Get Carters, Sea Wolves: How British Cinema Survived the 1970s
I’ve just finished reading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), Peter Biskind’s epic history of how the moviebrat generation of directors, who wrestled control from the old-school studio producers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, changed Hollywood forever. Although Biskind gives a rather acerbic portrayal of the dysfunctional personalities and out of control egos that comprised the New Hollywood set — Peter Bogdanovich, George Lucas, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman etc. — the quality of their movies remains unsurpassed. Audiences had never seen films as daring or unconventional as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Exorcist (1973) and Mean Streets (1973). Alas, when you look at the British film industry during the 1970s, the story seems rather desperate in comparison. British cinema thrived after the war. Government subsidies were available to filmmakers, and this attracted some of the best talent from abroad. War films, Costume and Kitchen Sink dramas were popular. By the seventies, however, the money was beginning to dry up as Britain lurched from one economic crisis to another. In the decade of power strikes, the three-day week and Winter of Discontent, the film industry suffered as much as any other industry. There were compensations, for instance the parlous state of the film industry forced some of the best creative talent to concentrate on TV which led to a Golden Age of television drama in Britain. But although the number of British films declined, and some output became notorious (such as the lamentable sex comedies that were churned out by the dozen), there were still some distinguished British films produced in this period. In contrast to the developments in Hollywood, the creativity and narrative vision of the best British films of the seventies owed a lot to a small number of producers, specifically Michael Klinger and Euan Lloyd, who had the drive and determination for films like Get Carter (1971), Gold (1974), Shout at the Devil (1976) and The Sea Wolves (1980) to be made against the odds.
Get Carter begins with eponymous gangster (played by Michael Caine) staring out of the window of the home of the London mob bosses, Sid and Gerald Fletcher, who are happily watching porn slides in the living room. Carter is planning to travel to Newcastle to investigate the suspicious death of his brother Frank. The London Underworld doesn’t want him to go in case he disturbs their business interests in the city, but Carter is resolute, and his fearlessness is demonstrated by the fact that he is having an affair with Gerald’s wife. As soon as Carter arrives in Newcastle, he begins to agitate corrupt businessman Cliff Brumby and local crime lord Cyril Kinnear, both of whom he suspects were involved with Frank’s death, while constantly giving the slip to two London gangsters tasked with sending him home. The plot at first seems to be simply a revenge story, but it develops into a gripping and complex portrayal of the links between organised crime and business in Britain at the time. Aside from the plotting, this is also one of the most brilliantly atmospheric British films ever made. You can almost smell the stench from the back garden latrines. Every cafe, bookmakers and pub seems rundown and dispiriting. Wallpaper is yellowed and rotting from the endless plumes of cigarette smoke, and rain batters down relentlessly on the cobbled streets.
Steve Chibnall’s book on Get Carter for the British Film Guide is a brilliant account of the making of the film. Michael Klinger had long wanted to make a gangster film and simply browsed through the galley copies of soon to be published novels and discovered Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis. Klinger was a larger than life character whose business interests did not necessarily suggest he would go on to produce critically acclaimed films:
The man who would bring Jack’s Return Home to the screen, independent producer Michael Klinger, was a unique figure in the British film industry. He was a showman able to bridge the sizable gap between commercial sexploitation and a cinema of genuine artistic experimentation. The son of a Polish tailor, Klinger was born in Soho in 1920 and thoroughly imbibed its ethos of rule-breaking and shrewd deal-making. He started out as a disc jockey, but by the late 1950s he was cashing in on the Soho striptease boom by managing the Nell Gwynne club. The club’s performers supplied much of the subject matter for the epidemic of 8mm ‘glamour’ films that began to be produced for the home-viewing market at the time, and would later feature in the plot of Get Carter. It was at the Nell Gwynne that Klinger met Tony Tenser, then head of publicity for Miracle Films, a UK distributor for racy continental pictures. In 1960 they went into partnership and opened the Compton Cinema Club to show uncertified movies to a ‘sophisticated’ membership.
Despite producing some of the best British films of the 70s, Klinger maintained his interest in soft-porn and produced the appalling Confessions series of sex comedies purely because they could be made cheaply and turn a quick profit. Given his background, it is perhaps surprising that Get Carter has a extremely negative view of the deadening, dehumanising effect pornography has on the characters. Although the film is violent from beginning, when Carter sees a blue film featuring his niece (who may actually be his daughter) it starts a chain-reaction of murders which leads the film to its bloody climax. One of the most memorable characters is Glenda played by Geraldine Moffat (pictured), a gangster’s moll with an absolute addiction to hedonism and no apparent sense of morality. Moffat plays Glenda as a booze-addled Dolly Bird living in the wrong decade. All of the carefree joy and optimism of the swinging sixties seems to have evaporated, and all that remains is its sleazy legacy. This is embodied in the inspired casting of playwright John Osborne as Cyril Kinnear. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) had made him the original ‘Angry Young Man’ in the late 1950s, but by this stage Osborne was politically leaning towards Tory Anarchism, and he plays Kinnear as a sleazy but cultured middle-aged man who has narrowly missed his chance to become a member of polite society and seems resigned to being a gangster. Even in its title ‘Get Carter’ is intriguing; both the London and Newcastle Firms are out to ‘Get’ Carter, but surely the main focus of the film is Carter’s investigation and determination to ‘Get’ revenge for his brother’s death? However, as Chibnall details in his book, it took critics and audiences a long time to get Get Carter. The film was neither a critical nor commercial success upon its first release. It wasn’t until over twenty years later that VHS releases and late night television showings brought it to a larger audience, and now it regularly appears on lists of the greatest British films ever made.
At the time, Get Carter’s relative lack of success was not discouraging to Klinger. The Michael Klinger Papers are a wonderful online resource which gives you a glimpse into the mind of this extraordinary man. Brash, somewhat crude, with a good head for business and not afraid to take a gamble, Klinger had some of the best qualities of a film producer. When Verity Lambert turned down a role in a proposed film ‘The Chilean Club’, apparently after not liking the script, Klinger replied, ‘I’m sorry you found it disappointing. Katherine Hepburn thought it was the funniest script she had ever read.’ One of his next big projects after Get Carter was the mining thriller Gold. Based on a Wilbur Smith novel Gold tells the story of Rod Slater (Roger Moore), a General Manager of a South African mining firm who is persuaded, against his better judgment, to drill for gold at a depth in the mine which puts it at high-risk of flooding. Slater is having an affair with his bosses’ wife (played by Susannah York). Her husband (Bradford Dillman) uses the affair to his advantage and arranges for the mine to be deliberately flooded while Slater is away on a romantic weekend. Dillman is part of a crime syndicate which plans to destroy the mine and kill all the miners trapped inside to manipulate the market and exponentially increase the value of their shares in other mines. From the moment Gold opens with its brassy title song by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black you know you’re in for a colourful seventies thriller. Klinger was able to put together a very talented team for the production. In addition to a terrific cast, which includes John Gielgud as the enigmatic head of the crime syndicate, Klinger hired Peter Hunt to direct. Hunt had edited the first five James Bond films and did much to set the exciting fast-paced style of the films which has been much emulated by action films since. In the days when directors had less influence over the final cut, Hunt had tremendous power as editor. When editing You Only Live Twice (1967) Hunt was so unimpressed by Donald Pleasance’s camp Blofeld that he skilfully edited around the performance so the audience never saw Pleasance’s ‘mincing stride’. Hunt’s directorial debut On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) was not a tremendous success on first release (although it’s now considered one of the best Bond films), and Gold was his first film in five years. His skill as an editor had stayed with him. Some of the best scenes in Gold involve cutting between the germophobic Dillman awkwardly sleeping with his wife while the suave Slater brings one of his many girlfriends back to his apartment. It may not be subtle, but it’s effective. Another memorable scene cuts between the flooding of the mine and the chaos that ensues with the serenity of a bowling green where the mine owners are enjoying the privileges of their life, blissfully unaware that their mines are flooding and workers are drowning.
I don’t know how well Gold did at the box office, but it was enough of a success (Moore complains in his memoir that he was cheated out his promised slice of the profits) for Klinger to green-light another film based on a Wilbur Smith project. For Shout at the Devil, Klinger brought Moore back for the lead role and Hunt is once again on directing duties. But Shout at the Devil is a much more ambitious epic action-adventure film than Gold with shades of The African Queen (1951) in its plotting, and when viewed today it looks like a forerunner to the Indiana Jones films. Set in Zanzibar and German East Africa on the brink of the Great War, Moore stars as Sebastian Oldsmith, a devilish rogue who is travelling through Africa en route to Australia (apparently because his family want him out of the way). Oldsmith captures the attention of Colonel Flynn O’Flynn (Lee Marvin) who arranges for all of Oldsmith’s money to be stolen, leaving the dapper Englishman penniless and stranded in Zanzibar. Oldsmith, unaware that Flynn is behind the theft of his funds, agrees to poach elephants in German territory with the hard-drinking American, incurring the wrath of the German Commander Fleischer (Reinhard Kolldehoff) in the process. The first half of Shout at the Devil follow a series of episodic and comic adventures as Oldsmith and Flynn try to outwit Fleischer, leading to one of the most anachronistic but funny scenes I have seen in modern cinema wherein Oldsmith poses as a German tax collector and visits an African village in the hope of collecting taxes before Fleischer does. Sure enough, Fleischer arrives while Oldsmith is bartering with the villagers and all hell breaks loose. One of the best scenes of the film comes when Oldsmith asks Flynn for his daughter Rosa’s hand in marriage. An enraged Flynn discovers that the marriage is inevitable as Rosa is with child and a fist fight ensues:
Shout at the Devil becomes an altogether darker film after war is declared and Fleischer murders Oldsmith and Rosa’s baby daughter. Hellbent on revenge, Oldsmith and Flynn are hired by the Royal Navy to plant a bomb on a German warship in which Fleischer is currently stationed. The warship barges through this film, destroying everything in its path much like the portly Fleischer himself, who is so cheerfully and relentlessly evil that you can’t help but like him. According to the Klinger papers Shout at the Devil was the most expensive film made in 1976. With a budget of $9,000,000, a staggering amount for an independent British film at the time, you can see the quality of the production on the screen. There are biplanes, dreadnoughts and any number of action scenes which makes the film both a thrilling adventure and stronger than average story with the ending loosely inspired by the sinking of SMS Konigsberg in 1905.
The film which I believe closed this cycle of British films was The Sea Wolves released in 1980. Produced by Euan Lloyd, The Sea Wolves is a true story adapted from one of the most unusual episodes of the Second World War and features an all-star cast including Roger Moore (yes, him again!), Gregory Peck, Trevor Howard and David Niven. Lloyd did not share Klinger’s interest in soft-porn, but he had that similar temperament which makes for a great film producer as his BFI biography states:
A brazen, against-the-odds ambition, an old-fashioned – some would say reactionary – world view, aged stars and a journeyman crew of familiar names who returned with each production: these are the characteristics of a ‘Euan Lloyd Production’. Lloyd stood alone within the depressed British film industry of the late 1970s and early 80s as a producer with the self-belief, charisma and bluff to mount large-scale independent action-adventure films.
In the film, Allied forces are sustaining heavy losses in merchant shipping from U-Boat attacks in the Indian Ocean. British Intelligence discovers that a radio transmitter located on board a German merchant ship docked in Goa is passing information to the U-Boats. As Goa is governed by neutral Portugal two SOE agents (Moore and Peck) devise a rather unconventional plan, Operation Creek, to knock out the German communications. They enlist the aging soldiers of the Calcutta Light Horse Brigade (headed by Niven) to lead a clandestine attack on the German ship while the bulk of the crew are being entertained onshore in a party organised by Moore. Operation Creek had only been declassified two years prior to the making of the film, and it was detailed in James Leasor’s book Boarding Party. Although the film has an unusual plot for a covert operation and plenty of comic moments, as the elderly and overweight members of the Light Horse Brigade whip themselves into shape for one last mission, it still feels distinctly old-fashioned. In the year that Raging Bull wowed critics and audiences, The Sea Wolves with its James Bond- like title sequence, Matt Monro song ‘The Precious Moments’ and stiff upper lip attitude would have been a hit twenty years earlier but sadly failed to make much impact on its initial release. Despite this, it remains an interesting and engaging film with superb performances from its stars, who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and a host of recognisable character actors, Kenneth Griffith, Patrick Allan, Jack Watson, many of whom had appeared in Lloyd’s hit film The Wild Geese released two years earlier. Watching The Sea Wolves feels like the end of an era for British film, and although some of the films produced during this period were not as distinguished as the most acclaimed American films of the seventies they were still hugely enjoyable and engaging, certainly better than most action films churned out today, and we owe a debt to the producers who defied the odds to get them made.
Both Klinger and Lloyd’s producing careers began to wind down by the early 1980s. At the 1982 Academy Awards, Colin Welland famously declared ‘The British are coming!’ when accepting his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Chariots of Fire. Alas, no significant revival of the British film industry followed Welland’s heavily mocked prediction. In the 1990s a mixture of Cool Britannia, National Lottery funding and the arrival of new talent like Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor seemed to herald a new resurgence of British films, but even then, the revival seemed tentative with the film industry not being able to match the quality or quantity of our post-war peak. As for the 1970s, Britain could never have matched the creativity of the moviebrat generation in Hollywood. Still, it’s time we acknowledged creative producers like Michael Klinger and Euan Lloyd, star actors Michael Caine and Roger Moore, directors such as Mike Hodges and Peter Hunt and a host of ubiquitous character actors whose presence seems as constant as family. These guys kept the British film industry alive and produced some damn fine work which doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.
Well done chaps.