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Bill Hunt interviews director
J. Lee Thompson

Guns of Navarone director J. Lee Thompson

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with J. Lee Thompson, the veteran, British-born director of The Guns of Navarone. I found Lee to be a truly wonderful person to chat with - very easy going and likable, with more than his share of funny and interesting stories to tell, amassed over a life-long career that spans more than sixty years. We talked for quite a while about his work, and Guns of Navarone in particular, and what follows are some of the highlights. I think you'll find them worth a read. Do keep in mind that there are MAJOR spoilers for the film in the text below - you've been warned. And you'll just have to imagine Lee's wonderful British accent...

Bill Hunt (The Digital Bits): So Lee, how did you become interested in directing film? I understand theater was where you first sort of cut your teeth professionally.

J. Lee Thompson: Absolutely. First of all, I did some acting on stage. Then I wrote a play which was put on in the West End in London, and it was eventually bought by a film company. I was asked to do the screenplay for that, and so I became a screenwriter. I later wrote another play, which was a big success in London and played in New York, which was also bought to be turned into a film, and this time, the company asked me to direct it. It was a film called Murder Without Crime. And the fact is, that I found directing to be much easier than writing and I enjoyed it much more that writing as well. So I became a film director.

Bill Hunt: And you've had quite an impressive career as a film director. You've done more than fifty films, is that correct?

J. Lee Thompson: That's right yes. And The Guns of Navarone was my first big American film - the one that got me started in Hollywood.

Bill Hunt: As a director who came from the theater, tell me about your feelings going into this project. In its day, Guns of Navarone was one of the biggest films that had ever been done. It must have been somewhat intimidating...

J. Lee Thompson: Well, I had some idea of what to expect on such a big film, because I'd just done a big British film called Flame Over India [aka North West Frontier], with Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall. And so I felt comfortable with the larger scale and difficulties of doing a bigger film. And with Guns of Navarone, the only stressful aspect was that I had so little preparation time. The film was going to be made by Alexander Mackendrick, a famous British director, but he fell out with Carl Foreman, the producer and writer. And then they chose me to direct, but I only had ten days to do preproduction.

Bill Hunt: That's from the time you were hired until you actually started shooting?

J. Lee Thompson: Yes - that's it. So this was very stressful as you can imagine. Luckily, I had the most wonderful cast, who were all very supportive of me. And they immediately liked my way of directing, which was to rehearse the whole scene that we were about to shoot, and explain each setup that we were about to do, before we actually shot anything. Sometimes the rehearsals would take two or three or four hours, and we'd go a whole morning without having got a shot. But then in the afternoon, we'd get ten or eleven shots done and complete the scene, because everyone knew exactly where they were going and knew exactly what setup was going to follow the previous one. And it became a delight for the actors - they really liked this technique and they were supportive to the hilt.

Bill Hunt: Well, particularly I imagine this was something the actors liked, since they themselves came from theater backgrounds. That kind of intensive rehearsal method is very common in that world and it must have very much put them at ease.

J. Lee Thompson: I think that's exactly right. So immediately I had this wonderful rapport with the cast, which made everything else from that point on very much easier.

Bill Hunt: Since you came on board with so little time before filming, I assume the cast was completely selected and hired by that time?

J. Lee Thompson: All of the main characters had been cast. Only minor characters hadn't, so I was involved with that. David, Anthony, Gregory, Stanley Baker - they were all already on board.

Bill Hunt: Had you worked with any of these particular actors before Navarone?

J. Lee Thompson: I hadn't worked with any of them except Anthony Quayle and Gia Scala, with whom I had done several films previously. But otherwise, they were all American actors as far as I was concerned and they were new to me.

Bill Hunt: In watching the documentary on this DVD, and listening to the commentary, I know there are a number of interesting stories about what took place behind-the-scenes. Particularly, I'm thinking of how Anthony Quinn taught everyone to play chess on the set between takes, and it sort of brought the cast together.

J. Lee Thompson: Well, naturally there were tensions. In a film like this, the actors were watching each other afraid that one might get the advantage over the other - that's just natural. That's how actors are and how they should be. But Quinn suddenly introduced this chess game, which they all loved playing, and they all became very close-knit friends because of it. And it actually helped the production tremendously. (laughs) I should say most of the time that was the case. Sometimes it was difficult to get them away from their chessboards.

Bill Hunt: (laughing) I know there are a couple of pictures in the documentary where the whole cast is sitting around tables playing the game. Did you ever get caught up in it?

J. Lee Thompson: No, I didn't. I was too busy.

Bill Hunt: Somebody had to mind the store, right?

J. Lee Thompson: That's it. But I was quite happy to see them gathered around chess tables relaxing, rather than gathered around me worrying about the next scene. And it made them all work very well together.

Bill Hunt: And I understand that Quinn was the grand master on the set?

J. Lee Thompson: Oh, yes. He certainly was. I don't know that anyone ever beat him. He certainly never admitted it if anyone did. That's just Quinn.

Bill Hunt: Now you obviously worked with Gregory Peck again after Guns of Navarone.

J. Lee Thompson: Yes, several times. Cape Fear, The Chairman, Mackenna's Gold… oh, yes. I did four films with Gregory. Over the years, I've stayed in touch with Greg and the others. They've become good friends, but I don't get to see as much of them as I would like. But they're good friends.

Bill Hunt: I know that there was some concern in your mind about casting James Darren as Spyros. What kind of a risk was that?

J. Lee Thompson: Well, Jimmy was a really wonderful singer, you know. He did records and cabaret performances - he was a pop star. So there was some worry that he wouldn't fit the part, or that his musical fame would make him difficult on the set. But he turned out to be a delight to work with. He took direction wonderfully, and he knew exactly what I was striving for. He just has this instinct - a very natural talent for acting. He's also become a very dear friend.

Bill Hunt: Now most of the film was shot at Shepperton Studios in London, is that correct?

J. Lee Thompson: That's right. And all of the location filming was done in Greece, on Rhodes Island and some of it in Athens. The guns themselves were built full size at Shepperton, and at the time it was the biggest set that had ever been built for a film in England. The shots where the guns were actually fired - that was all full scale. It was a magnificent sight. There's a rather funny story… well, now it's amusing, anyway. We had a storm one day, and the whole set collapsed. A torrential rain beat down upon it, and the cave portions of the set started to crumple. It was all just plaster, you know. And it took three weeks to rebuild. Fortunately, we had plenty of other scenes we could shoot while the repairs were being completed. But my God… when it happened it was a terrible sight. (laughs) I was just beside myself.

Bill Hunt: Speaking of water, the entire sequence involving the shipwreck was all shot on stage, as well.

J. Lee Thompson: Yes, indeed. This took us about four or five weeks to shoot, because we only got two or three shots a day. We had these huge tanks above the set, which was built in the main studio tank, and the boat was built on rockers. This water would hit the artists with such force, that some of them would get knocked right out of the boat. Then there was the danger of them slipping underneath the boat, which was rocking. I remember that Stanley Baker got caught under the boat for a moment and had to be rescued. Each one of the actors suffered in one way or another. And of course, the water could not be warmed very much. It was a very tough sequence, but the actors were absolutely magnificent. They never complained and went back into the tank for shot after shot. And I think that it is still one of the best storm sequences on film.

Bill Hunt: Well, since that time, other films have done similar scenes, but this was the first time that jet engines had been used to blow the water across the set with such force.

J. Lee Thompson: I think it was the first time that anyone had done a really big storm in the studio, yes. I have to give the credit to Geoffrey Drake, our wonderful art director. He designed the setup, placed the tanks just so, and made sure that the water was churning just right. It was an amazing engineering job.

Bill Hunt: And the scene where the team is scaling the cliff face - that was also done on-stage at Shepperton?

J. Lee Thompson: Oh yes… practically all of it, except a little bit of second unit footage which we used for backgrounds. The cliff was built on the studio floor, so you put your camera at one end on the floor, and you shot towards the other side, which was a blue screen - actually against the wall of the studio. And we had our actors crawl along the floor, over the rocks, and it would look as if they were climbing vertically. Again, I have to give the credit to Geoff - he devised this method. It worked very well. We had excellent results, I think.

Bill Hunt: When you worked in Greece, you actually had the cooperation of the Greek Army and Navy. They provided virtually all of the military vehicles you see in the film. How was that arranged?

J. Lee Thompson: Well, that was Carl who worked that all out. It was all arranged before I came on board. But there's another story that is funny now that I can look back on it, all these years later. At the time it was a disaster. One of the worst things that happened - we actually sunk one of the Navy boats.

Bill Hunt: You mention that briefly in the commentary.

J. Lee Thompson: (laughs) Oh, yes. In the film, you know, the Nazi ship comes along side and they blow it out of the water. We were going to do it with models - the actual sinking bit. But when they showed me what the explosion would look like on the real boat, which we had to use until right up to the sinking, I said "It doesn't look big enough." It wasn't convincing that this little plume of smoke would cause the ship to sink. So I asked them to make the blast bigger. And they warned me - the special effects men - that if they put any more explosives in the boat it would possibly sink. But I insisted. (laughs) And then I said, "Action!" and the boat blew up just the way I wanted. But when the smoke cleared, it had disappeared.

Bill Hunt: (laughing) So you blew the bottom right out?

J. Lee Thompson: Right out. Unfortunately, the captain of the boat - and of course nobody was on it when we blew it up - he was court-martialed by the Greek Navy, who said it was his fault. So I had to go to his rescue, and say that it was entirely my fault - that I had been warned it could happen but, behind the captain's back, I had instructed my crew to put more explosives on the boat. (laughing) Oh dear… it was quite a debacle.

Bill Hunt: (still laughing) But you saved his career?

J. Lee Thompson: Yes, thankfully.

Bill Hunt: Now, when you were filming, I understand that the King of Greece and his family came to the set…

J. Lee Thompson: Oh yes… it was quite a fuss. Everyone just swarmed around them. And I got very angry, because it was holding up the shooting. (amused) Oh dear...

Bill Hunt: I wanted to ask you about the scene in the film where the team gets captured. The actor that plays the Nazi officer named Sessler… George Mikell I think his name was - the one who arrives to interrogate the prisoners - where did you find him? He was really terrific, I thought, for having such a small role. Was he a theater actor?

J. Lee Thompson: We had a lot of people come to see me when casting the smaller parts, and he was someone we found locally, at a theater near the studio. He was terrific, as I recall - just a great villain. He was actually in a play at the time we were shooting in England, and I remember that we had to let him go early one day so that he could get back to the theater to do that night's show.

Bill Hunt: Now in that particular scene, Anthony Quinn's performance is really quite amazing…

J. Lee Thompson: Well, that's an example of a scene where we did heavy rehearsal. So that right from the start, everybody knew what they were going to do. I think it took at least a whole morning, if not longer, just to rehearse the whole scene. And we did it several ways. It was such a pleasure to be able to rehearse the actors like that, because they could really find just the right moments of each scene. I don't know why it isn't done more today.

Bill Hunt: It's interesting you say that, because so many directors today seem to pre-plan everything so heavily and storyboard every moment before they get on the set. But then when they've got the actors in front of the camera, they might do one or two rehearsals, but they'll film the rehearsals at the same time. I know that you're not like that. You don't like to use storyboards at all…

J. Lee Thompson: Well, storyboards are often done by other people. Sometimes today you see a director who will draw their own, but it used to be that someone would come along - often the art director - and they would draw out how the film should look. Sometimes it's for producers, who can't envision how the shot will look, so they want to see all these drawings. But I don't want someone else visualizing how a film is going to look for me - that's my job as the director. I do sometimes make drawings for myself. I never go on the set without knowing how I want a particular shot to look. But I don't want to be too tied into a particular look, because as I rehearse, I may alter something. And when I do make some sketches, they're just for me. I draw them in my script, and I'm such a bad drawer that nobody else could understand them. (laughs) Sometimes I can't even understand them when I go back to look at them later.

Bill Hunt: Another thing I wanted to talk with you about was Gia Scala and her role in the film. You mentioned that you had worked with her before?

J. Lee Thompson: Yes, I had done a film right before Guns called I Aim at the Stars - the Wernher von Braun story - and Gia played in that one. And she's completely crazy. I had, you know, a very tough time with her on the Stars film. She was magnificent in the film, but she's so eccentric and crazy, that when I finished that one I said, "Thank God I'll never have to work with her again." And then the next film I did was Guns, where she'd already been cast! (laughs)

Bill Hunt: (laughing) There's a funny story in the documentary where you talk about Gia giving you a haircut on the set of Guns of Navarone.

J. Lee Thompson: Oh my, yes. That was a terrible moment. Gia insisted on giving me a haircut, and I certainly needed one. So I sat down in this chair, and she proceeded to cut my hair. And she completely made me bald! I had to wear a cap for most of the rest of the film.

Bill Hunt: Now this was a way of getting back at you, because you wanted her to cut her hair to look like a man for Guns

J. Lee Thompson: That's right, yes. (laughs) She was just a mad, crazy girl. And you know, all that aside, I really just adored her. Unfortunately, she's not alive today. She later took her own life.

Bill Hunt: Her scene in this film, where Anna is shot, remains one of the most powerful I've seen on film, even to this day. One of the things I think is interesting about it, is that if the film were made today, I wonder if that would have played out like it did. Would a studio or a writer really be that daring to let a moment like that happen on film today. Certainly, it isn't one of those crowd-pleasing moments you usually get in Hollywood films. The character of Anna is very tragic - she's been though so much at the hands of the Nazis already, and there's really no justice for her in the film.

J. Lee Thompson: Yes, it is very tragic. You know, I saw the film the other day at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and it was filled with young people. And I thought they really appreciated that scene - the whole film actually. I find that really rewarding. That was one of my favorite scenes in the film, because it was so dramatic and really spoke about the morals of war. We worked very hard to get that one right.

Bill Hunt: It's a very important moment in the film, because Miller - David Niven's character - is really needling Gregory Peck's Captain Mallory, basically saying, "Well, why don't you just kill her?" He's giving Mallory the business for being so seemingly callous earlier in the film. And then Mallroy is really about to kill her, because he knows he must to accomplish the mission, when Irene Papas' character does it for him. The question one asks, is would Mallory really have gone through with it himself? And what does that say about him?

J. Lee Thompson: I think he would have, yes. And that was what was so intriguing about Carl Foreman's screenplay. He really brought up all these moral and ethical issues. It was really very well written. A lot of people thought it was this great rousing war film, but it was really very anti-war.

Bill Hunt: That's something I've always noticed about Guns of Navarone - while this film is definitely a World War II film, it doesn't feel like your typical war movie. It's got a much more timeless quality to it.

J. Lee Thompson: Well, it has. And that was all in Foreman's script, which was based on the Alistair MacLean novel. But MacLean's novel was a very straightforward boy's own adventure story. You know, the heroes take it to the Nazis. Carl infused the story with much more meaning - a much deeper knowledge of humanity. Carl really lifted that story from being just an ordinary adventure/thriller into something that was far more sophisticated.

Bill Hunt: I wonder, if the movie was made today, if it wouldn't be just a straightforward adventure story.

J. Lee Thompson: Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of directors and producers out there who would want to make it that way. As it was, a lot of critics, although they loved the film and gave it high marks, questioned the moralistic approach. And I think if it was remade today, it would be far more of a thriller than the film we made.

Bill Hunt: I certainly imagine that the budget today would be two hundred plus million, and the cast would be filled with pretty-boy faces like Brad Pitt or Matt Damon.

J. Lee Thompson: (laughing) I think you're right. Of course, they did make a sequel to this film some years later. And it was really dreadful.

Bill Hunt: I wanted to ask you about that. Were you ever approached to direct Force 10 from Navarone?

J. Lee Thompson: Yes, I was approached. But I read the first draft of the script, and it was awful. And after I told them that, they never came back to me with any other offers. (laughs) The final film was just a mess. In the end, I think Carl Foreman even left the whole thing behind. He detached himself from it completely.

Bill Hunt: Getting back to Foreman for a moment, a lot of people don't know that he also wrote High Noon and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

J. Lee Thompson: He was a very accomplished screenwriter. He was blacklisted in Hollywood for a time, so he went to work in England. There was some controversy about what actually happened, but he eventually came off the black list. But he had to go to England to make films for quite a long period.

Bill Hunt: And that's how you got to know him?

J. Lee Thompson: Yes, that's right. We used to go to the same clubs together - restaurant clubs - and I would bump into him from time to time. We weren't particularly friendly, but he knew me and I knew him before he offered me the film.

Bill Hunt: Did you ever work with him again after Guns?

J. Lee Thompson: Oh yes, I did Mackenna's Gold with him some years later.

Bill Hunt: There's another moment I wanted to ask you about in Guns of Navarone, which is the end. When the characters are on the boat, and the fortress is exploding, and the British ships come through and start sounding their horns with all the seamen cheering. Is that something that was fully scripted? Because it's one of my favorite sort of rousing film moments…

J. Lee Thompson: No, I think it was hinted at - the celebration. But it was something we just happened upon. Someone had the idea of sounding the horns. And it really worked well to end the film. It was a great moment.

Bill Hunt: I understand that you had some troubles with the censors on Guns. There's one moment in particular where dialogue had to be replaced later…

J. Lee Thompson: Yes - Richard Harris, early in the film, talks about "the bloody guns and bloody this and bloody that." That didn't go over with the ratings board at all, and so he had to come back later and dub it with word "ruddy" instead. Luckily we were able to go back later and restore the original dialogue. But it just goes to show you how far we've come.

Bill Hunt: I'd like to talk for a moment about a pair of your other films. I think many of our readers will be surprised by the fact that you also directed a couple of the Planet of the Apes films - Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. How did you get involved in those?

J. Lee Thompson: Well, at one time, I owned Planet of the Apes with Arthur Jacobs.

Bill Hunt: I didn't know that.

J. Lee Thompson: Oh, yes. That was right at the beginning, when Arthur and myself bought the rights to the Pierre Boulle novel. I was going to direct the original Planet of the Apes, but then I had to step aside, because I was contracted to do Mackenna's Gold. Arthur and I had tremendous trouble to begin with, to get any studio to agree to do the Apes film. You know, they said, "What do you mean, talking apes?" No one would do it. So after a time, I had to go off to do Mackenna's Gold, just as Arthur made the deal with 20th Century Fox to make the film. So I wasn't able to do the first film, but I later came back to the series for two of the later ones, including Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which was also a political film. But I no longer own any of the rights, of course.

Bill Hunt: Well, Lee… I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed speaking with you.

J. Lee Thompson: It's been a pleasure - just delightful. We'll have to talk again soon. And let me just say that I hope everyone enjoys watching The Guns of Navarone on this new DVD.


The staff of The Digital Bits would like to thank Lee for taking the time to chat with us. Thanks also to Sharpline Arts, Columbia TriStar Home Video and Irene Dean. Be sure to read our full-length review of The Guns of Navarone on DVD, as well as Todd Doogan's interview with DVD producer David Fein and his chat with actor James Darren.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Bill Hunt, Editor
The Digital Bits

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