J. Lee Thompson

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J. Lee Thompson
J. Lee Thompson in the 1970s
John Lee Thompson

(1914-08-01)1 August 1914
Died30 August 2002(2002-08-30) (aged 88)
Occupation Film director
Years active1937–1989

John Lee Thompson (1 August 1914 – 30 August 2002) was a British film director, active in London and Hollywood, best known for such movies as Ice Cold in Alex , Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone . [1] [2] [3] [4]


Early Life

Thompson was born in Bristol on 1 August 1914. His family had links to the theatre. Thompson studied at Dover College then went to work in the theatre, joining teh Nottingham Repertory Company as an actor and stagehand. He later went to work for a repertory company in Croydon, Surrey.

He wrote plays in his spare time. One of them, Murder Happens? was performed at Croydon in 1934. His second staged play, Double Error, had a brief West End run at the Fortune Theatre in 1935. He said he had written a part for himself to act in but when management asked him if he wanted to do so he said "of course not" and "the die was cast. Later I decided if I didn't have the guts to admit I wanted to play the role I should never act again and I never did." [5]


The film rights to Double Error were purchased for £100. [6] Thompson was hired to work in the scriptwriting department at British International Pictures at Elstree Studios. While there he mad his one appearance an actor in films, playing a small role in Midshipman Easy (1935).

His first credit was The Price of Folly (1937), based on his play. He also worked on the scripts for Glamorous Night (1937) and he worked as dialogue coach on Jamaica Inn (1939), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

He wrote the scripts for The Middle Watch (1940), made at Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) and East of Piccadilly (1941).

World War Two

Thompson served in World War II as a tailgunner and wireless operator in the RAF. In 1942 a revised version of Double Error, titled Murder Without Crime , opened at the Comedy Theatre in London. The play had a run on Broadway in 1943. [7]

Post War

After the war Thompson returned to his work as scriptwriter under contract at Associated British on such films as No Place for Jennifer (1949) and For Them That Tresspass (1949) the latter starring Richard Todd in his debut.

Thompson was dialogue director on The Hasty Heart (1949), which turned Todd into a star.

The same year his play The Human Touch , co written with Dudley Leslie, ran for more than a hundred performances at the Savoy Theatre in a production starring Alec Guinness. [8]

British Film Director

Early Films

His first film as a director was Murder Without Crime (1950), made at ABPC, who put Thompson under contract. Thompson was offered £500 for the screen rights to the play and £500 to direct. He said "it was not so much that I wanted to direct movies it was to get the money so I could continue writing plays. But while directing it I got the feeling that I wanted to be a movie director." [6]

Thompson said "the fact is I found directing to be much easier than writing and I enjoyed it much more than writing as well. So I became a film director." [9]

The film was about a man who thinks he has committed murder; Thompson also wrote the screenplay, based on his own play, Double Error. In the words of Thompson's Screenonline profile "this well structured film went largely unnoticed but contained many of the themes which were to characterise Lee Thompson's work: a good person's struggle with their conscience, an external force of evil, and an out-of-character moment of violence which has long-term consequences. Believing people can "commit crimes without being criminals", he sought to make his audiences condone or at least understand behaviour that they would normally condemn." [10]

Thompson's first film success was one he directed and co-wrote (with Anne Burnaby), The Yellow Balloon (1953), the story of a child who is blackmailed into helping a criminal after accidentally causing his friend's death.

He followed it with a comedy, For Better, For Worse (1954) starring Dirk Bogarde, which was even more popular though it is little remembered today.

Social Realist Films

Thompson's fourth film as director The Weak and the Wicked (1954), portrays the lives of women in prison and is based on memoirs by Joan Henry, who became Thompson's second wife. Thompson wrote the script, again in collaboration with Anne Burnaby. It starred Glynis Johns and Diana Dors and was a hit at the box office. [11] The success of the film greatly added to Thompson's prestige and he began to be regrarded as one of the leading directors in the country. [12]

Thompson was loaned to Rank Films to direct a Jack Buchanan comedy, As Long as They're Happy (1955), co-starring Dors and An Alligator Named Daisy (1955), also starring Dors, along with Donald Sinden. He returned to ABPC and the theme of female prisoners in Yield to the Night (1956), an anti-capital punishment tale with Diana Dors as the condemned prisoner.

The Good Companions (1957) was lighter fare, based on a book by J.B. Priestley. According to one obituary Thompson "made excellent use of the CinemaScope screen, assembled a fine supporting cast and, with zestful choreography... came up with one of the few successes in a genre for which the British cinema was not noted." [9]

Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), with Yvonne Mitchell, Anthony Quayle and Sylvia Syms and written by Ted Willis, deals with the collapse of a 20-year marriage. [6]

Action Director

Thompson had a big success with Ice Cold in Alex (1958), the story of a British Army unit trekking across North Africa in the Second World War. It featured John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle and Harry Andrews; it won three BAFTA Awards, including Best British Film. He followed it with North West Frontier (1959), an adventure film set in British India starring Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall. It was one of the most popular films in Britain in 1959. [13]

No Trees in the Street (1959) was a thriller written by Willis. Also in that genre was Tiger Bay (1959), starring John Mills; it introduced cinema audiences to Mills' daughter Hayley and German actor Horst Buchholz. Hayley Mills also earned a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer portraying a 12-year-old girl who refuses to betray a sailor accused of murder.

Thompson followed this with I Aim at the Stars (1960).

Hollywood career

Thompson vaulted to international fame with The Guns of Navarone (1961) as a last-minute replacement for director Alexander Mackendrick. His take-charge attitude during its production earned him the nickname 'Mighty Mouse' from lead actor Gregory Peck. The Guns of Navarone, a Second World War epic filmed on location in Rhodes, Greece, was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Thompson for Best Director. In 1961 he said "primarily I am in the business to entertain. This does not mean that I never want to try artistic movies again. But I do not think you can sell art on the big movie circuits. Art belongs in the art houses." [6]

The success of Navarone won him entry into Hollywood, where he directed Cape Fear (1962), a psychological thriller with Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen and Lori Martin. Based on a novel called The Executioners by John D. MacDonald, Cape Fear shows how a sex offender can manipulate the justice system and terrorise an entire family. Highly controversial for its time,[ citation needed ] the film was cut heavily in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

He worked on a project with Warren Beatty and Clifford Odets based on an idea of Beattys. It was never made. [5] Neither was The Short Cut which he discussed doing with Daryl F. Zanuck [14] , or The Living Room from a novel by Graham Greene or Chips with Everything by Arnold Wexler. [15]

Mirisch Brothers

Thompson directed Yul Brynner in the Cossack epic Taras Bulba (1962) for the Mirisch Brothers. He was going to follow it with Big Charlie starring Brynner but the movie was not made. [16]

In 1962 the Mirisch Brothers signed Thompson to a four picture contract. [17] The first made under this was the Mayan Indian epic Kings of the Sun (1963), starring Brynner.

In September 1962 Thompson said he would make I Love Louisa with Elizabeth Taylor. [18] This film became What a Way to Go! (1964) with Shirley MacLaine.

In September 1963 Thompson announced he had formed a company, Bowhall Productions, to make around four films a year in the $120,000-$160,000 budget range. Thompson said it was "unlikely" the films would "make a profit" but they were movies he "deeply wanted to make". They included Chips with Everything, Rose without a Thorn by Blifford Bax, and a film in Spain. Following Return from the Ashes he would also make a $7 million movie in Africa Thunder of Giants. [19]

Instead he did another with MacLaine, John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1965). [20] Back in England Thompson made Return from the Ashes (1965) for the Mirisch Brothers. [21] In April 1965 Thompson announced he would make High Citadel based on a novel by Desmond Bagley for the Mirisch Brothers. [22] These plans were postponed when Thompson received an offer to replace Michael Anderson, who had fallen ill before he was to start directing a thriller about cults with David Niven, Eye of the Devil (1967) (originally called 13.) High Citadel was not made. [23] Another film announced but not made was The Case Against Colonel Sutton which he was going to do with producer Martin Poll. [24] Neither was a proposed musical remake of The Private Lives of Henry VIII. [25]

After a war film, Before Winter Comes (1968) Thompson was reunited with the star, producer and writer of Navarone in the Western Mackenna's Gold (1969) but it did poorly at the box office. [26] So too did the espionage tale The Chairman (1969) with Gregory Peck.

Back in the UK he made Country Dance AKA Brotherly Love (1970). He did two science fiction films, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes . "They were cutting back on the budgets the whole time after the first one," said Thompson later. "It was a bad policy." [27]

Later Career

US Television

Thompson began working more for US: A Great American Tragedy (1972); Huckleberry Finn (1974) starring Jeff East and Paul Winfield; The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1974); The Blue Knight (1975), for television; Widow (1976).

Charles Bronson

In 1976, Thompson started collaborating with actor Charles Bronson, starting with the Warner Bros. crime story St. Ives . [28]

In 1977, Bronson and Thompson teamed again on an unconventional western called The White Buffalo . [29]

In 1978, Thompson directed The Greek Tycoon and The Passage . [30]

Thompson directed the horror film, Happy Birthday to Me in 1980.

In 1981 with Bronson the film Caboblanco had its Los Angeles opening on April 24. [31] Also that year he directed an episode of the TV show Code Red .

On the 11th of March 1983, premiered Thompson's newest collaboration with Bronson 10 to Midnight. [32]

In 1984, Thompson directed two feature film. The Evil That Men Do, where he re-collaborated with Bronson, released on September 21. [33] Also released that year was The Ambassador that starred Robert Mitchum.

On the 22nd of November 1985, King Solomon's Mines premiered. [34] Thompson directed an Indiana Jones-style pastiche shot in Zimbabwe with Richard Chamberlain and reasonably successful at the box office.

On April 18 1986, Murphy's Law, the Thompson and Bronson collaboration of that year, started its theatrical run. It is a neo-noir thriller film. [35] Acting in the film are Kathleen Wilhoite, Carrie Snodgress, Robert F. Lyons, and Richard Romanus. [36] Thompson tried another Indiana Jones-type tale with Firewalker, which premiered on November 21. [37] The film paired the actors Chuck Norris with Louis Gossett, Jr. as its leads. The action adventure co-stars Will Sampson and Melody Anderson. [38] Norris and Gossett play Max Donigan and Leo Porter, two soldiers of fortune, whose adventures rarely result in any notable gain. They are befriended by an inscrutable woman of mystery Patricia (Anderson). Patricia's map leads them on a quest for treasure in Central America. The name of the movie comes from the powerful guardian of the treasure.

In 1986, Thompson was credited as the director of two Charles Bronson films made by Cannon. On September 16 premiered Messenger of Death and on November 6 Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. [39] [40] He later reflected, "I realized these films were not going to enhance my reputation. I had to live with that. You're not going to be offered the great films at a certain age." [41]

February 3 1989, Thompson's final directorial effort was released Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects starring Charles Bronson. [42]

In 1990 Thompson moved to Sooke. [41]

In 1992 Thompson said he was trying to finance a remake of Tiger Bay with Anna Chumsky and Alec Baldwin. The director said "I have certain regrets now. I would rather have stuck to making films like Yield to the Nightwhich had some integrity and importance. But the British film industry caved in. I shouldn't denigrate myself too much because I have enjoyed making my films but I suppose I sort of sold out." [43]

Personal Life

Thompson was married three times. His first wife was Florence Bailey, who he married in wartime; they had a son, Peter (1938-97), who became a film editor on several of his father's films and predeceased him, and a daughter, Lesley, who survived him. [44]

His second wife was prisoner and author Joan Henry, who he married in 1958. They collaborated on Weak and the Wicked and Yield to the Night. He left her for actor Susan Hampshire; in March 1962 Hedda Hopper reported that Thompson was "sweating it out" in Los Angeles while Henry and Hampire "are awaiting his decision in London." [45] In September Hopper reported that it was over between Thompson and Hampshire. [46] Henry and Thompson were divorced in the late 1960s. [47]

His third wife was Penny who was his widow.


Thompson died of congestive heart failure on 30 August 2002, at his holiday home in Sooke, British Columbia, Canada aged 88.

Critical Appraisal

The Guardian obituary called him "a compelling craftsman". [48] The Washington Post said "he directed adventure films noted for their punchy pacing, rich atmosphere and nuanced characterization." [49] Variety said he was "Known as a craftsman who had a clear sense of how each film should play, scene by scene". [50]

The Independent said "he lent his acute sense of atmosphere and vivid visual style to a wide range of material. His intimate kitchen-sink melodramas... were unflinching portraits of social realism unusually stark for their time. His thrillers were tautly edited exercises in suspense, and he also made some engaging comedies and a bracing musical...Though his later films can most kindly be labelled potboilers, his body of work in the Fifties and early Sixties was an impressive one." [9]

In 2000 he said he made so many American films "because of my insecurity and effort to stay here. If I was given a script and it had something good in it I'd say, `Good, I've got my next picture!' That is not the way to make good films, so some of them were good and some not so good.... What an idiot! `You should have stayed at what you really wanted to make.' If I have anything to say to young directors today it's don't make a film for the sake of making it. Make it only if you really believe in it. Then success will eventually come to you." [41]


Selected filmography







Notes and references

  1. "J. Lee Thompson, 88, Director of 'Guns of Navarone'". The New York Times . 6 September 2002.
  2. "J. Lee Thompson". Britishpictures.com. Archived from the original on 28 August 2006.
  3. "J. Lee Thompson". Britmovie.co.uk. Archived from the original on 2 October 2013.
  4. "J. Lee Thompson Profile". DVD Review. Archived from the original on 2 September 2006.
  5. 1 2 FILM DIRECTOR'S VELVET GLOVE HIDES TOUGH, FIRM HAND: HOPPER Hopper, Hedda. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]11 Nov 1962: A4.
  6. 1 2 3 4 J. LEE THOMPSON DISCUSSES CAREER: 'Guns of Navarone' Director Took Devious Path to Films By MURRAY SCHUMACH Special to The New York Times.25 July 1961: 18.
  7. The THEATRE: Mayhem in Mayfair Wall Street Journal (1923 - Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]20 Aug 1943: 10.
  8. Antigone, by Jean Anouilh: New. The Human Touch, by J. Lee-Thompson and Dudley Leslie: Savoy Findlater, Richard. Tribune; Blackpool Iss. 632, (Feb 18, 1949): 22.
  9. 1 2 3 Obituary: J. Lee Thompson ; Versatile director of `The Guns of Navarone': [FOREIGN Edition] Vallance, Tom. The Independent; London (UK) [London (UK)]04 Sep 2002: 16.
  10. "J. Lee Thompson". Screenonline.
  11. U.S. MONEY BEHIND 30% OF BRITISH FILMS: Problems for the Board of Trade The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) [Manchester (UK)] 4 May 1956: 7
  12. Women in Prison and Women in Dressing Gowns: Rediscovering the 1950s films of J. Lee Thompson Williams, Melanie. Journal of Gender Studies; Abingdon Vol. 11, Iss. 1, (Mar 2002): 5-15.
  13. FOUR BRITISH FILMS IN 'TOP 6': BOULTING COMEDY HEADS BOX OFFICE LIST Our own Reporter. The Guardian (1959–2003) [London (UK)] 11 December 1959: 4.
  15. Thompson to Back Arnold Wesker Film: Liz Taylor Probable 'VIP'; Allied Artists Comes to Life Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times 19 Nov 1962: C15.
  16. Thompson Directs Elephant Drama: Brynner Stars in India Film; Danova to Receive Knighthood Hopper, Hedda. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]18 Aug 1961: C10.
  17. 'Navarone' Director Signs for 4 Films Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune 27 Aug 1962: b9.
  18. J. Lee Thompson Books Liz for Film Next Year Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune 19 Sep 1962: b2.
  20. Miss Thulin's 'Return' By STEPHEN WATTSLONDON. New York Times 9 May 1965: X9.
  21. FILMLAND EVENTS: Lee Thompson to Do 'Return From Ashes' Los Angeles Times 19 June 1963: E13.
  22. MOVIE CALL SHEET: Revolution to Be Filmed by Thompson Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times (17 Apr 1965: B9.
  23. MOVIE CALL SHEET: Thompson Will Direct '13' Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]26 Aug 1965: d12.
  24. Poll, Thompson Put Colonel on Trial: More L.A. Stage Firsts; Lyons' Escapism Pays Off Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times 1 Mar 1965: C19.
  25. Thompson to Make Musical Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times 8 Mar 1966: c12.
  26. 'Gold' Will Be in Cinerama Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times 30 Jan 1967: d21.
  27. Talking apes? Get out of here!': For Sooke filmmaker J. Lee Thompson, Planet of the Apes was the one that got away: [Final Edition] Reid, Michael D. Times - Colonist; Victoria, B.C. [Victoria, B.C]27 July 2001: C1 /
  28. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  29. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  30. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  31. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  32. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  33. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  34. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  35. Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth; eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (3rd ed.). Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. ISBN   0-87951-479-5
  36. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  37. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  38. Thomas, Kevin (24 November 1986). "'Firewalker' Is Handsome Hokum". The Los Angeles Times . Retrieved 30 August 2010.
  39. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  40. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  41. 1 2 3 A life on the set: Reid, Michael D. Times - Colonist; Victoria, B.C. [Victoria, B.C]02 Sep 2000: C5 / FRONT.
  42. "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  43. When Fear is remade as a family affair: Adrian Turner reckons that Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear isn't a patch on J Lee Thompson's. He talks to the British director of the original movie Turner, Adrian. The Guardian 27 Feb 1992: 26.
  44. Obituary: J Lee Thompson: Director of Ice Cold In Alex, Cape Fear and The Guns Of Navarone Turner, Adrian. The Guardian; London (UK) [London (UK)]04 Sep 2002: 1.20.
  45. Hopper, Hedda (7 March 1962). "Looking at Hollywood: It Was Hope's Night and He Earned It All". Chicago Daily Tribune. p. a7.
  46. J. Lee Thompson Books Liz for Film Next Year Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Chicago, Ill. [Chicago, Ill]19 Sep 1962: b2.
  47. Obituary of Joan Henry Debutante who went to jail for fraud but made a new life after writing a sensational bestseller about her experiences in prison The Daily Telegraph; London (UK) [London (UK)]01 Jan 2001: 23.
  48. J Lee Thompson The Guardian (1959-2003); London (UK) [London (UK)]04 Sep 2002: 20.
  49. J. Lee Thompson Film Director ...: [FINAL Edition] The Washington Post; Washington, D.C. [Washington, D.C]08 Sep 2002: C09.
  50. Obituaries: J. Lee Thompson Anonymous. Variety; Los Angeles Vol. 388, Iss. 4, (Sep 9-Sep 15, 2002): 63.

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