Along with his film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark (1969), Tony Richardson’s The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967) is probably the most obscure and rarely seen film from the director’s middle period, a time when he was floundering and unable to match the earlier critical and commercial success of his 1963 Tom Jones adaptation. There are many reasons for that, of course, and Richardson would probably admit it was one of his biggest disasters, if not the biggest. It also wasn’t intended for the average moviegoer and was much more attuned to art house cinema patrons with its enigmatic story based on the novel Le marin de Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras, whose screenplay for Hiroshima, Mon Amour received an Oscar® nomination in 1961 (even though the film was released in 1959). To date, The Sailor from Gibraltar is still missing in action with no legal DVD or Blu-Ray release available.
Christopher Isherwood, Don Magner and even Richardson all contributed to the screenplay, an impressive international cast was assembled including Jeanne Moreau, Vanessa Redgrave, and Orson Welles, Antoine Duhamel delivered an evocative, atmospheric score, pop art visionary Alan Aldridge created the magical title sequence and cinematographer Raoul Coutard captured the exotic, fable-like nature of the story with often lyrical camerawork, shooting in such diverse locations as Italy, Greece, Egypt and Ethiopia. The critics were unkind and the box office results were dismal. So what went wrong? Some (like me) feel the film has been unfairly maligned over the years though film scholar David Thomson, no fan of Richardson’s, dismissed it as “one of the wettest films of all time.” Yet, despite accusations of being pretentious and overly arty, it makes for fascinating viewing for anyone interested in sixties cinema when unfilmable literary properties, unconventional subject matter and non-linear narrative techniques often resulted in mainstream films which were much more experimental in nature than the commercial films of today such as Candy (1968), The Magus (1968), Skidoo (1968), Duffy (1968) and others which were box office failures. No, the problem with The Sailor from Gibraltar is not so much what is on the screen but what went on behind the scenes that affected its production. It’s a minor miracle that the movie even exists.
The storyline is relatively simple. Alan, a bored bureaucrat on holiday with his girlfriend Sheila, becomes enamored with the mysterious Anna, the owner of a beautiful yacht with a full crew. She is traveling from port to port, searching for the lover who abandoned her years before after committing a murder and fleeing from the police. Anna’s obsession with finding her missing sailor is clearly a mythic quest and Alan leaves Sheila to join his new lover in her endless voyage, realizing he is merely a temporary replacement for the real thing. As their relationship intensifies and the journey becomes more overtly symbolic – is it a quest for eternal love or self-actualization? – the movie abandons any pretense of being a realistic drama and plays more like an adult fairy tale on the order of Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961).
Richardson had just completed Mademoiselle (1966) when he launched into pre-production on The Sailor from Gibraltar. On the previous film, he had become romantically involved with Jeanne Moreau, his lead actress, even though he was living with his companion, Vanessa Redgrave, and their two children (Natasha and Joely) at the time. The relationship with Moreau continued throughout the filming of The Sailor from Gibraltar which created an awkward situation for Redgrave, who played a key role in the movie. In his autobiography, Richardson admitted, “I complicated everything hopelessly. Vanessa, still trying to keep our relationship going, had wanted to be part of the production and was playing the role of the girlfriend. Artistically, it was perfect; personally – and this was what had been motivating me – it was disastrous. But I was delighted to have her: Vanessa is always wonderful in her generosities, her impulsiveness, and her mistakes.”
Making a film starring both your present companion (and mother of your children) and your new mistress would be a challenge for any director but Richardson created worse obstacles for himself. “The script needed a lot of work as the book is full of highfalutin French metaphysics, but I was so enamored of the idea that I was sure I could make it work. I asked David Mercer (who later wrote for Alain Resnais) to work with me on it…The big mistake we made was to lock ourselves into dates: All the subsequent farces, dramas, and messes sprang from that.” Richardson thought it would be more economical and practical to make Mademoiselle and The Sailor from Gibraltar back to back, reasoning that “…once Mademoiselle was in the can the crew was to be shifted into high gear on Sailor, with editing on both films waiting until the following year. There were also some real production problems of a boat’s availability, the state of the Mediterranean, etc., which if we didn’t act immediately would have meant a postponement of a year. So Jeanne and everyone else was contracted and committed. In the rush to finalize production facilities, the one thing forgotten was the script.”
After pursuing Paul Newman, Albert Finney and other famous names for the role of Alan (none of whom were interested or available), Richardson made his next big mistake and hired Ian Bannen, the Scottish actor who had recently been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). “I’d worked with him on television,” Richardson wrote in his memoirs, “but I never knew that he had deep psychological problems – especially when dealing with sexual and emotional scenes, where he would often relapse into a psychotic infantilism so profound that it was impossible to reach him in any way.” Bannen’s behavior on the film, if Richardson’s account is truthful, would make a great madcap comedy but for those who had to work with him, it was no laughing matter. Some of his more infamous antics during the production included almost causing a car accident in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia when he grabbed the driver’s genitals, hitting Jeanne Moreau in the face when she asked him to share with the film crew the Camembert cheese she had flown in from France, trying to destroy the airport gift shop in Khartoum and using the naked body of his co-star Hugh Griffith, who had passed out drunk, as a freeform canvass on which he created intricate Maori warrior-like designs with caviar.
More calamity followed when Richardson hired a young Greek actor, Thodoros Roubanis, to play Theo, one of the yacht’s crew members. During the filming in Athens, Greece, it became apparent that Moreau and Roubanis were having an affair which drove Richardson insane with jealousy. At one point the lovebirds even tried to get married but were prevented when they couldn’t produce a document of divorce from Moreau’s earlier marriage. Then there was friction between the director and his cinematographer: “Godard’s favorite collaborator Raoul Coutard,” according to Richardson. “I had admired him before and had looked forward to working with him, but it hadn’t worked out. He had a tough crew of vets from the Indo-Chinese war whom I thought were almost fascists. Coutard sensed my own uncertainty about the film and despised me for it – and for the Jeanne situation too.”
If all of this wasn’t enough, Richardson got more trouble from Orson Welles. “I admired Orson as a director enormously,” Richardson wrote, “but as an actor he was nervous, drunk, and irresponsible. We were working against deadlines to get the boat over to Alexandria before the winter storms. Everything was going wrong and was wrong.” For Vanessa Redgrave, however, The Sailor from Gibraltar experience was a good one, in spite of the complex and troubled relationship she had with Richardson. In her memoirs, in which she freely acknowledges the Moreau-Richardson love affair, she even speaks kindly of Ian Bannen, recalling their scenes in Agropoli (on the coast of Naples, near the Greek temples of Paestum). “Ian and I had played Orlando and Rosalind in As You Like It in 1961 and 1962. We also knew and trusted each other. Tony and his cinematographer placed the camera on a track in the sand so we could play the whole scene in a master shot. We did a couple of really good takes, one or two short cover close-ups. I knew I’d done good work. I knew Tony was pleased, and the crew. I had told myself before we began this film that I would put the work we had agreed to do before anything else. I completely trusted Tony would be truly friendly and professional, and it was up to me to be the same. This decision had been made, and everything fell into place. Besides, I really liked my role and the story.”
Indeed, Redgrave’s performance as Alan’s clinging, chattering girlfriend, who is clearly in denial of their dead-end relationship, is one of the best things in the movie. The sand dune scene, in particular, in which she is forced to face the painful truth of the situation, is all naked emotion with her cheerful façade stripped away. It’s a tour-de-force moment but not all of the other cast members fare as well. Ian Bannen’s one note performance as Alan is barely serviceable but not as inept as Richardson’s critique of it. Moreau has also done better work but her Anna exudes the necessary mystery and sexual allure and she even gets to sing a song. Eleonora Brown, on the other hand, who appears briefly as a dark beauty that Alan picks up at a seaside dance, is particularly memorable and projects a radiant sensuality. Unfortunately, John Hurt, who had a minor role in the film, never makes an appearance; his scenes were cut from the finished film. True to Richardson’s expectations, the critics rejected The Sailor from Gibraltar, nor were they particularly gracious to his previous films, The Loved One (1965) and Mademoiselle. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “an arty and banal piece of work,” adding, “One can only assume that some peculiar romantic fantasy, foreign to his better judgment, attracted Mr. Richardson to do this utterly way-ward twaddle in which Miss Moreau appears as a sort of female Flying Dutchman…” He also called attention to the two least effective sequences in the movie: “Certainly Mr. Welles, as a fat Mohammedan merchant in one silly sitting-down scene, and Mr. Griffith as a wild-eyed white hunter who leads a quick, grotesque foray into the African veldt, are monstrously bizarre. When they come on you have the feeling that the whole thing is a put-on joke.”
Even if The Sailor from Gibraltar was a personal disappointment for Richardson, it doesn’t deserve its reputation of being a complete disaster either. There are certainly things to savor here and the movie clearly deserves a second chance at reassessment, though its current unavailability on any format makes that difficult. One of its recent champions is British journalist and music critic David Cairns, who wrote an article on it on The Auteurs web site (http://www.theauteurs.com/), He called it “a slow, compelling and beautiful movie, which must have seemed unfashionably romantic when released in the age of free love – a tale of obsessions, in which a love affair takes on the qualities of myth.” And I fully agree with his final verdict: “I suspect contemporary observers saw Richardson straining to become a fully European filmmaker (Raoul Coutard photography, Antoine Duhamel music), and found the venture pretentious. With a bit more historical distance, the film seems closer to the cinema it aspires to – leaving behind the Northern grit of Richardson’s early work, reaching towards the fusion of romance and reality seen in something like Demy’s The Bay of Angels , or Welles’ The Immortal Story  (both with Moreau). Dreams are incapable of being pretentious.”
* This is a revised version of an article that first appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website when the film first aired on TCM
The Long-Distance Runner: An Autobiography by Tony Richardson
Vanessa Redgrave by Vanessa Redgrave