day so that he could get back to the
theater to do that night's show.
Bill Hunt: Now in that
particular scene, Anthony Quinn's performance is really quite
J. Lee Thompson: Well, that's
an example of a scene where we did heavy rehearsal. So that right
from the start, everybody knew what they were going to do. I think
it took at least a whole morning, if not longer, just to rehearse
the whole scene. And we did it several ways. It was such a pleasure
to be able to rehearse the actors like that, because they could
really find just the right moments of each scene. I don't know why
it isn't done more today.
Bill Hunt: It's interesting
you say that, because so many directors today seem to pre-plan
everything so heavily and storyboard every moment before they get on
the set. But then when they've got the actors in front of the
camera, they might do one or two rehearsals, but they'll film the
rehearsals at the same time. I know that you're not like that. You
don't like to use storyboards at all
J. Lee Thompson: Well,
storyboards are often done by other people. Sometimes today you see
a director who will draw their own, but it used to be that someone
would come along - often the art director - and they would draw out
how the film should look. Sometimes it's for producers, who can't
envision how the shot will look, so they want to see all these
drawings. But I don't want someone else visualizing how a film is
going to look for me - that's my job as the director. I do sometimes
make drawings for myself. I never go on the set without knowing how
I want a particular shot to look. But I don't want to be too tied
into a particular look, because as I rehearse, I may alter
something. And when I do make some sketches, they're just for me. I
draw them in my script, and I'm such a bad drawer that nobody else
could understand them. (laughs) Sometimes I can't even understand
them when I go back to look at them later.
Bill Hunt: Another thing I
wanted to talk with you about was Gia Scala and her role in the
film. You mentioned that you had worked with her before?
J. Lee Thompson: Yes, I had
done a film right before Guns
called I Aim at the Stars -
the Wernher von Braun story - and Gia played in that one. And she's
completely crazy. I had, you know, a very tough time with her on the
Stars film. She was
magnificent in the film, but she's so eccentric and crazy, that when
I finished that one I said, "Thank God I'll never have to work
with her again." And then the next film I did was Guns,
where she'd already been cast! (laughs)
Bill Hunt: (laughing) There's
a funny story in the documentary where you talk about Gia giving you
a haircut on the set of Guns of Navarone.
J. Lee Thompson: Oh my, yes.
That was a terrible moment. Gia insisted on giving me a haircut, and
I certainly needed one. So I sat down in this chair, and she
proceeded to cut my hair. And she completely made me bald! I had to
wear a cap for most of the rest of the film.
Bill Hunt: Now this was a way
of getting back at you, because you wanted her to cut her hair to
look like a man for Guns
J. Lee Thompson: That's right,
yes. (laughs) She was just a mad, crazy girl. And you know, all that
aside, I really just adored her. Unfortunately, she's not alive
today. She later took her own life.
Bill Hunt: Her scene in this
film, where Anna is shot, remains one of the most powerful I've seen
on film, even to this day. One of the things I think is interesting
about it, is that if the film were made today, I wonder if that
would have played out like it did. Would a studio or a writer really
be that daring to let a moment like that happen on film today.
Certainly, it isn't one of those crowd-pleasing moments you usually
get in Hollywood films. The character of Anna is very tragic - she's
been though so much at the hands of the Nazis already, and there's
really no justice for her in the film.
J. Lee Thompson: Yes, it is
very tragic. You know, I saw the film the other day at the Egyptian
Theater in Hollywood, and it was filled with young people. And I
thought they really appreciated that scene - the whole film
actually. I find that really rewarding. That was one of my favorite
scenes in the film, because it was so dramatic and really spoke
about the morals of war. We worked very hard to get that one right.
Bill Hunt: It's a very
important moment in the film, because Miller - David Niven's
character - is really needling Gregory Peck's Captain Mallory,
basically saying, "Well, why don't you just kill her?"
He's giving Mallory the business for being so seemingly callous
earlier in the film. And then Mallroy is really about to kill her,
because he knows he must to accomplish the mission, when Irene
Papas' character does it for him. The question one asks, is would
Mallory really have gone through with it himself? And what does that
say about him?
J. Lee Thompson: I think he
would have, yes. And that was what was so intriguing about Carl
Foreman's screenplay. He really brought up all these moral and
ethical issues. It was really very well written. A lot of people
thought it was this great rousing war film, but it was really very
Bill Hunt: That's something
I've always noticed about Guns of
Navarone - while this film is definitely a World War II
film, it doesn't feel like your typical war movie. It's got a much
more timeless quality to it.
J. Lee Thompson: Well, it has.
And that was all in Foreman's script, which was based on the
Alistair MacLean novel. But MacLean's novel was a very
straightforward boy's own adventure story. You know, the heroes take
it to the Nazis. Carl infused the story with much more meaning - a
much deeper knowledge of humanity. Carl really lifted that story
from being just an ordinary adventure/thriller into something that
was far more sophisticated.
Bill Hunt: I wonder, if the
movie was made today, if it wouldn't be just a straightforward
J. Lee Thompson:
Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of directors and producers
out there who would want to make it that way. As it was, a lot of
critics, although they loved the film and gave it high marks,
questioned the moralistic approach. And I think if it was remade
today, it would be far more of a thriller than the film we made.
Bill Hunt: I certainly imagine
that the budget today would be two hundred plus million, and the
cast would be filled with pretty-boy faces like Brad Pitt or Matt
J. Lee Thompson: (laughing) I
think you're right. Of course, they did make a sequel to this film
some years later. And it was really dreadful.
Bill Hunt: I wanted to ask you
about that. Were you ever approached to direct Force
10 from Navarone?
J. Lee Thompson: Yes, I was
approached. But I read the first draft of the script, and it was
awful. And after I told them that, they never came back to me with
any other offers. (laughs) The final film was just a mess. In the
end, I think Carl Foreman even left the whole thing behind. He
detached himself from it completely.
Bill Hunt: Getting back to
Foreman for a moment, a lot of people don't know that he also wrote
High Noon and The
Bridge on the River Kwai.
J. Lee Thompson: He was a very
accomplished screenwriter. He was blacklisted in Hollywood for a
time, so he went to work in England. There was some controversy
about what actually happened, but he eventually came off the black
list. But he had to go to England to make films for quite a long
Bill Hunt: And that's how you
got to know him?
J. Lee Thompson: Yes, that's
right. We used to go to the same clubs together - restaurant clubs -
and I would bump into him from time to time. We weren't particularly
friendly, but he knew me and I knew him before he offered me the
Bill Hunt: Did you ever work
with him again after Guns?
J. Lee Thompson: Oh yes, I did
Mackenna's Gold with him some
Bill Hunt: There's another
moment I wanted to ask you about in Guns
of Navarone, which is the end. When the characters are on
the boat, and the fortress is exploding, and the British ships come
through and start sounding their horns with all the seamen cheering.
Is that something that was fully scripted? Because it's one of my
favorite sort of rousing film moments
J. Lee Thompson: No, I think
it was hinted at - the celebration. But it was something we just
happened upon. Someone had the idea of sounding the horns. And it
really worked well to end the film. It was a great moment.
Bill Hunt: I understand that
you had some troubles with the censors on Guns.
There's one moment in particular where dialogue had to be replaced
J. Lee Thompson: Yes - Richard
Harris, early in the film, talks about "the bloody guns and
bloody this and bloody that." That didn't go over with the
ratings board at all, and so he had to come back later and dub it
with word "ruddy" instead. Luckily we were able to go back
later and restore the original dialogue. But it just goes to show
you how far we've come.
Bill Hunt: I'd like to talk
for a moment about a pair of your other films. I think many of our
readers will be surprised by the fact that you also directed a
couple of the Planet of the Apes
films - Conquest of the Planet of the
Apes and Battle for the Planet
of the Apes. How did you get involved in those?
J. Lee Thompson: Well, at one
time, I owned Planet of the Apes
with Arthur Jacobs.
Bill Hunt: I didn't know that.
J. Lee Thompson: Oh, yes. That
was right at the beginning, when Arthur and myself bought the rights
to the Pierre Boulle novel. I was going to direct the original Planet
of the Apes, but then I had to step aside, because I was
contracted to do Mackenna's Gold.
Arthur and I had tremendous trouble to begin with, to get any studio
to agree to do the Apes film.
You know, they said, "What do you mean, talking apes?" No
one would do it. So after a time, I had to go off to do Mackenna's
Gold, just as Arthur made the deal with 20th Century Fox
to make the film. So I wasn't able to do the first film, but I later
came back to the series for two of the later ones, including Conquest
of the Planet of the Apes, which was also a political
film. But I no longer own any of the rights, of course.
Bill Hunt: Well, Lee
can't tell you how much I've enjoyed speaking with you.
J. Lee Thompson: It's been a
pleasure - just delightful. We'll have to talk again soon. And let
me just say that I hope everyone enjoys watching The
Guns of Navarone on this new DVD.
The staff of The Digital Bits
would like to thank Lee for taking the time to chat with us. Thanks
also to Sharpline
Arts, Columbia TriStar Home Video and Irene Dean. Be sure to
read our full-length review of
Guns of Navarone on DVD, as well as
Doogan's interview with DVD producer David Fein and his
with actor James Darren.
As always, I welcome your comments.