Sturges, John

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Sturges, John

(b. 3 January 1911 in Oak Park, Illinois; d. 18 August 1992 in San Luis Obispo, California), film director best known for his action films, particularly Westerns.

Born John Carne, Sturges was two years old when his parents moved from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park to Santa Monica, California. After they divorced, he assumed his mother’s maiden name, Sturges. During the Great Depression he attended Marin Junior College near San Rafael, California, where he worked as a stage manager and director at a local theater.

Sturges entered the film industry in 1932 with the help of his older brother, Sturges Came, an art director at Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Studios. At RKO he worked in the blueprint department and later became an assistant to the production designer Robert Edmond Jones. One of his assignments was Becky Sharp (1935), the first full-Technicolor feature film. By World War II, Sturges had become a film editor. While serving as a captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps, he directed and edited over forty documentaries and training films, including the feature-length combat documentary Thunderbolt (1945), which he codirected with Lieutenant Colonel William Wyler, who was a famous Hollywood film director.

After the war Sturges joined Columbia Pictures as a director of minor films, beginning with The Man Who Dared (1946) and including his first Western, The Walking Hills (1949) with Randolph Scott. In 1950 he began a five-year association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) as a contract director. His early films for the studio ranged across several genres, from thrillers (Mystery Street, 1950; Kind Lady, 1951; Jeopardy, 1953) to biographical dramas (The Magnificent Yankee, 1950; and The Girl in White, 1952). He received his best reviews, however, for his Western Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), which starred William Holden as a Union Army captain guarding Confederate prisoners in Indian territory. Sturges’s handling of the action sequences, especially a climactic Indian raid, was praised by critics. He followed this film with the suspense-ful drama Bad Day at Blacky Rock (1955). A modern-day Western thriller that touched on the subject of racist attitudes, the film starred Spencer Tracy as a one-armed man whose life is threatened when he uncovers a deadly secret in a bleak California town in 1945. The movie made adroit use of the wide Cinemascope screen to suggest the terrifying isolation of the beleaguered hero.

Sturges’s subsequent work at MGM and other studios frequently involved hard-bitten men coping with dangerous circumstances. Sometimes they confronted the hazards of war, as in Never So Few (1959), The Great Escape (1963), and Ice Station Zebra (1968). The Great Escape, in particular, displayed Sturges’s skill at staging action sequences in its rousing story of a mass Allied escape from a maximum-security German prison camp. Most often, however, Sturges’s heroes thrived in a Western setting where moral dilemmas led to blistering gun battles—for example, Gun-fight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), and Hour of the Gun (1967). One of Sturges’s most popular Westerns, The Magnificent Seven (1960), drew on Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese film Seven Samurai (1954) to tell its story of seven professional gunmen who are hired by townspeople to rid themselves of bandits.

Sturges’s recurring theme of man-against-the-odds also surfaced in his non-Western films. In 1958, taking over from the director Fred Zinnemann, he attempted to turn Ernest Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea (1952) into a movie. Despite a stalwart effort by Spencer Tracy to embody Hemingway’s tenacious Cuban fisherman in battle with a giant marlin, the story failed to cohere on the screen. Tracy, however, received an Academy Award nomination. There was also little Sturges could do with the turgid screenplay of By Love Possessed (1961), based on James Gould Cozzens’s best-selling novel about life among upper-crust families in a Massachusetts town.

Sturges directed films intermittently throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s—among them were The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Marooned (1969), and Joe Kidd (1972)—but they were seldom as effective as his earlier efforts. His last film, The Eagle Has Landed (1977), was adapted from Jack Higgins’s best-selling novel centering on a Nazi plot to kidnap Winston Churchill.

In his last years Sturges, suffering from acute anemia and emphysema, retired to his home in San Luis Obispo He died of a heart attack and was survived by his second wife, Katherine, and by his two children. Never a part of the Hollywood social scene, Sturges took a characteristically straightforward view of his work. “I got in the film business in order to make a living. And I proved fairly good at telling a story on screen. I wound up being a very good producer and director.”

Confronted with a hostile and violent world, the men of John Sturges’s best films—the gunfighters, the servicemen, and the one-armed stranger—responded with courage and determination. And despite Sturges’s casual selfassessment, his skill as a director helped to make them memorable.

Sturges’s widow donated over forty of his annotated shooting scripts to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California. An article by Sturges, “How the West was Lost,” appears in Film and Filming (Dec. 1962). A two-part article on Sturges by DuPre Jones, “The Merit of Flying Lead,” appears in Films and Filming (Jan. 1974 and Jan. 1975). An article on Sturges, written by Glenn Lovell a year after the director’s death, can be found in the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (26 Aug. 1993). Obituaries are in the New York Times (22 Aug. 1992) and Variety (24 Aug. 1992).

Ted Sennett