Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Thank you, Sir Alec

Since last week I began an intermittent series of reminisces about encounters and semi-encounters with famous film figures and since the great actor Sir Alec Guinness left this world on August 5, it seems entirely appropriate and fitting that I should share a little anecdote about how I once met the great man and how he impressed me with his amazing grace and humanity.

Unfortunately, I have no such anecdote. I never met the man. I never even came close to meeting the man. As far as I know, I’ve never been within a one-hundred-mile radius of the man.

Okay, so much for that idea. But I did hear once from someone who did actually meet him. At the 1995 Seattle International Film Festival one of the movies shown was a nifty little suspense thriller about a plucky deaf woman who is stalked by a brutal killer on a film set in Moscow. The film Mute Witness (which has since been released to video) was a minor masterpiece of thrills and audience manipulation and turned out to be quite the crowd-pleaser. One of the nicest surprises in the film (which featured a cast of unknowns) was the completely unexpected and sudden appearance of Alec Guinness in a brief but critical role. When the lights came up, one of the first questions from the audience for the filmmaker was how someone of Guinness’s stature should show up in a small role in a low-budget movie filmed in Russia.

The film’s spokesman (I think it was director Anthony Waller, but after five years of lost brain cells, I’m lucky just to remember that I was there) told a completely charming story about how the filmmakers ran into Guinness in Moscow by chance and got the idea of asking him to take literally just a few minutes to film a brief but crucial scene for the movie. He agreed. Once they had their bit of precious footage in the can, there was no chance for re-shooting since Guinness was then gone. As it happened, when the adjacent scenes came to be shot, it turned out that Guinness, who was seated in a car, was sitting on the wrong side and facing the wrong way to be consistent with the other actors. The problem was solved by flipping the film around and using a reverse image. (Luckily there were no timepieces or printed text in the shot that would have given away the trick.) As it turned out, that was Sir Alec’s last appearance on the big screen.

Not only was this an entertaining behind-the-scenes story, it presented a warm portrait of a beloved actor, illustrating that he was thoughtful and generous enough to take the time to help out a band of young filmmakers. We love to hear things like this because, well, even though it should be enough that an actor gives us decades of fine performances for our enjoyment, we want more. We want to believe that he or she is a nice person or, even better, that he or she is essentially the same as the best loved character(s) that he or she has played. In Guinness’s case, I suppose that character would be Obi-Wan Kenobi. Almost certainly, more people know him for playing this one role than for any of the many others he played in a 62-year career. I find it somehow comforting, however, that even though the Star Wars movies gave Guinness more fame and fortune than any other work he did, he was reportedly quite embarrassed by the obsessive fan devotion that the original trilogy inspired.

But if Sir Alec had never been cast as the once and future Ewan McGregor, his body of work would of course still have made him one of the most accomplished and best loved actors of the 20th century. Just think about it. Fagin in Oliver Twist. Numerous members of the d’Ascoyne family in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Stratton in The Man in the White Suit. Holland in The Lavender Hill Mob. Professor Marcus in The Ladykillers. Wormold in Our Man in Havana. Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia. Yevgraf in Dr. Zhivago. George Smiley in two mini-series. And that doesn’t even include the numerous historical figures he played, from Julius Caesar to Charles I to Disraeli to Sigmund Freud to Hitler.

So, even though many film buffs may take some kind of comfort in the idea of Sir Alec looking down on us with a kindly gaze from The Other Side in the same way he did in The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, I personally prefer to imagine him in southeast Asia as the goal-focused Colonel Nicholson looking with well deserved pride and satisfaction at his completed and intact bridge over the river Kwai.

-S.L., 10 August 2000

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