By David Chan , Sam Lum
2 March 2018
1959 to 1969 was the period I was attending school in Hong Kong, from Primary Year 4 to Secondary Year 7. I was very fond of international action movies whose male stars were often promoted by Chinese newspaper ads as “screen ironmen”, “screen toughies”, “strapping stars”, “gallant stars”, “valiant stars”, and “swashbuckling stars”. These were all awesome nicknames.
Hero worshipping was one of my hobbies then. Naturally, a few international action movie stars became my idols. So, in reminiscence of them, I respectfully write this article in admiration as a fan.
The stars are listed below in the chronological order of the date I first saw each of them on a cinema screen.
(Click names to open)
The first time I saw Burt Lancaster was in 1959, in a second run cinema showing in the afternoon of “The Crimson Pirate”. I was only eight years old and this movie had such a diversity of action elements: fleet battles, sword-fighting, underwater diving, hot air balloon attacks, acrobatic combats, and trapeze-style swinging around. They were bountiful and eye-opening. Burt Lancaster’s eyes and smiles radiated self-confidence, which, combined with his physique and agility, made him an enviable idol.
Since then, I paid much attention to news stories on him, and learned that he was a high school gymnast and basketball star, as well as an acrobatic performer in a circus. However, he never received formal training in acting. That might be the reason behind the natural, non-cultivated flavor in his charisma.
The second time I saw him was in 1963, again in a second run cinema. This time, it was a morning show. The movie was “The Unforgiven”, and it made me very aware of Burt Lancaster’s icicle-like eyes that were so chilling, as had been described by several writers. I also noticed his screen model as a protector. In his movies, time and again, he played roles that protected other characters, but his violent actions were restrained to be just enough to solve problems, never recklessly taking risks.
The third time I saw Burt Lancaster was in 1964, still in a second run cinema and it was an afternoon show. The movie was “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”. The fourth time was “Jim Thorpe – All American”, shown on Rediffusion TV.
Not until 1965 did I first see a Burt Lancaster movie in a first run cinema. The movie was “The Train”. In subsequent years, I saw “The Professionals”, followed by “The Swimmer” which tremendously and pleasantly surprised me. That was the first time I saw him acting in a pure drama, and discovered that he could really play multi-layered characters. His portrayal of a down and out former-hero created so much empathy in the audience. No wonder many critics regarded this performance as the best in his career.
Since then, other Burt Lancaster movies I saw in the cinema included “Airport”, “Scorpio”, “The Cassandra Crossing”, “The Osterman Weekend”, “Tough Guys”, and “Field of Dreams”. Many years later, I also saw “The Leopard” on DVD.
Two incidents are worth mentioning. Firstly, during my cinema studies at university in the U.S.A., I attended a course entitled “Postwar American Films”. One of the movies shown in the classroom was “Elmer Gantry”, for which Burt Lancaster won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Secondly, in 1976, the movie company I worked for was producing its first solely financed Hollywood movie “The Amsterdam Kill”, and at one time was considering getting Burt Lancaster to be the leading man. In the end, it was Robert Mitchum who took the role.
In 1959, “The Big Country” went into release in Hong Kong. In this movie, Gregory Peck impressed upon the audience as a well-mannered gentleman. However, he was so fiercely persevering in bronc riding and taming a wild horse. His fist fight with Charlton Heston was so painstakingly and enduringly tough and dexterous. His pistol-duelling with a bad guy was so fearless. His model as a hero was both intellectual and physical, entirely different from that of Burt Lancaster.
The next time I saw Gregory Peck was in 1961. The movie was “The Guns of Navarone”. Even in this bona fide action movie, his character of a spy was still layered with sophistication. They simply would not let him play a die-hard tough guy.
In 1966, I saw “Arabesque”. In this Hitchcockian spy movie, Gregory Peck’s portrayal of a professor again went back to the hero model of being both intellectual and physical.
Subsequent Gregory Peck movies that I saw in the cinema included “Marooned”, “The Omen”, “The Boys from Brazil”, and “The Sea Wolves”.
But it was on DVD that I saw my most favorite Gregory Peck movies. “Roman Holiday” was a screen romance classic. He and Audrey Hepburn were a heavenly made combination. “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a courtroom movie classic. He delivered an acting tour de force that won him an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Ironically, I started off looking up to Gregory Peck as an idol of action movies. It turned out that his dramatic performances were the ones that had been most haunting for me.
It was 1961 when I first saw Steve McQueen in “The Magnificent Seven” in a first run cinema. At that time, among the seven actors who played the seven gunfighters, Yul Brynner was already a big star. In subsequent years, five of the other six actors became popular leading men. But Steve McQueen was the hottest of them all.
He was once nicknamed “The King of Cool”. I totally felt this when I watched “The Great Escape” in 1963. Whether when he was playing baseball in the detention room, or crawling out of the tunnel to help his comrade-in-arms, or riding a motorbike escaping from German soldiers, he was so impervious and untouchable.
The next two Steve McQueen movies I saw were “Nevada Smith” and “Bullitt”. They both had exceptionally beautiful leading ladies, but his coolness was absolutely undiluted. I started to become confident that this King of Cool would never be seen involved in heart-wrenching romance on screen.
Not surprisingly, in his next movie, “The Thomas Crown Affair”, though there was an abundance of scenes of the leading men and leading lady courting each other, the aspiration of such scenes was only a stylized depiction of a trendy couple. Love was never the focus. This applied to all those scenes of polo flirting, chess playing, dune buggy driving, pier dining, sauna scheming, and breakfast newspaper reading.
Subsequent Steve McQueen movies I saw included “The Reivers”, “The Getaway”, “The Towering Inferno”, “An Enemy of the People”, and “The Hunter”.
Coincidentally, in 1980, when I was on location filming “The Big Brawl”, its producer, stunt coordinator, and one of the stuntmen were, respectively, the producer of Steve McQueen’s recent movie “Tom Horn”, Steve McQueen’s close friend, and Steve McQueen’s stunt double for 19 movies. They all shared with me anecdotes about the King of Cool.
In 1964, “From Russia with Love” went into release in Hong Kong and stirred up raving popularity. I had to line up outside the Majestic Cinema at nine in the morning and waited for two hours to purchase a ticket. But it was more than worthwhile. The movie was not only pleasingly spectacular, but also a vehicle for Sean Connery’s impeccable portrayal of James Bond. His eyes could turn from flirting to wanting to kill in a nanosecond. He could be so merciless to anyone, totally demonstrating the essence of “licensed to kill” of a MI6 Double 0 agent. I had never before seen such callousness in a leading man who was supposed to be a good guy.
I knew that was not the first James Bond movie made. So I tried very hard to see “Dr. No” in a second run cinema. I finally succeeded. The beach scenes in this movie gave me a chance to catch the sunny side of Sean Connery’s persona.
In 1965, “Goldfinger” went into release in Hong Kong and gave me a chance to catch the glamorous side of Sean Connery’s persona. In the opening scene, he changed from wearing a diving suit to a white tuxedo in seconds, adding a further touch of luxury by pinning a red flower on the lapel. That was a totally glitzy entrance.
In 1966, “Thunderball” went into release in Hong Kong. This movie would become one of my favorite movies of all times. I went to the Gala Cinema to see it 4 times in that same year. In this movie, Sean Connery used a jet pack to fly into the sky. He also battled the bad guys underwater, using scooters and spear guns. As if that was not enough, he had to combat sharks in the water too. He was like a forerunner of an extreme sports player.
In 1967, after I saw “You Only Live Twice”, I started to take an interest in seeing Sean Connery in non-James Bond movies. I tried to locate second run cinema showings of “Marnie” and “The Hill”. Unfortunately, I failed.
In 1970, I finally saw “The Molly Maguires”, but the Sean Connery in it, portraying a non-James Bond role, did not bring me pleasant surprises. I subsequently saw “Diamonds are Forever”, “The Anderson Tapes”, and “Zardoz”. I then saw “Murder on the Orient Express”, in which Sean Connery gave a supporting character a very appropriate performance. I started to look forward to witnessing his future displays of acting skills.
In the following years, I saw “The Wind and the Lion”, “The Man Who Would be King”, “Robin and Marion”, “A Bridge Too Far”, “The First Great Train Robbery”, “Never Say Never Again”, and “The Untouchables”. Sean Connery had really branched out to be a sophisticated actor. His performance in “The Untouchables” won him an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
In “Presidio” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, he took on roles as fathers. I discovered in these two movies that age, baldness, and white hair were not obstacles at all to his rendition of a man of style.
Subsequent Sean Connery movies I saw included “The Hunt for Red October”, “The Russia House”, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, “Medicine Man”, “Rising Sun”, “The Rock”, “The Avengers”, “Entrapment”, and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”. I was pleasantly surprised time and again. In “The Russia House”, he was sixty years old, but his courtship of a thirty-two years old Michelle Pfeiffer was so romantic. In “The Rock”, his hair was totally white, but he played an action legend with such aptness. In “The Avengers”, he finally played a villain but he was so comfortable with it.
In 1964, spy movies were very popular in Hong Kong. I saw “The Prize” in a first run cinema. This was a lacklustre action movie. But I was not totally disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised by Paul Newman. It was the first time I saw him in a movie. His acting was so relaxed and genial, which, coupled with his very blue eyes, radiated much charisma.
I then located a second run cinema showing of one of his old movies, “The Left Handed Gun”. His portrayal of a legend of the West was carefree, rebellious, and moody, exuding distinctive personal panache.
In 1966, I saw “Harper”. Paul Newman’s portrayal of a private detective spotted traces of Humphrey Bogart, but his cynicism had that layer of geniality that I experienced in “The Prize”. And it was this trademark of geniality that had subsequently become an important element that made his performances appealing.
In 1970, I saw “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” which firmly established Paul Newman as an action movie superstar in my mind, and I had become a bona fide fan.
I subsequently saw Paul Newman in “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean”, “The Mackintosh Man”, “The Sting”, “The Towering Inferno”, “The Drowning Pool”, “Slap Shot”, “When Time Ran Out”, “Fort Apache, The Bronx”, “Absence of Malice”, “The Verdict”, “The Color of Money”, “The Hudsucker Proxy”, “Message in a Bottle”, and “The Road to Perdition”.
At the same time, I had started to applaud his acting skills more and more. I was totally awed by his performance in “Absence of Malice”, “The Verdict”, and “The Color of Money”, the last of which won him an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
In 1985, I was producing “The Protector” in the U.S.A. My editor had worked on a movie directed by Paul Newman, and he shared with me some anecdotes about Paul Newman. To a fan like me, such narratives were much treasured.
Actually, I was also fond of watching the movies of several other male stars of that era. They were, listed in the chronological order of the date I first saw each of them on a cinema screen, Charlton Heston, Alain Delon, Kerwin Mathews, Jean-Paul Belmondo, George Peppard, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Redford. I hope I would have the opportunity in the future of sharing with you my reminiscence of them.
My Friend’s Fond Memories:
And now, let me introduce an old friend from my university days, Sam Lum, another movie buff, who is sharing with you his fond memories of two more prominent movie stars from that era.
1967 saw the release of “The Night of the Generals”, followed by “The Lion in Winter” in the next year. I became really fond of Peter O’Toole after enjoying these movies, though he was already hot from “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962 and “Becket” in 1964 for which he was nominated for the best actor award in the Oscar, and won best actor awards in other film festivals.
But I by no means think that “The Night of the General” is any less than the other titles, as I find it to be really a very captivating mystery crime movie set in the World War II backdrop, and the O’Toole’s interpretation of the complex character of German General Wilhelm Tanz is superb. The solo scenes are so nuanced and charismatic that it is simply fascinating to watch. Given O’Toole’s aversion to Hitler and the war (as he intimidated in a Charlie Rose interview in 1993) and his anti-war activism, an examination of how the Nazi military machine has stressed out and ultimately ruined its talented leaders in “The Night of the General” would likely have special meaning for him. Several actors I am fond of, Omar Sharif, Christopher Plummer and Joanna Pettet were also in this movie.
In both “The Lion in Winter” and “Becket”, he played King Henry II. We see that he is very much at home with this role: the tremendous charisma and stage presence that O’Toole exudes on the screen definitely comes from his training in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and several years performing Shakespeare at the Bristol Old Vic. He also have magnificent counterparts in these films: Katherine Hepburn (who won the Best Actress Oscar as Eleanor of Aquitaine) in the former and Richard Burton (who, along with O’Toole, was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar as Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury) in the latter. It is interesting to note that O’Toole’s classmates at the RADA included Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Richard Harris. Those were the days when there are tremendous opportunities for British actors in Hollywood.
O’Toole went on to take lead roles in many other films, including “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, “The Ruling Class”, “The Stunt Man”, “My Favorite Year”, and “Venus”. These 5 films won him Oscar nominations for Best Actor along with “Lawrence of Arabia”, “The Lion in Winter” and “Becket” – making him an actor with the record of getting the most Oscar nominations but never winning an Oscar competitively. O’Toole said he considered Shakespeare’s sonnets the finest and most romantic of English poems and he knew all 154 by heart. But given that the “Fair Lord Sonnets” (the first 126) are addressed to a young handsome aristocratic wealthier male friend with some sonnets appearing to have romantic overtones and the remainder (the “Dark Lady Sonnets”) are about the poet’s lustful desire for a woman who is not his wife, one wonders if O’Toole’s appreciation of the complexity, obsessions and hideous impulsiveness in the male psyche has helped him in his magnificent interpretation of the General Tanz character in “The Night of the Generals”.
In 1967, “A Countess from Hong Kong” was released. With such a title, and Charlie Chaplain as the director, it is a film that film buffs in Hong Kong could not have missed. Marlon Brando teamed up with Sophia Loren in this British comedy. Already well-known as the premier “Method Actor” at the time, the comedy genre is not one that he is most at home with. Nevertheless, he and Loren did a rather good job, and critic Andrew Saris, actor Jack Nicholson, director François Truffaut spoke highly of Chaplain’s work and considered this one of his best. In the same year, another one of Brando’s films was released. “Reflections in a Golden Eye” is a very heavy movie with themes of murder, psychosis, adultery, violence, … -- very much at the other end of the spectrum. It is the sort of genre that gives Brando the chance to leverage on his “Method Acting” orientation. Both films however did not do well at the box-office.
In 1972, we again saw the release of two Brando movies at two ends of the spectrum again: the X-rated “Last Tango in Paris” referred to as “a landmark in movie history” that “altered the face of an art form”, and the story about the struggles of New York Mafia families, “The Godfather” which is considered to be the icon in the gangster genre. Brando’s performance was mesmerizing in both movies, and he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for each! Both films did very well in the box-office, especially “The Godfather” which was a blockbuster with 2 sequels to follow.
Brando is never stuck in one stereotype. In “Apocalypse Now”, he played Colonel Kurtz, a highly decorated U.S. Army Special Forces officer who has gone rogue during the Vietnam War. The scene in which Kurtz lectures on his theories of war, the human condition, and civilization and then praises the ruthlessness and dedication of the Viet Cong before talking about his family in the U.S. is difficult to forget. In “On the Waterfront”, he played a longshoreman who was an ex-boxer and got embroiled in a murder case amongst union violence, corruption, extortion and racketeering on the waterfronts of Hoboken, New Jersey. In “The Ugly American”, Brando played a U.S. ambassador to a South East Asian country where political unrest is erupting. In the “Fugitive Kind”, he played Valentine "Snakeskin" Xavier, a guitar-playing drifter who is escaping from New Orleans police arrest. In “Désirée”, he played Napoleon Bonaparte very convincingly as the plot takes us from his younger days to his rise to power, to his ascend to become the overlord of Europe, and then to the end of his career. His interpretation of the part won accolades from critics, industry professionals and audiences alike.