John Guillermin: Film director best known for hits like 'Towering Inferno', 'King Kong' and 'Death on the Nile'

He had an impeccable eye and an ability to capture both intimate moments and large-scale action scenes

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The Independent Online

The director John Guillermin was a perfectionist, temperamental and with an irascible streak. He progressed from documentaries and B-films to become a leading proponent of high-octane, action-adventure blockbusters like Towering Inferno and King Kong, and big-budget dramas like Death on the Nile.

Over a 40-year career, he directed 35 films, from comedies and crime dramas to war epics and disaster films, and though critics were not always complimentary, the public flocked to see his films. Unfortunately, he had a tendency to alienate himself from crews, and sometimes from the stars. Producer Elmo Williams described him as a “demanding director, indifferent to people getting hurt as long as he got realistic action… he was a hard-working, overly critical man whom the crew disliked. However, Guillermin was a master at camera set-up.”

David Wolper, producer of The Bridge at Remagen, almost fired Guillermin after he reproached the crew and told Wolper not to appear on set during a complicated scene. But despite finding Guillermin “a real pain”, he acknowledged that his impeccable eye and ability to capture both intimate moments and large-scale action scenes usually overcame his reputation.

Born in London in 1925 to French expatriates, Yves Jean Guillermin attended the City of London School and then Cambridge University before serving in the RAF during the Second World War. He began directing documentaries in Paris in 1947, his feature-film debut coming after he returned to London in 1949 to work for Rank, with High Jinks in Society, a comedy for which he also wrote the screenplay. The following year came the thriller Torment. 

Throughout the 1950s he directed further B-film programme fillers for British audiences waiting to watch the latest Hollywood offering, including the comedies School for Brides (1951) with Herbert Lom and Bachelor in Paris (1952) starring Dennis Price; Miss Robin Hood (1952), with Margaret Rutherford and James Robertson Justice, was described by one critic as “a crazy clutter of purely mad clowning and flighty farce.” He also turned out a steady stream of solid dramas as well as 13 episodes of the drama Sailor of Fortune and 15 episodes for ITV of the sitcom The Adventures of Aggie.

His breakthrough came in 1957 with Town on Trial, in which a police inspector (John Mills) investigates the grisly murder of a “blonde good-time girl” and a whole town comes under suspicion. Further success came with Bryan Forbes' screenplay, I Was Monty's Double (1958), again with Mills, as well as British stalwarts Cecil Parker, Michael Hordern, Marius Goring and Leslie Phillips, about the true story of an actor (ME Clifton James, playing himself) pretending to be General Montgomery as a decoy to confuse the Germans during the months before D-Day.

Guillermin moved to Hollywood for Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959), with Gordon Scott as Tarzan and Anthony Quayle as a villain; filmed partly in Africa, it won praise for its realistic scenes. Three years later, Jock Mahoney took the lead in Tarzan Goes to India. Guillermin directed Peter Sellers in Never Let Go (1960), with Sellers as a sadistic London gangster, and Waltz of the Toreadors (1962), based on the play by Jean Anouilh with Sellers as a retired general haunted by the women in his life.

Guillermin returned to action films with Guns at Batasi (1964), starring Jack Hawkins and Richard Attenborough in a military outpost during the last days of Empire in East Africa. The Blue Max (1966) saw George Peppard as a German First World War fighter pilot and contained some superb aerial fight scenes, while in The Bridge at Remagen (1969), initially filmed in Czechoslovakia but completed in Italy after Soviet troops moved in, George Segal played a US lieutenant pitted against Robert Vaughn's honourable German officer. 

The 1970s saw a series of mediocre films including El Condor (1970), a violent but slow-paced Western starring Lee Van Cleef. The 1973 blaxploitation sequel, Shaft in Africa, saw Richard Roundtree reprise his role as the tough New York detective, transferred to West Africa to break up a trafficking and slavery ring.

With producer Irwin Allen, Guillermin assembled a star-studded cast for The Towering Inferno (1974), including Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain and OJ Simpson and had a budget to match – $15m (worth around £50m today). Guillermin used four camera crews and some of the largest stage sets ever built, including a 100ft model of the skyscraper. The film grossed $116m (£370m today) and won three Academy Awards, two Baftas and two Golden Globes.

On the opening night of the world's tallest skyscraper a fire breaks out on the 81st floor due to poor wiring. Newman's architect and McQueen's no-nonsense fire chief fight the relentless blaze to save the party-goers. At the end, “We were lucky today,” McQueen's character says at the end. “The body count was only 200. One of these days 10,000 people are going to die in one of these firetraps.”

Next came Dino De Laurentiis's remake of King Kong (1976), which launched Jessica Lange's career in the Fay Wray role. The film received scathing reviews but was financially successful and was nominated for Oscars in cinematography and sound recording.

For 1978's sumptuous adaptation of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, set in 1930s Egypt, Guillermin assembled another stellar cast. Peter Ustinov played Hercule Poirot alongside David Niven, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury. It brought Guillermin the Evening Standard British Film Award.

It was his last major success. In 1983 he was replaced as director on Sahara by Andrew McLaglen. Sheena (1984), a campy jungle adventure starring Tanya Roberts as a female Tarzan, fared poorly. King Kong Lives (1986) was a critical and box-office disaster. His only other notable project after that was The Tracker (1988), a TV western starring Kris Kristofferson. “You know, there's really nothing like an exciting film on a big screen,” Guillermin once remarked. “Hopefully, I've made a few in my career.”

Yves Jean Guillermin, film-maker: born London 11 November 1925; married 1956 Maureen Connell (marriage dissolved; two children), 1999 Mary; died Topanga, California 27 September 2015.