By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
British filmmaker Ken Annakin is hardly five minutes into an interview about his nearly 60 years in the movie business -- from World War II documentaries, to directing some of Walt Disney‘s earliest live-action features, to thriving in the epics craze of the 1960s -- when the 86-year-old slips into a pitch. Nostalgia’s one thing; that‘s what his new autobiography, the engagingly anecdotal So You Wanna Be a Director?, is for. Annakin’s sights, though, are on the future. ”I‘m hoping to make the story of what really happened to Amelia Earhart,“ says the white-haired, blue-eyed director, his mellifluous gentleman’s tone now carrying an excited bedtime-story vibe. ”She survived being shot down, was taken to Japan, came back under a covered identity and lived for 20 years in New Hampshire.“
If Annakin sounds like Oliver Stone (he claims proof exists for his Earhart postulations), it isn‘t necessarily a sign that this veteran of traditional family entertainments like Swiss Family Robinson and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines has suddenly gone conspiracy-minded. Annakin, after all, has never been in the picture business to convert people, just to create thrilling two-hour diversions. ”It sounds far-fetched,“ he says of the movie he hopes will be his return to filmmaking after 10 years, ”but what if people went out in the end and said, ’Well, I don‘t really believe it, but it’s a damn good story!‘“
If Annakin’s name -- rumored to be the namesake for Luke‘s Star Wars dad -- isn’t a film-history staple, blame genre-jumping and one too many negligible efforts. But his is ultimately a prodigious output of damn good stories (49 films going on 50, he would insist) which, at their best, merge British pluck with an American spirit of adventure, surely informed by the globetrotting he did as a young man before learning film technique in England making war propaganda. ”Anybody who wants to make films should travel,“ says Annakin, who bemoans the narrow world-view of today‘s young filmmakers. ”We’re relying on digital effects, blowing up things, but it isn‘t really about life.“ As for Annakin, once in features, he responded most to stories of ordinary people overcoming unimaginable situations, whether life-threatening, comic or poignant. His segment of 1949’s Quartet, for example, about a housewife becoming an erotic poet, deftly mixes stiff-upper-lip humor and domestic pathos.
Being tapped by Disney in the early ‘50s to direct a couple of historical sagas -- The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and The Sword and the Rose -- gave Annakin the Hollywood recognition he sought while he got to stay on his side of the Atlantic and indulge his taste for adventure. On June 27, the American Cinematheque will honor the director, who’s lived in Los Angeles since the mid-‘80s, with these two fleet-footed gems, richly shot in Technicolor, solidly acted and wittily scripted. (The 1959 Swiss Alps--set Third Man on the Mountain isn’t on the schedule, but is as worthy. Walt Disney‘s personal favorite, it features vertigo-inducing mountain-climbing footage thanks to some stunning location shooting and breathtaking matte-work. Ever wonder why Disneyland has a Matterhorn ride?)
But were they Disney’s vision or Annakin‘s? Both, really. While Annakin eventually learned what Walt wanted, in the end they both wanted it: upbeat exoticism and audience happiness. Not that Annakin didn’t sometimes forget the rule of not dismissing outright any of his iron-fisted employer‘s ideas. ”Oppose him too hard, and the main conversation of the evening would be him proving that he was right,“ says Annakin, who once, when hashing out with Disney what animals to cast for Swiss Family Robinson, remarked too early in the discussion on the difficulty of using tigers. ”Walt immediately latched onto it,“ recalls Annakin, who’d had firsthand experience directing big cats in the non-Disney Elephant Gun. ”It made him want more than ever to have tiger scenes. He‘d say to the others, ’Ken‘s afraid of a tig . . .’ It came up every day.“
In the ‘60s Annakin worked under another impresario, Darryl Zanuck, on the D-day epic The Longest Day, but felt more personal success bringing the expensive early-days-of-aviation comedy Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines to the screen. By then he’d learned to defy producers who told him when he was finished: He went two weeks longer to get the shots he needed. ”There‘d have been no picture at all,“ says Annakin, who recalls its completion as the happiest moment of his life. ”I was saving their lives!“ As it turns out, the good-sport quality to the film’s wacky international air race is an apt metaphor for Annakin‘s cheery if spotty career: devoted to film’s ability to help us soar and amenable to its collaborative spirit, even at the risk of a few crash landings.
And he hasn‘t given up. Hearing Annakin discuss his planned assault on bookstores, it’s evident that he will approach publicity for his memoir as yet another crusade. ”I‘m going to go to Book Soup, Samuel French and Barnes & Noble,“ he says, his blue eyes turning fierce, ”and show them the bloody notices and get them to order it!“
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