Eddie Fowlie: Film production designer who became David Lean's close friend and most trusted assistant

Film directors may be auteurs in the eyes of the critics, but they all depend upon collaborators.

In the case of David Lean, these were known as his Dedicated Maniacs. Eddie Fowlie was the closest to Lean himself. In fact, Lean said he would like to have been Eddie Fowlie. Eddie was the sort of man to go into the jungle with. Powerfully built, with a mane of black hair, he looked like a boxer. But he was a magician. If you didn’t have a jungle, he would create one. He would conjure up a frozen lake in summer heat. And can anyone who saw Dr Zhivago forget those daffodils?

John Ford had a propmaster like Eddie; he ended up running 20th Century-Fox. Eddie could have done the same. Lean kept telling him he had a director inside him, but he preferred his gypsy existence. Eddie Fowlie was born in Teddington in 1921, close to the Master Studio, which would become Warner Bros. His father, Jock, came from Aberdeenshire. A First World War veteran, he was a motor mechanic who ran a fleet of Daimlers for a funeral company. Eddie won the record for canings in his class, and was admired for not flinching.

After working in an aircraft factory, Fowlie joined the ARP when war started and was assigned to Heavy Rescue. He then joined the Scots Guards and was injured in training on Salisbury Plain. Invalided out, he became a set-dresser at Warner’s. He worked in the Bay of Naples on The Crimson Pirate, and in Majorca on Our Girl Friday, then he rebuilt ancient Egypt for Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharoahs. A front-office spy spotted Fowlie with a bottle of beer.

“We don’t drink when we’re working,” he said, haughtily. “You may not,” replied Fowlie, “but we do – especially me.” The spy reported him to Hawks, who declared that Fowlie’s supply of beer must not be cut off under any circumstances.

“When Sam Spiegel sent me to Ceylon [for Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai] I was in seventh heaven. The very first day’s work we did was the raft being dropped into the water with all the dynamite stuff on it. I’d made 10 of these rafts and I thought I’d gather them out of the river and bring them back each time and be able to keep ahead. But it was terrifying the way David went on and on and on. I was running out of rafts. I had to work all night to be sure I had another dozen ready for the next morning. I didn’t expect him to shoot so much and to do so many takes on it. I was judging him by other directors.

Kwai was the beginning of Lean’s longest-lasting friendship. He sent Fowlie searching for locations, and “adjusting” the look of them when he found them. He was amazed at what he could conjure up in that distant location, and he was gratified by the stunt work he did, doubling for William Holden, for instance. Lean noticed that Fowlie wouldn’t live with the unit, preferring to remain on his own. He invited him to use his apartment at the Mount Lavinia hotel: “Use my things, charge it to my account. I’ll go somewhere else for the weekend.”

The climax of Kwai was the blowing-up of the bridge. Although Spiegel had assembled government dignitaries to witness the blast, Lean had been forced to abort the first attempt, and the train had run into a generator. Fowlie and his crew spent the rest of the day and most of the night recovering it. Lean asked Fowlie to drive the locomotive himself the next day. “I had a unique view from the driver’s cabin, looking down on the river as the bridge came up to meet me. The train picked up speed and I waited till the last possible moment before jamming the lever. I dived on the sandbags and waited as the train clattered by, followed by an almighty bang as the dynamite went off. In an instant, the bridge which had taken us eight months to construct, collapsed in a twisted heap. I was relieved the operation had been a success, but also felt a twinge of sadness at seeing all the destruction.”

This comes from Fowlie’s memoirs, published a month before his death as David Lean’s Dedicated Maniacs. It is as entertaining and outrageous as one would expect, and contains so much new material that this obituary would need to be serialised to include it all. I never realised how many non-David Lean films he worked on – The Vikings, Sea of Sand, The Long Ships, Lord Jim, Charge of the Light Brigade, The Three Musketeers, Robin and Marian and Christopher Columbus.

He worked with some exceptional directors – Richard Lester (who writes a funny introduction), Tony Richardson, Raoul Walsh, Robert Siodmak, but he would drop everything to work with Lean. Fowlie noticed Lean had a similar personality to his: “He would let things slide in ordinary life, but the moment someone wanted a film made, ‘Right. I’m off tomorrow. I’ll do it.’

“David wouldn’t take criticism from anybody. If we were filming and he was looking for a set-up, I would go and stand where I thought would be a good set-up. Not a word would pass between us, we wouldn’t even look at one another. Presently, as I walked away, David would stand at the same spot and look. And more often than not, he would choose it. It was no good shouting, ‘Look, it’s good over here!’ Then it was not his idea. You’d only got to offer him the seed of an idea and he’d soon develop it. No good? Nothing lost, no egg on anybody’s face.

“The same thing if I wanted to criticise a scene. He would permit it, but I wouldn’t say it out loud. I would make a note of a suggestion on a piece of paper or even a tape. But he would also suggest things. For instance, on Dr Zhivago, when Omar had to look out of the window when Komarovsky was driving away with the girl, David said to me, “Omar is never going to be able to get the tears in his eyes. Put some sunflowers in the window and have the petals fall.” If you see the film, you’ll see that the petals fall off the sunflower, because it was better than a phony piece of acting. And he’d come up with things like that all the time. And I’d think, ‘What a brilliant idea, isn’t that wonderful?’ And all the subtle suggestion he put into his movies, I would say to him, ‘David, very symbolic, that’s wonderful.’ He would say, ‘I don’t do symbolism.’ But he did, all the time.’

“David absolutely loved the desert. I would say he loved the desert more than anything else. He had to have an operation when the film was over to remove sand from behind his eyelids.”

The desert for Lawrence of Arabia constantly had to be swept smooth – an unexplained footprint at 50 yards would show up on 70mm. “I had all kinds of equipment to keep it clean, even huge powder puffs on the end of long canes. I had boots made that I called my camel boots, and they had camel-shaped soles. One day, we wanted camel footmarks going up a dune and the light was getting low and I started getting my boots on and Freddie [Young, director of photography], he was quite old even then, he suddenly dashed up this sand dune, swiggling each foot as he went up to the top and swiggling back down again in the same footmarks, like a bloody gazelle.”

After Kwai, a company in Canada wanted to employ Fowlie and asked for letters of recommendation. “I don’t have letters of recommendation,” said Fowlie. “Ask David Lean.” And Lean’s letter, which they showed him, said, “You may borrow Eddie until I’m ready to make another film, because I will never make make one without him.”

When Fowlie tried to buy Lean’s Rolls-Royce, his cheque came back with a message: “I always wanted to give you a Rolls-Royce. I think you’d look rather good in one.”

Perhaps Fowlie’s most extraordinary coup was to create a bluebell wood in springtime so Lean could complete the love scene in Ryan’s Daughter in autumn. “I rented a dance hall and put down thick felt and soil and tarted it all up with watercress seeds and grass and put some heat on it and humidity and started to grow it. I dug up roots and plants out of the forest and sent them over to Waterford into a cold store for a couple of weeks and then into a hothouse and they started to grow. I put it all into the dance hall. It was a lovely forest and I put birds and butterflies in there that I got from a butterfly farm at Romsey ... One night I said to David when we were finishing, ‘Let’s go home another way tonight. I want to show you something.’ I pulled back the net curtain. David was amazed. It saved them a lot of money.”

Fowlie married Kathleen, a girl 30 years his junior from Co Kerry he met during Ryan’s Daughter. The two of them ran the Hotel El Dorado at Carboneras in Almeria, Spain.

Edward George Fowlie, film production designer: born 8 August 1921; married three times (two daughters); died Carboneras, Spain 22 January 2011.

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