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Gilbert, Lewis (1920-)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Gilbert, Lewis (1920-)

Lewis Gilbert's career as a writer, producer and director of varied films spans the entire post-war history of British cinema, a contribution acknowledged by the award of a BFI Fellowship in 2001. During the last decades of the studio system, Gilbert was particularly associated with the war film, and afterwards with three of the James Bond films. However, more personal examples of his work show a taste for adaptations of stage plays, such as Willy Russell's Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989).

Lewis Gilbert was born in Hackney, London on 6 March 1920. Raised in a second-generation family of music hall performers, his early stage experience allowed him to continue as a child actor in films such as Stoll-Stafford's Dick Turpin (d. Victor Hanbury/John Stafford, 1933). Alexander Korda offered to send him to RADA, but Gilbert chose to study direction instead, notably as an assistant on Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939). During the war, he joined the RAF and directed several documentaries on attachment to the US Air Corps Film Unit. After the war, he continued to write and direct documentary shorts for Gaumont-British, before entering low budget feature film production with companies such as Butcher-Nettlefold and Group 3.

A breakthrough film for Gilbert was Emergency Call (1952), a multiple character hospital melodrama which was elevated to first feature on the Rank circuit. This was the first time that he collaborated with Vernon Harris, a writer who contributed to most of Gilbert's films over the next forty years. Subsequently, he was offered more expensive productions, most of them produced by Daniel Angel. Cosh Boy (1953), was one of the earliest films to receive an 'X' certificate, but more typical of their partnership were war films such as Albert RN (1953), Reach for the Sky (1956) and Carve Her Name With Pride (1958).

In the 1960s other Second World War subjects followed, but with more varied generic treatments. Sink the Bismarck! (1960) is a large-scale dramatisation of a real sea battle, whereas Light Up the Sky! (1960) is a parochial comedy about an army searchlight unit. Other films at this time range from the romantic whimsy of The Greengage Summer (1961) to the historical adventure of HMS Defiant (1962). Adaptation has been a particular feature of Gilbert's approach to film-making throughout his career, and typically during the 1950s and '60s he transferred plays, books or novels to the screen, usually with the assistance of Vernon Harris.

Alfie (1965) was the first of a number of adaptations of stage plays that brought Gilbert commercial and critical success in the latter part of his career. The film received multiple Oscar nominations, most notably for Michael Caine, a then unknown name in Hollywood. Later, this achievement was repeated with Julie Walters in Educating Rita and Pauline Collins in Shirley Valentine. The success of Alfie, however, also had its downsides. Contractual obligations to Paramount, who had financed the film, tied Gilbert to a poorly received American production of Harold Robbins' The Adventurers (1970). Gilbert had been preparing Oliver! (1968) with Vernon Harris, but had to abandon the project and pass it on to Carol Reed.

In between Alfie and The Adventurers, Gilbert directed the first of his three Bond films, You Only Live Twice (1967). When he returned to the series in the late 70s, he recognised that many of the Bond conventions had become anachronistic because of changing attitudes to gender identity that challenged Bond's male chauvinism. For The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), he suggested that women's roles be "just as virile as Bond himself". He also showed himself adept at handling action sequences effectively on the massive sets characteristic of the Bond films.

Gilbert's career has ranged from low-budget programmers to international co-productions and big budget action films needing second unit directors. He is admired for his efficient professionalism and knowledge of the business and craft of film-making. But critics have struggled to fathom Gilbert as an 'author-personality' in a body of work which ranges from explorations of various forms of machismo (in Cosh Boy, Reach for the Sky, Alfie and the Bond films, for example) to celebrations of female resilience in Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine. Yet clearly his films do have recurring themes, such as his interest in the lives of children and their entry into adulthood, evident in The Little Ballerina (1949), Cosh Boy, Johnny on the Run (1953), A Cry from the Streets (1958), The Greengage Summer, Friends (1971) and Paul and Michelle (1974). More generally one could claim that Gilbert's films cover the personal lives of everyday people experiencing problems, or undergoing change, or people who become extraordinary through their involvement in momentous historical events. The release of Before You Go (2002) shows that Gilbert continues to work on personal projects beyond his eightieth year.

Baker, Bob, 'Lewis Gilbert', Film Dope 19, Dec. 1979, p. 29
Chapman, James, Licence to Thrill (London: I. B. Taurus, 1999)
McFarlane, Brian, An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1997)
Summers, Sue, 'The man who's ensured 007 has kept up with the times', Screen International, Feb. 26 1977, pp. 6-7.

Andrew Clay, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Carve Her Name With Pride (1958)Carve Her Name With Pride (1958)

Moving biopic of WWII resistance heroine Violette Szabo

Thumbnail image of Cosh Boy (1953)Cosh Boy (1953)

The first British X film: a controversial study of juvenile delinquency

Thumbnail image of Educating Rita (1983)Educating Rita (1983)

Warm, witty update of Pygmalion, with Julie Walters and Michael Caine

Thumbnail image of Good Die Young, The (1954)Good Die Young, The (1954)

Cynical heist thriller that was unusually bleak for the cosy mid-50s

Thumbnail image of Moonraker (1979)Moonraker (1979)

James Bond investigates the disappearance of a space shuttle

Thumbnail image of Reach for the Sky (1956)Reach for the Sky (1956)

Classic flagwaver about pilot Douglas Bader's triumph over adversity

Thumbnail image of Spy Who Loved Me, The (1977)Spy Who Loved Me, The (1977)

James Bond goes on the trail of a stolen nuclear submarine

Thumbnail image of You Only Live Twice (1967)You Only Live Twice (1967)

James Bond goes to Japan to investigate the theft of spacecraft

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