Trevor Howard

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Trevor Howard Pencil Portrait
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Last Update : 3/7/15

Aside from test match cricket, there were few passions in Trevor Howard’s life, except perhaps alcohol; a shame really, because ‘the sauce’ would edge him out of romantic roles at the tender age of 47 after filming wrapped on Malaga (1960). Starring opposite the wonderful Dorothy Dandridge, the film would signpost the culmination of his years as a leading man, his features became increasingly craggy and his voice even raspier with the passage of time. Within two years, he was a confirmed supporting actor, starring opposite Marlon Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).

The British film industry never quite knew how to handle Trevor Howard. In an era where being British was synonymous with a stiff upper lip, he steadfastly eschewed stereotypical roles in favour of playing cynics and self-destructive anti-heroes.

From all accounts, Howard was a hell-raiser from the old school, and essentially a jobbing actor. This is not to suggest, of course, that he was anything less than one of the finest exponents of his craft that Britain has ever produced, merely that ‘showbiz’ and all its glorified accoutrements, held little fascination for him. Essentially, he preferred drinking with locals in his village pub in Arkley where he lived most of his life, or watching his beloved England team play cricket at Lords.

‘Jobbing actors’ are invariably punctilious creatures – individuals who take pride in their craft without attaching any sense of self importance to it – little wonder therefore, that he was invariably at odds with higher profile stars throughout his long career. Brando would incur his wrath whilst shooting Mutiny on the Bounty,” (1962) when the notorious method actor undermined Carol Reed’s directorial efforts. Enduringly proud of his work in Reed’s masterpiece The Third Man (1949), the American’s actions were perceived as little more than deliberate sabotage. Worse was to come. On Von Ryan’s Express (1965) he worked with Sinatra and was amazed at how off-handed the actor was in real life. He’d expected Sinatra to be as gregarious as the characters he often played. Instead, he found a spoiled kid surrounded by his sycophantic “gorillas.” Thank God he never worked with Presley, where the Memphis Mafia’s juvenile high jinks would have driven him to despair.

It is unfortunate that Howard’s most compelling qualities as an actor – playing men with a streak of brittle disdain, sharp anger, or febrile madness – would be greatly overlooked until he reached his fifties. As a younger leading man, his steel-rod posture and “jolly good, old boy” accent would ensure a succession of clean-cut, rectilinear and not terribly interesting parts. “Stuffed shirt” would not be the phrase for it…….

Thankfully, whilst his latter day career would be populated with a catalogue of ranting autocrats like Captain Bligh, crusty peers, and bawdy, drink-ravaged squires, in between the idealized lover and the cantankerous old goat lay a handful of roles in which the actor would come to simultaneously embody and undermine the archetypal Englishman.

Howard has been the subject of at least three biographies, and whilst the first two were rather lightweight, the third one was markedly more controversial. Terrence Pettigrew’s 2001 volume, “Trevor Howard: A Personal Biography,” was the subject of serialised excerpts published in ‘The Daily Mail’ under the heading “Coward, Liar, Psychopath: The Truth About the Hero of Brief Encounter.” According to the carefully selected extracts for the newspaper, Howard was a complete bounder. It’s not just that he was a chronic womaniser and a roaring, drunken sot, and remorseless on both counts; Pettigrew’s real bombshell was that Howard had been ordered by the British military to resign his officer’s commission in 1943 because he was diagnosed as being mentally unstable and having a “psychopathic personality.” Apparently, he had colluded with publicists in creating and maintaining a fabricated heroic war record, including the false claim that he had received the Military Cross. In the earlier books, the issue of Howard’s war record was treated fairly breezily; he admitted that he had not wanted to serve his country and had been a lousy soldier, and insisted that he had been embarrassed by the later lies fed to the press. Since the documents containing the real details of Howard’s wartime career are still sealed and will remain so until 2038 – the fiftieth anniversary of his death – any conclusions at this point are premature.

So once again, we have character aspersions in print for all to read, and a person who cannot defend himself. In any event, a reluctance to serve one’s country during wartime, is not tantamount to desertion. In his excellent book, “Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War,” (2013) author and historian Charles Glass deals with that most uncomfortable subject of cowardice, or perhaps ‘ostensible cowardice.’ He recalls how, in 1953, Winston Churchill gave an amnesty for wartime deserters as part of the celebrations for the coronation. According to Glass, nearly 100,000 British and 50,000 American soldiers had deserted the armed forces during the Second World War, but only one was executed for this theoretically capital offence: a 25-year-old US infantryman who preferred to go to prison than into battle, and was condemned “to death by musketry” in January 1945. His story was finally told, a year after Churchill’s amnesty, in William Bradford Huie’s ‘The Execution of Private Slovik,’ which remains, according to Glass, “almost the only full-length discussion of the subject.”

Slovik’s story was told in a 1974 US Tv movie starring Martin Sheen, and still the most watched television programme in American history. Draft dodging was rife in the US at the time, as more and more young men crossed the border into Canada to avoid the insanity of the Vietnam conflict. The unprecedented viewing figures no doubt reflected the film’s topicality, and the nation’s unease with a decade long conflict in South East Asia.

If Howard truly was a reluctant soldier during WWII, I doubt very much that he was alone. In any event, more patriotic individuals – those we refer to as surviving veterans – are now seemingly aghast at the Britain they see today, often questioning what their miltary service really achieved for subsequent generations. Much of their disillusionment is captured in an excellent book by Nicholas Pringle which took three years to write called “The Unknown Warriors.”

Pringle’s book is redolent with recollectections of old soldiers, and their thoughts on life in Britain today. A Desert Rat who battled his way through El Alamein, Sicily, Italy and Greece was clearly in despair when he communicated his thoughts to the writer:

‘This is not the country I fought for. Political correctness, lack of discipline, compensation madness, uncontrolled immigration – the “do-gooders” have a lot to answer for. If you see youngsters doing something they shouldn’t and you say anything, you just get a mouthful of foul language.’

Recommended viewing

Brief Encounter (1945)

The perennial butt of many a comedian’s acerbic tongue, and periodically lampooned on prime time television, “Brief Encounter” still offers a sense of period charm to the millennium generation now overdosed on a weekly staple diet of booze, profanity and promiscuity. Our two brittle characters – Laura and Alec, one a surburban housewife, the other a doctor – seem content to confine their affair to the heart. Forever awaiting the arrival of the 11.15 for Milford Junction, the couple enjoy barely detectable tremors of true love in the railway station refreshments room, drinking tea and prodding some stodgy sponge cake as their emotions wax and wane, the incessant rain hinting at the hopelessness of their situation. Laura sums up their predicament with the stoic proclamation “we must be sensible.”

Okay, okay, quit chuckling and bear in mind that cinematic sex in Britain was only invented between the publication of “Lady Chatterley’s lover” and The Beatles’ first long player. Noel Coward’s script harks back to an era before the pill had been invented and sexual relations revolutionised; a moment in time when divorce was an inordinately protracted process. Nevertheless, despite his sympathetic performance, we should ascribe little of his character’s restraint to the actor himself. Years later, the director David Lean would amusingly recall that Howard couldn’t understand the scene in which Laura comes to the borrowed apartment where Alec has begged her to meet him. Everyone knows why she’s there, Lean recalled Howard arguing, so “why doesn’t he fuck her?” Why do they talk about the rain and her wet coat and the damp fire?” Lean, of course, understood how nervous the couple would be, alone together for the first time, and how they would cover the awkwardness with polite banalities. He beautifully expresses Laura’s sense of guilt by making the flat a miserably gloomy, cold, unwelcoming place.

Look beyond the sexual mores of a society long vanished, and revel once more in the deftness of Noel Coward’s script, and the efficiency of David Lean’s direction. Trevor Howard is sincere and lacking in affectation – his comic moment left standing in the shallow lake providing welcome relief – whilst Celia Johnson conveys the torment of a woman living the daily existence of an amber light marriage.

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The Golden Salamander (1950)

On the few occasions I find myself in a multiplex these days, ten minutes’ worth of previews is always sufficient to convince me that I won’t be back again for an awfully long time.

“The Golden Salamander,” on the other hand, is representative of a superior type thriller – however unpretentious, yet redolent with moral undertones – that the British film industry used to do supremely well. Add in all the necessary ingredients – an interesting plot line, superb cast, and some great location shooting in Tunisia – and you have a movie that never disappoints. It’s tucked away amongst my collection, neatly filed away in one of those 500 DVD storage bags that take up next to nothing space.

Trevor Howard plays David Redfern, an English archaeologist who has been despatched to Tunisia to retrieve a collection of Etruscan artifacts belonging to a British museum. The collection had been salvaged from a sinking ship and are now in the home of the wealthy and mysterious Serafis in a small Tunisian village. On the way to the village, Redfern finds the road blocked by a landslide and has to abandon his car and continue the journey on foot in darkness and driving rain. He’s not the only one having problems, encountering along the way, a ditched lorry belonging to an international gun-running operation.

Redfern finds love with a beautiful Frenchwoman, Anna (played by Anouk Aimée), whose close friend Max is unwillingly involved in the illegal operation. He appeals to the man’s conscience, engineering a solution that he believes will extricate him from further involvement, whilst distancing Anna from the situation altogether. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions, and Redfern soon finds he has become involved with murder as well as smuggling.

The Clouded Yellow (1951)

See my commentary on Jean Simmons for background information on this film.

Howard contributes a razor sharp performance as the cashiered secret agent, his ingenuity aptly recognised by his former employer – “He knows more ways in and out of this country than a carrier pigeon,” as someone says.

Jean Simmons sparkles as the young woman accused of murder, and the chemistry between the two stars is wonderful, if initially understated. Hot on their trail is Kenneth More, who gives an exceptionally likeable performance, at times unable to conceal his admiration for Howard’s professional skills.

“The Clouded Yellow” last hit the UK big screen in January 2014, when it was included within a week long series of classic film showings to celebrate the centenary anniversary of the Alhambra cinema in Keswick.

Further information on the event and an interview with the owner Tom Rennie can be located at:

Moment of Danger (aka Malaga) 1960

Notable for the last screen appearance by the wonderful Dorothy Dandridge, this crime drama was filmed on location in Malaga, Andalucia, in the fall of 1959.

Beginning with a tense, wordless jewel heist pulled-off by thief Peter Curran (Edmund Purdom) and locksmith John Bain (Trevor Howard), the film takes a dramatic turn when the seemingly affable Curran double-crosses his accomplice, dumps his lover Tawny Ginna -’Dynamite’ (Dorothy Dandridge), and escapes with his ill-gotten gains. In the aftermath of his disappearance, the jilted pair reluctantly combine forces to pursue their partner across Europe. Brought together with one common aim in mind and a mutual distrust, the pair eventually develop feelings for one another.

Once in Madrid, however, they discover Carran has gone to Málaga. Broke and stranded, and on the run from the law, Ginna leaves their hotel room to ply her trade, an act that incenses Bain. Admonishing her with a terse “You didn’t have to do something like that!” his counter proposal for ‘pulling a job’ remains impractical to her ears.

Bain eventually catches up with Curran, only to learn that he has not yet received payment from his smuggling connections. Gianna is despatched by ship to Gibraltar to pick up the money; but soon after her departure Carran escapes from Bain, gets to the ship first, and takes Gianna prisoner. Bain then surrenders himself to the police, and Curran is trapped aboard the ship. Gianna, by now in love with Bain, offers him a new beginning when his period of incarceration is over.

The central pair work well together, in a movie that is vastly overlooked today.

Recommended reading

Trevor Howard : A Personal Biography (Terence Pettigrew) 2013

Terence Pettigrew became a personal friend of Howard’s towards the end of the actor’s life and interviewed him extensively for this book — often in the pub near Howard’s home — also coming to know well his widow, Helen. The result is this first in-depth and long-awaited study of a much-loved, private and complex man, replete with reminiscences by the actor himself, by his wife and by the actors, directors and other friends and colleagues who knew him over the years.

As well as putting his long and distinguished career in context, this forthright and honest book analyses the contradictory aspects of Howard’s personality — one minute an outspoken rabble-rouser, the next a courteous and considerate gentleman – to reveal for the first time the man behind the myth.

Trevor Howard - A Gentleman and a Player (Vivienne Knight) 1986

A long out of print biography published during the actor’s lifetime, Knight’s biography is all rather ‘scissors and paste’ from a wide variety of original sources, whilst still shedding light on Howard’s early life.

In Chapter three, she writes Recalling his early days at RADA, Trevor’s own dedication never wavered; no idea that he was training for a precarious profession ever entered his head. There were no second thoughts or second strings. He was as committed to being an actor then as he is today; quietly and without fuss, he had found his niche and he loved it, nor was he a prey to fears of failure. In an insouicant fashion he just knew he had chosen the right game.