Obituary: Osmond Borradaile

Kevin Brownlow
Tuesday 04 May 1999 23:02

ACCORDING TO Raymond Massey, Osmond Borradaile, who has died at the age of 100, was "the greatest exterior camera artist in the world" for his work on such British classics as The Four Feathers, Scott of the Antarctic and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Born in 1898 in Winnipeg, he saw his first film in 1905 in a Chinese restaurant - the nitrate film caught fire and the gas illumination exploded. It was some time before he saw another. Surprisingly, one of his first jobs was as an apprentice projectionist. He cranked the film, fed the carbons to the arc lamp, sold the tickets and hired the piano player. In 1915 he graduated from floor mopper to lab technician at the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co in Hollywood.

He enlisted in 1916 in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and served in France. In 1920, he worked as assistant cameraman on such films as Peck's Bad Boy (1921) with Jackie Coogan and Beyond the Rocks (1922) with Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. He attached much of his later success to the variety of his experiences in Hollywood.

I became known as the crazy Canuck because I preferred to work out in the open. It seemed much more exciting than working on a stage. My stuff was always straightforward. I never wanted people to say "Gosh, how did he do that?" I just wanted it to be natural.

Fascinated with aviation, Borradaile got to know Charles Lindbergh, before his Atlantic flight, and worked with Howard Hughes - whose enthusiasm and manner impressed him. In 1928, he helped to shoot the aerial scenes on Hughes's aviation epic Hell's Angels (1930). These are still among the finest ever shot.

In 1929, he worked on The Love Parade, an Ernst Lubitsch musical with Maurice Chevalier. "Working in the sweat boxes drove me to conclude that I would leave movie-making if I could not work outdoors." He was then sent on a one-year contract to the Paramount studios in Joinville, near Paris, as director of photography - a new job created for talkies, which required multiple cameras and someone to control them. He did not relish the endless interiors but he had a mortgage to pay.

In France he met and married a continuity girl called Christiane Lippens. He also met Alexander Korda, who had just directed Marius (1931), and moved with him to England when Joinville closed. He was with Korda when their hired limousine crashed; Korda was stunned and Borradaile sustained a fractured skull. He then went down with scarlet fever.

When he had recovered, Korda invited him to join his new company, London Films. "I always enjoyed working with Alex, for he had an excellent understanding of all aspects of film-making." He had a fruitful relationship with Korda's French cameraman Georges Perinal, working on the 2nd unit and the exteriors of such films as The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), the first British film to win an Oscar, and operating on The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), with Douglas Fairbanks senior.

Borradaile was an adventurer and happily went to the inhospitable Belgian Congo and Uganda for exteriors for Sanders of the River (1935). He was made director of the African camera unit, photographing all the scenes that would be used as back projection in the studio.

In 1934, he shot Julian Huxley's documentary The Private Life of the Gannets at Grassholm Island, Wales. For one scene, he used a Stranraer flying boat, power-diving the rookery to simulate the effect of a gannet returning to its nest. The film won an Oscar for short subject.

Late in 1934, Korda introduced Borradaile to a Mr Shaw, not the bearded playwright he expected, but Aircraftsman Shaw, the nom de paix of Lawrence of Arabia. He turned up on his motorcycle to discuss a possible film of his Revolt in the Desert. "An intensely private and unhappy man," thought Borradaile. Lawrence was killed in 1935, and, despite many attempts, the film was never made.

Borradaile admired Robert Flaherty, and the vivid realism of his films like Nanook of the North (1922), and he threatened to leave London Films when the company wouldn't let him work with him on Elephant Boy. Korda gave in.

In India, Borradaile was impressed by Flaherty's respect for all those he worked with, but felt he lacked a certain technical knowledge. And Flaherty had no time for producers. He spent almost a year in India, refusing to send any footage back to London. Korda recalled the company and some of the picture had to be restaged at Denham. It was Borradaile who discovered in the stables of the Maharajah of Mysore the boy who became internationally famous as Sabu. He persuaded Flaherty to give him the lead and he and Sabu remained close friends.

In 1937, Borradaile returned to England to film the Coronation. "I broke all the rules by telling the King where to move and physically placing him in certain shots. But he was very co-operative." The same year, he travelled to northern India to photograph exteriors for The Drum (1938), a tale of revolt in the Himalayas to be shot in Technicolor. Location trips could be hazardous - the company came under fire from hostile tribesmen. The heat was severe and at one point a pack-mule carrying the exposed film hurtled over a precipice. Miraculously it survived, and the film was undamaged. Borradaile lost 26 pounds during the trip.

For The Four Feathers (1939) he filmed in the Sudan with thousands of extras and a camel brigade, enduring heat and even a locust plague. The company found a Sudanese veteran of Omdurman who agreed to charge the guns, but refused to fall off his horse. He explained he had charged the guns without perishing in 1898 and he'd be damned if he'd be killed for a film of it!

When Borradaile had finished these exteriors, Perinal completed the interiors at Denham. The picture was nominated for an Academy Award for best colour cinematography in 1939. The following year The Thief of Baghdad, on which he worked as associate photographer, won the Oscar. The award went to Georges Perinal. After his death, Perinal's family gave it to Borradaile.

In 1939, Borradaile worked on Korda's The Lion Has Wings, a hastily concocted propaganda film, and in May 1940, went to Holland to shoot exteriors for Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent. It was just before the Nazi invasion and German fifth columnists made the experience eerily close to the film's theme, mysterious black vehicles interfered with car chases, windmills refused to operate . . .

Borradaile was eventually arrested and flown back to England, where he was debriefed by British intelligence. He joined the Home Guard and then went to Canada with his family to do 2nd unit work on 49th Parallel (1941), shot by Freddie Young. He got back to Britain on the first of the lease- lend destroyers.

Commissioned as a captain in the Army, he went to Ethiopia to film The Lion of Judah, a propaganda film about Haile Selassie. A contributor to the script was Colonel Orde Wingate. Anxious to cover the siege of Tobruk, Borradaile sailed aboard an Australian destroyer which was dive-bombed. He got the camera gear out and secured excellent coverage of the siege. Aboard a minelayer he again came under attack - he grabbed his camera and saw through the viewfinder the sort of action shots he had dreamed of. Unfortunately, one bomb struck too close and he was knocked unconscious. Two officers saved his life and the ship exploded minutes later with the loss of 38 lives.

He returned to England with a mass of injuries, but his camera had saved his face. He learned that three of his assistants had been killed in action in various theatres of war. He went to Canada to work with the National Film Board, a period he felt was disappointingly unproductive - the major obstacle being his lack of rapport with the Commissioner, John Grierson. To his relief, the Rank Organisation asked him to return to make a picture about the RAF - Signed with their Honour - a difficult production which, even though the aerial material had been shot, was never completed.

He resumed his hazardous wartime travelling with a trip to Australia to work on Harry Watt's The Overlanders, about the epic 1942 cattle drive from the Northern Territories to Queensland to prevent the herds falling into the hands of the Japanese. During production, the unit heard of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.

He had no sooner returned to England than Korda sent him to Africa for a Hemingway story, The Macomber Affair (1947), directed by Zoltan Korda, with Gregory Peck. Borradaile was delighted when Hemingway called his footage first class. He went to Antarctica in 1946-47 to shoot 2nd unit exteriors for Scott of the Antarctic (1948), travelling 30,000 miles in six months. Borradaile also shot the locations in Switzerland and Norway. "I have yet to see anything in the cinema," wrote the critic Paul Dehn, "approaching the almost unearthly loveliness of some of Osmond Borradaile's exterior photography."

He worked on the English scenes for Howard Hawks's comedy I Was a Male War Bride, in 1949, with Cary Grant. Two years later, he was chief cameraman for the National Film Board's documentary, Royal Journey, about the tour of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh to Canada - which won a British Academy Award.

In 1952, he retired from the film industry and moved with his family to the 80-acre Cheam Farm at Chilliwack, British Columbia, where he became a dairy farmer. In the 1960s he devoted himself to the growth of British Columbia's fledgling film industry. In 1966, Robert Krasker, who had trained with Borradaile in London and gone on to win an Oscar for The Third Man, asked him to come out of retirement to shoot 2nd unit on The Trap, with Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham.

In 1982, he was named a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1999, he received the Legion of Honour from the French government for his service in the First World War. With his daughter Anita Hadley, he wrote the story of his adventurous career, Life Through a Lens, which has yet to find a publisher.

Kevin Brownlow

Osmond Hudson Borradaile, cinematographer: born Winnipeg, Manitoba 17 July 1898; CC 1982; married 1931 Christiane Lippens (died 1995; one son, two daughters); died West Vancouver, British Columbia 24 March 1999.

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