Film critic and historian David Parkinson takes us through Kenneth More: A Man in Uniform, an exclusive essay charting his service during wartime through to some of his most iconic military roles.
You knew where you were with Kenneth More. Such was his reassuring presence on screen that audiences always had the feeling that things were going to turn out well in the end. Not that this made his films predictable. Far from it. But More exuded a confidence in himself and in his characters that transmitted itself to the rear stalls, none more so than when he was in uniform.
Ironically, the young Kenneth More had been rejected by the Royal Air Force and he had only become an assistant stage manager at the Windmill Theatre in Soho after his bid to become a fur trapper in Canada had stalled. Opened in 1932 and already celebrated for its nude tableaux vivants, the theatre also presented ‘Revudeville’ sketches and More became a member of the troupe after owner Vivian Van Damm had agreed to let him replace a comedian’s indisposed straight man. In 1936, More appeared before the camera for the first time when Ace Films recorded a clutch of skits for the shorts: Full Steam, Bottle Party (both 1936), Windmill Revels and Carry On London (both 1937).
He also landed a bit part in Basil Dean’s Gracie Fields vehicle, Look Up and Laugh (1936), which was filmed at Ealing Studios. But More spent the rest of the decade in repertory theatres, being acclaimed for his performance as airman CD Williams in James Parish’s melodrama, Distinguished Gathering (1938). However, when the Second World War broke out in September 1939, More joined the Royal Navy and attained the rank of lieutenant in seeing active service aboard the cruiser, HMS Aurora, and the aircraft carrier, HMS Victorious. As he told Michael Flanders in an interview for the BBC’s Omnibus in 1970, he was able to put his acting skills to good use in providing a running commentary for his shipmates below deck during engagements with the enemy. Indeed, he took great pride in the fact that there was never a trace of fear in his voice and he confided to Flanders that he felt he did his duty ‘damn well’.
On being demobbed, More signed up with agent Harry Dubens, who would only represent actors with a good war record. While taking small parts on stage, More was also recruited by the BBC for a series of close-circuit productions designed to prepare performers and technicians for the resumption of live broadcasting. He played an RAF wing commander in They Flew Through the Sand, which was set in North Africa. More would reprise this role for the small audience of around 1350 licence holders shortly after he had made screen history in playing the German officer who is billeted on an elderly Frenchman (JH Roberts) and his niece (Antoinette Cellier) in the BBC’s first postwar drama, The Silence of the Sea, which aired on 7 June 1946. Adapted by Cyril Connolly from a novel that Jean Bruller had published covertly in 1942 under the pseudonym ‘Vercours’ (and which would be memorably filmed by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1949), Michael Barry’s production made innovative use of interior monologues that enabled More to create a sympathetic Nazi less than a year after the cessation of hostilities.
In between playing blinded war hero Julian Barrow in The Web (1946) and Captain Peter Niles in Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), More branched out from the BBC to take the small part of a Lancaster bomber aimer in Peter Ustinov’s School For Secrets (1946), although he was quite unrecognisable in his flying uniform and outsized goggles. He was more visible as Lieutenant EGR `Teddy’ Evans in Charles Frend’s Scott of the Antarctic (1948), as the intrepid naval officer helped Robert Falcon Scott (John Mills) put together his ill-fated 1910-13 expedition to the South Pole. Indeed, Evans skippered the whaler Terra Nova before having to watch the final party of five disappear into the white horizon for the last leg of the trek.
But More readily disappeared back into anonymity when rent arrears prompted him to accept a £25 assignment as a prison warder in Alberto Cavalcanti’s For Them That Trespass (1949). As he was replacing a much taller actor at the eleventh hour, More and his ill-fitting uniform were confined to the background until Cavalcanti decided he needed someone to hand over a set of keys and More got a second day’s pay for the minimum effort. Next, he shrugged off being mis-billed as ‘Kenneth Moore’ to play the blackmailing Corporal Newman in Lawrence Huntington’s Man on the Run (1949), a rare instance of villainy that saw More threaten to expose deserter Derek Farr unless he supplemented his meagre Civvy Street salary as a gamekeeper’s assistant.
He was back on the right side of the law in Michael Barry’s Stop Press Girl (1949), as he took the bit part of the police sergeant who is recognised by Gordon Jackson as his old army buddy ‘Bonzo’, while questioning Sally Ann Howes about her role in the smash-and-grab jewellery raid that she had succeeded in thwarting with her uncanny ability to grind mechanical objects to a halt. In Roy Ward Baker’s Morning Departure (1950), More was confined to shore duty as Lieutenant Commander James, as John Mills and his fellow survivors await rescue from the stricken submarine, HMS Trojan. However, he was very much out in the field (albeit out of uniform), as secret service agent Willy Shepley in Ralph Thomas’s The Clouded Yellow (1951), as he tracks Trevor Howard and murder suspect Jean Simmons through the Lake District to Liverpool with a mixture of admiration for and amusement at his erstwhile colleague’s ability to evade capture.
Sporting a smart Transatlantic Aircraft Corporation uniform, More got to flirt with stewardess Glynis Johns and attend passenger James Stewart as Dobson the co-pilot in Henry Hathaway’s adaptation of Nevil Shute’s No Highway in the Sky (1951). However, having given Stewart a guided tour of the control room, More’s good humour dissipates after the Farnborough boffin insists that the tail of the Rutland Reindeer in which they are flying is suffering from metal fatigue. On informing Johns that they are going to land at Gander Airport in Newfoundland, More calls Stewart ‘a ruddy little squirt’ and brands him an ‘inhuman swine’ after he sabotages the plane on the runway so that it can’t continue its flight.
Despite hoping that this 20th Century-Fox production would raise his profile in the United States, More discovered that he would not receive an on-screen billing. But British audiences were becoming increasingly familiar with his patented brand of jovial versatility, as his Channel Island artist overcame his conscientious objections to help undercover soldier David Niven rescue a prize pedigree cow in Ralph Thomas’s Appointment With Venus (1951) and his Irish stoker competed with George Cole and Robertson Hare for the affections of Joan Collins after they’re shipwrecked on a desert island in Noel Langley’s Our Girl Friday (1953). Although he doesn’t wear a uniform in either film, More displays a quiet form of heroism that is drolly subverted in Wendy Toye’s Raising a Riot (1955), as his high-ranking naval officer is forced to take compassionate leave in order to care for his three children in a country windmill after his wife is called to Canada to nurse her ailing mother. Reduced to wearing a pinny in his thwarted bid to instil some military discipline, More confirmed Picturegoer’s contention that he was a ‘contemporary actor who reflects the mood of today’.
Yet, while he had proved himself to be a dab hand at comedy as Ambrose Claverhouse in Henry Cornelius’s Genevieve (1953) and Richard Grimsdyke in Ralph Thomas’s Doctor in the House (1954), More reinforced his reputation as a fine dramatic actor in the 1952 stage version of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. Indeed, he was so impressive as ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page that he retained the role in both a 1954 BBC adaptation and Anatole Litvak’s 1955 feature, which saw More receive a BAFTA nomination and the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival. Although he has left the service by the time the story begins, Page is seen in flying gear getting a ticking off from a brass hat after performing a victory roll at the air show where he first meets future lover Hester Collyer (Vivien Leigh). However, their liaison is undermined by his growing frustration at being ‘chairborne not airborne’.
During filming, both producer Alexander Korda and Leigh’s husband, Laurence Olivier, had advised More that he would be mad to turn down David Lean’s invitation to headline his adaptation of Richard Mason’s novel, The Wind Cannot Read, in favour of playing Group Captain Douglas Bader, who had overcome the loss of both legs in a 1931 flying accident to serve in the RAF during the Second World War and attempt an escape from the infamous POW camp at Colditz. But, when Richard Burton turned down the role for the lead in Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great (1955), More signed up for Lewis Gilbert’s take on Paul Brickhill’s biography, Reach For the Sky (1956), which transformed his career after it won the BAFTA for Best British Film and became the biggest earner at the British box-office since Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939). More met Bader when they played golf together and he fully lived up to his conception of ‘a Rudyard Kipling fellow’. But, in toning down Bader’s bluster, More captured a form of middle-class masculinity that Films and Filming considered ‘a symbol of everything we like to think of as English’.
Having flipped the class coin as the butler who becomes the head of the household after yet another shipwreck in Lewis Gilbert’s adaptation of JM Barrie’s stage classic, The Admirable Crichton (1957), More displayed further courage in extremis as Second Officer Charles Lightoller in Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958), a deeply moving account of the 1912 sinking of RMS Titanic that incorporated clips from Herbert Selpin’s 1943 German film, Titanic. Few actors in this period endured such misfortune at sea and Henry Cornelius’s Next to No Time (1958) was notable for the fact that More finally reached his destination as a milquetoast engineer who undergoes a dramatic personality change while crossing the Atlantic aboard the Queen Elizabeth.
Although he was now one of British cinema’s biggest stars and a fixture on the annual box-office polls, More remained modest about his status. He would later joke to Flanders that he was convinced his peers dismissed him as a ‘same actor, different clothes’ journeyman. But More remained a firm favourite, whether he was sporting a tin star and toting a six-shooter as Jonathan Tibbs in Raoul Walsh’s cod Western, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), or stepping into the shoes of a murdered spy as a tweed cap-wearing Richard Hannay in Ralph Thomas’s take on John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1959). Yet not every project during this period came to fruition, as More’s hopes of playing a captain caught up in the Indian Mutiny in a centenary adaptation of the John Masters novel, Nightrunners of Bengal, fell through, while he declined the opportunity to wear another Nazi uniform in handing the lead in Roy Ward Baker’s POW thriller, The One That Got Away (1957), to Hardy Krüger.
More continued to don a range of uniforms, however, as he swapped the army khaki and pith helmet worn by Captain Scott in J. Lee Thompson’s North West Frontier (1959) to escort a maharajah’s son and his American nanny (Lauren Bacall) across turn-of-the-century India for the naval blue donned by Captain Jonathan Shepard in Lewis Gilbert’s adaptation of CS Forester’s Sink the Bismarck! (1960). Rather than prowling the bridge, however, More was confined to the operations room at the Admiralty to plot the pursuit of Günther Lütjens (Karel Štepánek), the German admiral who had ordered the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to sink Shepard’s last command. However, More returned to action man mode as William Blood in Basil Dearden’s Man in the Moon (1960), in which he climbed into aircrew overalls and a space suit to play an everyman immune from disease who is covertly trained to become an astronaut.
As More approached his fifties, times began to change and the type of character at which he excelled was supplanted by angry young men with socio-political axes to grind. A decade earlier, More had eagerly supported the workforce takeover of a factory in Bernard Miles’s Chance of a Lifetime (1950), but he turned down the strike-breaking Richard Attenborough role in Bryan Forbes’s industrial relations saga, The Angry Silence (1960). Moreover, his reluctance to take a concerted crack at America left More looking vulnerable after he was fired by the Rank Organisation for heckling Managing Director John Davis at a BAFTA function at the Dorchester.
This jape also cost More the David Niven role in J. Lee Thompson’s blockbuster adaptation of Alistair McLean’s The Guns of Navarone (1961) and he had to settle for a return to navy blues to play the plain-speaking Lieutenant Commander Robert Badger in Wendy Toye’s mild comedy, We Joined the Navy (1962). Such was his status that More was invited to join the all-star cast of the multi-directored D-Day reconstruction, The Longest Day (1962). But bearded Juno beachmaster Captain John Maud was more of a guest slot than a pivotal role and two years were to pass before More returned to playing military types, as Major Colum Fitzgerald and the demobbed Wilfred Racy in a pair of small-screen presentations, The Scapegoat and Old Soldiers (both 1964).
As his cinematic fortunes dwindled, More rebuilt his reputation on television. most notably as Jolyon in the BBC’s epochal adaptation of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (1967). The same year, he returned to uniform as Wing Commander Frederick Yeo-Thomas in the Corporation’s The White Rabbit, which recreated the exploits of the recently deceased George Cross-winning SOE veteran in Occupied and Vichy France. However, BBC Controller of Features David Attenborough had acquired the rights to the story on the proviso that the five-part series was shown once before the tapes were wiped. Consequently, one of More’s most lauded later performances was lost forever, while plans to make a biopic of Yeo-Thomas, with either Richard Burton, Dirk Bogarde, James Mason or John Mills in the lead failed to materialise.
Bogarde and Mills guested in Richard Attenborough’s debut feature, Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), which saw More return to German uniform to play Kaiser Wilhelm II in the opening photo shoot sequence that culminates in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the various crowned heads and politicians striding across the map of Europe to arrange their alliances. Remaining in a Great War setting, More switched sides to play Colonel Freeman in Alberto Lattuada’s Fräulein Doktor (1969), in which he employs a firing squad in a bid to trick captured spy James Booth into revealing details of German agent Suzy Kendall’s mission to assassinate Lord Kitchener.
As Group Captain Baker in Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain (1969), More is busy reminding Section Officer Susannah York that gas mask holders are not to be used handbags and that the air raid trenches are not unisex when the Luftwaffe launches an Eagle Day attack on RAF Duxford in June 1940. Joining York behind some sandbags, More curses ‘Bastards!’, as he surveys the damage caused by the audacious daytime assault. This would be his last appearance in military uniform, although he would play retired brigadier Salt Lumley in John Jacobs’s Anglia TV adaptation of Frederick Bradnum’s Radio Four play, Goose With Pepper (1975), in which his idyllic rustic retirement is disturbed by a visit from Company Sergeant Major Goosely (Nigel Davenport).
Moreover, as GK Chesterton’s Roman Catholic sleuth, More also wore a dog-collared clerical uniform to solve the 13 cases in ITV’s 1974 series, Father Brown. He would continue acting for another six years on stage and screen, notably undermining the regime imposed upon a conquered Britain by the victorious Nazis as soap opera writer Peter Ingram in the BBC series, An Englishman’s Castle (1978). However, More was forced into retirement as his health declined and he died in July 1982.
It has sometimes been suggested that Kenneth More outlived his era. Yet, like so many of his contemporaries, he reinvented himself as a television actor and drew some of the best notices of his career for his later stage work. Six decades after his film heyday, the characters More played on the big screen – particularly those in uniform – have acquired a timeless quality that epitomises the best of a British spirit rooted in decency, dignity and courage. Acting with seemingly effortless insouciance, he invariably made parts his own and there was plenty of his own personality in even the historical figures he played. Over 80 years have passed since More started making films, but few have matched his achievement or surpassed his popularity.
With a career in journalism spanning over 30 years, David Parkinson is one of the UK’s most respected film critics. He is a contributing editor at Empire magazine and writes for the Radio Times, the BFI website and the Oxford Times. As an author his work includes: History of Film and 100 Ideas That Changed Film.