“I think I’m a pretty good storyteller.” — John Sturges

It’s the birthday today of great and weirdly under-rated American director, John Sturges.

One of the best parts about writing about the Criterion essay for the release of The Great Escape was getting to do a deep dive into the work of director John Sturges’ work, beyond his most well-known titles (Bad Day at Black Rock, Magnificent Seven, Great Escape).

John Sturges is sometimes overlooked for some reason. He’s not often included on lists of Great Directors, or Auteurs, or whatever (don’t like that A word). His films were sometimes huge popular hits. But that can’t be why he’s overlooked. Howard Hawks had big hits too. Sturges often worked in the “action” genre – that’s where he dominated – so maybe that’s not as respected a genre? I don’t know. It baffles me. Maybe because he was workmanlike in his process, and not grandiose, and not self-serving about being an “artist.” But if you said to John Ford’s face, or Howard Hawks’ face, or Hitchcock’s face: “You are an artist” they may very well say, “Get the fuck out of here.” They didn’t think of themselves that way. That was for later generations. John Sturges called himself a “storyteller” and that is essence what they all do. However, all of this being said: Sturges is not just admired. He is LOVED. I noticed this when I put up Tweets back when the Criterion Great Escape came out: the outpouring of fandom, of enthusiasm, of admiration, of flat-out love – is very apparent. Every time I post about him, people come pouring out of the woodwork, proclaiming their love of him, and not just the hits, but the deep-dives into his catalog. This is very good to see, because in terms of putting shit together – which basically IS movie-making – John Sturges was second to none.

Sturges got his start as an editor. He had the rhythm of scenes in his bones. (I found a great quote from him about this which I included in my Great Escape essay).

 
 
Back in the day, when laser discs were a thing, and in the final years of his life, John Sturges did a commentary track for Bad Day at Black Rock. This means decades after the movie came out. Sturges was an old man, and he was calling up details like it all happened yesterday.

Paul Thomas Anderson, famously, said that Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock commentary was worth more than going to 4 years of film school. It WAS film school, for him. What Sturges brings to the table is practicality – an undersung virtue. He looked at problems, and he solved them. He was a good leader. He was not a tyrant. He understood what he wanted and he was able to translate that to his team of collaborators, his cast. This is not some ground-breaking thing. This is what directors SHOULD do. People often don’t get congratulated or valorized for what they SHOULD do. For Sturges, every choice was well-considered. and he knew things would work, even if everyone around him said “This won’t work.” He was a “let’s make it happen” kind of leader. But also, and crucially, Sturges had a feel for the job. He had a feel for very complicated sequences involving a lot of people, and horses, and guns, and tanks, and whatever. He had a feel for it, for not just the sequence, but how the sequence fit into the story. He trusted his gut.

When I started my research for Great Escape I started from the beginning. I had seen Bad Day at Black Rock, Jeopardy, Magnificent Seven, Never So Few. And of course I had seen The Great Escape. I didn’t know this but my mother told me that Dad never watched movies more than once. He loved movies, but he’d watch it and move on. He didn’t save stuff to watch again. But he watched Great Escape every time it was on television. I wrote my essay for him. But as I did a deep dive into Sturges’ filmography, I made so many cool discoveries, the main one being Last Train from Gun Hill, starring Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn and Carolyn Jones.

The plot has a lot in common with 3:10 to Yuma. I loved Carolyn Jones’ performance. I loved the LOOK of the film, the visual flourishes creating the mood. I was blown away by the opening sequence. Sturges STARTS the movie with an action sequence. There’s a sexual assault of a woman. Her little boy runs to town for help. Kirk Douglas leaps on a horse with the boy and gallops through the woods to the scene. It’s thrilling, it sets up the whole movie, it launches us into a whirl of crisis and urgency. And everything Kirk Douglas does from that moment forward stems from that first scene. I highly recommend seeking this movie out! The plot is gripping, but if you can split your focus, pay attention to that opening sequence. There are multiple locations, with people running – and riding – back and forth between them. Watch where Sturges cuts. Because, trust me, he was involved in the editing. Watch how he put the sequence together. It is masterful.

An early film I really loved was The People Against O’Hara, starring Spencer Tracy as a defense attorney who is also an alcoholic white-knuckling his sobriety.

This territory is very close to the bone for Tracy. It’s basically his own life, it’s his own struggles. It’s a quiet and devastating character study, very unlike the rest of Sturges’ work, but nonetheless effective. It shows Sturges’ versatility.

He was under contract at Paramount. He worked steadily. He took on assignments and did the best he could. He had his strengths – action, ensemble – and he had his weaknesses – women onscreen, any kind of romance onscreen. He did do a couple of romantic films and they are … not good. He knew this himself. He didn’t care about romance onscreen. Watch Never So Few, starring Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida and you’ll see what I mean. The love scenes are inert. And yet also protracted. They go on FOREVER. There’s no HEAT between the leads.

You’ve got Gina Lollobrigida in a film and you can’t figure out how to revel in her presence onscreen? That’s Sturges. He knew this was a so-called “flaw” – or, better to say: it just wasn’t his THING. And that’s okay. Once he got a little bit of leverage in the industry, once he was able to call his own shots, he didn’t do any more romances. He stayed in his zone, mostly male ensembles, action movies. He knew his “lane.”

The whole Mirisch Company part of John Sturges’ story is fascinating. The Mirisch brothers, Walter, Marvin and Harold set up their own production company in the late 1950s, and were forerunners and cultivators of indie cinema as the studio system was collapsing. The studios were crippled by their own gigantism, all those warehouses on all those LOTS, employing all those PEOPLE … it just wasn’t sustainable anymore, not with television cutting into the profits, and all the rest. But the Mirisch Company would produce films without being burdened by running a massive studio lot. They would have NO studio lot. They would just produce. In the book I read about Sturges – there are funny stories about the Mirisch brothers basically strolling thru the struggling studio lots and approaching directors outright, right under the nose of the powers-that-be, saying, “Hey. This studio thing isn’t working out for you, but we like you. Come work for us.” Poaching in broad daylight! There were some feeble attempts to ban the Mirisch brothers from the lot. But the damage was done.

The story of the Mirisch brothers stretches far beyond Sturges, but they are the reason Great Escape – and Magnificent Seven before it – were made. I didn’t really get into that in my piece, it was outside the scope of the essay. But what they did for Sturges was: they approached him – “hey, wanna make movies for us?” – he said to them, “I want to make a movie of Paul Brickhill’s book the Great Escape” – which Samuel Goldwyn had turned down, outright. Nobody wanted to make a movie about prisoners who escape and then are all executed. But the Mirisch brothers, who admired Sturges’ work and taste tremendously, said, “Okay! Let’s do it!” It took some time to secure the rights to the book, and so in the meantime, Sturges made The Magnificent Seven, an American adaptation of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which had made a huge impression on American filmmakers. (It still does. Any time you see any story about a group of men who come together to fight off a threat … there’s Kurosawa grinning at you.)

Magnificent Seven came out in 1960. It predicts Sergio Leone. It predicts the Spaghetti Western genre, in general. It also predicts beyond that. It predicts the anti-mythologizing anti-sentimental Westerns that would come to dominate the 70s, and still do today. You can’t make a Western now without de-mythologizing it, de-mythologizing what was so mythologized (and often to great success) by John Ford and all the rest. There are many stories to be told about the conquering of the West, and looking at it through one lens – the white Manifest Destiny lens – is going to get you into a lot of trouble. It’s not the real story. It’s a myth, created by Hollywood. Sturges was not sentimental. He did a lot of Westerns, he took on some of America’s great outlaw-heroes – and he always introduced ambiguity, he was anti-valorization. His films have a real BITE. He did two “Wyatt Earp” movies – both excellent – Hour of the Gun and Gunfight at the OK Corral – and in both, he shades the characters with such nuance and potential darkness that they’re damn near anti-heroes.

So, to sum up: In Magnificent Seven, Sturges is making a movie from 1976 in 1960. This will be a theme in Sturges’ work: He predicted where things were going. He was ahead of the times, and he was right in where “the times” were going. He had a sixth sense about what was coming … Audiences are getting sick of THIS, can’t you feel it, so we’ve got to give them something else.

One of his great gifts was his lack of sentimentality. It might be the greatest gift of all. It saved him from many pitfalls other directors fall into (phone call for John Ford. And I love John Ford.) Even in Great Escape, with its heroic “fuck you Nazis” exuberance … the scene of the execution is one of the most chilling in cinema. Sturges didn’t soft-pedal. He was never misty-eyed. Never. And so, in The Great Escape he had it both ways. He told a rousing heroic story that swells the hearts of audiences to this day. But he didn’t blink when portraying how it ended for most of them.

Jumping around in the timeline: another Sturges film I love is 1957’s Gun Fight at the OK Corral, starring a murderer’s row of talent: Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Lee van Cleef – oh and look for a young Dennis Hopper.

The “gunfight” itself is a masterpiece in every way. Member I said Sturges’ real gift was in putting shit together. That’s what the “gunfight” is. The choreography, the editing, the sense of place – the gunfire is coming from all directions – and yet nothing is random, everything is perfectly placed so you always have your bearings. Also … there’s a very hard edge to the film, prophetic of where Westerns would be going over the next decades.

An even earlier and very successful film is 1953’s Jeopardy, starring Barbara Stanwyck and a very frightening Ralph Meeker. Stanwyck plays a woman on holiday with her husband. The husband gets caught in a life-threatening situation and Stanwyck drives off to find help. She runs into Meeker. Meeker demands compensation for his help. You can probably guess what he asks her to do. It’s gritty, awful, riveting. The film is worth it to see these two great actors play scenes together:

But also look for: Sturges’ cross-cutting between the husband’s dire predicament and Stanwyck’s desperate problem-solving. The film goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, between the husband struggling for his life as the tide rises, and Stanwyck and Meeker. With all this cross-cutting, the rhythm is never interrupted, the tension never ever lets up, and the emotional urgency behind Stanwyck’s choices – her cold-eyed consideration of the choice placed in front of her – is never sacrificed for the overall excitement of these sequences. Well worth a look!

In the latter part of his career, Sturges was still prescient – many of his films – Marooned, Satan Bug, Ice Station Zebra – were indicators of subject-matter that would end up dominating Hollywood films for decades to come, still presence today. But at the time, he was a teeny bit off in his timing. For example: the world watched as men landed on the moon in 1969. The same year Sturges came out with Marooned.

It was about 3 astronauts – played by Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman, and Clayton “Stoney” Stone — stranded in space, and NASA (headed up by Gregory Peck) desperately trying to figure out ways to bring them back. Apollo 13, anyone? Marooned came out the year before the Apollo 13 mission, and Sturges – who had done his research on the technology (Sturges loved technology, loved the nuts-and-bolts of film-making, loved any innovation creating new possiblities in story-telling) – crafted a story about the retros not firing, leaving the astronauts unable to return home. I learned this on Twitter: Jim Lovell (commander of the Apollo 13 flight) and his wife Marilyn saw Marooned, and she had a nightmare about Jim being sucked out into space. (This is portrayed in the film Apollo 13. Sturges’ prescience was eerie.)

Sturges did the best he could with the technology available to him at the time, but Marooned had the unfortunate “honor” of coming out a year after 2001, which basically obliterated all other space movies, rendering them obsolete and/or corny. Marooned looked old-fashioned in comparison, even though it was forward-thinking.

Sturges did a movie in 1965 about a bioweapon that, if released, could spark a global pandemic (Satan Bug) – this predicts, in many ways, Omega Man, 7 years later, as well as … our current reality. And every dystopian post-apocalyptic film dominated our multiplexes right now (well, not right now. Thanks GLOBAL PANDEMIC.) Ice Station Zebra told the story of a nuclear submarine racing to the Arctic to save a bunch of people stranded at a weather station. (I just watched an X-Files episode that is a mix of those two films.)

By the 70s, with the advent of guys like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, Sturges seemed “old-fashioned”. He wasn’t a counter-culture person. (I get into that in my Great Escape piece.) Counter-culture or no, he was forward-thinking. He was never old-fashioned. He used well-worn formulas to tell stories in new, fresh ways. He retired with very little fanfare. His work deserves as close a look as his contemporaries. It is an impressive body of work.

I’ve left the best for last: Sturges’ main gift – not often remarked upon – was CASTING. Sturges’ comment about Charles Bronson, included in my Great Escape essay, shows Sturges’ intuition. His FEEL for things, for what an actor could do, even if he was being mis-cast all over town for other things. Sturges took risks in casting. Sometimes he got a lot of pushback for who he wanted to cast. (Eli Wallach in Magnificent Seven comes to mind.) But Sturges knew what he knew and stuck to his guns.

My favorite story about Sturges’ casting genius involves a secondary character, John Sturges’ wife. I don’t mean to take credit away from her, but the point here is Sturges, not the wife. I’ll get to that after I tell the story. When Sturges was casting Never So Few, he needed someone to play the guy assigned by the military to drive around Frank Sinatra. It is a relatively small role. He is basically background. The main story is Frank’s. And “Gina” is the co-star. So in discussions with his partners about who to cast, Steve McQueen’s name came up. At the time McQueen was not famous yet. He was doing his television series Wanted Dead or Alive.

Sturges had never heard of McQueen and, having the typical prejudice of his day against television actors, was not interested. But then … he mentioned the situation to his wife. Here is, basically, how it went.

Sturges: “They want me to cast this guy but I don’t know who the hell he is – he does television or some bullshit like that – some guy named Steve McQueen –”
Wife: “I LOVE HIM. MY FRIENDS ALL LOVE HIM. WE LOVE HIM ON THAT TV SHOW.”

Women know a sexpot-movie-star-in-the-making when they see one.

But here’s where Sturges’ feel came in. Men often get weird when women flip out about a male sex symbol. They get huffy. They get jealous. It’s soooo weird, guys, when you do this. We as women understand that your love of Raquel Welch’s ta-tas doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t want to touch OUR ta-tas. We get it. Men don’t “get it”. They feel threatened. “If she loves Steve McQueen, then that means she doesn’t love me.” It’s really quite … stupid. Why are you getting JEALOUS of a male movie star? So. When women start screaming in ecstasy, men either get jealous, or they tune it out as unimportant. I have written about the grave mistake of this behavior again … and again … and again. If you tune out the lusty screams of women, then that means you’re surprised when Elvis becomes a star, when the Beatles become stars, when Justin Timberlake becomes a star … you are shocked that Zac Efron is a good actor, you are shocked that Kristen Stewart is good. Well, you’re an idiot. Teenage girls knew Kristen Stewart was the bomb FROM THE JUMP, and all you did was make fun of her, and make fun of her fans. Who has the last laugh now?

Yes. Strong feelings. So Sturges, who was the definition of a manly-manly man, who preferred the company of men, who liked so-called male activities mostly, who didn’t care about women onscreen (He liked them offscreen just fine) … listened to his wife. He understood what so many men don’t understand. When women scream in all caps about some rando on a TV show … there might be something there. Other men would roll their eyes: “Women are silly, who cares what women talk about at the hair dresser …” His wife’s ecstatic response to the mere NAME of the man got him intrigued, and so he met with McQueen. He instantly felt what his wife felt, and he cast him in the small role in Never So Few

McQueen is really barely in the film, compared to Sinatra. Sinatra is the star. Sinatra is in every scene. And McQueen STROLLS AWAY with the movie. EASILY. He doesn’t break a sweat. He steals the film from right under Sinatra’s nose.

McQueen SHIMMERS with charisma in Never So Few. Sturges cast him again and again, even though McQueen could be such a pain in the ass. He drove Yul Brynner crazy during the shoot for Magnificent Seven, doing all this scene-stealing (and yet subtle) shit like pulling on his ears, and fiddling with his hat, when the scene was supposed to be focused on Yul (who was no slouch in the charisma department). But that sonofabitch was stealing scenes, pulling focus! Sturges didn’t reprimand McQueen for this, he didn’t pull McQueen aside and say, “Now listen. This is Yul’s scene, remember.” No. Sturges got a kick out of his shenanigans. It made the scenes POP. His attitude was: “Go ahead, kid, steal scenes from other actors, all’s fair, make ’em WORK.”

If you cast a movie well, then 90% of the job is done for you. Sturges was really good at that. Eli Wallach in Magnificent Seven makes no sense on the face of it. Wallach wrote in his memoir that he couldn’t even ride a horse. But Sturges was firm: “None of that matters. You’re perfect.”

Wallach’s eventual success in Spaghetti Westerns – the films that made him the most famous (even with all the great work he did in other genres and onstage) – started with Magnificent Seven. John Sturges saw that possibility in him.

“Meeting” John Sturges was one of the few pure pleasures of 2020.

To bring it back to the beginning: Here is the booklet essay I wrote for the Criterion release of The Great Escape.

And let’s hear it for John Sturges.

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6 Responses to “I think I’m a pretty good storyteller.” — John Sturges

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    When I was in college, reading everything I could about Golden Age movie directors, I was impressed by the attitude of Ford and Hawks: “We’re not artists; it’s just a job of work.” Because I thought this was the perfect approach to making art in a commercial business like American movies. That is, I am absolutely certain Ford and Hawks knew two things: first, they were artists and, second, in America you must never say so publicly if you want to work and succeed in a commercial medium. The American rejection of the hoity-toity goes all the way back to the American brass band played “Yankee Doodle” to the surrendering British Army at Yorktown. Ford and Hawks (and Sturges) understood that.

    My favorite Sturges movie is Mystery Street from 1950. It’s a tight little thriller starring Ricardo Montalban in a performance that should have made him a big star. (His elegant “Up yours” line to the villain near the movie’s end is classic.)

  2. Kaywess says:

    As a kid, I watched The Magnificent 7 many times. I was an only daughter and my dad loved Westerns. He knew a good one when he saw it. After dragging my husband to the Magnificent 7 remake- with Denzel Washington no less- I was deeply disappointed. It’s bloated and changes the story in odd ways that lose the streamlined and mythic arc of the Sturges version. I have wondered why Sturges doesn’t have more of a “rep.” Thanks so much. Gonna order the Criterion Great Escape. I sent your essay to my dad, too.

    • sheila says:

      Thank you so much for passing along my essay – I am so touched.

      I was honored to get that gig – particularly since I am a woman, and in some circles it’s considered a “boy movie” and I just hate that attitude towards genre cinema.

    • sheila says:

      I think too that sometimes directors who make really really popular movies – rousing crowd-pleasers – don’t get the rep they deserve. It takes enormous skill to make an audience start cheering – not everyone can do it! so I wonder if Sturges suffered from that as well as other things. Digging into the by-ways of his filmography was such a pleasure. It really drove home how good he was.

  3. Chris Durnell says:

    Sturges is great. I bought the Criterion collection of Great Escape last year for your commentary. I had it previously on DVD so now I have it on Blu-Ray, but honestly it was because of you. It’s one of my favorite movies so I don’t mind (though a part of me thinks the better quality sometimes make things more artificial). I actually argue (in my head) with various things you write, but they are always GREAT arguments. The kind you only can have with friends who are equally passionate about a subject. Keep it up.

    Chris

    • sheila says:

      Chris – thank you – your words mean so much!

      // I actually argue (in my head) with various things you write, but they are always GREAT arguments. //

      hahahaha!!! I want to participate in these arguments! I’m glad they exist in your head though. anything to keep the conversation going!

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