A Career as Far-Ranging as His Travels

Susan King is a Times staff writer

Veteran British director Ken Annakin isn't exactly a household name, but movie fans will recognize the titles of several of his 49 films, including Disney's "Swiss Family Robinson," the D-day epic "The Longest Day"--he was one of three directors on the massive Darryl F. Zanuck production--and the slap-happy slapstick classic "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines," for which he and frequent collaborator Jack Davies received an Oscar nomination for original screenplay.

His name also resonates with movie fans for another reason: He's the namesake for the "Star Wars" character Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader. Annakin recalls that when George Lucas was shooting the first "Star Wars" at the famous Pinewood Studios in England--Annakin made numerous films there--"the story is that Alec Guinness passed a doorway with my name on it and it was his suggestion [to use my name]. They never asked permission. I don't mind it, but I think at least he should send me a ticket for his premieres."

Annakin, now 86, is still going strong. He's just published his autobiography, "So You Wanna Be a Director?" (Tomahawk Press), is being feted Wednesday at the American Cinematheque and is writing a movie about Amelia Earhart titled "Redwing." (The cinematheque will be screening two of Annakin's Disney films, and he will participate in a Q & A and sign copies of his book at the event.)

Born in East Yorkshire, England, Annakin traveled the world as a young man, and his directing career has taken him from Africa to India, Scandinavia to China. He began his career working in army training and documentary films for England's Ministry of Information during World War II, first as a camera assistant on the 1941 army training film "The Sixteen Tasks of Maintaining Motorized Vehicles." He made his way up the ranks to director later that year with "Breast Feeding," a film for the Ministry of Information encouraging mothers to breast-feed in order to save powdered milk and formula preparations, which were running short during the war.

In 1946, he made his directorial debut in fiction with the comedy "Holiday Camp." Among his early hits were the 1948 mermaid comedy "Miranda," with Glynis Johns, and the Somerset Maugham omnibus films "Quartet" (1948) and "Trio" (1950).

Annakin began a successful collaboration with Walt Disney in 1952 with the Technicolor swashbuckler "The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men," For Disney, he subsequently made 1953's "The Sword and the Rose," 1959's "Third Man on the Mountain" and 1960's "Swiss Family Robinson," one of the studio's biggest live-action hits from that era.

Besides "The Longest Day" and "Magnificent Men," Annakin has also directed such movies as "Across the Bridge" (his personal favorite), "Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies," "The Battle of the Bulge," "Crooks Anonymous" (with a very young Julie Christie) and "The Planter's Wife." Over the years, he's worked with such noted actors such as Margaret Rutherford, Cecil Parker, Peter Ustinov, Claudette Colbert, Jack Hawkins, Akim Tamiroff, Raquel Welch, Robert Wagner, Red Skelton, Laurence Harvey, Robert Morley and John Mills.

Annakin recently talked about his long, colorful career in the sunny living room of the Beverly Hills house he shares with his wife, Pauline, who was a production assistant, location coordinator and eventually producer on his films.


Question: After an airing on the American Movie Classics channel of "The Longest Day," the host said that though the film had three directors, it was really producer Zanuck who was the director. Is that true?

Answer: Darryl was the great guide. He directed to my knowledge two scenes that I set up for him. "The Longest Day" is an exceptional picture. I have never known anyone so anxious and determined that it should be 100% near what really happened as possible. I think he succeeded in that through inspiring us all to do our best. We knew what he wanted, and we tried to produce that sort of picture as much as possible.


Q: The cinematheque will be screening the first two films you made for Disney, "The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men" and "The Sword and the Rose." I was surprised to learn in your book that Walt Disney insisted that all of his live-action movies be storyboarded before filming began and he had to approve all of the storyboards.

A: That gave him a certain control. It was a wonderful way of making a picture in that you had worked out a great deal of your problems [in advance]. Again, it was a cooperative business. Walt never worked watching over my shoulder.


Q: Movies like "The Longest Day" and "Magnificent Men" were made without today's sophisticated computer-generated effects. Do you feel movies are better now with digital effects or have films lost something in the process?

A: I think we have lost something. You take "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines," we had all real airplanes built for that. They weren't models and they were hung with wires from a sort of an overhead trolley. We used to paint the wires out. In the "Dragon" picture ["Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"], they had wires which were taken out digitally. I think we have lost a certain reality, but on the other hand picture-making is still exciting.


Q: What was the impetus for writing "So You Wanna Be a Director?"

A: I wanted to write the book because I felt I had a different life than practically any other director I knew, based on travel around the world. I think I wanted to show people how the things they have liked in my films are because I had that experience.

I am very sad for young and new directors who really only have the experience of a college or a university. It is a narrow experience, and to gather things from reading doesn't necessarily mean you have a gut feeling about them.

The other thing I wanted people to know is that filmmaking is a collaborative business. Anyone working on the crew, if they get a good idea, they shouldn't just whisper to each other about it. They should be able to talk to you about it.

I wrote the bulk of [the autobiography] four or five years ago. I revised it quite a bit since. My eldest daughter was an agent with the William Morris Agency and she introduced me to the top literary guy at the William Morris Agency in New York. [The publisher] had 14 turndowns in America, basically because when you think of it, I am an international director. I am not a Hollywood studio director. [The book's publisher, Tomahawk Press, is British.]


Q: You had a loyal team working with you, such as screenwriter Jack Davies.

A: I have been very lucky. I talk about my friend Dick Parker in the book. He is one of the finest mechanical special-effects people you would ever want. You'd write your script and send it to him. If he says he can do it, that takes a lot of worries off your mind and you can concentrate on your actors.


Q: What about dealing with actors?

A: I think all actors inwardly are a little nervous even if they put on a very strong face. You want them to draw from their experiences. You should allow the actors as much contribution as possible.


Q: You certainly don't mince words about problems you had with actors and actresses on movies, such as dealing with Tony Curtis' drug problems during the production of "Jaunty Jalopies."

A: I hope I don't get into trouble. Those facts regarding the drugs are very well-documented. It was very sad because he was a very good actor. But I must say he has said bad things about me when they show "Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies" on AMC. He said I made him take risks in the car, which was exactly the opposite [of what happened].


Q: Peter Lorre, whom you worked with in 1950's "Double Confession," seemed as odd as some of the characters he played.

A: He was a very strange character. If you didn't let him have his way, he would drop to his knees and cry.


Q: You relate a funny story in the book that the reason why director-actor Vittorio De Sica would fall asleep on the set of "The Biggest Bundle of Them All" (1968) is because he kept two homes--one for his family and one for his mistress. But wasn't he also an incurable gambler?

A: He was. He spent everything. That is what happened in our picture. His wife--his regular wife--had given instructions to the casinos in the south of France not to let him gamble. But he wasn't very far removed from San Remo [in Italy, near France]. He slipped over the border to San Remo and gambled there. He wasn't the only person [who gambled]. Robert Morley did the same thing. He used to slip away and he'd go to the casinos all the time.


Q: So you are still working on your movie about what happened to Amelia Earhart?

A: That's right. I think it could be the best thing I have ever done. Either I will direct or produce it. It will depend on how long it takes to happen because directing is a long day's work and as you get older ... I would be very happy to do all the dialogue scenes with the woman star.


Q: Retirement seems out of the question for you.

A: You know when one's whole life after a certain point has been taken up by films, there is no life, really, unless you continue to be connected [to it]. Anyone who says that when you get older you lose the attitude of young people--this isn't necessarily true at all. I see as many pictures as young people do.


"A Night at the Egyptian" with director Ken Annakin, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m at the Lloyd R. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Admission is $8 for adults; $7 for seniors (65 and older) and students with a valid ID, and $6 for cinematheque members. For more information, call (323) 466-FILM.

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