Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


By now you have had plenty of opportunities to read retrospectives and appreciations of the life of George Harrison and his contributions to the world of music and to popular culture.

And you probably don’t need one more self-indulgent baby-boomer whining about how hard it is to see the icons of his youth grow old, get sick, and die.

So, since this is ostensibly a movie column, I’m just going to mark the passing of George (my generation was on a first name basis with all of the Beatles) by offering a few appreciative words about his contributions to the world of film.

As everyone knows, George and the other Beatles starred in two major motion pictures directed by Richard Lester: A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 and Help! in 1965. In addition the lads contributed their voices to the 1968 animated feature Yellow Submarine and the 1970 concert film Let It Be. They also appeared in innumerable documentaries as well as archival footage used in films (like the 1978 Robert Zemeckis comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand) that they otherwise had nothing to do with—not to mention George’s occasional cameos in everything from Dr. Who to The Simpsons. So, it’s not surprising that George is listed by the Internet Movie Database as an “actor” in some 42 films. And given his talents as a songwriter, it’s not particularly surprising that he is listed as “composer” on 12 films.

What may be surprising to some people, however, is the fact that George is listed as producer, co-producer or executive producer on no fewer than 24 films.

The list includes the Beatles’ 1967 TV production Magical Mystery Tour as well as 1972’s The Concert for Bangladesh and the 1974 film adaptation (starring John Hurt and David Warner) of a play by David Halliwell called Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs. But the majority of the films George produced were under the auspices of his own production company, called Handmade Films, in which he was involved from 1978 to 1994, when the company was sold at a loss. The list of movies that include his producer credit is quite impressive. And, while we can argue about the relative importance of a producer’s role creatively or artistically, compared to that of a director or writer or actor, there is no question that George’s sideline business of film production facilitated a good number of quirky, interesting, funny, entertaining, and/or thoughtful movies.

Handheld Films was formed when George stepped in to provide underwriting for Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a hilarious and outrageous religious satire that could be called a “cult film” in almost any sense of the term. Preceding Kevin Smith’s Dogma by exactly 20 years, Brian makes Smith’s film look downright tame. George even contributed a silent, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo as Mr. Papadopulous, who provides the mount for Brian’s Sermon on the Mount.

Members of Monty Python appeared in other Handheld films during the 1980s, notably Time Bandits, directed by Python alum Terry Gilliam. John Cleese starred in Privates on Parade, while Michael Palin (joined by the likes of Maggie Smith and Denhom Elliott) starred in such gentle comedies as The Missionary and A Private Function. And at the end of the decade Eric Idle starred with Robbie Coltrane in a sort of cross-dressing variation of Sister Act, Nuns on the Run. Maggie Smith got to show her dramatic (rather than comedic) skills in a Harrison-produced film in an adaptation of Brian Moore’s novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, which also starred Bob Hoskins. Hoskins also starred in the Neil Jordan-directed Mona Lisa. Other stars to appear in Harrison-produced films included Madonna and then-husband Sean Penn in the ill-advised Shanghai Surprise. And Five Corners, about a group of young friends in The Bronx, had an impressive cast that included Jodi Foster, Tim Robbins and John Turturro. Another American-set production was the bittersweet Native American buddy road movie, Powwow Highway.

Perhaps no film quite captures the idiosyncratic spirit of the stable of movies from Handheld Films, however, so much as the directing debut of Bruce Robinson (an actor-turned-screenwriter who penned The Killing Fields), who based the screenplay on his autobiographical novel. A strange comedy about a pair of young, unemployed, self-absorbed actors at the end of their tether, it launched the movie career of Richard E. Grant. The film was Withnail & I, and it became a perennial favorite of the art-house circuit.

The output of Handheld films is an eclectic grab bag of refreshing flicks that may or may not have gotten made without George’s patronage. But the world of film is definitely better off that the former Beatle played a role in getting them made. It is only in retrospect that we can appreciate the contribution that Handheld Films to the richness of films in the 1980s.

Sadly, all things must pass.

-S.L., 6 December 2001

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