Forgotten amid the high-profile deaths of music legend Prince and revolutionary woman wrestler Chyna was the death of British director Guy Hamilton, who passed away on April 20 at the age of 93.The name may not be familiar to the casual film fan, but here’s a roll call of some of his most familiar titles: ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, ‘Live and Let Die’, ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’, ‘The Colditz Story’, ‘Remo Williams’, ‘Battle of Britain’ and ‘The Devil’s Disciple’. All of which have been familiar staples in the well-stocked family video store or local television back in the days when movies reigned supreme on the airwaves.
Hamilton was born in Paris, to British diplomats living abroad. It was there where he would be bitten by the movie bug, becoming a clapperboard boy at the Victorine Studios in Nice. He would move to London to work in the British branch of Paramount. Then World War II broke out and Hamilton felt the urge to serve his country by joining the Royal Air Force.
Once the war concluded, Hamilton resumed his film career. He would find himself taken under the wing of distinguished director Sir Carol Reed, serving as his assistant director for three of the best British films ever made: Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). It was at Reed’s urging that Hamilton turned to film directing, making his debut with the 1952 thriller 'The Ringer'.
Hamilton began his career making two kinds of movies: suspense flicks and war dramas. In 1961, Hamilton was offered the premiere James Bond film ‘Dr. No’, but he turned it down, feeling he couldn’t pull it off. However,things had changed enough by 1964 that when an offer to direct the Bond film may feel is the best in the series, ‘Goldfinger’, he gladly accepted the project. Hamilton would crucially add a dose of sardonic humor to the Bond character that had been portrayed with dead seriousness in ‘Dr. No’ and ‘From Russia With Love’.
With his reputation for delivering well-crafted action movies on time and on budget and fresh off three successful James Bond movies, it was no wonder why Hamilton was the first choice of producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind to direct the much anticipated ‘Superman’. Disaster struck during pre-production when the Salkinds, notorious for pinching every last penny whenever possible and seldom letting anyone else know about it, moved the production from Italy’s Cinecitta Studios to England’s Pinewood Studios.
This was bad news for Hamilton, who was a tax exile that could only spend up to 30 days in England a year. ‘Superman’ was actually scheduled to film simultaneously with ‘Superman II’, so there was simply no way Hamilton could stay on as director. Hamilton would rebound with another high-profile project of sorts, the long anticipated sequel to the popular war epic ‘The Guns of Navarone’.
That sequel, ‘Force 10 From Navarone’, was a troubled production that had taken well over 15 years to finally find financing. A complicated deal led to Columbia Pictures having European distribution while American distribution fell to the last place an expensive war actioner should have wound up: American International Pictures. While Columbia released Hamilton’s preferred 126 minute director’s cut in Europe to solid business, AIP decided to tamper with the finished film, removing scenes at random and rearranging others to create a sloppy 117 minute cut eviscerated by American critics and audiences when it finally showed up on domestic movie screens in 1979.
Hamilton’s directing career quieted down after that. There was a pair of Agatha Christie mysteries: 'The Mirror Crack’d' (1980) and 'Evil Under the Sun' (1982). In 1985, Hamilton directed what was an attempt to launch a franchise from the popular “Destroyer” pulp novels, 'Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins'. It was a very good film, but it just didn’t take off at the box office the way Orion Pictures had hoped, although it wound up finding its’ audience on home video and TV airings (the latter of which is where I first caught it).
He was Warner Bros. first choice to direct what would become the 1989 blockbuster ‘Batman’, back when the studio was reaping the box office bonanzas of the first three ‘Superman’ movies. They had hired screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had worked with Hamilton on the first three Bond films of the 1970s. The duo conceived of a darker vision that what the studio at the time wanted, ending with both men parting ways from the project.
Hamilton, increasingly tiring of the cutthroat attitudes of the film business, only made one more feature: 1989’s little-seen ‘Try This One On For Size’. After that film disappeared without a trace, Hamilton decided to retire to Majorca with his second wife Kerima. He never disavowed his earlier film career, continuing to participate in supplemental material for DVD releases of his classic titles, particularly the Bond series.
The word has been mum as to what Hamilton was ailing from at the time of his death, other than he had been in and out of medical care for the past year. I imagine that at age 93, it was just his time to go.
As a director, Hamilton was never considered one of the all-time greats by the cineaste crowd. The reason is quite simple: Hamilton never employed a flashy directorial style that called attention to itself. He focused on telling a good story as simply as possible and with a firm balance between acting, character development and stuntwork that felt organic instead of plastered on-screen by force. He made movies efficiently, seldom going over budget.
All of which is heresy to the auterist film snob crowd. I’ll take substance over style any day of the week. Hamilton was a solid craftsman who made some good entertainments that helped one forget one’s troubles while watching. That’s more than good enough for me. He left the cinematic world a better place than when he entered it. His best films will continue to live on forever. That’s a good legacy for any filmmaker.