Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)

Director, Producer, Actor

Main image of Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)

In a career lasting around forty years, Anthony Asquith worked with most of the major British stars, including Brian Aherne and Annette Benson in the silent era, Leslie Howard in the 1930s, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave and John Mills during World War Two, and Dirk Bogarde, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton in the post-war period. He made films in a variety of popular genres - comedies, war pictures, thrillers, costume melodramas - as well as making a number of quality films based upon key works of British drama.

Among the latter are notable adaptations from George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion, co-d. Leslie Howard, 1938) and Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952), and a number of films based on the work of Terence Rattigan, with whom Asquith had a long collaborative relationship beginning in the 1930s and lasting until his final film in 1964. In many respects he was a typical mainstream film director turning his hand to a diversity of projects without becoming identified with any specific film genre or registering a distinctive authorial presence in the manner of his more critically venerated contemporaries, Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell.

Asquith was born in London in 1902. He grew up in a political household - his father was Liberal Prime Minister from 1908-1916 - and his mother was a noted society figure who provided him with his well-known nickname, 'Puffin'. He was educated at Winchester School and Oxford and after leaving university spent six months living in Los Angeles as a guest of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Here he was able to observe Hollywood working methods and meet a number of prominent directors and stars including Chaplin, Lubitsch and Lillian Gish.

Back in Britain, Asquith joined the growing ranks of the university-educated young people who were attracted into the film industry in the 1920s. He went to work for Bruce Woolfe's British Instructional Films, a small innovative company which specialised in documentary reconstructions of episodes from World War One and naturalist films such as the Secrets of Nature series (1922-33). Asquith was also a founder-member of the Film Society, and his knowledge of cinema embraced the sophisticated artistic and political cinemas coming from France, Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as the popular Hollywood film, the mechanics of which he had observed at first hand during his American sojourn.

Asquith's film career began with minor duties on Boadicea (d. Sinclair Hill, 1926) including stunt-doubling for the central character as well as acting as assistant director and contributing to the script. British Instructional Films moved into feature film production in the wake of the 1927 quota legislation and Asquith was assigned to their first fictional venture, Shooting Stars (1927). The film was based on a script which Asquith had written and, though the veteran A. V. Bramble is listed on the credits as director, it is now conventionally regarded as an 'Asquith film'. It was the first of four silent films he was to direct in the late 1920s which established him as one of the leading directors of the day. Yet critics such as Paul Rotha were not convinced that he had harnessed technique to meaning and ideas and spoke of him as a 'virtuoso' (Rotha, p. 320), and John Grierson, writing on his early sound films, considered that Asquith, like Hitchcock, had yet to find subject matter to match his technical prowess and was wasting his time on unimportant subjects and stories.

Even weighty World War One subject matter was regarded as being somewhat trivialised by Asquith's treatment in Tell England (1931), his first sound film. However, Asquith's late 1920s films do represent an inventory of silent film technique drawing upon various influences both from popular cinema and from the art film. Shooting Stars, set in the world of the film industry, is now regarded as an early example of meta-cinema comparable to subsequent films by Hitchcock and Powell, and A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), according to one film historian, is equal in its historical importance as a transitional film linking the silent and sound periods to Hitchcock's more extensively analysed Blackmail (1929).

If Asquith remains one of the most important directors to emerge from the British silent cinema, his position in the 1930s is more problematic. He joined Gainsborough Pictures in 1932 and worked on a variety of projects - screenwriting, directing the English version of the multiple language film Unfinished Symphony (1934), second unit work on Forever England (d. Walter Forde,1935) - as well as directing the Clair-influenced comedy, The Lucky Number (1933).

Asquith moved to Korda's London Films to direct Moscow Nights (1935) and, though shooting began at the Worton Hall studio, it became the first film to go on the stages at the new Denham Studios when they opened in 1936. The film prompted Graham Greene to comment, in terms reminiscent of Rotha and Grierson, that "Mr. Anthony Asquith was once a promising director, though he was always more tricky than imaginative". In 1937, undoubtedly due in part to his connections in high places, Asquith was invited to become President of the recently formed film technicians union - the Association of Cine-Technicians - a post he held until his death in 1968.

The turning point in Asquith's career as a director came in the late 1930s. The silent films on which his artistic credentials had been established indicated a sophisticated grasp of film aesthetics; the revival of his reputation, however, was to depend upon the theatrical adaptation so often regarded by theorists as constricting for filmmakers and inimical to the art of cinema. Pygmalion was the first of three Shaw adaptations that he was to direct, and the first film on which the great dramatist himself worked as scriptwriter. The film was a great success both in Britain and America, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and winning Oscars for its adaptation and its screenplay, the latter going to Shaw himself. Though Asquith shared the directing credit with the film's leading actor, Leslie Howard, its success revived his flagging career. His next film, French Without Tears, proved equally significant to his future as the first of ten collaborations with the playwright Terence Rattigan.

During the six years of the war, Asquith, with a new-found buoyancy, was to make as many films as he had in the previous ten years, and more if short films are included. He made feature films for Paramount's British production arm, for Filippo Del Giudice's Two Cities company, and for the Gainsborough studio, together with a number of short propaganda films for the Ministry of Information. Most of these were war subjects and they include one of the best films of the period, The Way to the Stars (1945), designed to promote Anglo-US relationships; The Demi-Paradise (1943), which aimed to do a similar job in respect of Anglo-Soviet solidarity; and We Dive at Dawn (1943), a documentary-style drama about a submarine patrol. In contrast to the sober themes of war, however, Asquith also made the society comedy Quiet Wedding (1941), and Fanny By Gaslight (1944), one of the costume melodramas for which Gainsborough became famous (or notorious) during the later years of the war.

After the war, Asquith was rarely short of work, making roughly one film a year until his final picture in 1964. His collaboration with Rattigan continued and he directed film adaptations of some of the playwright's most famous work for the stage including The Browning Version (1951) and The Winslow Boy (1948) as well as titles such as The VIPs (1963) and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964) for which Rattigan wrote original screenplays. They also planned a film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence starring Dirk Bogarde, but the Rank Organisation cancelled the project. The theatrical strand in Asquith's work was represented by further adaptations of Shaw - The Doctor's Dilemma (1958) and The Millionairess (1960) - together with a version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

Alongside such prestige material, Asquith also directed films drawn from a diversity of popular generic sources including The Woman in Question (1950), a multiple viewpoint thriller in the style of Rashomon (Japan, d. Akira Kurosawa, 1950), The Young Lovers (1954), a romantic drama set against the background of the cold war, The Net (1953), which crosses scientific endeavour, romance and espionage in a story about the development of the jet plane, Orders to Kill (1958), about an agent sent to eliminate a suspected traitor in the French Resistance, and Guns of Darkness (1962), set in the volatile world of South American politics. In addition to his feature output, Asquith made two films which reflected his passionate interest in classical music, opera and ballet - On Such a Night (1955), set at the Glyndebourne festival, and An Evening with the Royal Ballet (1963).

Asquith's final films - The VIPs and The Yellow Rolls-Royce - fall into the disparaged category of the 'mid-Atlantic' film, despite the director himself warning of the dangers to the British film of such international co-production in his 1963 presidential address to the ACTT conference. Both were large budget productions with multiple star casts including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the film world's most famous celebrity couple, as well as Orson Welles, Louis Jourdan, and Elsa Martinelli (The VIPs), and Rex Harrison, Jeanne Moreau, Omar Sharif and Ingrid Bergman (The Yellow Rolls-Royce). The VIPs was shot almost entirely at MGM's Boreham Wood studio and boasted "the largest set to be constructed in Britain" according to Kine Weekly; while The Yellow Rolls-Royce, an episodic film, incorporated locations ranging from London and the home counties to Italy and Yugoslavia. Despite their lavish budgets, their stars - and their commercial success - both films are generally regarded as an unfortunate swansong for Asquith. He fell ill while doing preparatory work on the adaptation of Morris West's best-selling novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman, and died of cancer in February 1968.

At the beginning of his directorial career, Asquith's films clearly made a substantial impression on influential critics and filmmakers including John Grierson, Robert Flaherty and Paul Rotha. He was regarded as a director to watch, an emergent major talent in a film culture dominated by American films and somewhat in awe of continental European film trends. His grasp of film technique impressed many critics and discussion of his silent films, especially A Cottage on Dartmoor, highlighted a director as immersed in the artistic currents of European cinema as his contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, many years later, A Cottage on Dartmoor prompted Raymond Durgnat to comment that Asquith "out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock, before Hitchcock became Hitchcock".

Yet, whereas Hitchcock went on to establish an international reputation with his 1930s thrillers, Asquith meandered through the decade making few films until his involvement with Shaw and Leslie Howard and the international success of Pygmalion. The adaptation of middlebrow drama for the screen, the role of metteur-en-scène rather than auteur, set a course for Asquith and, as Charles Drazin has noted, "he did not push his own vision, but became an interpreter of other people's material". Yet, against this, it might be argued that some of his smaller films, The Woman in Question, The Young Lovers and Orders to Kill, represent a genre trajectory somewhat overshadowed by the quality films though no less important to a full critical understanding of the director's contribution to the British cinema.

Barr, Charles (ed.), All Our Yesterdays (London: British Film Institute, 1986)
Costello, Donald P., The Serpent's Eye (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965)
Cowie, Peter, 'This England', Films and Filming, Oct. 1963, pp. 13-17
Drazin, Charles, The Finest Years. British Cinema of the 1940s (London: Andre Deutsch, 1998)
Durgnat, Raymond, A Mirror for England (London: Faber and Faber, 1970)
Hardy, Forsyth (ed.) Grierson on Documentary (London: Faber and Faber, 1966)
Minney, R J, Puffin Asquith (London: Leslie Frewin, 1973)
Noble, Peter, Anthony Asquith New Index Series No. 5 (London: British Film Institute, 1951) Rotha, Paul, The Film Till Now (London: Spring Books, 1967)
Smith, Murray, 'Technological Determination, Aesthetic Resistance or A Cottage on Dartmoor: Goat-Gland talkie or Masterpiece?', Wide Angle, July, 1990, pp. 80-97

Tom Ryall, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Browning Version, The (1951)Browning Version, The (1951)

Michael Redgrave excels as an emotionally repressed schoolteacher

Thumbnail image of Cottage To Let (1941)Cottage To Let (1941)

WWII espionage thriller that introduced Alastair Sim to George Cole

Thumbnail image of Cottage on Dartmoor, A (1929)Cottage on Dartmoor, A (1929)

Late silent feature by Anthony Asquith - a dark tale of thwarted love

Thumbnail image of Fanny By Gaslight (1944)Fanny By Gaslight (1944)

Costume melodrama about a Cabinet minister's illegitimate daughter

Thumbnail image of Importance of Being Earnest, The (1952)Importance of Being Earnest, The (1952)

Glorious adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic play

Thumbnail image of Pygmalion (1938)Pygmalion (1938)

Oscar-winning adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's celebrated play

Thumbnail image of Shooting Stars (1928)Shooting Stars (1928)

Anthony Asquith's first film, a satirical romantic drama set in a film studio

Thumbnail image of Underground (1928)Underground (1928)

Stirring and atmospheric story of love rivals on London's underground.

Thumbnail image of V.I.P.s, The (1963)V.I.P.s, The (1963)

Assorted celebrities are stranded in an airport when fog hits the runway

Thumbnail image of Way to the Stars, The (1945)Way to the Stars, The (1945)

Deceptively low-key drama about RAF pilots in World War II

Thumbnail image of Winslow Boy, The (1948)Winslow Boy, The (1948)

Adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play about a boy accused of theft

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Gainsborough MelodramaGainsborough Melodrama

1940s costume dramas for a newly independent female audience

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Del Giudice, Filippo (1892-1962)Del Giudice, Filippo (1892-1962)


Thumbnail image of Mills, John (1908-2005)Mills, John (1908-2005)


Thumbnail image of Rattigan, Terence (1911-1977)Rattigan, Terence (1911-1977)


Thumbnail image of British Instructional Films (1919-1933)British Instructional Films (1919-1933)

Production Company

Thumbnail image of Film Society, The (1925-39)Film Society, The (1925-39)