Against a background of Morocco’s snow-streaked Atlas Mountains south of Marrakech, a Gurkha soldier in a green pillbox cap salutes a British redcoat, brandishes his kukri, then charges into a crowd of angry Kifiris. “Cut.” The voice is deep, mellifluous. Actor Michael Caine, the redcoat, rolls his eyes to the Berber blue heavens. Oswald Morris, the multiple Oscar-winning director of photography, turns resignedly back to his camera. “Very good, Saeed. Almost perfect. But the salute.” The presence from which the voice emanates with effortless authority is John Huston, the director. “I believe,” he says, “the proper British salute is a wide arc, then snap the hand to the thigh. The longest way up, the shortest way down.” Huston, sitting on a rock, his hands hanging from the steep angle of his knees, straightens the bill cap that matches his safari suit and looks up from staring at the earth between his feet. “Now, if you don’t mind…” No one seems to, and the scene is reenacted once more.
The movie in production—written by Huston and his longtime associate Gladys Hill, from Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King—stars Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer. It is the 30th feature film Huston has directed since his spectacular debut with The Maltese Falcon in 1941. Filming Kipling’s story of two British adventurers who become lords of a Himalayan people has been a dream of Huston’s for over 20 years. At first he wanted to do it with Bogart and Gable, then later with Burton and O’Toole, but loose scripts, tight money and death intervened. Now Huston is an old master: most of his glories are long behind him, his recent directorial work is largely unremarkable. He has prospered as a craggy character actor in films less distinguished than most of his own. Around the sprawling set outside Marrakech, teeming with extras dispersed before a forest of arc lamps, grip stands and platforms—the familiar panoply of a $7.7 million international production—wise old heads are murmuring that this may be John Huston’s last film. The director is 68; he no longer moves about the set with the springy lope for which he was renowned. Indeed, he wheezes slightly with each inhalation of the inevitable Monte Cristo cigar. Pensive, at times almost brooding, he can nonetheless treat the merest tea boy, not to speak of a principal actor’s wife, with fresh and boyish charm. The eye, set in the face of an ancient Chinese tortoise, is clear and keen. In the midst of actors with their own ideas, under the concerned scrutiny of producer John Foreman—and even that of Allied Artists chairman Manny Wolf, who turned up in Morocco—Huston is still very much in command. Focus is checked. The camera crew is ready for another take. First assistant director Burt Batt calls out, “Quiet on the set!” Huston tips the bill of his cap downward, and regards the scene with a long, wrinkled squint. Then, quietly, he says, “Action.”
The life of John Marcellus Huston might have been plotted by the sort of Hollywood screenwriter who wrote Young Tom Edison or The Great Barnum. He was born in Nevada, Mo., where his actor father, Walter, was running a power-and-light plant which his maternal grandfather had (according to family legend) won in a poker game. “My father’s roadshow had gone bust, so he took the job,” says Huston. “One night there was a fire, and he overheated the boilers to get more pressure for the hoses. The plant blew up, and half the town burned down. We left that night for Weatherford, Texas!”
Huston’s parents—his mother was a newspaperwoman—divorced when he was 7, and he eventually settled in Los Angeles with his father. Quitting high school at 17, he became an itinerant prizefighter (a life he commemorated in Fat City), winning the California Amateur Lightweight Boxing Championship. The next few years sound like the book jacket notes of a macho author: he rode as a Mexican cavalry lieutenant at 20, was sacked from a cub reporter’s job on the New York Graphic, contributed short stories influenced by Ernest Hemingway to the American Mercury and got his first movie assignment writing dialogue at Universal where Walter Huston was starring in such films as A House Divided by the early ’30s. But young Huston, a memorable hell-raiser, forsook Hollywood for Paris to study art, came home after a year and a half, acted off-Broadway in a couple of plays and even gave opera a try. Then, in 1938, the Depression damping his wanderlust, he settled in as a staff writer at Warner Brothers. The string of successful screenplays on which he collaborated (Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, Juarez, High Sierra, Sergeant York) earned him his first directing assignment. TIME’S celebrated film critic James Agee called The Maltese Falcon “the best private-eye melodrama ever made.” By then America was engulfed in World War II. As an officer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Huston made three remarkable documentaries, including The Battle of San Pietro, a superb but horrifying record of the decimation of a Texas regiment taking a German strongpoint on the road to Rome.
In 1948 Huston scripted and directed the film that is roundly considered his masterpiece. For The Treasure of the Sierra Madre he received Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Director. More successes followed—The Asphalt Jungle, 1950; The African Queen, 1952—and Huston’s wealth (he was getting close to half a million dollars per picture) paralleled his fame. As a passionate horseman he acquired a Georgian mansion in Galway, and in time was joint Master of Foxhounds of a famous Irish hunt, the Galway Blazers. (“God, but it’s a wonderful place for a man to go when he’s tired of fighting traffic and taxes.”) John Huston became a storybook country gentleman and a citizen of Ireland.
Arthur Stanton, now chairman of World-Wide Volkswagen Corp., was living in Paris in the early 1950s and remembers Huston—who had come there to film Moulin Rouge—as the Pied Piper of a group which included Robert Capa, Art Buchwald, Gene Kelly, Peter Viertel and jockey Billy Pearson. “We were out at Longchamps every afternoon,” Stanton recalls. “John was the biggest bettor on the ponies and the biggest spender. Once he hit a 16-to-1 shot, and the next thing I knew, I was at his tailor being fitted for 16 suits.”
Big, brash, free-wheeling, cavalier and gallant, Huston’s reputation for being sweetly dangerous among the ladies was always as large as his extravagant life style. His first marriage, at the end of his teens, to a high school sweetheart, Dorothy Harvey, lasted a matter of months. Then there was Leslie Black, a lovely Irish girl, who infused him with a sense of stability that turned his career around. Before his divorce in 1945, Olivia de Havilland was declaring that she would marry John when he was free. Instead, in a typically impulsive, romantic move, Huston proposed to actress Evelyn Keyes in Romanoff’s Beverly Hills restaurant. Borrowing money from “Prince” Mike (“He does not really live; he just plays the part of John Huston…”), he chartered a plane to Las Vegas, where they were married that night. Huston had known Miss Keyes a few weeks. The actress summed up her husband at the time of their divorce: “He is the best director and the worst husband in Hollywood.” In 1949 he married dancer Ricki Soma, daughter of New York restaurateur, Tony Soma. (“He is reckless. He has no respect for women. He uses them and then ignores them.”) Ricki, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1969, bore Huston two children, Walter Anthony, 25, and Anjelica, 23. Jack Nicholson’s current love, Anjelica was launched as an actress in her father’s little-applauded 1969 picture, A Walk with Love and Death. In 1972 Huston, then 66, married Celeste Shane, a 31-year-old Californian. The current Mrs. Huston prefers the life and climate of her native turf, and Huston has sold his Irish estate, retaining only a cottage by the sea in Lettermullen, Connemara.
As fabled as is Huston for his panache and largesse, he is equally remarked as a practical joker with sometimes dubious taste. The night before he left Hollywood to take up residence in Ireland in 1952, Huston gave a huge party and seated his guests according to their salaries or the fees they commanded. Then, after the first toast, he disappeared. “That Hollywood farewell exemplifies the sort of cruel fun John is capable of,” says screenwriter Harry Craig. Seamus Kelly, the Irish drama critic who was recruited by Huston to play Flask, the third mate, in Moby Dick, tells of dozing off at day’s end and being marooned on a tugboat anchored in the Azores while Huston and the rest of his crew slipped away to warm dinners and snug rooms ashore. Having luckily hailed another launch, however, Kelly succeeded in giving the master prankster a bad turn by staggering into his bedroom dripping wet late that night, saying he had been forced to swim ashore through shark-infested seas. Stricken with remorse, Huston could only rasp, “Gee, kid, I’m sure as hell sorry!”
Producer Jules Buck, who served with Huston during the war as a lieutenant in charge of camera crews, observes of his old comrade: “As an actor he is very competent; as a writer he is brilliant; as a director he is magnificent. But John gets bored easily. He needs new people to feed on all the time. The desert is littered with their bones.”
There comes a time when a director’s gibes—his means of sustaining himself, of getting his effects, of taming actors and holding off intruders—are forgotten, when only his work remains. Though Huston has enjoyed neither the cult following nor the popular following of such Americans as John Ford or Howard Hawks, he has won a place among the greatest of filmmakers. Even Huston films that disappointed were often serious and ambitious undertakings. In Moby Dick, Moulin Rouge and Reflections in a Golden Eye Huston made important contributions to the use of color in motion pictures. In The Red Badge of Courage he attempted an introspective antiwar film that depended primarily on amateur actors with military experience to explore the roots of cowardice; in Freud he tried to come to grips with a subject as elusive as psychoanalysis; in Beat the Devil he and Truman Capote improvised a comic conte moral which might have delighted Voltaire.
Perhaps his most memorable films have celebrated singular men shaking their fists at destiny—the three adventurers of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Ahab in Moby Dick, Charlie All-nut in The African Queen, Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge, to name a few—existential figures choosing their own way whatever the consequences. Like Huston himself. Now, in The Man Who Would Be King, Huston is returning to the kind of adventure story of which he is a master—the tale of two likeable rascals sharing an impossible dream that might exceed their grasp.
Another take and the Gurkha’s salute is improved. The scene is right. “Print,” says Huston calmly. Bent back at the knees and forward at the waist, he rises slowly from his rock and moves off toward a rope bridge across a ravine. It is the unmistakable gait of a horseman, but Huston, the old cavalry trooper, Master of the Hounds, no longer rides. He pauses now to observe a rehearsal. Sean Connery, a brass crown across his brow, stands singing in the middle of the rope bridge while his erstwhile subjects, disillusioned at discovering his mortality, hack away at the supports. The thread that runs through Huston’s work is apparent: it is a consistent, ironic end for a Huston protagonist. “Sean,” calls out Huston, with velvet resonance. “That’s very good. Very good. But you’re shaking the bridge in tempo with your song.”