Oscar Directors: Thompson, J. Lee–Skillful Director of Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear–Not Auteur

cape_fear_posterJohn Lee Thompson, better known as J. Lee Thompson, is one of the most underestimated directors, a skillful filmmaker who made some excellent films, known for their brisk pace and strong visuals, both in the U.K. and the U.S.

Working fast and efficiently, Thompson directed over 40 films in a career spanning 39 years, from 1950 to 1989.

Born on August 1, 1914, he began his career as a stage actor with the Nottingham Repertory Company at age 17, and saw two of his plays produced in London before he was 20.

He began in films in 1934, first as an actor, then as a screenwriter in 1939, and finally as a director in 1950, with “Murder Without Crime.”

Thompson’s first successful film, which he directed and co-wrote, was “The Yellow Balloon” (1953), the story of a child who is blackmailed into helping a criminal after accidentally causing his friend’s death.

“The Weak and the Wicked” (1954), which portrays the lives of women in prison, is based on memoirs by Joan Henry, who became Thompson’s second wife.

Thompson earned a reputation in Britain for directing social dramas and comedies, which were cast with the best acting talent.  The comedies “For Better, For Worse” (1954) starred Dirk Bogarde, and “As Long as They’re Happy” (1955) and “An Alligator Named Daisy” (1955) featured Donald Sinden.

Thompson made the interesting female prison drana, “Yield to the Night,” an anti-capital punishment tale with Diana Dors as the condemned prisoner.

The late 1950s continued Thompson’s “kitchen sink” realistic dramas, which were in vogue due to the excellent work of Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, and others.  “Woman in a Dressing Gown” (1957), starring Yvonne Mitchell, Anthony Quayle, and Sylvia Syms, deals with the dissolution of a 20-year marriage. “The Good Companions” (1957) offers a grim, semi-musical view of the theatrical world.

Thompson’s strongest period of British films saw the making of  “Ice Cold in Alex” (1958), “North West Frontier” (1959), “No Trees in the Street” (1959), “Tiger Bay” (1959), and “I Aim at the Stars”(1960).

Ice Cold in Alex

“Ice Cold in Alex,” the story of a British army unit tracking across North Africa in World War II, was a major success featuring John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle, and Harry Andrews. The film won three BAFTA Awards, including Best British Film.

Hayley Mills earned a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer in “Tiger Bay,”  for portraying a 12-year-old girl who refuses to betray a sailor accused of murder.

Guns of Navarone

Thompson achieved his greatest international reputation with “The Guns of Navarone,” in  1961.  Ironically, he was as a last-minute replacement for director Alexander Mackendrick. His hands-on approach earned him the nickname ‘Mighty Mouse’ from lead actor Gregory Peck.

“The Guns of Navarone,” a World War II epic actioner, shot on location in Rhodes, Greece, was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Director, Thompson’s only nod; the winners, however, were the co-directors of “West Side Story,” which sept most of the Oscars that year.

Cape Fear

The success of “Guns of Navarone” won Thompson an entry into mainstream Hollywood, where he directed “Cape Fear” (1962), a superb psychological thriller with Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, and Lori Martin.  Based on a novel called “The Executioners by John D. MacDonald,” “Cape Fear” shows how a sex offender manipulates the justice system and terroriz an entire family. Highly controversial for its time, the film was cut heavily in both the U.S. and the U.K.

Two Starring Yul Brynner

In the next two decades, Thompson maintained a steady career in Hollywood, working with dynamic actors such as Yul Brynner in the Cossack epic “Taras Bulba” (1962), and in the Mayan Indian epic “Kings of the Sun” (1963).

Woman Director

Thompson also directed femme-centered films: Shirley MacLaine in “What a Way to Go!” (1964) and “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home” (1965), and Deborah Kerrin the occultist “Eye of the Devil” (1967).

Thompson proved capable of working in different genres, including Westerns (“Mackenna’s Gold,” 1969), espionage (“The Chairman,” 1969) and sci-fi (“Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” “Battle for the Planet of the Apes).” While in the Hollywood, he continued to dabble with British productions, such as “Return from the Ashes” (1965) and “Country Dance” (aka “Brotherly Love”) in 1970.

In the late 1970s, Thompson’s reputation declined, and he spent the remaining years of his career in low-budget exploitation films.  he made a foray into musical film with “Huckleberry Finn” (1974) starring Jeff East and Paul Winfield.

Charles Bronson Favorite Director

In the last decade of his career, Thompson became a favorite of actor Charles Bronson, who became a star with the revenge actioner “Death Wish.” They paired up in the Warner crime story “St. Ives” (1976), an unconventional western called “The White Buffalo” (1977), and a “Casablanca” spinoff, “Caboblanco” (1980).  Their work at Cannon Films, headed by Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus, lasted throughout the 1980s with such pulp actioner as “10 to Midnight” (1983), “Murphy’s Law” (1986), and “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown” (1987).

Other titles included “The Evil That Men Do” (1984), “The Ambassador” (1984), “King Solomon’s Mines” (1985), and the Chuck Norris vehicle “Firewalker” (1986).

Thompson’s last film as a director, “Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects,” was made in 1989, after which he retired.

Thompson died of congestive heart failure on August 30, 2002, at his vacation home in Sooke, British Columbia, Canada.  He was 88.


The Price of Folly (1937)

The Middle Watch (1940)



Murder Without Crime (1950)

The Yellow Balloon (1953)

For Better, for Worse (1954)

The Weak and the Wicked (1954)

As Long as They’re Happy (1955)

An Alligator Named Daisy (1955)

Yield to the Night (1956)

The Good Companions (1957)

Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

North West Frontier (1959)

No Trees in the Street (1959)

Tiger Bay (1959)


I Aim at the Stars (1960)

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

Cape Fear (1962)

Taras Bulba (1962)

Kings of the Sun (1963)

What a Way to Go! (1964)

John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1965)

Return from the Ashes (1965)

Eye of the Devil (1967)

Mackenna’s Gold (1969)

Before Winter Comes (1969)

The Chairman (1969)


Country Dance (1970)

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

A Great American Tragedy (1972) (TV)

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Huckleberry Finn (1974)

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)

The Blue Knight (1975) (TV)

Widow (1976) (TV)

St. Ives (1976)

The White Buffalo (1977)

The Greek Tycoon (1978)

The Passage (1979)


Caboblanco (1980)

Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

Code Red (1981) (TV)

10 to Midnight (1983)

The Evil That Men Do (1984)

The Ambassador (1984)

King Solomon’s Mines (1985)

Murphy’s Law (1986)

Firewalker (1986)

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)

Messenger of Death (1988)

Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989)