The English cinema of the 1960s was dedicated to the youth of the country. And this is not a reference to the pandering movies made to show off popular musical groups of the period, such as the Dave Clark Five (Having A Wild Weekend) or Herman’s Hermits (Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter), in vehicles that tried to capitalize on the success that Richard Lester, a Yank expatriate, had putting the Beatles on film (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!). No, I am actually talking about the American Lester’s English counterpart, Clive Donner, whose sixties movies really tapped into the country’s emerging youth movement and reflected it back in ways both complimentary and strange.
After an established career as a film editor, Donner went on to direct such early sixties fare as Nothing but the Best (1964), and what an amazing pedigree this movie has. It is based on a short story by American thriller writer Stanley Ellin (House of Cards). The story is adapted by young British novelist Frderic Raphael, two years before he won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for John Schlesinger’s Darling (the origins of which comprise episode three of Raphael’s groundbreaking 1976 mini-series, The Glittering Prizes). And the movie stars the young Alan Bates as a working class climber who befriends a remittance man (Denholm Elliot) in order to achieve some class and rise through the ranks at his job. (A remittance man is, of course, a black sheep who receives money to stay far away from his family.) When Elliot turns his back on him, Bates’ character commits murder, and the complications that ensue are both comedic and chilling as we watch the lengths this amoral character will go to in order to achieve his life’s ambition of having the best of everything. (In an interesting aside, that’s the name of Ellin’s short story, which had to be changed to Nothing but the Best because The Best of Everything was also the title of a famous best-selling American novel and movie, by Rona Jaffe, about the New York publishing business.) (Musical group featured on soundtrack: the Eagles—no, not the Eagles.)
One year later, Donner directed What’s New Pussycat (1965), based on a screenplay by a young New York stand-up comedian named Woody Allen. Allen appears in the movie, but is not the star. That role is reserved for an ultra-relaxed Peter O’Toole, flexing his comic muscle after the heavy dramatic lifting of Lawrence of Arabia and Becket. The movie also stars Peter Sellers (in velvet suits and an hysterical page boy wig), Romy Schneider, Ursula Andress and Capucine. Allen aside, this is hardly a cast of ingénues, but the comic story, set in Paris, is filled with youthful energy (provided perhaps by its director’s deliberately sophomoric take on the material and a zingy score by budding popmeister Burt Bacharach). O’Toole plays a ladies man who tries to settle down with the help of his girl friend (Ms. Schneider), best friend (Allen) and shrink (Sellers), but finds that doing so is not as easy as it sounds when surrounded by pussycats such as the sexy (and suicidal) one played by Paula Prentiss. With an American producer (Charles K. Feldman), a British director, a polyglot cast and a Paris setting, this movie is an example of mid-sixties international filmmaking at its most riotously felicitous. (Musical group featured on soundtrack: Manfred Mann.)
Two years later, Donner took on the English youth culture full on in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967), based on a novel by Hunter Davies, who would go on to become the first official biographer of the Beatles. (His book, The Beatles, was published in 1968, well before the saga of the Fab Four really hit its stride.) In this movie filled with psychedelic imagery (all of it now rendered laughably quaint), Barry Evans plays a young man who wants to lose his virginity. He has several “birds” to choose from, played by, among others, intimidating Angela Scoular and approachable Sheila White, but he only has eyes for the cool blonde beauty embodied so perfectly by Judy Geeson (equally memorable as the apple of her teacher, Sidney Poitier’s, eye in that same year’s To Sir, With Love). Evans’ character wants to take advantage of the decade’s loosening morality and sexual confusion in order to get laid. But when he finally lands the girl of his dreams, she turns out to want the same thing he does. This sends him scrambling right back to monogamy. Judy Geeson’s character calls him a “romantic,” and it’s not meant as a compliment. The movie ends with Evans’ character about to matriculate at the University of Manchester, where he sets his sights on Ms. Geeson’s slightly more attainable best friend. Evans’ character is charming enough that we wish him well in his subsequent search for love. (Musical group featured on soundtrack: The Spencer Davis Group.)
After a disastrous attempt at making a movie in America, the critically lambasted Luv, Donner returned to English soil to direct Alfred the Great (1969). It stars David Hemmings, the shaggy-haired protagonist of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (probably the definitive English movie of the sixties, even though it was directed by an Italian) as the equally shaggy-haired ninth century king of England. When we first see young Alfred, he is about to be ordained as a priest. Then comes word that Danish invaders have attacked the coast of Wessex, killing men, raping women and stealing cattle. With his brother, the king, rendered temporarily hors de combat, Prince Alfred successfully leads the army into battle against the Danes. After his brother dies, Alfred reluctantly allows himself to be made king. He takes a bride, Aelhswith (Prunella Ransome), but, in order to parlay a peace treaty, is forced to give her up as hostage to the Viking leader, Guthrum (Michael York). Physically unprepossessing, Hemmings is an unusual choice to play Alfred, but his undisguised sixties sensibility underscores the warrior king’s ambivalence in becoming the leader of the ninth century “Establishment.” One would have to reach forward in time to Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), St. Francis of Assisi portrayed as the first hippie, to find a more youth-oriented, revisionist treatment of an historical figure. (Musical group featured on soundtrack: Unsourced Gregorian Chants.)
In Alfred the Great, one is delighted to find a young Sir Ian McKellen, the once and future Gandalf, his mellifluous voice instantly recognizable, in the small but pivotal role of a swamp bandit chief. And an actor named Julian Chagrin contributes some nice acrobatic business as Ivar, a fearsome, red-haired Viking berserker. Unfortunately, Donner was completely out of his depth with this epic period drama. The failure of Alfred the Great more or less put paid to his movie career and forced him into television, where he found success directing TV movies and mini-series. He was brought back to the movies as the second unit director of Superman II, directed by his sixties contemporary, Richard Lester, after Richard Donner (no relation) was fired off the film. Lester himself had a great triumph in 1968 with his movie adaptation of Petulia, starring Julie Christie as a young woman who develops a mad crush on the San Francisco doctor (George C. Scott) who saved the life of a Mexican boy in her care. The movie is alive to what was going on in the culture of the moment and accurately captures in the background the heyday of the flower power movement in San Francisco. Judy Geeson can now be found on reruns of the sit-com Mad about You as the snobbish English neighbor across the hall. David Hemmings got more rumpled as he got older, an image that perfectly suited him in a TV series about the rumpled English spy, Charlie Muffin. Unfortunately, Nothing but the Best is not available on DVD. Like a phantom, it crops up every now and then on late night TV. Catch it if you can.