John Sturges

Active - 1940 - 2015  |   Born - Jan 3, 1910   |   Died - Aug 18, 1992   |   Genres - Drama, Western, Thriller, Action

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Biography by Bruce Eder

One of Hollywood's top action directors of the late 1950s and 1960s, John Sturges, for a time, was a name associated almost exclusively with large-scale action-adventure films. A one-time assistant in RKO's blueprint department, Sturges spent most of his early career in the studio's art department and editing room (an especially productive department, where directors Robert Wise and Mark Robson also got their starts), before joining David O. Selznick as a production assistant and later as an editor. He became a director in the U.S. Army Air Force, making documentary and training films, including Thunderbolt, in collaboration with veteran director William Wyler. He returned to Hollywood as a director and, for a time, made successful if fairly undistinguished films (mostly action or suspense) until 1954, when he took on Bad Day at Black Rock. Sturges, who had shown a knack for working with the increasingly difficult Spencer Tracy (in The People Against O'Hara), coaxed a great performance out of the legendary star (and some of the best work ever by Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Anne Francis, among others) and transformed the film from a routine suspense vehicle into a powerful thriller, dealing with the then increasingly topical subject of racism and violence. Sturges received his only Academy Award nomination for Bad Day At Black Rock, and his career was made, as he became sought out by Hollywood's top producers. Gunfight At the O.K. Corral (1957), which he directed for producer Hal Wallis, was another hit. He was also responsible for The Old Man and the Sea (1958) and The Last Train From Gun Hill (1959), starring Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas. Sturges then became his own producer, beginning with The Magnificent Seven (1960), a large-scale Western action vehicle adapted from Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954). It turned most of its featured players (including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn) into stars and was popular enough to generate four sequels as well as a major hit musical theme by Elmer Bernstein. The Great Escape (1963), a fact-based all-star World War II thriller, was the high water mark of Sturges' career. It became an enormous theatrical hit and a subsequent favorite on home video and laserdisc (where there are two rival editions out -- one featuring Sturges's own recollections about the movie). His next movie, The Satan Bug (1965), based on a popular best-seller, seemed to be a deliberate attempt to get away from big, all-star vehicles. It failed and quickly ended up on television, while The Hallelujah Trail (1965) proved an awkward, unpopular Western satire despite its big-name cast. His subsequent movies, including Ice Station Zebra (1968) and Joe Kidd (1972), were popular but never on the scale of Sturges's early 1960s work. And his Hour of the Gun (1967), a more personal, deeply psychological reinterpretation of events surrounding the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, was a failure at the box office. Marooned (1969), which he inherited as a project from Frank Capra, was initially a failure, until the story of an Apollo spacecraft trapped in orbit suddenly took on new relevancy in the wake of the Apollo 13 explosion; it became a hit soon after. The Eagle Has Landed (1976), a return to Great Escape-style action and scale dealing with an attempt by the Germans to kidnap Winston Churchill during World War II, was successful, but also marked his retirement. In 1991, Sturges came out of retirement to participate in the making of a special laserdisc edition of The Great Escape for Voyager Company. Although not highly regarded as a stylist, Sturges had a way of working with actors and designing scenes that elicited strong emotional response from audiences -- especially men -- that made his pictures extremely compelling. He probably rated Academy Award consideration for The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. Curiously, he seemed to understand the special appeal that his films had for male audiences seeking escapist entertainment, and several of his films, including The Great Escape and Ice Station Zebra, don't feature a single female cast member. However, he never descended into cheap entertainment in catering to his audience. And one actress, Anne Francis, did some of her best work in two of his movies, Bad Day at Black Rock and The Satan Bug.

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