Questionnaire for Cliff Robertson – Cliff’s Response

Well I did get an answer from Cliff – direct by mail. What a generous guy. I can hardly believe he fitted this in to what must be a very busy life: he is involved in a movie at the moment. His letter is quite chatty and I am not sure if all of it is for public consumption so I have typed-up the bits of the letter that are answers, and placed them against the relevant questions below. So here it is:

Dear Mr Robertson,

633 Squadron is the film in which I first saw you and made me a fan of yours. Ever since then I have sought out any film with you in it and recently, at last, I managed to see Charly (which I have never seen scheduled in England on TV).

633 Squadron has always been a very popular movie in England: it was regularly shown on TV during my childhood and is my favourite film. Today I think the film has entered the national psyche and is even the subject of contemporary adverts. The theme music is one of the best-loved pieces of music here and for myself, I never tire of watching your performance as the laconic Roy Grant. I think, more than any other film (certainly on flying or war), it has come to represent best, something fundamental about the British character. Many fans would love to know more about the film and about your part: you only have to look at the posts on youtube alongside excerpts (illegal I am sure) of the movie to see how popular it is, and yet you have been almost silent on it. Please Cliff, would you be so kind as to try and find time to answer the following questions for your fans in England (I cannot speak for Wales, Ireland and Scotland but I am sure they feel the same).
A movie and aviation buff.

Cliff’s Response:
It was a joy to film the picture, although we were limited as to budget and time. I think under the circumstances that everyone connected. The picture did well with these limitations.

1. Did you get to fly in any of the Mosquitos during the filming (which incidentally was at Bovingdon, only 2 miles from my house at the time) and if so, did you manage to take the controls?
Cliff: My one great regret was not getting to fly the Mosquitos. The producers knew I was a pilot and were careful to keep me away from the controls for insurance reasons. All sadly understood.

2. What was it like working with the director, Walter Grauman? I understand he is a big fan of aeroplanes too.
Cliff: I enjoyed working with Walter Grauman. We shared a mutual appreciation and love for aviation – I being an active pilot and “Wally” Grauman having been a bombardier in World War II. My piloting has all been post World War II, although I have had a long love affair with aviation all my life.

3. I think only a real pilot could pull off the scenes of dialogue by your character in the cockpit because of the understated movement which seems so realistic. Do you think your passion for flying and dedication to the part helped to lift the film from a B-movie to a classic?

4. I know you are a modest guy and might not find the last question so easy to answer so what are your memories of the other actors in the movie?
Cliff: As for the cast I think they were all first rate. A very congenial group of actors. All in all it was a good film to work on. Good cast, fine crew and happy memories.

5. Did you ever meet Steve McQueen, another actor and pilot?

6. Incidentally he filmed The War Lover at Bovingdon too. Would you have like to fly a B-17 or are you more interested in lighter aircraft?

7. I have seen 633 squadron at least ten times as I cannot resist watching both you and the Mosquitos. I have heard that it was filmed very briskly, that the English actors were paid by the day, and the higher-paid ones, for instance, were the ones who crashed during the raid (although I have never been able to make the number of shot-down planes add up during the attack on the fjord). Do you remember it being filmed quickly (if you remember the filming at all)?
Cliff: As to (the cast’s) payment which you enquired of, I know not any details.

8. Somehow the tension is as tight as any film I can think of, and watching it is like being on a rack: the tension just builds and builds. Is this down to taught direction, the subject, constraints of filming on a tight budget or something else?
Cliff: I agree with you the editing was excellent, tight and dramatic.

9. Having listened to your long (2 1/2 hours?) Archive interview on youtube, there were many questions left, hence this questionnaire. Another interviewee was Bill Shatner who, like you appeared in the The Twilight Zone, Outlaws and The United States Steel Hour. Have you ever worked with him and if not, are there any actors or parts you would love to have played with/played?

10. It seems a question of debate as to whether Roy Grant survives at the end of 633 Squadron – we would like to have your personal opinion on this?
Cliff: I did not particularly like the ending and so stated because there was an ambiguity as to whether Roy Grant lived or died. However that’s just my opinion. Walter Marrish, the producer is a fine gentleman and a delight to work with. He happily is still with us and lives in Beverly Hills.

11. One of my favourite scenes is the one where George Chakiris’ character, Erik is about to leave for Norway on the B-25 and is saying goodbye to both his sister (Maria Perschy) and Roy. He asks if Roy likes fishing and will he come with them when the war is over and Roy answers, “Yeah, I like to fish.” He sounds slightly lost, like a child which reveals Roy’s vulnerability (not that different to something in Charly). Was this something you consciously aimed for?
Cliff: As for Roy Grant, the role I played, I wanted to make him above all believable, if somewhat understood. But hopefully realistic.

12. Do you remember any of the local landmarks at Bovingdon? For instance did you visit The Swan pub at Ley Hill, which Clark Gable James Stewart and Glen Miller used to cycle out to while based at Bovingdon?

Thanks very much to Cliff for this. His letter seems to suggest that a telephone interview might allow him to give fuller answers so that is a possibility for the future.

Cliff’s website can be found here: http://www.cliffrobertson.info where he regularly posts about flying.

Thanks also to Stephen C Thompson, of Thompson Communications who put me in touch with Cliff and can be contacted here: http://www.thomcomm.net/contact.html

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Best Drunk in a Film

It occurred to me the other day to do another vote – this time on the best drunk in a film. There must be loads but the funny thing is that I can’t remember too many off the top of my head. So suggestions please to add to my short list:

1. Walter Matthau in Earthquake (this is also definitely my funniest)
2. Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagons
3. Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (I’m still going to check out Paul Newman in The Sting though)
4. Paul Newman in The Hudsucker Proxy
5. Shelley Winters in Alfie
6. Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (thanks for suggestion El’Phantasmo)
7. I forgot Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas
8. Embarrassing one this but Oliver Reed in Oliver! Okay, okay I know the film is a bit of old hokey’ but he really is very menacing – and he was Carol Reed’s nephew.
9. Okay – the butler in Dinner for One, although I am not sure I have seen this. I will look on youtube
10. Cary Grant in North by North West. Actually this is pretty good too.

I could add George Peppard in The Blue Max and indeed the book is about alcoholism but this is barely touched upon in the film.

Okay I think ten is enough. This time we will leave it 6 months before a final vote in case others come up and so that we have a chance to see some of the nominations we haven’t yet seen.

Adverts on my blog

I am going to experiment a little bit monetising (as they say) my blog. It’s not that I am desperate for the cash or anything – just that I have an idea in the pipeline for a few years time and I want to understand better how this stuff works. At first I am just doing the ads to the right here, but may experiment with them in different places. If anybody feels they distract too much or are an irritation, let me know. If I feel they are, then I will remove them.

Flowers for Algernon

I finally got to read this wonderful little novel (read the novel and not the novella – my friend Gary informs me that the longer one is better) on holiday and I have been pondering it before writing anything about it. I also saw the film afterwards so I comment on that later:

Flowers for Algernon – The Novel
I must say this is the ideal book for the beach. Not only does it start of with very simple text: simple words and short sentences, but it is broken up into bite sized chunks about half page long. It couldn’t be easier. If you haven’t read the book you will not know that this is because the text mainly consists of diary entries by Charly Gordon, an American with learning-difficulties and subnormal intelligence who is about to undergo an operation to make him clever. I have to say right away that it is a very touching book and in no way prejudiced or insensitive. Indeed its subject matter is a great source of pathos and humour and treated with great care by its author Daniel Keyes.

As we follow Charly through his operation, guided by a teacher and some scientists, some with their own ambitions, we find him befriending a mouse called Algernon who races him in navigating mazes – the mouse for food and Charly simply for the challenge. Charly is a willing learner and his voracious capacity to learn takes him to the dizzy heights of uber-genius. The book first surfaced in the 50’s and was an instant success in a broadway play, later being adapted for the film Charly. It has been very influential and now I can see why.

Those of us who suffered under the dead weight of IQ tests and the focus on intellectual prowess in the 60s will be very familiar with the dilemnas faced by Charly. Most poignantly, that he finds himself more lonely, the more intelligent he becomes. He is an engaging figure, quick to laugh and make a fool of himself, but also deeply thoughtful about his place in society and how to best love others. He wants to hurt nobody.

Although the main thrust of this three-act play is Charly’s adventures with the mouse and scientists, it is counterpointed by his ongoing relationships with the guys in a bakers where he has worked all his adult life, and a chance encounter with a bohemian called Fay which blossoms into unaffected romance.

Of course there is a twist to all this which you will have to discover by reading the book (or seeing the film) yourself.

I think where this books succeeds so nobly, is pointing us to the still-very-relevant dilemna we all face inside: that grating interface between the need to be popular and loved, and the drive for personal aspiration, or if you want to be crude, ambition. Who hasn’t wondered if being more or less intelligent might solve this for them?

Flowers for Algernon: Simple? Yes. All-embracing? Most definitely.

Charly – the movie (1968)
This movie was really hard to find – I have never seen it scheduled on English TV and have wanted to watch it for years because it stars one of my favourite actors: Cliff Robertson. You know how it is: you have some childish passion for something and you think its only you that likes it and you are embarrassed, and then eventually you find that actually its a very popular choice. For me it was the movie 633 Squadron and in particular the actor Mr. Robertson. I didn’t know why at the time but I was charmed by his laconic, and slightly sad hero, Roy Grant and also his ‘did he die or didn’t he’ scene at the end which actually you can take either way depending on your mood at the time.

It’s 1968: Cliff has already starred in the hit-play of Flowers for Algernon in 1953 and now owns the rights so he decides to get the film made.

The first thing that struck me about the movie was the music, then a moment later, and a moment after that, its cut-down nature. The music was by Ravi Shankar and as soon as I saw that name in the opening credits and heard the sitar playing a beautifully simple tune which sat somewhere between an eastern ragga and western nursery-rhyme, I was captured. This is played over a playground scene with Charly and some kids playing on slides and swings. It is in a stuttering slow-mo too which gives it a sense of ‘echoes from the past’ and at the same time a playfulness. Charly is dressed in a suit and the juxtaposition of adult and children in this scene would be considered very awkward in a film made to day, if, indeed one could make such a film today. But we are not going to discuss modern paranoias here.

Charly is played to the hilt by an on-fire Robertson, passionate about the part and fully emerced in it. His tongue wags like a puppy as he joins in innocently with anyone he meets – like the little dog in the book Charly’s sister never had a a child. The film inevitably has to cut out an awful lot of the book to fit it into 103 minutes but Cliff manages, through deft little flourishes here and there to cover most of that off and you don’t really feel any sense of loss for most of the film. The only major section missing from the film was the unconventional romance with the unconventional Fay but I guess not everything could be fitted in. This section was transposed into two elements of the film – a dreamlike sequence of the now-liberated Charly on a motorcycle odyssey with various hippy girls, and his tentative relationship with his teacher, finely played by the quiet Claire Bloom.

As I said in my opening sentence, this film has quite a cut-down quality. It reminds me in places very much of 60s kitchen-sink dramas like Up the Junction, Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey. It has a simple lyrical quality which is visual poetry and I love in the same way I love those English films. Very untypical of Hollywood, I think we can probably put this approach down to Cliff’s persistence as producer in getting the quality he wanted: perhaps like that of a theatre? I would have to ask Cliff because I am not sure.

Anyway, watch it if you get the chance. It’s a beautiful film. Cliff deserved his Oscar.