Calder Willingham

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The Independent Online
The novelist Calder Willingham was best-known in Britain for the film End as a Man (1957), an indictment of an institution foreign to that country, the military academy where male adolescents are sent to do their schooling - mainly, but not always, with the aim of an army career to follow. Willingham, drawing on his own experience, wrote about one such establishment, in Florida, indicating that discipline and corruption went hand in hand, with the inevitable bullying supplied in this case by Jocko de Paris, a congenital sadist who enjoyed nothing so much as watching other cadets squirm. Willingham's inference was that such places breed such men, and he made his point in unrhetorical prose which made the message very much sharper.

The book was taken up by the Actors' Studio, who improvised a play from it - which so impressed those who saw it that it was presented on Broadway. Sam Spiegel, fresh from On the Waterfront and in the midst of producing The Bridge on the River Kwai, saw it and assigned Willingham to write the screenplay. Jack Garfein directed, using most of the Broadway cast, it then being considered that audiences would accept non-star casts, provided that the subject was treated realistically. In the US the film was called The Strange One, but in Britain it reverted to its original title.

There have since been other films equally indignant about these institutions - Taps (1981), The Lords of Discipline (1983) - but none quite as acrid as this, with Jocko (Ben Gazzara) revelling in the admiration of a fellow-student or embarking on his nefarious pursuits in his "lights- out" outfit of cap, Hawaiian shirt, black shorts and black silk socks and garters.

Although Willingham was to publish 10 novels in all, none of them made much impact in Britain but they were in any case overshadowed by some outstandingly successful screenplays. Kirk Douglas employed him on an original screenplay, The Vikings (1958), and then on Paths of Glory (1959), in collaboration with Stanley Kubrick (who directed) and Jim Thompson, from Humphrey Cobb's novel about the French unit which mutinied in the First World War. Kubrick used him again on a fine, unusual western - with, again, intimations of sadism - One Eyed Jacks (1961), working with Guy Trosper, but eventually directed by its star and (uncredited) producer, Marlon Brando, who took over from Kubrick.

Writing with Buck Henry, Willingham had his greatest commercial success with The Graduate (1967), directed by Mike Nichols, from Charles Webb's novel, in which Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) seduced young Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman). Although the film has its dark side it is, along with The Vikings, furthest from Willingham's own brooding novels. He also wrote the screenplay of Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970), from Thomas Berger's novel, with Hoffman as the aged westerner reminiscing about his past with such types as General Custer and Wild Bill Hickok.

With one exception, Thieves Like Us (1974) is closest to Willingham's novels: a gritty tale of criminals in the Deep South during the Depression, which he wrote with Joan Tewkesbury and Robert Altman, from the book by Edward Anderson, earlier filmed as They Live By Night.

The exception is Rambling Rose (1991), for the evident reason that he was adapting his own novel (published in 1973), a comic, sour-sweet look at life in rural Georgia during the Depression, as exemplified by Rose, whose creed, "Girls don't want sex, they want love", she innocently but spectacularly overturns. Martha Coolidge directed, after five years trying to get backing, with Laura Dern as Rose, Dianne Ladd (her own mother) and Robert Duvall as the couple who take her in, and Lukas Haas as their son, understandably bewitched by her.

David Shipman

Calder Willingham, novelist, screenwriter: born Atlanta, Georgia 22 December 1922; married (four sons, two daughters); died Laconia, New Hampshire 19 February 1995.