Ken Hughes — Film Director & Screenwriter

Cromwell was his Masterpiece

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If you look closely at the poster of Cromwell above you will see that Ken Hughes, the writer and director, only gets third billing (albeit twice), with the producer, Irving Allen, giving himself top slot. Sadly Hughes never really achieved the power and kudos he deserved. Perhaps he was considered by some producers to be little more than a good, and reliable, jobbing director. If that’s the case they were wrong — he was much better than that.

Born in Toxteth, Liverpool, in 1922, Hughes was raised in London where, aged fourteen, he won an amateur film contest, which enabled him to get a job as a cinema projectionist. Two years later, in 1938, he managed to get himself the job of a sound engineer at the BBC. In 1941 he left the BBC to make documentaries and training films for the government. After the war he returned to the BBC for a while.

In 1952 he got the chance to make his first cinema feature, the crime thriller Wide Boy. This film proved his worth as a director, and by 1955 he was making more crime movies with “imported” B list Hollywood stars, most notably Joe MacBeth, starring Paul Douglas.

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Image: ebay

The success of that film, which was also written by Hughes, meant he had more Hollywood actors, including Victor Mature, lined-up to make small budget films that nevertheless went down well with British audiences at the time. As a result Ken sold his play, Eddie, to the American Alcoa Theater Company. The play, another crime thriller, starring Mickey Rooney, did pretty well, earning Hughes an Emmy Award.

By 1960 Ken Hughes was doing alright, with his The Trials of Oscar Wilde, starring Peter Finch, nominated for three Bafta Awards, with Finch collecting Best Actor. The film also won the Samuel Goldwyn Award for Best English-Language Foreign Film at the Golden Globes.

In 1964 Ken Hughes directed a new movie version of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, with a screenplay by Bryan Forbes; it was not a success.

But Hughes’ crowning achievement of that decade was as the co-writer and director of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which was a huge hit, but a film Hughes was, in the end, unhappy with.

But then along came Cromwell, starring Richard Harris and Alec Guinness, which is Ken Hughes’ masterpiece which, 50 years after its initial release in 1970, has grown and matured into classic status not only by Hughes’ masterful script and direction, but also by some superbly fine acting from a generation of actors the like of which I doubt we shall ever see again.

Sadly the film was a box office flop at the time due, I’m sure, to the fact that Oliver Cromwell was out of fashion (John Buchan’s brilliant biography of Cromwell was pretty much forgotten)in an age that applauded weak politicians and ignored an even weaker Church of England, who frowned upon such strident displays of Christian belief; plus the British Army was becoming ever more embroiled in Northern Ireland where, for the IRA and many more in Southern Ireland, Oliver Cromwell was still a red rag to a bull. Bad timing.

But the film did receive two Oscar nominations, and Harris won the best actor award at the 1971 Moscow International Film Festival, but then Oliver Cromwell was, and probably still is, revered in Russia.

The critics didn’t really like the film and got a bit snooty about it (another 1970s trait), stating how inaccurate it was historically, which is only partially true, but then most films dealing with historical characters and events are seldom wholly true, with Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia an even better example.

What good directors and screenwriters have to try and do is put across a dramatic and cinematic truth that is true to the times and the ethics of the struggle and situation that is being portrayed. Lean did superbly well with Lawrence, and so did Hughes with Cromwell. Lean also had the good fortune of good timing, with 1961 a year that saw the start of political change in the UK; he may even have helped it along. When it comes to good drama versus historical accuracy have a word with Shakespeare.

Not until 1973, when Antonia Fraser’s monumental biography of Cromwell came out did things start to change and we began to reassess Cromwell as the man who did change a few things for the better, and when the paperback version of Fraser’s book came out in 1974 it quickly became an international best-seller, which helped change the film’s good fortune. Suddenly it was getting pride of place on Bank Holiday TV, alongside The Great Escape, with new critics taking the film a bit more seriously. Then video came along in the late 1970s with sales and rentals going through the roof, which alone must have recouped the $9m budget (and it was all US money) a few times over. And now, with downloads, online rental and streaming, there’s a whole new income stream for Cromwell. IMDb also give the film three and a half stars, which isn’t bad going for them.

Having watched the film again recently, Richard Harris’s performance as Cromwell is one of the best things he’s ever done. Part way through the film he began to suffer from a bad throat infection which gives his parliamentary outbursts an added passion and weariness, creating a real feeling of dramatic truth. It’s a superb performance that never falters. His Cromwell is a real man, and wholly believable.

The same is true of Alec Guinness’s Charles I, who plays the king as a caring father and loving husband, but something of a bemused monarch with no political or military savvy. Again, he is wholly believable, and in the final trial scenes and execution Guinness is absolutely spot on.

The photography is gorgeous, with the sense of time and place quite remarkable.

After Cromwell Ken Hughes kept on working until 1981, having, in a long film making career, made over forty cinema and TV films.

He died in Los Angeles in 2001.

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Ken Hughes. Image: timeslip/wordpress

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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