On John Guillermin

About ten years ago, I was flipping channels and came across a letterboxed version of “The Blue Max” on AMC, pre-commercial interruptions days. Though I tuned in during the last 10 minutes, I was very impressed with a shot in which the camera tracked back/forth and in/out of a crowd of spectators watching a pilot perform stunts. The camera weaved in and out like it was floating and the amount of time the shot was sustained –carefully choreographed with the plane– resulted in me making a mental note to check out the film and the work of the director, John Guillermin.

I believe that one should approach action sequences carefully when viewing a film through an auteurist lens, for it may be a second unit director or cameraman who is ultimately responsible. So when
“The Blue Max” laserdisc appeared on EBay earlier this year, my memories of the flying sequence–along with a rather decent review of the film and disc on Doug Pratt’s dvdlaser website– persuaded me to put down a small bid and the disc was easily won.

I can’t say I liked the film very much. It’s is a task to sit through: the editing and pace are dreadfully slow. The story premise of a young upstart German war pilot could have been knocked out by Hawks or Wellman in about 90 minutes with more skill and impact. While acting is pretty low on my list of what makes a film successful, the incredibly wooden performance of George Peppard and the sight of James Mason screaming a lot of bad dialog to make it sound dramatic– with Guillermin placing the camera at a very low angle beneath Mason at one point– added to my suspicion that perhaps it really was the second unit that was responsible for the shot that stayed in my memory the past 10 years.

However, through all the objectionable aspects I noticed that in terms of composition of the ‘scope frame, Guillermin demonstrated an awareness of how to arrange and utilize the frame. The problem was how these shots work together. The sense I got from watching “The Blue Max” was that Guillermin designed shots without really thinking about how they would cut together. The compositions tended to clash against each other, creating a disjointed and rather lumpy editing rhythm. Guillermin’s penchant in composing shots for effect was confirmed by my viewing of “Never Let Go” (1960), “Waltz of The Toreadors” (1962), “Guns at Batasi” (1964), “The Bridge at Remagen” (1969), “Shaft in Africa” (1973), “King Kong” (1976) and “Death on the Nile” (1978). (I should note that as of this time, a great deal of Guillmermin’s pre-1960’s work is not available on any video format.)

Now “King Kong” is a rather questionable and dangerous film to use as a demonstration of Guillermin’s compositional talents,–though I am always ready and willing to seriously consider and defend the disreputable– and while I agree with Dave Kehr’s capsule review on the Chicado Reader’s website that the film is ultimately “low camp”, I would make a case for the island scenes before Kong’s appearance.
The sense of scale, which ties into Guillermin composing for effect–is striking, particularity the night sequence when the natives prepare Jessica Lang for her blind date. Guillermin’s sense of creating shots for impact serve him well in this sequence, and it’s unfortunate that his sense of scale abandons him or does not translate to the effects department, for the use and the scale of miniatures for the film’s special effects are probably the worst I have ever seen.

Are there any other consistencies or personal signatures in the work of John Guillermin? None that I can see so far. How one goes from “Waltz of the Toreadors” to “Shaft in Africa” is beyond me, and Guillermin strikes me as a director who is ultimately only as good as his script. With a film like “Death on the Nile”, Guillermin seems very bored and his staging is, to again quote Dave Kehr’s capsule review: “”sluggish, repetitious and clumsy.” (When a director has Peter Ustinov and David Niven together and fails to generate any chemistry, you know something is wrong.) For a director who appears to be often indifferent or disengaged with his material, the interviews that I have read with actors who have worked with Guillermin describe him as very short-tempered and prone to violent outbursts. It would be interesting to know what made Guillermin so volatile on the set.

At this time I would place Guillermin in the ranks of the proficient British technician, way above the almost impoverished mise-en-scene of Guy Hamilton but far from the astuteness of Terence Fisher. Ultimately, I cannot write off a filmmaker who, in their limited and flawed ability, attempts to engage the frame and I will not pass up the chance to see his work –particularly his pre-1960’s work– but with this particular filmmaker and with the works that I have seen thus far, the parts are definitely better than the whole.

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