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Boulting, John (1913-1985)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Boulting, John (1913-1985)

Twin brothers, John Edward and Roy Alfred Clarence Boulting, born at Bray, Buckinghamshire, on 21 December 1913, constitute one of those producer-director teams responsible for so much notable British cinema. For most of their careers, one produced while the other directed, but the product remained essentially a 'Boulting Brothers film'. Socialistically inclined (John fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War), despite a somewhat patrician demeanour, they wanted film to have serious connections with social reality

In 1937, they set up Charter Films and made several short features, including Consider Your Verdict, which attracted critical and commercial attention. Their first major film was Pastor Hall (1940), the moving account of a German preacher who refuses to kowtow to the Nazis. Its release was delayed until the Government was ready to be openly critical of Nazism, but it was well-received by the critics and the public. They followed it up with Thunder Rock (1942), a passionate anti-isolationist allegory distinguished by imaginative cinematography and a theatrical but highly atmospheric lighthouse setting. In 1941 Roy joined the Army Film Unit, where he was responsible for the enormously influential Desert Victory (1943)and Burma Victory (1945), and John joined the RAF Film Unit, where he made Journey Together (1945), a dramatised documentary about the training and combat experience of a bomber crew with Richard Attenborough in the lead part.

After the war, Roy's Fame Is the Spur (1947), an intelligent study of a Labour politician who loses his ideals, was coolly received in Labour-run Britain, though it is both unsentimental and very touching. John's compelling adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (1948), with its evocation of a tawdry and violent world, was a box-office success and has proved to be an enduring classic. Roy persevered with the mission for a topical, socially relevant, cinema with The Guinea Pig (1948), in which a lower class boy wins a scholarship to an English Public School and has to face entrenched snobbery and class prejudice. It was followed by two films which work effectively as thrillers but are very much rooted in contemporary actuality. Seven Days to Noon (1950) deals with the threat of what would now be called nuclear terrorism; while High Treason (1951) concentrates on subversion and sabotage in the London docks. This period, between 1947 and 1951, represents the Boultings' major achievement, each of the films being trenchant, relevant and distinctive.

There was a lull in the mid-50s when they made several films for Hollywood companies with American stars. None of these is a disgrace; nor is any of them either as socially relevant or as artistically distinctive as their '40s work. Roy directed Single-Handed (1953), a mildly exciting remake of Brown on Resolution (d. Walter Forde, 1935), for Fox-British, and Run for the Sun (1956), a remake of The Most Dangerous Game, in Hollywood; and together they directed Seagulls over Sorrento (1954), a popular West End service comedy re-worked for an American cast, for MGM-British.

What is now most tenaciously associated with the Boultings is the highly successful series of institutional satires begun with Private's Progress in 1956. These films take sharp, but generally good-tempered swipes at such social bastions as the Army, the Law (Brothers in Law (1957)), trade unions (I'm All Right Jack (1959)), the Foreign Office (Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959)) and the Church of England (Heavens Above! (1963)). There is no Swiftian ferocity here and it could be said that they represent a softening of the Boultings' 1940s idealism and social purpose; but they are often very funny and hit their targets with deflating accuracy.

These films benefit greatly from the collaborators with whom the brothers had surrounded themselves, including screenwriter Frank Harvey, cinematographer Max Greene, composer John Addison, editor Anthony Harvey, and a brilliant repertory company of stars and character actors. Peter Sellers, Ian Carmichael and Terry-Thomas all became comedy stars under the Boultings' tutelage, and the films are studded with joyous moments of character observation from the likes of Raymond Huntley, Irene Handl and Dennis Price. These films made money, and some, especially I'm All Right Jack, offer acrid insights into assorted national shoddinesses, but it is hard not to feel that a certain cynicism had overtaken the brothers, even as one is laughing at their diagnoses of pomposity and moral decay.

Apart from this popular series, several other films deserve mention. John directed the Festival of Britain, The Magic Box (1951), with a fabulous star cast, and achieved some poignancy in narrating the life of British film pioneer, William Friese-Greene; Roy directed Happy Is the Bride (1957), a sunny remake of Quiet Wedding (d. Anthony Asquith, 1941); the two co-directed and -produced Suspect (1960), an attempt at a 'B' film that merited respect for its treatment of politics and science, and the tenderly observed comedy-drama of marital difficulties, The Family Way (1966). This latter film, based on Bill Naughton's play, All in Good Time, tackles with sensitivity and warmth the problem of an unconsummated marriage and, even more affectingly, a long-established marriage which has shied clear of truthful understanding. Roy later married the film's star, Hayley Mills, their age gap raising considerable publicity. There was also a return to the morbid psychology of Brighton Rock in Twisted Nerve (1968), a film which was poorly received at the time but has subsequently attained cult status for its bizarre story (by Leo Marks) and the outstanding performances of Hywel Bennett and Hayley Mills.

The Boultings were an influential force behind the scenes in British cinema. Not only were they among the most successful production teams, they also contributed to its industrial muscle as directors of British Lion, an independent distribution company which offered producers an alternative to the Rank/ABPC duopoly. John died of cancer at Sunningdale on 17 June 1985. Roy died of cancer at Oxford on 5 November 2001, without having completed the memoirs he had been working on for some years.

Burton, Alan, O'Sullivan, Tim and Wells, Paul (eds), The Boulting Brothers and British Film Culture (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000).
Conrad, Derek, 'What makes the English laugh?' (interview with the Boultings), Films and Filming, February 1959, pp. 7, 31.
McFarlane, Brian, 'Roy Boulting' (interview), An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1977).

Brian McFarlane, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Brighton Rock (1947)Brighton Rock (1947)

Graham Greene thriller with Richard Attenborough as a vicious gangster

Thumbnail image of Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959)Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959)

Classic Foreign Office satire with Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas

Thumbnail image of Heavens Above! (1963)Heavens Above! (1963)

Comedy of clerical misunderstanding starring an on-form Peter Sellers

Thumbnail image of I'm All Right Jack (1959)I'm All Right Jack (1959)

Peter Sellers is a militant trade unionist in this peerless workplace satire

Thumbnail image of Lucky Jim (1957)Lucky Jim (1957)

Adaptation of the satirical Kingsley Amis novel about a disaffected lecturer

Thumbnail image of Magic Box, The (1951)Magic Box, The (1951)

Star-studded biopic of British film pioneer William Friese-Greene

Thumbnail image of Now and Then: John Boulting (1967)Now and Then: John Boulting (1967)

Bernard Braden interviews film director John Boulting

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Thumbnail image of Boulting, Roy (1913-2001)Boulting, Roy (1913-2001)

Director, Producer, Writer