John Box

'Magician' of film production design

John Allan Hyatt Box, film production designer: born London 27 January 1920; RDI 1992; OBE 1998; married 1944 Barbara Courtenay Linton (marriage dissolved 1951), 1953 Doris Lee (died 1992; two daughters); died Leatherhead, Surrey 7 March 2005.

John Allan Hyatt Box, film production designer: born London 27 January 1920; RDI 1992; OBE 1998; married 1944 Barbara Courtenay Linton (marriage dissolved 1951), 1953 Doris Lee (died 1992; two daughters); died Leatherhead, Surrey 7 March 2005.

It takes a rare imagination, plus incredible technical know-how, to create a snowbound Russia in midsummer Spain, transform Wales into China, or paint desert sands black to simulate a mirage. John Box was known in the film industry as "The Magician", and for good reason. With four Oscars, two Oscar nominations, four Bafta Awards, and a career that included Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, A Man for All Seasons, Oliver! and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Box was a legend in British film production design.

Box earned the nickname "The Magician" when he recreated snowy Russia in scorching midsummer Spain for David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965). The hauntingly memorable "snow palace" interior was inspired by Scott's hut in Scott of the Antarctic (1948), invaded by snow and ice, and was created by a joint act of ingenuity:

The prop man Eddie Fowlie and I had this image, and we didn't know how to do it. In the end, we just melted candle wax, and he went round with a bucket of hot candle wax, and threw it on the set. When I thought it looked right, I had very cold water in a syringe, and hit it. That's how we got the shape!

Equally memorable in impact was the train with red flags crossing the wintry steppes, an example of Box's understanding of colour, and when to hold it back for effect. Lean and Box knew that for Zhivago they would have to convey Russia's cold and climate without actually going there to film. Locations in Finland and Sweden were scouted. Eventually Box realised that they would have to create Russia themselves. Where? In Spain, where they had filmed much of Lawrence of Arabia:

We ran out of winter; we had to completely create it. But that is making movies. It's the art of the impossible.

Film was a lifelong love. Born in London, Box spent his childhood in Ceylon, where his father worked as an engineer. He saw his first films there as a schoolboy: he later remembered an Al Jolson film, accompanied by lots of mosquitoes and twinkling fireflies. He also remembered a teacher who taught Classics, and read Treasure Island aloud:

To a kid of about eight, in the tropics, your imagination whirred up . . . Long John Silver, the Black Spot. I suppose that is why I came into films, looking for creative excitement.

At the age of 11 he and his brother went home with their mother to Maryport, Cumberland, a cold, grey mining district far from the heat and sun of Ceylon. His mother died a year later, and he went to live with an uncle near London.

As he was good at boxing, it was suggested he join the Metropolitan Police, but with the support of his father he chose to study architecture, applying to the Polytechnic of North London, on Holloway Road. His engineer father wanted him to get down-to-earth training, with regular types, learning all the basics. It was sound advice, literally laying the groundwork for his future film career of building sets and technical practicalities.

The very first day, the instructor told them that making the first line was all important, a dictum that he never forgot, saying later:

One of the great things [about architecture school] was the miles of working drawings you did. You gained the value of a line, not only proportionately but economically . . . Whatever you design has got to be practical to work.

War broke out three years into his five-year course, and he spent the next six years in the Royal Armoured Corps, ending the Second World War commanding a tank regiment, in the vanguard of troops entering Paris after the Liberation. Demobbed, he finished his architecture degree at Holloway, earning his RIBA qualification.

However, in the years of post-war austerity and continued rationing, there was not much to design. At least not in the real world. So, after seeing John Bryan's stunning black-and-white design of David Lean's Great Expectations (1947), Box decided to try the cinema. Bryan referred him to Edward Carrick, then supervising art director at Pinewood, who sent him out to make two drawings of an ornate Victorian pub: one as it was, another as it could be utilised in a film - a valuable lesson, which Box passed with flying colours.

He entered the film industry in 1948, aged 28, at Denham, assisting the veteran Alec Vetchinsky. The first film he worked on was Joseph Mankiewicz's Escape (1948), a Fox British thriller starring Rex Harrison and Peggy Cummins. The studio system taught Box the basics of building sets, budgets, economy, and time-saving short-cuts and tricks of the trade. Another valued early influence was Carmen Dillon, for whom he worked on Anthony Asquith's The Browning Version (1951) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).

Box's first big break came on The Black Knight (1954), an Alan Ladd film largely made in Spain; Vetchinsky came down with typhoid while on location in Madrid, and Box took over. Box also met his second wife, the costume designer Doris Lee, while working on this film.

His first film as full art director, The Million Pound Note (1953), starring Gregory Peck, was produced by his design idol John Bryan. Box loved to tell the story of how he was drawing an elaborate full façade of the US Embassy for one scene, when Bryan interrupted to advise that he could simply suggest it, with steps and a flag, looking downwards - a money-saving and imaginative solution, which Box never forgot.

In the mid-1950s, when Box's contract with Rank expired, he signed with Warwick Films, an American outfit. Working on films like Malta Story (1953) and The Cockleshell Heroes (1955), he practised his craft and went from strength to strength. The peak from this period was Twentieth Century-Fox's The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), his first epic production, set in China, starring Ingrid Bergman and Robert Donat, with a huge set at MGM's Elstree studio, and locations in Wales. Box thought Wales had the quality of Chinese watercolours, and employed it very convincingly as a stand-in for China, saving Fox both time and money.

Fox offered him Cleopatra, which was then to be made in Britain, but he turned it down for the chance to work with Carol Reed, a director he much admired, on Our Man in Havana (1959). They went to Havana at an exciting time, just as Fidel Castro was coming into power. Box asked one gangster "right out of a B-movie" at a casino to show him how casino and gambling operations worked. He consented - if Box would arrange a dinner with Alec Guinness.

These films brought him to the attention of David Lean. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) marked the start of nearly 30 years with the director, stretching to his last, uncompleted film project, Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, (1986-91). Lean was a perfectionist, with a great sense of visual style and the ability to recognise and encourage it in others. Box always maintained, "My film school is very simple. I just tell everybody, I was at the David Lean School." It was sometimes a hard school, but always an exciting one, full of learning experiences:

I learned a lot about imaging from David. Sometimes you don't get it right until the last moment. In Lawrence, it's considered a memorable scene, where Omar [Sharif] came out of the desert, the mirage. Very strange atmosphere, in the middle of nowhere . . . To concentrate on that mirage, we had already painted the desert black, giving a composition to take your eye to this mirage coming up, and there was still something missing. David used to say, "Ninety per cent prepared, know what you're doing, but leave 10 per cent for inspiration." And I suddenly had this inspiration. Camel tracks are only about a foot wide, in the desert, and they're normally blackish, or brownish, depending on the ground. But I suddenly had this idea that a white line should go out to where Omar was to appear. At the last minute, the camera was set up, I remember going up and painting this strange line . . . At the end of that scene, Peter O'Toole came up to me and gave me a huge hug. He said, "You probably don't realise the effect that white line had on me, playing Lawrence. It disciplined my thinking, my lines, and I said my lines."

This is all part of designing, for me, not just sets - an atmosphere that something's going to happen. And I think the audience then pick it up, and they get the excitement. You're helping the director, the cameraman, and the actors.

Lawrence's company was the first to film in Almería, later quite a famous location. To blow up a train, they had to construct five miles of railway, bring a locomotive and carriages down from Madrid, and then take them 10 miles across country to sand dunes, standing in for the deserts of Arabia. Seville was used for Cairo, and Aqaba was a set, completely built in Spain.

When asked, the film Box said he was most proud of was probably A Man for All Seasons (1966), Fred Zinnemann's film about Thomas More's clash with Henry VIII. For that film, Box accomplished a more low-key miracle, not perceptible except on close scrutiny: Hampton Court was entirely re-created at Shepperton studio, and is one storey lower than the actual palace. The film also is testimony to Box's unerring sense of visualising the character of a scene, notably the confrontation of Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) and More (Paul Scofield), done against a simple background, to focus on Wolsey's overwhelming presence.

Another 1960s highlight was his work on Carol Reed's Oliver! (1968), one of the first big musicals done in England. Box and his crew spent 18 months building two huge sets at Shepperton. For his visual references, Box used the same sources John Bryan used for Lean's 1948 Oliver Twist: Gustave Doré's 1870 book London, and a collection of late-19th-century photographs recording parts of London that were doomed to demolition, which provided many authentic details.

The historical epic Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) took him back to "Spanish Russia" again. The Great Gatsby (1974), evoking F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age story, was shot mostly at Pinewood, with some American locations. But Box was still up to a challenge. Rollerball (1975) marked a real departure, to a futuristic world of violent sport. Sport was another lifelong interest for Box, a great lover of cricket. The director Norman Jewison first had him invent the fast-moving game for the film, before any sets or costumes were designed.

A Passage to India (1984) reunited him with David Lean. Made on a smaller budget than the earlier epics, it still offered room for art-department invention, blending locations hundreds of miles apart geographically into one seamlessly edited vista for Peggy Ashcroft's arrival in Bombay, a scene which otherwise was not possible in practical terms.

Box thrived on cinema projects, and continued working after Lean's death. His last two films were Black Beauty (1994), made at Pinewood, and First Knight (1995), for which he transformed a Welsh reservoir into Camelot. On these later projects, he was delighted to work with old friends and employ younger hopefuls. He was especially conscious of "handing on the baton" to a younger generation. He always valued film as a team-work, and it warmed him to see many of his former assistants make good on their own, like Robert W. Laing, Terence Marsh, Tony Masters, Stuart Craig and the costume designer Anthony Powell.

By the 1990s, Box was one of the grand old men of British cinema. A soft-spoken man, he waxed eloquent telling countless entertaining stories of the productions he worked on, tales peppered with the names of Lean, Reed, the producer Sam Spiegel, the cameraman Freddie Young. In these tales, he was also generous in sharing the credit with assistants and crew, invariably mentioning many minor technicians, stressing that every one of them were important to him.

He treasured the recognition of his work in Art Direction, with four Oscars ( Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Oliver!, Nicholas and Alexandra), two Oscar nominations ( Travels with My Aunt, A Passage to India), four Bafta awards ( A Man for All Seasons, Nicholas and Alexandra, The Great Gatsby, Rollerball) and, in 1991, a special Bafta Life Achievement Award.

Before Box began to lose his eyesight in his last years, he enjoyed painting, and visiting art galleries. He especially loved Constable's quick watercolour sketches of Hampstead Heath, and the French Impressionists at the National Gallery:

Any French Impressionist, I will see any time. You learn a lot about light. Every cameraman should do a course on French Impressionism.

His other great joy was poetry:

I always take The Oxford Book of English Verse with me, wherever I go. It makes you realise the reality of life.

Which is something he helped to create on film for all of us.

Catherine A. Surowiec

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