DGA Quarterly

Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges(University of Wisconsin, 352 pages, $60)
By Glenn Lovell

 

JOHN STURGES was a movie director who really looked the part. Barrel-chested, 6-foot-2, menacing black sunglasses, and a huge mouth made for bellowing orders. He belongs with others—Aldrich, Fuller, Preminger—who were seemingly born with a shooting script in one hand and a bullhorn in the other. This first biography on the director will undoubtedly please those who feel Sturges has never quite received his critical due.

Not that Sturges helped much. “I just never took myself that seriously,” he told biographer Glenn Lovell, who tracked the director down before his death in 1992. Their conversations chart a trajectory from apprenticeships with David O. Selznick and George Stevens on Gunga Din, to the editing bay at RKO alongside Robert Wise and Mark Robson, through a nail-biting sojourn with William Wyler as a combat-documentarist in WWII (they witnessed the Allies march into Rome and crossed France after D-Day), and postwar stints at Columbia and MGM before he became, like Wise and Richard Brooks, a director for-hire in the mid-’50s.

Naturally, one hones in on the classics, including Bad Day at Black Rock, that crisp, pared-down liberal thriller, rigorously faithful to the Aristotelian unities and still wonderfully suspenseful. Lovell offers irresistible, extended accounts of The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, which established a whole generation of movie actors and built a template for all-star-cast spectaculars. And Lovell argues they still influence today’s boisterous and exciting action movies. In between there are sketches of a moody, insecure young Steve McQueen and the endlessly morose Charles Bronson, and a bald assessment of Sturges’ single-minded workaholic tendencies. We also learn of Sturges’ minor role in the famous DGA meeting in 1950 where Cecil B. DeMille’s right-wing faction unsuccessfully attempted to recall president Joe Mankiewicz. The relatively apolitical Sturges was the 10th signatory of John Huston’s petition to force an emergency meeting. Lovell is a scrupulously evenhanded biographer, and his account of Sturges’ life and work fills another gap in our knowledge of postwar Hollywood in its buccaneering, big-budget heyday.

Reviewed by John Patterson

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