Cyril Raker Endfield was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania on 10 November 1914. He attended Yale University, where he became briefly involved with the Young Communist League. He also developed an interest in magic and card tricks, forming the basis for a later reputation as one of the world's leading magicians.
After working with progressive theatre groups in New York, touring the Catskills mountain resorts with his own satirical revue troupe, and running an amateur theatre in Montreal, Endfield moved to Los Angeles, where his card skills so impressed Orson Welles that he was taken on as an apprentice in Welles' production company, Mercury. He made his own debut film with Inflation (1942), a witty propaganda short for MGM warning the wartime public against the dangers of excessive materialism. It was condemned as anti-capitalist by the US Chamber of Commerce and shelved, not being publicly shown until nearly fifty years later.
Military service and seven other short films followed before Endfield was able to make his debut feature in 1946. His seven American features are all low-budget affairs, including three Poverty Row B films, an RKO Tarzan adventure, and The Argyle Secrets, a mystery based on his own radio show. Most notable were two striking and powerful independent productions of 1950. The Sound of Fury is perhaps Endfield's most highly regarded work: despite a tendency to preach, its story of an ordinary man drawn into crime and ultimately becoming the victim of a lynch mob offers little in the way of easy comfort or optimism. Less celebrated but just as extraordinary is The Underworld Story, a comprehensively subversive film noir with Dan Duryea as possibly the least sympathetic protagonist in the genre's history.
In 1951, Endfield was identified as a Communist by the HUAC, and rather than name names or submit to blacklisting he opted to leave Hollywood for Britain. Like Joseph Losey and others, he found work directing filmed series for television. Three episodes of Colonel March of Scotland Yard, starring Boris Karloff, were edited together as Colonel March Investigates (1953), his first British feature. Four other B thrillers followed, all with second-rank American leads, and directed and written pseudonymously to avoid distribution problems in the USA. A friend, Charles de Lautour, lent his name as a 'front' for two of these films and as co-director on a third, Child in the House. This sentimental drama was also Endfield's first film with the Welsh actor Stanley Baker, who became his most frequent collaborator, though its bourgeois setting seems uncongenial for both star and director.
By contrast, Hell Drivers is a proletarian action melodrama grounded in authentically grubby settings and with a remarkable cast of rugged character actors (Baker, Patrick McGoohan, Sean Connery) as fiercely competitive road haulage workers. Its brawling, brute vigour bears out Endfield's conviction that "there is plenty of natural drama in the everyday jobs of men with physical contact with reality ... with the survival jobs, the basic jobs, the contact with reality is reduced to simple, basic terms. And that is essentially cinematic". Sea Fury, with Baker, Victor McLaglen and Robert Shaw as tugboat seamen in action off the Spanish coast, is structurally and thematically similar but otherwise inferior, being disproportionately dominated by romantic interest until an excitingly staged climax in a storm.
Endfield's next few films were more conventional assignments. Jet Storm is a routine 'group jeopardy' suspenser of a kind common in the 1950s. Mysterious Island is a Jules Verne fantasy with several sub-standard Ray Harryhausen monsters. The poorly received Hide and Seek, a Cold War comedy-drama starring Ian Carmichael, sat on the shelf for nearly two years before being released. Throughout this period Endfield worked extensively in television commercials and also returned to the stage, directing Bob Monkhouse and Michael Crawford in a long West End run of Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn.
His greatest success, however, came with Zulu, the epic story of the defence of Rorke's Drift, which he co-produced with Baker. Endfield evidently responded to the opportunity to work on a large scale, and the film vividly displays his penchant for lateral tracking shots and composition in depth. A smash hit in Britain and in most world territories, it is one of the cinema's finest portrayals of close-quarters military combat, of masculine grace under pressure, and of heroism without triumphalism.
A sixth and final film with Baker, Sands of the Kalahari, was hit by various problems, including the withdrawal of original casting choices Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and George Peppard. Nonetheless, the struggle for survival and supremacy between plane crash victims in the African desert makes for an impressively stark adventure, with the ostensible all-American hero (Stuart Whitman) gradually revealed as a fascistic psychopath. De Sade, an attempt by American International Pictures to make a 'prestige' movie, was another troubled production. Screenwriter Richard Matheson disliked the restructuring of his deliberately fragmentary narrative into a more orthodox, but still confusing, chronological biography, while Endfield fell seriously ill on location in Germany and had to be replaced, without credit, by Roger Corman.
Endfield's last and most overtly 'political' film, Universal Soldier stars George Lazenby as a mercenary seduced by the peace movement. Loosely structured and semi-improvised in style, it is, frankly, an incoherent mess, though the director himself appears in a small role with some tellingly autobiographical dialogue. Apart from co-writing the screenplay and publishing a novelisation of Zulu Dawn (Douglas Hickox, 1979), a belated prequel to Zulu, Endfield subsequently pursued a variety of other interests, including designing a gold-and-silver chess set and inventing a computerised pocket note-taker, the Microwriter. He remained resident in Britain until his death, from cerebral vascular disease, on 16 April 1995.
Hall, Sheldon, Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It - The Making of the Epic Film (Sheffield: Tomahawk Press, 2005)
Neve, Brian, Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition (London and New York: Routledge, 1992)
Peters, Andrew, 'Natural Drama is Just Waiting to be Found', Films and Filming, May 1958, p. 27
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, 'Pages from the Endfield File', in Movies as Politics (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1997)
Sheldon Hall, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors