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Escape Artist

The Life and Films of John Sturges

Glenn Lovell

Publication Year: 2008

Escape Artist—based on Glenn Lovell’s extensive interviews with John Sturges, his wife and children, and numerous stars including Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, and Jane Russell—is the first biography of the director of such acclaimed films as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Bad Day at Black Rock. Lovell examines Sturges’s childhood in California during the Great Depression; his apprenticeship in the editing department of RKO Pictures, where he worked on such films as Gunga Din and Of Human Bondage; his service in the Army Air Corps in World War II; and his emergence as one of the first independent producer-directors in Hollywood.
Chronicling the filmmaker’s relationships with such luminaries as Spencer Tracy, James Garner, Yul Brynner, and Frank Sinatra, Escape Artist interweaves biography with critical analyses of Sturges’s hits and misses. Along the way, Lovell addresses the reasons why Sturges has been overlooked in the ongoing discussion of postwar Hollywood and explores the director’s focus on masculinity, machismo, and male-bonding in big-budget, ensemble action films. Lovell also examines Sturges’s aesthetic sensibility, his talent for composing widescreen images, and his uncanny ability to judge raw talent—including that of Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn, all of whom began their careers in Sturges’s movies.
            This long overdue study of a major Hollywood director will find a welcome home in the libraries of film scholars, action movie buffs, and anyone interested in the popular culture of the twentieth century.

Best Books for Special Interests, selected by the American Association of School Librarians, and Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the Public Library Association

"Pick up a copy of film critic and scholar Glenn Lovell's terrific new Sturges biography, Escape Artist. . . . I can't urge you enough to check out this interview-rich, aesthetically and culturally perceptive look at the filmmaker and his work."—Bob Strauss, Los Angeles Daily News

“Lovell’s list of interviewees reads like a who’s who of Hollywood and they obviously provided rich source material for this full-scale biography and career survey.”— Leonard Maltin

“This long overdue study of a major Hollywood director will find a welcome home in the libraries of film scholars, action movie buffs, and anyone interested in the popular culture of the twentieth century.”—Turner Classic Movies (TCM.com)


Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii

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Prologue: The Case for “The Other Sturges”

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pp. 3-7

John Sturges may be the most popular but least discussed director of the postwar era. The man behind such seminal action films as Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape has all but passed beneath the radar of critics and academicians...

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1. Sturges with a Blast of Rum

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pp. 8-10

The man on the carport obviously had been a commanding presence. Now the six-foot-two frame was closer to six feet, the white hair short-cropped and sparse, like a victory laurel. The large hands were wedged in his back pockets, the eyes obscured by...

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2. Youth

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pp. 11-17

Though he would spend much of his career cultivating the less refined image of rugged, hard-drinking outdoorsman, John Eliot Sturges sprang from Chicago blue blood and, on his mother’s side, could trace his lineage to the Mayflower Pilgrims and...

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3. RKO

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pp. 18-24

The curly-haired young man entered RKO Radio Pictures through the Gower Street gate and found his way to the personnel department. “I’ve come about a job. My brother, Sturge Carne, works in your art department—I’m John Sturges,” he announced...

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4. War & Wyler

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pp. 25-35

By December 7, 1941, Grace Sturges had moved to a garden apartment in Westwood. John, however, continued to board with Jean and her husband, William Stufflebeem. Their son, Jon, vividly recalled that day. He was eight years old. “Our neighbor, Reg...

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5. Columbia Years

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pp. 36-49

Unlike the returning soldiers battling survivor’s guilt and posttraumatic stress in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, Capt. John Sturges had no trouble slipping back into civilian life. He knew what he wanted; he had had plenty of time in the...

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6. MGM

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pp. 50-83

Sturges arrived at MGM in the fall of 1949, the year of the studio’s Silver Jubilee. Leo the Lion, however, was not in a celebratory mood. Like its competitors across town, the sprawling Culver City lot was busy fending off a three-pronged assault—by television,...

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7. A Walk in the Sun

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pp. 92-116

Flash forward. Late summer, 1968. Following the release of The Hallelujah Trail, John Sturges went on a fishing trip to Lake Tahoe with his seventeen-year-old son, Michael. The director—now divorced and, in the eyes of some, “on the ropes”...

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8. At Sea

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pp. 117-142

When Peter Benchley’s Jaws was still in galleys, Universal approached John Sturges about the rogue shark adventure. At age sixty-three, he may have been too old to handle the physical demands of such a project, but as one of the few Hollywood “old-timers” who enjoyed working on water he was a logical choice for...

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9. Gun for Hire

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pp. 143-161

Like Richard Brooks and Robert Wise, the forty-six-year-old Sturges was now officially a gun for hire who could demand creative input and more money, if not a percentage of the profits. Appropriately, four of his next six freelance assignments would be Westerns, including the box-office triumph Gunfight at the O.K.Corral...

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10. The Rat Trap

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pp. 162-179

It sounded like a contradiction, given their antithetical work ethics, but John Sturges was seduced as much by Frank Sinatra’s badboy image as his talent. “Frank never took anything off anybody and I admired the hell out of that. Maybe because I was like that myself,...

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11. Seven the Hard Way

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pp. 188-217

In September 1957, as the major studios awoke to the verities of the Television Age, the Mirisch brothers—Harold, Marvin, and Walter—announced the formation of a different kind of production company, one that would ultimately spark the director-as-auteur movement of the 1960s. Operating out of the Samuel Goldwyn Studio...

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12. Grand Illusion

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pp. 218-248

Following The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges wanted to do another ensemble piece, either The Sons of Katie Elder or that long-gestating project about an escape from a German prison camp. Since he had a non-exclusive contract with the Mirisches, he...

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13 Roadshows

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pp. 249-288

Basking in the success of The Great Escape—and now, according to Show Magazine, among the most powerful directors in Hollywood—John Sturges in the mid-1960s had his pick of projects. This freedom would prove a mixed blessing, and perhaps his...

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Epilogue: The Best Escape

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pp. 289-297

Sturges said he never intended to retire. It was just that the interval between The Eagle Has Landed and that promising next project kept expanding. He woke up one morning to discover that the fishing trips to Kona and the Sea of Cortez, once a means of blotting...

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pp. 299-301

This book would not exist without the cooperation and encouragement of the Sturges family. John Sturges and his wife Kathy invited a journalist to dinner and then urged on a budding biographer. They could not have been more generous. I am equally indebted to the director’s children: Michael Sturges, who...


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pp. 303-305


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pp. 307-318


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pp. 319-323


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pp. 325-344

E-ISBN-13: 9780299228330
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299228347

Publication Year: 2008