Obituary: Peter Taylor
Tuesday 06 January 1998
The 1957 Academy Award for film editing went to the British editor Peter Taylor for The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean's magnificently realised CinemaScope epic of the shameful building of the Siamese wartime railway by British soldiers interned by the Japanese. It is a marvellous film which won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and still stands today as one of the finest ever war films, a recognised popular classic.
Although film industry wags may assert that the editing Oscar came with the letter of engagement on a David Lean film - and in later years it is certainly true that Lean, a former editor, would himself dictate the precise nature of the cutting - none the less, Peter Taylor had served a long apprenticeship with Lean. His Oscar for Kwai was an honest vindication of his talent, for Taylor physically edited the film into shape, working closely with Lean only on the final cut. In fact, the first assembly was made by Teddy Darvas, since Taylor was involved as supervisor on a series of British "B" features produced by the American Danziger brothers, a position he left as soon as possible to fly to Ceylon to edit Kwai.
Taylor had worked his way up through the cutting rooms, including assisting Lean when he was an editor, graduating to assembly editing on such distinguished British films as Uncle Silas (1947) with Jean Simmons, the superb Academy Award-winning Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet (1948), and Carol Reed's brilliant and now classic The Third Man (1949), assembling for the editor Oswald Hafenrichter.
As assembly editor on The Sound Barrier (1952), Taylor assisted its director David Lean and his editor Geoffrey Foot by sifting through all the flying material and assembling it into rolls in order to facilitate cutting: all aircraft left-to-right, all aircraft right-to-left, and aeroplane dives, and so on. Although Taylor had already edited Cairo Road (1950) and had reverted to assembly editing for financial reasons during the 1950/51 slump in the industry, his work on The Sound Barrier proved him invaluable to Lean, and when Geoff Foot wasn't able to edit Hobson's Choice (1954) Lean offered the position of editor to Taylor.
Taylor's contribution to Hobson's Choice was significant. On one occasion, the striking scene where Brenda da Banzie as Maggie proposes to John Mills as Willie Mossop, Lean was having particular difficulty securing the performance he required from a very truculent da Banzie. He asked Taylor to edit the sequence together in order to determine whether retakes would be required, and where. The sequence was screened for Lean on the scoring stage at Shepperton, and when the lights went up Lean laughed and told Taylor: "Never in a thousand years would I imagine the scene could be cut that way." Taylor's face dropped, but Lean intended his comment as a compliment. There were no retakes.
After he edited a series of English features, including Guy Green's interesting Portrait of Alison (1955), Lean offered Taylor Summer Madness (1956), the Katharine Hepburn-starrer known in the US as Summertime, and inadvertently began Peter Taylor's lifelong love affair with Italy.
Summer Madness was the first film in Britain to be edited entirely on magnetic film (no optical sound transfers at all during editing), and the film union the ACT gave permission for the French adviser editor Jacqueline Thiedot to work alongside Taylor, for whom she ended up as assembly editor.
Taylor edited the prestigious 20th Century-Fox CinemaScope adventures The Man Who Never Was (1956) and Sea Wife (1956), a film originally begun by Roberto Rossellini, and then the call came to cut Kwai in Ceylon. Despite winning the Academy Award over the editors of Gunfight at the OK Corral, Pal Joey and Sayonara, Taylor - never pushy and without an agent - failed to consolidate his Oscar success with a comparable feature. Instead he returned to Europe to edit Michael Powell's long-delayed Honeymoon (1959) and a slew of British features, including Guy Green's notable The Mark (1961) which secured its star Stuart Whitman an Academy nomination for Best Actor.
By 1963 the British New Wave had beached, and Peter Taylor edited the superb This Sporting Life, the debut feature of the cine-literate director Lindsay Anderson. It is a remarkable study of working-class angst, with a cutting style like no other British feature before it, an ever-underrated achievement by Taylor, as Anderson, received all the credit, as directors do. This Sporting Life remains, with The Bridge on the River Kwai, the supreme testament to Peter Taylor's craft and talent.
Also from that period was One-Way Pendulum (1965), directed by Peter Yates from N.F. Simpson's absurdist play, allowing Taylor some bold strokes of original narrative editing. Unfortunately the film failed to find a mass audience, and has barely a cult following today.
Taylor married for a second time Franca Silvi, the sister of the Italian editor Roberto Silvi, settled in Rome, and edited a series of high-budget, would-be distinguished movies: Judith (1966) with Sophia Loren, the director Edward Dmytryk's Anzio (1969) with Robert Mitchum, and the all-star comedy extravaganza Monte Carlo or Bust! (1970). More satisfactory was the period editing for Franco Zeffirelli, including the Taylor- Burton Taming of the Shrew (1967) and the opera films La Traviata (1982) and Otello (1986).
Later work included Hugh Hudson's feature-length documentary Fangio (1971) and the made-for-cable Mussolini: The Decline and Fall of Il Duce (1985), with Bob Hoskins as the dictator and Anthony Hopkins as his son-in-law. There was little doubt that Taylor's self- imposed Roman exile kept him away from contemporary mainstream production.
He was still called upon, though, and did salvage work for the director Terence Young when his editors (and one of his stars) decided not to return to Italy after their Christmas break, on a virtually unshown feature known either as Marathon or Run For Your Life. Taylor edited the complex Rome- set marathon sequences and finished the film for Young.
Well respected, and highly regarded amongst his peers, Peter Taylor featured in Film Comment magazine's 1977 listing of the world's top film editors, scrupulously checking and correcting his own credits. This distinguished editor's legacy lives on not just in his work but in a virtual cutting- room dynasty including many fellow technicians via marriage (Taylor's daughter, for example is married to Christopher Lloyd, the son of John Huston's editor Russell Lloyd), embracing many film-industry families.
- Tony Sloman
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