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.
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