The first feature film depicting George Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian future capture the book’s bleak atmosphere well. A miscast leading couple and Michael Anderson’s uninspired direction prevent the movie from reaching its potential. 5/10

1984. UK, 1956. Directed by Michael Anderson. Written by William Templeton & Ralph Gilbert Bettison. Based on novel by George Orwell. Starring: Desmond O’Brien, Jan Sterling, Michael Redgrave, Donald Pleasence, David Kossoff. Produced by N. Peter Rathvon.

In a totalitarian future, a third world war fought with atomic weapons has merged all countries into three great power blocs: Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. England is now a small part of Oceania, known as Air Strip One, and is ruled by The Party, who’s figurehead is the enigmatic Big Brother, the object of a fierce, state-controlled personal cult. Big Brother and the Party controls everyone and everything through cameras installed in “screens” in every room in every house and on every street, as well as a small army of “thought police” and neighbourhood watches. All social life is controlled and dictated by the party, whose aim it is to suppress and ultimately wipe out all other thoughts and emotions but dedication to Big Brother and hatred of all of Big Brother’s enemies.

Winston Smith (Edmond O’Brien) works as a clerk in the Outer Party, overseeing the revision of history, that is, changing texts in books, magazine archives and such, to match the current view of history put forth by Big Brother. Secretly he loathes the Party and Big Brother, and keeps a diary in which he expresses his hatred for the system. He is watched over by his Party-loyal friend and neighbour, Parsons (Donald Pleasence) and his young daughter Selina (Carol Wolveridge), a devoted member of the neighbourhood watch. Smith feels he is being followed by a female member of the Anti-Sex League, Julia (Jan Sterling), whom he expects of being a spy intent on reporting him to the Party. However, one day she slips him a note saying that she loves him. Julia turns out to be a repeat offender in the love department, as she takes him to secluded spots in the countryside outside the city where they can be together, for short stints every Sunday, without being watched. The couple decide to take a risk and rent a small room above an antique shop in the Proletarian quarter, where the friendly owner (David Kossoff) says there are no surveillance screens.

Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith and David Kossoff as the antiques dealer. Photo: Alamy.

Emboldened by each other, Winston and Julia decide to find other members of a rumoured resistance. Smith suspects that his superior, O’Connor of the Inner Party (Michael Redgrave), is secretly part of this group, as he has once torn up a report made against Smith for suspect activity. One day Smith is called up to O’Connor’s house on the pretense of a new diary, and he takes it as an invite to join the resistance, and Julia insists on coming along. To their utter astonishment, O’Connor is able to turn off the watchful eye of Big Brother in his lavish apartment, “a privilege awarded to a few Inner Party members”, and tells them that he is indeed one of the leaders of the resistance, and that from now on they will be taking orders from him. They are given a book written by the rebel leader Kalador (Bernard Rebel), basically laying out a Marxist class theory. Now back at their small flat, filled with new hope for the future, they discuss he overthrow of Big Brother. But alas, it turns out the friendly antique shop owner is a member of the thought police, and all they have said and done has been recorded. O’Connor is not a resistance member at all, but has been playing a shrewd game to catch thought criminals and presumtive rebels. Recognising that the ultimate drive to keep fighting against impossible odds is people’s love for each other, O’Connor separates Julia and Winston, and we follow Winston as he is taken into the dungeons of the Party, where O’Connor will not only try to break his will and sense of reality, but take away his reason for fighting by making him betray the love of his life.

Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling.

This British-American 1956 movie is based, of course, on George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, which, irritatingly enough, wasn’t published in 1948, but in 1949, making the the future portrayed in the book 35 years away, another irritatingly odd number. Of course, there were already a numbers of novels and stories set in 1999, but to my knowledge non set in 1984, so perhaps Orwell was going for originality. Released seven years after the book’s publication, this was by no means the first adaptation, but it was the first feature film version. Shot in black-and-white, it looks like a somewhat cash-strapped production, at times more resembling a TV play than a feature film. At 90 minutes, however, it is longer than many low-budget programmers at the time, and directed by Michael Anderson, a name with a certain amount of marquee value in science fiction circles. And as I will comment on further down, the sparse look of the movie may belie its budget.

Big Brother is watching.

Almost as soon as Orwell’s book hit the shelves, adaptations of the work started springing up. The first radio play, produced by American NBC, aired in August 1949, with David Niven as Mr. Smith. The first TV adaptation was likewise American. In 1953 the story was adapted for an episode of the show Westinghouse Studio One on CBS. The episode was condensed into 50 minutes, and written by Scottish playwright and screenwriter William Templeton (we will meet him again). The first British TV adaptation, considered by some to be the best adaptation to date, was produced by the BBC in 1954 as an almost two-hour long Sunday-Night Play, broadcast live with a few pre-filmed inserts. It was helmed by the team behind the immensely popular and ground-breaking 1953 TV show The Quatermass Experiment (review), as well as a lauded adaptation of Wuthering Heights the same year; writer Nigel Kneale and director/producer Rudolph Cartier. The lead as Smith was played by a young (-ish, he was 43 at the time) Peter Cushing and he was joined by later movie star Donald Pleasence, BAFTA-winning actress Yvonne Mitchell and later Dr.’s Quatermass and Watson André Morell. While somewhat clunky and at times slow-paced, it is still a gripping rendition of the story, largely thanks to Cartier’s atmospheric photography and the superb acting – plus the intelligent, unflinching script by Kneale. The episode led to a lot of controversy, partly because its perceived subversive nature, partly because of the gruesome last half hour, which is uncomfortable to watch even today. Motions were even made to Parliament over the program. But the controversy didn’t lessen the interest in the show. When it was reprised a few days later, it drew the largest TV audience since the coronation of the Queen, even outdoing The Quatermass Experiment. I would love to do a separate review on this adaptation, but sadly I will have to adhere to the rules I set out for myself and not review TV movies – otherwise it will take me decades to reach even the eighties on this blog (as I review all theatrically released SF movies in chronological order).

Filming the 1954 BBC live broadcast of Nineteen Eighty-Four (or a PR shot from a rehearsal). To the right Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell in the leads.

The next adaptation was the 1956 picture at hand. If the movie was slow to reach the big screen, is wasn’t because of a lack of effort or interest. Unsurprisingly, the movie rights were snatched up almost as soon as the book was published, but were then circulated among half a dozen producers without ever coming to fruition. At one point Michael Mann was set to direct it on location in West Berlin, but that fell through. According to film historian Bill Warren, N. Michael Rathvon acquired the rights in December 1954, and it was he who finally made the film happen at Columbia Pictures. Shrewdly, Rathvon approached William Templeton to update his 1953 teleplay for CBS and turn it into a 90-minute picture. For direction, Columbia turned to the young Michael Anderson, who hade made a splash in 1955 with The Dam Busters. As per usual with American pictures filmed in the UK, Columbia wanted a recognisable Hollywood name in the lead. For a while the studio attached David Wayne to the role of Winston Smith, but it fell to character actor Edmond O’Brien. A powerful, burly actor often seen in Shakespearian roles, O’Brien was a somewhat surprising pick for the role of Winston, by Orwell’s description something of a wallflower, but he had a fresh Academy Award win in his pocket from The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and was a sellable name that probably agreed to a somewhat smaller salary for the rare chance of playing a lead. The studio added even more Oscar prestige to the leading couple by casting Jan Sterling who had recently received an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role in the John Wayne airplane disaster movie The High and the Mighty (1954). Sterling, a New Yorker trained in London, was probably also picked for her fluency in British English.

Desmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling.

I have not seen the 1953 CBS TV adaptation, but Mark R. Hasan has a great write-up comparing the different versions to each other at KQEK, and from my understanding, Templeton’s movie script resembles his teleplay to a great degree, even if director Michael Anderson seems to have taken inspiration rather from the BBC adaptation. Some scenes, like the ones of Smith in his small apartment, seem very similar. Hasan writes that Templeton‘s CBS adaptation was adamant to point out that this was not “science fiction” as TV audiences were used to it. The TV episode started with a voice-over stating: “This is the story about the future. Not the distant future of spaceships and men from other planets, but the immediate future. This is a story about tomorrow. What happens to the people in this story might happen to us. Might happen to you. If we should ever relax in our fight for freedom, if we should allow any individuals or any group of individuals to reduce our freedom of thought, our freedom of speech, our freedom of religion, then what happens to the people in this story will happen to us.” The first two lines of the voice-over have been transferred verbatim as an opening text to the film version. Bill Warren quotes a New York Times article which reports that producer Rathvon and director Anderson had decided that “anything that smacks even faintly of the fantastic or science fiction has been resolutely shunned”. This says something about the three main instigators’ vision for the movie, but also about the way in which SF was perceived in the fifties, despite the fact that the decade had seen a whole number of very “serious” and “intelligent” SF novels. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was not perceived as a work of science fiction, even if both the trappings and the ideas were decidedly SF in nature.

There is subsequently very little in Michael Anderson’s film that conveys the idea of technological advancement during the 30 years between the mid-fifties and the mid-eighties. For one thing, almost all TV screens, so ubiquitous to Orwell’s novel, have been removed. Instead they are replace by a sort of oscillating “eye” present in all rooms. This may have to do with the intent to remove any gadgetry that “smacked of science fiction” – but a more prosaic explanation would be that the movie followed suit with the general practice of not showing TV sets in films. Such was the fierce hatred and fear of TV in the movie business, that for many studios showing a television set in the home of a family was taboo. Note that 1984 does include large public screens in town squares and screening rooms outfitted like movie theatres, where the citizens gather for their collective “two minutes of hate”. But unlike in the novel, these two minutes can’t be enjoyed from a domestic TV set. Ironically, the oscillating eyes smack more of science fiction than the “two-way” television screens of the novel would have, since TV’s were already a staple in many homes even in the fifties.

The Ministry of Truth.

There is more logic to the drab, timeless set design by Terence Verity. The movie plays up the feeling of a constant and on-going war, seemingly since the third world war in the sixties. The film opens with a scene that would have been familiar to most Londoners of the fifties: people seeking shelter from bomb planes to the sound of air raid sirens. This scene anchors the film in the present even though it is nominally set in a far-flung future thirty years to come. And even though war might have spurred on technological advancements in 30 years, it’s credible that little would have been done to modernise London’s buildings or construct new ones in constant fear of bombardment – especially as the Party seems to have little interest in improving the livelihood of the people. The bar frequented by Smith and Parsons looks like a typical cellar watering hole that has been unchanged since the thirties, with the addition of painted-on party slogans, rooms are uniformly bare and nondescript, as are all shots we get of streets or urban areas; mostly they are either obscured by shadows or crowded with people. The beginning of the movie does contain a rather impressive miniature shot of a futuristic London skyline, but that’s about all we get.

The drabness of the film, however, is less down to the design of the sets than a consequence of Anderson’s direction and the acting. Anderson uses long, lingering takes, but there is seldom anything either in the dialogue or on the screen that warrants these lingering shots. Most of them are flat, mid-range takes of people talking in nondescript surroundings. Some blame can also be laid on cinematographer C.M. Pennington-Richards, who does little to elevate the visuals from TV standard. In fact, the BBC TV version often looks better, both regarding design and cinematography. A key point is when Smith is being tortured at the end. The TV version is brutal in its intimacy, partly because we see very little of him getting electric shocks, but instead hear a whole lot, while the camera lingers on his unflinching tormentor instead (named O’Brien in the book and TV version, O’Connor in the movie). In the feature film, we see Smith, but only at a distance, on a screen, making him twice removed from the viewer. Partly, this was probably a decision taken in order to pacify the US censors, but it is indicative of the entire film.

“How many fingers, Mr. Smith?”

Anderson’s direction is not without its merits, and there are flashes here and there of the movie that might have been. The montages in the crowd scenes, for example, have some of the powerful imagery of Eisenstein’s silent work. Occasionally Anderson plays with expressionist angles, and in the few scenes where art director Verity has been allowed to use his imagination, he lets some playfulness creep in. The stark, unfurnished circular offices of the Ministry of Truth, where Smith works on his history revisions, have a Kafkaesque surrealism about them, and the featureless white dungeon where he is being held is reminiscent of the all-white world of George Lucas’ debut THX 1138 (or maybe I’m just making the connection because Donald Pleasence is present in both of them). The final shot of the film is also as cool as it is poignant. But these are moments of joy surrounded by a sea of unimaginative and boring setups and shots. They’re not bad or amateurish per se, just very flat.

As for the written material, the film naturally takes some liberties with the book. Condensing any novel into 90 minutes of film is a challenge, especially a novel that has often been deemed unfilmable because so much of the story takes place inside the head of Winston Smith. Plus, like most of Orwell’s work, it is not intended as an entertainment novel, it doesn’t have the usual story arc of a novel, but is a book about ideas, and ideas are hard to put on film without making a lecture of it. Furthermore, it is an impossibly bleak book, dissecting totalitarism and Orwell’s disillusion with Communism as a viable vehicle for realising a just and functioning form of socialism. In a way, it is the antithesis of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Where Bradbury put forth the notion that the human spirit, curiosity and lust for freedom will always prevail, and the smallest person can cause a crack in the machinery of oppression, Orwell tells us that even this narrative is one that has been fabricated by Big Brother, simply in order to lure out and capture any weak links, nipping the bud of rebellion in its infancy. Even when dreaming of crushing Big Brother, we are dreaming dreams programmed by Big Brother. Because all there is, is Big Brother. All this taken into consideration, I feel that the movie sticks pretty closely to the broad outlines of the novel. Unsurprisingly, Templeton focuses on sequences where things happen that move the plot forward. Everything is highly condensed, but all the big beats of the story remain — at least as far as I can remember, it must be over 20 years since I read the book. Nevertheless, the film remained out of circulation for many decades, because Orwell’s widow refused to renew its distribution rights, claiming it did not do justice to the spirit of the book. I find this criticism somewhat perplexing, as the plot of the film, even the look of the scenes, follow the outline of the 1954 BBC adaptation pretty closely, and that one is considered to be rather faithful adaptation. True, there are scenes in the BBC version that are omitted in the Columbia version, the dialogue is expanded — and much better — in the first, etc, but as a literary adaptation for the screen, the 1956 film is certainly among those that stay fairly close to the written material. Of course, it is possible that Sonia Orwell simply thought the movie was so bad that it misrepresented the quality of the book.

Michael Redgrave as O’Connor.

The casting, it is often put forth, is the major Achilles’ heel of the film. Edmond O’Brien is a large actor, and I’m not just speaking of his respectable physical size. He’s an actor that plays broad and colourful characters, and he wears his emotions on the surface of his skin. The character of Winston Smith requires a different kind of acting to be credible. Here’s a mousy man working as a small cog at a faceless control machinery. Secretly he nurses a flame of rebellion, hidden deep beneath his grey, featureless exterior. It is a flame that he keeps alive not so much because of any hope of a change in the system he lives in. When the book begins, Smith is resigned to living and dying under the yoke of Big Brother, because he does not believe there is an alternative. Rather, his hatred for Big Brother is a deeply personal emotion, one that allows him to at least feel like an individual, although he may go through the routines of a robot for most of his waking time. This is why the end of the book is so tragic: when conforming to the norms of society, Smith was at least allowed to keep the freedom of his mind. But when he stepped out of line, even this was taken from him. It takes a stretch of imagination to believe that Edmond O’Brien would be able to keep secret his loathing for Big Brother, his doubts about the system or his diary. O’Brien was a smart actor, and he realised he couldn’t play the role with the same panache as he was used to, but neither can he make himself become the stone-faced and dry little man that is Peter Cushing, try as he might. So he tries to straddle some sort of middle ground, but fails to find the right tome for his performance, even if he is quite effective in a number of scenes. It’s not that he does a bad job of it, he’s just not the right actor for the role.

Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling.

To be fair, O’Brien gets little help from fellow American Jan Sterling. Like O’Brien, Sterling was a good actress in her own right, but was more at home playing English ladies than subversive revolutionaries. The script doesn’t do her any favours, either, presenting her as a rather chaste and virginial romantic interest, and not as the hot-blooded, mischievous and fiercely brave rebel she is in the book. In the book, it is Julia that lures Winston into rebellion, rather than the other way round. Here, again, Yvonne Mitchell does a much better job in the BBC version, and gets much better material to work with. The love affair between Winston and Julia is supposed to be the emotional centrepiece of the story, but there is absolutely no spark, no chemistry, between O’Brien and Sterling. It is hard for a viewer to feel that this is a love worth dying for. Sterling is superb in the last scene, but that’s a little too late.

As per usual, the British actors come off better than their American counterparts. Donald Pleasence, here at a young-ish 37, is great as usual. He was absolutely superb as the party-loyal Syme in the BBC version, extolling the virtues of Newspeak and the new dictionary he is working on. As the character has been removed from the 1956 version, Pleasence has been cast as Smith’s neighbour Parsons, a less meaty role, but Pleasence still makes it his own. He is also the only actor to cross over from the BBC adaptation. In the 1956 version the name of Smith’s superior has been changed from O’Brien to O’Connor, probably to avoid confusion with lead actor Edmond O’Brien. He is played by stage legend Michael Redgrave, who made his lauded film breakthrough in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), was Oscar nominated in 1948 and won the best actor award at Cannes for his work in the drama The Browning Version (1951). Redgrave does his O’Connor with panache, but even he is outdone by André Morell in the BBC version, thanks to the better script and direction of the TV adaptation. A mention should also go to David Kossoff who plays the antique shop owner/thought police, and puts in what is perhaps the best performance in the movie.

Donald Pleasence as Parsons with Edmond O’Brien.

Two endings were filmed for the movie. One followed Orwell’s bleak vision, another had a slightly more upbeat finale, with Winston and Julia escaping imprisonment before they are brainwashed, and dying in each others arms as they are shot by the guards. Most sources state that the happier ending was intended for the British audience, while Wikipedia claims that it was shot for the US distribution.

1984 received mixed reviews upon its release. The New York Times A.H. Weiler called it “a stark, sober and thoughtful, if not altogether persuasive” film. Weiler wrote: “the drama of the two young lovers who attempt to ally themselves against the absolute ruling powers is fitfully projected and its impact is felt only in a crescendo-like climax”. Marjorie Adams at the Boston Globe noted the film was “challenging” and “terrifying” but that there was “little to entertain the casual film-goer”. According to Adams, “the film had the same sense of bleak horror and black apprehension that Orwell developed when freedom was allowed to die”. Saturday Review especially singled out Michael Redgrave as the highlight of the film. The film was a box office disappointment both in the US and the UK.

Today the film has a 7.0/10 audience rating on IMDb, based on over 3,500 votes, a perhaps surprisingly solid verdict. Not so much with modern day critics. AllMovie gives in 2.5/5 stars, with Craig Butler calling it “decent enough, but not the cinematic treatment that the material deserves”. In the book British Science Fiction Cinema, Linda Ruth Williams calls it “a rather dutiful version”. Barry Atkinson in Atomic Age Cinema suggests that it is “underdeveloped in many areas”. Atkinson does praise the “imaginative set-pieces” and Malcolm Arnold’s “stirring score”, but notes that “O’Brien and Sterling’s doomed romance didn’t tug at the heart strings as it should have done”. Bill Warren is not impressed: “The scenes are largely flaccid, and only rarely does anything seem important, even to the director. The film has no drive or energy, no conviction.”

The final scene of the movie.

Despite its problematic casting, and despite its truncated script, and despite Michael Anderson’s occasionally wooden photography, the 1956 version of 1984 is still not a bad movie. It’s a version of 1984 with all its edges filed down and devoid of much of the book’s emotional punch, but it still packs one. The last third of the film does make up for the woodenness of the previous proceedings, much thanks to the performances of Michael Redgrave and Desmond O’Brien.

Michael Anderson is not a director with a great reputation among SF fans, despite having made a number of classic films and being nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe, two Hugo Awards and a DGA Award. He is best remembered for the WWII movie The Dam Busters (1955), the star-filled Jules Verne epic Around the World in 80 Days (1956), the SF dystopia Logan’s Run (1976), the killer whale movie Orca (1977) and the TV mini series The Martian Chronicles (1980).

Director Michael Anderson.

Anderson was born in England in 1920 to a theatrical family, and tentatively started his career in the movies as an actor, them switched behind the camera and eventually became assistant director at Elstree Studios. Serving in the Royal Signal Corps during WWII, he met young actor, writer and would-be director Peter Ustinov. Ustinov became Anderson’s mentor after the war, as he gradually worked himself up from assistant director to director. His breakthrough movie was The Dam Busters (1955), a film which has some significance for science fiction fans. Recreating the Royal British Airforce’s Operation Chastise in Germany, it depicts a small squadron of fighter pilots attempting to take down a heavily armed industrial dam with the help of the so-called “bouncing bomb”. The film’s scenes of the pilots attacking the dam served as the inspiration for the climax in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), where the rebel pilots try to hit the ventilation shaft in the Death Star with a proton bomb. George Lucas lifted several sequences, even lines, from the movie. The film’s reflective last scene, where the pilots rejoice in their victory, but mourn the loss of their comrades, is also reflected in Star Wars. The Dam Busters was a surprise hit, and went on to become the highest grossing movie in the UK in 1955. Anderson was hailed as the new wonderchild of British cinema.

Which is probably why producer Mike Todd hired him in a haste after firing director John Farrow on the first shooting day of the independently produced extravaganza Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Shot on 100 natural locations around the world and 140 sets, the film had a cast and crew of close to 1,000 people, including around 40 celebrity cameos, including Frank Sinatra, John Gielgud, Ava Gardner, Buster Keaton, Marlene Dietrich and Red Skelton. The film was a roaring success with both audiences and critics, and won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (Anderson was nominated for Best Director, but lost to George Stevens for Giant). Later critics have noted that the Motion Picture Academy seems to have been so wowed by the spectacle and hubbub around the movie that they lost sight of the film’s many failings as an actual dramatic work. Dennis Schwartz writes: “Just goes to show you what dreck can win the Oscar if you got the money and know how to promote your product.” Michael Anderson went on to make two more films with Mike Todd in the lead, the best known is probably the war movie Yangtse Incident: The Story of H.M.S. Amethyst (1957), best known, that is, for being filmed abord the actual “H.M.S. Amethyst” that was barely saved from being scrapped.

Michael Anderson directing Michael Redgrave on the set of 1984.

In 1959 Anderson relocated to Hollywood, with an MGM contract, and after Alfred Hitchcock backed out of he naval thriller The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), Anderson was appointed, probably because of his experience of shooting around a ship. The sixties were a busy period for Anderson, directing pictures for several different companies in several countries , with mixed success. After a few years’ hiatus he returned to the screen in 1972 with Pope Joan, starring Liv Ullman and Olivia de Havilland. In 1975 he half-nibbled again at science fiction, teaming up with legendary SF producer George Pal to direct an adaptation of the literary pulp hero Doc Savage. Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975) is not an SF film per se, but the almost superhuman character’s influence on latter-day superheroes like Batman and Superman gives the movie a connection to the genre. Anderson’s biggest ever commercial success marked his return to science fiction proper: Logan’s Run (1976) surpassed even Around the World in 80 Days at the box office (not taking into account inflation, though), and grossed over 50 million dollars world-wide, and helped MGM avoid bankruptcy. The movie had the bad fortune of being followed the next year by Star Wars, immediately making it look quaint and old-fashioned, but critics at the time were also mixed in their responses, some calling it a lackluster film with a weak script that was unsure of its tone. I do believe later critics have called it “flat”. In 1977 he directed the Jaws rehash Orca, with an orca whale replacing the shark. The movie was commercially successful but panned by critics.

Jenny Agutter and Michael York in Logan’s Run.

In 1981 Michael Anderson moved to his wive’s home country Canada, where he primarily made TV movies, but did also venture into feature film territory. His biggest hit was the family movie Summer of the Monkeys (1998), co-produced for Disney. In 1988 he directed The Jeweller’s Shop, based on a play by Pope John Paul II. Anderson continued dabbling in SF during the 80’s and 90’s, directing the theatrical films Murder by Phone (1982), Second Time Lucky (1984) and Millennium (1989), as well as the mini-series The Martian Chronicles (1980), based on the classic fix-up novel by Ray Bradbury, and a TV adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1997). Anderson is a director with a mixed legacy, many critics still considering the taut mid-budget movie The Dam Busters to be his best effort. A bit like a latter-day Michael Bay, Anderson was adept at handling huge productions and helming commercially successful spectacles. However, critics often find his films oddly unengaging, uneven and curiously lackluster. Around the World in 80 Days and Logan’s Run are considered classics, but not particularly good films per se.

Lead actor Edmond O’Brien was an interesting character. Next-door-neighbour to Harry Houdini, he learned stage magic as a kid, but turned to acting in his late teens. He dropped out of acting school after six months and made his Broadway debut in 1936 as the gravedigger in Hamlet, directed by John Gielgud. In the thirties and forties he specialised in Shakespearean roles, sharing the stage with actors like Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. He made his screen debut in 1939 in a featured supporting role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton. O’Brien made himself a name as one of the most sought-after characters actors in Hollywood in the forties and fifties, playing the occasional character lead in films such as D.O.A. (1949) and 1984. As stated, he won an Oscar in 1954, and was nominated again in 1965 for Seven Days of May (1964), for which he won a Golden Globe. In 1963 he was also awarded a Bronze Wrangler along with the main cast, director and producer of the western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). O’Brien also dabbled in sci-fi from time to time, he had a large supporting role in the Disney feature Moon Pilot (1962) and another one in Richard Fleischer’s classic Fantastic Voyage (1966). O’Brien kept working steadily into the mid-seventies, despite already having problems with failing eyesight and memory in the fifties. Edmond O’Brien’s daughter Maria was for a time married to Michael Anderson’s son, Michael, Jr. Both also worked as actors.

Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling.

Born into a rich family in New York, Jan Sterling was privately tutored in Brazil, London and Paris, before, at the age of 17, she left her home to go back to Manhattan, where she soon became a fixture on Broadway, partly thanks to her trained British accent. She broke into film in the late forties, and had a good run until her husband’s sudden death in 1959. Apart from her Oscar nominated part in The High and the Mighty, she had memorable turns in John Cromwell’s Caged (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951) opposite Kirk Douglas and The Harder they Fall (1956) with Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger. She slowed her career after her husband died, but kept working til’ the end of the eighties.

Michael Redgrave, of course, is part of the iconic generation of British thespians that gave us actors like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole. While no stranger to film audiences, it was in the theatre that Redgrave thrived as actor, director and theatre manager. Like Michael Anderson, Redgrave came from a theatre family, but worked as a schoolmaster before embarking on a career as actor. He made his professional debut at the Old Vic in London in 1936, and was immediately thrust among greats like Olivier and Gielgud. He made a name for himself as Orlando in Love’s Labours Lost. Quickly rising to one of Britain’s most lauded stage performers, Redgrave worked continuously on stage primarily in London, but with stints in New York, until the mid-seventies, when his career was scuttled by Parkinon’s disease. While not as big a name on film as some of his contemporaries, Redgrave nonetheless appeared in over 50 movies and 30 TV productions. He made his TV debut as early as 1937 and got his breakthrough in film in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). His first role in Hollywood was in Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), for which he received an Oscar nomination, and he won the Best Actor Prize in Cannes for The Browning Version, which he considered his favourite film. The film also won him a Finnish Jussi award for Best Actor in a Foreign Film. He appeared in The Dam Busters and was twice BAFTA nominated for The Night My Number Came up (1955) and Time Without Pity (1957). Another notable film appearance was in Joseph Mankiewicz’ The Quiet American (1958).

Donald Pleasence (left) with Peter Cushing in the BBC broadcast of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Harbouring dreams of becoming an actor, Donald Pleasence began his professional career following in the footsteps of his father who worked at the British railroad as a station manager. He applied for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but failed to get one. While working as a station manager at the Swinton railway station, he decided he would become a professional actor anyway, and sent letters to over 40 theatrical companies in the era, until he finally got an offer to start working as an assistant stage manager at the Jersey Repertory Company. And a foot inside the door was all he needed, and he soon found himself on stage rather than managing it. His acting career could have been cut short. During WWII he was a member of RAF, and in 1944 was shot down over Germany and captured. In a rare interview on Aspel & Co in 1992, Pleasence relates the story of how he parachuted to safety, only to be confronted by “50 German soldiers coming at me with everything from machine guns to axes”. When he witnessed the Germans actually behaving in real life like the were caricatured in Western movies, shouting “Ja, main Leutnant!” and finishing it off with a stiff Nazi salute and a “Heil Hitler!”, he according this his own words “got the giggles. I’d only seen that in British films!” But even being a POW didn’t prevent hom from acting, as he and few other captives put on plays to entertain their fellow prisoners.

After the war Pleasence returned to the stage and continued working his way up the career ladder, where he got noticed in Hobson’s Choice in 1952, which led to more prestige productions, and got his final breakthrough as a star of the stage in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker in 1960. He won numerous awards for his stage work, but it is still as a film and TV actor he is primarily remembered. He made his TV debut in 1952 in The Dybbuk and his first film, The Beachcomber, in 1954. His role of Syme in the 1954 TV adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four was his first SF appearance, and 1984 his first SF film. His small, unassuming exterior and balding head combined with his piercing blue eyes, his surprising intensity and capacity for playing wound-up, nervous and sadistic characters quickly typecast him as madmen, villains or fanatics, but he was equally capable of soft-spoken, warm portrayals, and the combination of his traits made for often multi-layered, interesting characterisations. He spent a good few years working himself up to international fame, though. He played King Richard in the 1956-1958 TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, and it was also TV that brought him to Hollywood in 1962, when the producer of The Twilight Zone insisted he played the lead in the episode Changing of the Guard, as a retiring English professor, despite the fact he was only 42 at the time. His breakthrough in Hollywood came the following year, first with the movie version of The Caretaker (1963) and then with his role as the blind forger in John Sturges‘ film The Great Escape (1963), about a group of POW:s attempting escape from a German prison camp. Sturges, when filming began, wasn’t aware of Pleasence’s wartime experiences, and brushed him off when he was offering advice to the director. Another star of the film pointed out to Sturges that Pleasance had been in a German prison camp during WWII, and after that Sturges appointed him as technical adviser.

Walter Gotell (left), Donald Pleasence (sitting at the back) and Edmond O’Brien (right) in the holding cell.

Pleasance’s rise to fame as one of movie history’s greatest villains came in 1967, when he got the chance to play James Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Love Twice. While Blofeld had featured in earlier films, Pleasence was the first actor to give him a face, and the first to don his trademark scar. The same year he played the evil, gun-toting preacher hounding Charlton Heston in the western Will Penny. He had a unusual first billing in Ted Kotcheff’s low-budget film Wake in Fright (1971) and played Heinrich Himmler in The Eagle has Landed (1976). He will, however, be best remembered for his recurring role as the heroic character of Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978). So popular was his portrayal (beside that of Jamie Lee Curtis’), that he returned to it in all of the four sequels made prior to his death in 1995, except Halloween III, which didn’t feature Michael Myers, and was a standalone film. He had been a horror movie mainstay long before Halloween, though, appearing in his first fright movie as early as 1960. He appeared in such movies as Deathline (1972), where he played the lead, From Beyond the Grave (1974) with Peter Cushing, he played Dr. Seward in the 1979 Frank Langella Dracula, fronted Alone in the Dark with Jack Palance and Martin Landau and once again played a heroic wise man in Prince of Darkness (1987). Alongside these, he also starred in a string of Italian horror films, including Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985).

Pleasence as Dr. Loomis in Halloween.

Pleasence did not shun SF either. He had a small role in the Mel Ferrer-Christopher Lee adaptation of The Hands of Orlac (1960), was featured as one of the crew travelling inside a human body in Fantastic Voyage (1966), appeared in the spy-fi comedy Matchless (1967) and played opposite Robert Duvall in THX 1138 (1971). In the seventies he appeared in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1971), played the mad scientist in The Mutations (1974) and appeared in a featured role in Escape to Witch Mountain. He played co-lead in the Italian clunker The Pumaman (1980), famously played the president of the United States in Escape from New York (1984), Prossor in the Italosploitation Warrior of the Lost World (1984), Victor Frankenstein in the SF comedy Frankenstein’s Great Aunt Tillie (1984) and played the lead in the Italian Urban Animals (1987).

Speaking of Bond villains, not many people seem to have picked up on the fact that another legendary Bond nemesis appears in a small role as a prison guard in 1984, namely General Gogol. In fact, future Gogol and Blofeld share a scene. German actor Walter Gotell actually started his Bond career playing another character, a henchman, in From Russia with Love (1963). It was during the Roger Moore era in the seventies that he was cast as the head of KGB, Anatol Gogol, first in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and then subsequently in Moonraker (1979), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985) and lastly in Timothy Dalton’s Bond debut A View to a Kill (1987). He was cast because of his resemblance to the former head of Soviet secret police Lavrentiy Beria.

Two Bond villains: General Gogol (Walter Gotell) and Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) in 1984.

As opposed to many Germans who fled to the UK with the rise of the Nazi Party, Gotell was fluent in English, and entered the British movie industry as early as 1943. Throughout the years, he had distinguished roles in films like The African Queen (1951), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Black Sunday (1977) and Cuba (1979). Apart from the afore-mentioned Bond spy-fi films, he appeared in such SF fare as The Road to Hong Kong (1962), The Damned (1962) and The Boys from Brazil (1978). He was a frequent guest star on numerous TV shows, including The Invisible Man (1958-1960), The Andromeda Breakthrough (in which he had a recurring role), Star Trek: The Next Generation (episode Home Soil, 1988, as director of the terraformers on Velara III) and The X-Files (he played ex-Nazi scientist Victor Klemper in the 1995 episode Paper Clip).

The orchestral score of the film, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, is good and emotionally powerful without being overbearing. The music was composed by Malcolm Arnold, best known for writing the score for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he won an Oscar and was nominated for a Grammy. Set decorator Olga Lehmann went on to become a costume designer for TV, earning her four Emmy nominations. Hairdresser Henry Montsash wound up a Hammer shortly after 1984, and worked on such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1958), The Hound of Baskervilles (1959) and Witchfinder General (1968). He spent the last years of his career on such sexploitation films like Sex Farm (1974) and Erotic Inferno (1975). But he also worked on a good number of SF movies, including The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) as well as the TV series UFO (1970-1971). Production manager John Croydon eventually became producer of the SF films Fiend Without a Face (1958), First Man Into Space (1959) and The Projected Man (1966).

Janne Wass

1984. UK, 1956. Directed by Michael Anderson Written by William Templeton & Ralph Gilbert Bettison. Based on the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Starring: Desmond O’Brien, Jan Sterling, Michael Redgrave, Donald Pleasence, David Kossoff, Mervyn Johns, Carol Wolveridge, Ernest Clark, Patrick Allen, Ronan O’Casey, Michael Ripper, Ewen Solon, Kenneth Griffith. Music: Malcolm Arnold. Cinematography: C.M. Pennington-Richards. Editing: Bill Lewthwaite. Art direction: Terence Verity. Makeup: Bob Clarke. Sound recordist: Arthur Bradburn. Special effects: George Blackwell, et.al. Wardrobe: Babs Gray. Produced by N. Peter Rathvon for Holiday Film Productions & Columbia Pictures.

2 replies

  1. You’ve probably heard this before, but thought that these comments from Imdb on Pleasance’s being a “handkerchief actor” were interesting…

    “Frank Langella: One night I was taken to dinner by a wonderful actress named Coral Browne, and she said to me, ‘Have you had a scene with Donald Pleasance yet?’ I said, ‘No… ‘ And she said, ‘Well, be careful dear, he’s a handkerchief actor. He’ll
    take out his handkerchief, he’ll blow his nose, he’ll eat a bag of candy, he’ll do anything he can. Don’t get in a two-shot with him.'”

    “According to the DVD documentary The Revamping of Dracula (2004), Donald Pleasence was a props actor who knew the movie game, and frequently would be seen utilizing props like a handkerchief or eating sweets from a bag, handling objects so his scenes would be difficult to edit due to the continuity issues that exist with handling objects between shots, thereby forcing more time on-screen, and reducing the chance of his scenes being cut out of the movie.”

    Liked by 1 person

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