A journeyman who found himself sent to the same destination more than once too often, the director Andrew V McLaglen, who has died at the age of 94, delivered a string of competent Westerns in 1960s Hollywood, and in the ’70s took command of a bunch of what could be described as “Dad’s Own” adventures, action spectaculars in which ageing stars stood in for stuntmen during the talky bits. But with brighter material, like a good old pro he could make one sit up and take notice: his finest film, Shenandoah (1965), an American Civil War drama about a family divided by questions of duty and morality, was boldly mawkish, starring a typically sympathetic James Stewart, but was embraced in its homeland due to a nostalgic affection for its sense of old-fashioned decency, and for its humane distrust of conflict just as war was breaking out in Vietnam.
McLaglen was strongly associated with two actors: John Wayne, and a great also-ran, Harry Carey Jnr. Both had been favourites of John Ford, as had McLaglen’s father, the chunky ex-heavyweight boxing champion Victor McLaglen, who had won an Oscar for his role in Ford’s The Informer (1935). Andrew was born in England in 1920, the year his father’s film career had begun, but the family moved to Hollywood when he was five, and when McLaglen attended the University of Virginia (by which time he dwarfed his father, standing at 6ft 7in), he was determined to break into the film industry he had grown up around.
Although he had been making amateur films since attending Cate School near Santa Barbara, his dedication failed to win his father’s encouragement, and so after spending the war working for the aircraft company Lockheed (his height obstructed him from military service) he wrote to Herbert J Yates, the Head of Republic Pictures. One of the most prolific studio bosses in Hollywood, Yates set McLaglen to work, first as an errand boy then as a script clerk, before appointing him assistant director on Dakota (1945) and The Quiet Man (1952), directed by Ford, which starred both Wayne and McLaglen’s father.
Through his production company, Batjac, Wayne gave him his directorial debut with Gun the Man Down (1956), a revenge Western which also ushered Angie Dickinson into a starring role. Both McLaglen and the film’s star, James Arness (another Wayne protégé), then moved over to the television series Gunsmoke (1955-75), which McLaglen directed nearly 100 episodes of, a few of them scripted by Sam Peckinpah.
He also dished up countless episodes of Have Gun – Will Travel (1957-63) and Rawhide (1959-62), which allowed him to direct his father in a guest role that was to be his final appearance. His career in many ways mirrored that of Ted Post, another inexhaustible director of series television and undemanding movies: reliable rather than stylish, both were nimble soldiers of fortune renowned for bringing work in on time and on budget.
After some impertinent reactions within the industry to his alleged pomposity over The Alamo (1960) had afflicted him financially and critically, Wayne shrewdly eschewed straight Westerns for a time in favour of semi-serious numbers such as McLintock! (1963) which McLaglen directed, a strategy that helped secure Wayne his long-service Oscar, for True Grit (1968). McLintock! was also one of a number of later films which Wayne used as a platform for his views on society, although McLaglen always maintained that the star was respectful of him as a director, and not dictatorial, and they complemented each other well on other later work such as Chisum (1970), Cahill US Marshall (1973) and The Undefeated (1969).
Again like Post, McLaglen was often left to mop up the gravy on sequels like The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission (1985) and The Sea Wolves (1980), one of the “Dad’s Own” adventures which characterised his later career.
McLaglen’s gung-ho adventures of the 1970s often felt like working holidays for the regularly reunited stars. Irreverence battled with tension in the mercenary romp The Wild Geese (1978) and best (or worst) of all, North Sea Hijack (1979), a tremendous load of old tommy rot in which Roger Moore heroically swapped typecasting for miscasting as quite possibly the most contrived character in film history, Rufus Excalibur Ffolkes, a cat-loving, woman-hating counter-terrorism expert who foils a raid on a couple of oil rigs in between bouts of crocheting.
None the less McLaglen was no slouch when it came to staging gung-ho action sequences and peppering the picture with enough explosions to keep audiences on the alert. Those films were the retirement parties for a style of old-school adventure, after which McLaglen surprisingly moved into directing regional theatre, including staging a revival of the musical version of Shenandoah. He also gave talks to film students and contributed some smashing commentaries to DVD releases of his work: blessed with his astounding recall and undimmed enthusiasm, they make great, instructive listening. Like the best journeymen, he took us on some heroic, enjoyable excursions.
Andrew Victor McLaglen, film and television director: born London 28 July 1920; married Peggy Harrison (marriage dissolved; one child), 1946 Veda Ann Borg (divorced 1958, one child), 1958 Sally Pierce 1958 (divorced 1977, two children), 1987 Sheila Greenan (died 2005); died Friday Harbor, Washington 30 August 2014.Reuse content