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February 18, 2009

So You Wanna be a Director?

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So You Wanna be a Director?
Ken Annakin - 2001
Tomahawk Press

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Three Men in a Boat
Ken Annakin - 1956
Wham! USA Region 1 DVD

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Across the Bridge
Ken Annakin - 1957
Shanachie Region 1 DVD

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Monte Carlo or Bust!/Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies
Ken Annakin - 1969
Legend Region 1 DVD

The blurbs from Julie Christie, Dorothy McGuire, Charles Bronson and Robert Wagner are testaments to the regard given to Ken Annakin. This autobiography also includes introductions by, ahem, Lord Attenborough and Mike Leigh. What was sorely missing before this book went to press was a good editor. It isn't until Annakin is in the midst of discussing one of his early films that his first wife suddenly appears without acknowledgment that he got married sometime around 1945. Walt Disney producer Perce Pierce has his name misspelled. In an interview given dated 1969, Annakin mentions Deep Throat, a film not made for another three years.

Annakin's story is one of fortuitous associations made during World War II than enabled him to become first a documentarian, and then a journeyman director. This is not to say that all of Annakin's films were routine, but that most of his films were assignments provided by others, often reshaped in post-production. If I may also be allowed a pun, what often attracted Annakin was the journey, the opportunity to film in a variety of sometimes difficult locations.

The chapters devoted to Annakin's work for Walt Disney explain the "Disney style". The first films that Annakin made for Disney were filmed based on extensive story boards personally approved by Disney. The origins of Disneyland may be apocryphal, though it is a good anecdote. It was through Annakin that Walt Disney first made his association with Peter Ellenshaw, one of the greatest special effects artists in the days before CGI. Annakin's association with Walt Disney ended following the highly successful Swiss Family Robinson, following an incident that caused personal embarrassment for Disney.

Ken Annakin's own story is about about a young man from small town England, destined for a clerical position with the tax office. Winning a bet, Annakin bluffs his way onto a ship bound for New Zealand. This early portion of Annakin's life would inform a consistent theme of his films in which a character or characters, are on a physically perilous journey, often in spite of their limited abilities. Motivations may be flimsy, and the characters remain persistent in their goals often oblivious to their own incompetence.

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A wide screen copy of Three Men in a Boat would probably not make the film any funnier. The pan and scan version is wretched, and the comedy too dry for American tastes. The story of three men who take a boat up the Thames to briefly escape from the women in their lives is consistent with Annakin's other films. The pursuit of the destination outweighs any considerations of practicality or ability. Unable to pitch a tent, keep food and clothing dry, or not get in the way of other boats, nothing keeps this incompetent trio from their destination. Of greater interest is seeing early performances by such actors as Laurence Harvey, Jill Ireland, Shirley Eaton and Adrienne Corri.

Across the Bridge was the first of Annakin's films to earn serious attention. Rod Steiger plays a financier who attempts to flee to Mexico when Scotland Yard reveals some shady bookkeeping. While the three million dollar loss is small potatoes, the basic story easily has a contemporary ring fifty years later. That Steiger attempts to switch places with a similar looking man who turns out to be even more notorious may have inspired Antonioni's The Passenger. Steiger finds himself trapped in a Mexican border town, trapped by both his real and assumed identities.

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Like several Annakin films, a dog is part of the story. In this case, Steiger eventually befriends the dog that belonged to the assassin he has impersonated. Without being either cute or sentimental, the dog brings out the previously hidden feelings of humanity. There is the suggestion that Steiger's own dog-eat-dog view of the world may be his reaction to the untimely death of his wife. Most of the psychological aspects of Across the Bridge might be summed up by Scotland Yard inspector Bernard Lee's observation that the dog, Dolores, is Steiger's only friend. Much of the tone and style of the film owe a debt to The Third Man. The original source for Across the Bridge was written by Graham Greene, and Carol Reed was a director Annakin had always hoped to emulate. To describe Across the Bridge as a classic film may be an overstatement, but there is good reason why this film has remained a favorite for both Annakin and Steiger.

Annakin's stories about the making of his films can be more entertaining than the films themselves. The story behind Monte Carlo or Bust! is about a director caught up in the power struggle at Paramount in the late Sixties. With one film shut down just as production had begun, Annakin's only option was to make a film similar to his biggest hit, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Among Paramount's impositions were the casting of Tony Curtis over an already contracted George Segal, and shooting in Rome because of agreements with Dino De Laurentiis, even though Annakin pointed out that money could be save shooting in Nice, near Monte Carlo. By the time the film was released, Paramount scuttled a Radio City Music Hall opening, demanded the running time be cut, and cynically changed the title to Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies.

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Some of the problems with Monte Carlo or Bust! can be attributed to Annakin. Too often, sped up action is confused with comedy. There are a few chuckles, too few, from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and the usually reliable Terry-Thomas and Eric Sykes. Curtis' boyish go-getter was at least ten years too old for the part, no longer lean and hungry. The animated titles by Ronald Searle and a song performed by Jimmy Durante are amusing, but still reveal the intent of hoping that Magnificent Men's magic strikes a second time. While Annakin could hardly be described as a feminist, he again allows women to be part of the adventure, primarily with a doctor and her two students, Mireille Darc, Marie Dubois and Nicoletta Machiavelli as one of the teams of racers. Annakin is unfair to Machiavelli to the extent that he seems to have been unaware that, however she was cast in this film, she came with established credits. More the most part, Monte Carlo or Bust! presents a tourist's view of Europe with stunts better developed than the characters.

Ken Annakin's career lost momentum after the debacle of Monte Carlo or Bust!. Had he been willing to forgo loyalty to a his original agent, Annakin might not have been scrambling for what were often lesser assignments with films given perfunctory distribution. Among the bits of interest to film scholarship is that Annakin dove into The Battle of the Bulge three weeks before shooting began, replacing Richard Fleischer. Annakin's own quasi-feminism might have been amplified with unrealized projects based on novels by Penelope Mortimer, Muriel Spark and Olivia Manning. Annakin last film shot, about Genghis Khan, may possibly be completed if we are to believe the official website for a production that was filmed in 1992. The casting of caucasian Richard Tyson in the title role makes the film seem like a prefabricated anachronism from its inception, and more so with the two recent Genghis Khan films released.

While I don't share the enthusiasm of Richard Attenborough or Mike Leigh, even seeing a fraction of Annakin's work indicates a better appraisal than currently exists. Many of the British films are only available on British DVDs. Conspicuous in its absence is Miranda, a film about a man and a mermaid, cited by Leigh for its "delicious nonsense". While many are already familiar with Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, I would recommend the small scale Crooks Anonymous with its nutty heist involving half a dozen Santas and Julie Christie in her first movie performance. Across the Bridge should have been Annakin's calling card to better films, and is named by Leigh as his favorite of Annakin's films. Even if one quibbles with Mike Leigh regarding how personal the films are, I would agree that they deserve a closer look.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 18, 2009 12:17 AM


The Lasting Tribute website has updated its memorial pages to include Ken Annakin.


It's a respectful memorial to Ken and somewhere to pay tribute to his family's fortitude at this difficult time.

EVERY comment is monitored so that nothing offensive or inappropriate is published.

Posted by: Patrick at April 24, 2009 04:46 AM