Obituary: John Sturges

Gilbert Adair
Monday 24 August 1992 00:02 BST

John Sturges, film director, born Oak Park Illinois 3 January 1910, died San Luis Obispo California 18 August 1992.

JOHN STURGES is a rather curious case in Hollywood history: a director responsible for a trio of extremely famous films, films whose titles have all but entered the language (Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape) but with whose own name only specialists are conversant.

Such relative anonymity is partly a consequence of the fact that he shared that name with another, incomparably more accomplished, film-maker, to whom he bore absolutely no relation, either biological or artistic - Preston Sturges, the grandmaster of screwball comedy. It can no doubt also be attributed to an exceptionally uneven filmography, one rich in dross. But it is due above all, as the almost complete absence of critical interest in his work suggests, to the fact that his films, whether good or bad, strike one as strangely impersonal affairs, rigorously bereft of stylistic trademarks or enduring thematic preoccupations. Throughout a long and prolific career he remained, more like a movie actor than a movie director, fatally dependent on the script.

A good studio man (as one might say 'a good company man'), he would film the screenplay to which he had been assigned, and film it competently for the most part, but the ultimate success or failure of the finished work had already been determined before he even stepped on to the set. If the script was good, he would make a good feature film; if not, he would make a bad, featureless one. Even in his best years, however, his films tended to be about nothing else but their subject-matter - certainly not about himself, 'John Sturges', who is still a wholly opaque entity in film studies.

What biographical material exists on Sturges is equally unrevealing - the mere chronology of a life. He was born in 1910 in the small town of Oak Park, Illinois, and entered the movie business (at RKO) in his early twenties as an assistant in its blueprint department. Following a stint as personal aide to the studio's then presiding genius, David O. Selznick, he was promoted to the position of editor; and during the Second World War, while serving as a Captain in the Air Corps, he co-directed with William Wyler the feature-length documentary Thunderbolt (1945). On his demobilisation in 1946 he returned to Hollywood to direct his own first (B-movie) feature, The Man Who Dared.

The notion of an apprenticeship is almost unheard-of these days in Hollywood, when a tyro director is expected to stamp a personal style on his very first effort. But things were different under the ancien regime of the studio system, and Sturges had to labour long in obscurity before beginning to achieve recognition: the first of his films listed by Leonard Maltin in his TV Movies and Video Guide was actually his seventh, Sign of the Ram (1948), which Maltin describes as a 'well-wrought drama of crippled wife using ailment to hamstring husband and children'. Well-wrought it may have been, but Sturges clearly had not yet hit his stride.

This would occur (after a few lively, interesting films: Right Cross, 1950, a prize-fighting melodrama featuring an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe; The Magnificent Yankee, 1951, a moving biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes whose title of course anticipates that of Sturges's most famous western; and The People Against O'Hara, 1951, in which Spencer Tracy played a lawyer accused of unethical conduct) with the first of his major westerns, Escape from Fort Bravo, filmed in Death Valley in 1953 and interlinking the Civil War with the contemporaneous Indian Wars.

In 1955, after making Underwater], a piece of totally forgettable frippery about skindiving, which starred both Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield and whose sole memorable idea was to have been premiered underwater, Sturges directed his best film, Bad Day at Black Rock. A gripping, dynamically filmed rural thriller with Spencer Tracy, it can also claim the distinction of being the first Hollywood movie ever to make reference to the country's internment of its Japanese-born citizens in wartime. And this faintly schizophrenic fluctuation between trash and excellence, the good, the bad and the frankly ugly, was to become increasingly characteristic of the director's frequent insensitivity to the innate quality of a screenplay.

Thus he followed Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and The Law and Jake Wade (1958), two near-classic westerns already foreshadowing the cynicism and disenchantment which would utterly transform the genre in the Sixties and Seventies, with The Old Man and the Sea (also 1958), a calamitous adaptation of the Hemingway novella, pretentious without ever being ambitious, in which the elderly, grizzled author can himself be glimpsed in a tantalisingly brief scene. And, in 1960, sandwiched between another two superior westerns, Last Train from Gun Hill (with Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn), and The Magnificent Seven (his hugely and on the whole deservedly popular transcription of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, a film itself influenced by the westerns of John Ford), was a maudlin monstrosity entitled Never So Few.

The Great Escape, made in 1963, was an amusing, old-fashioned Boy's Own adventure that is not much more than the sum of (some of) its enjoyable parts, the best-remembered of these being Steve McQueen's spectacular motorcycle jaunt. Otherwise, Sturges's latter films were an undistinguished job-lot of westerns and melodramas and he retired in 1977, a stalwart professional to the end, after completing The Eagle Has Landed, another dated, intermittently diverting entertainment, based on Jack Higgins's best-selling novel. Unfortunately for Sturges, it was the sort of movie they didn't make any more, and he didn't make it that time either.

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