Sunday, February 28, 2016

Denise Matthews: The Actress Formerly Known as "Vanity"

The 88th Annual Academy Awards® has just ended and I've already got a bone to pick with them in terms of their choices and exclusions for their annual "In Memoriam" section.  The late singer/actress turned born-again Christian evangelist Denise Matthews (1959-2016), known in the 1980s and 1990s as "Vanity," was not included among the people whose contributions to the motion picture industry were being honored.  (She was mentioned in the more comprehensive listing on their official website of people who passed away, but that was merely paying lip service to her and doesn't have the same impact as being included in the actual broadcast roll call.)  While I don't have an issue with most of the people who were included, I do take umbrage to the presence of the hateful financier/businessman Kirk Kerkorian making the list.  For the uninitiated, Kerkorian was famous for buying Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios in the 1960s and systematically selling off its assets in order to finance his hotel chain.  He single-handedly destroyed the most famous movie studio in Hollywood with his greed and avarice.  It's a shame that someone who was as destructive to the motion picture industry as Kerkorian was recognized in place of people who contributed to it in a more constructive manner like Joan Leslie, Abe Vigoda, Coleen Gray, Richard Johnson, Martin Milner, Bud Yorkin, or the subject of this blog, Denise Matthews, who was a very promising film actress during the 1980s and was particularly popular with young people.  She first made a name for herself as the lead singer for the band Vanity 6.  Matthews, then-girlfriend of burgeoning music legend Prince, was rechristened by him as Vanity and given her own band to front-line as part of Prince's efforts to lay the groundwork for his music empire.

After breaking up with Prince--and forfeiting the lead role in his upcoming hit movie "Purple Rain" (1984) to the fun and appealing, but comparatively less edgy, Apollonia Kotero--Matthews forged a solo career on her own in music, producing records with Motown, as well as starring in 1980s action films that were successful with young people.  But Matthews wasn't just a starlet with a pretty face and shapely figure.  She had genuine charisma and screen presence and quickly proved to be a more than capable actress full of hope and promise.  Critics such as Roger Ebert quickly warmed up to the young actress and she often earned good notices for her film performances.  Matthews (born in Canada to an African American father and a German mother of Polish and Jewish descent) struck an edgy, ethnic contrast to the fresh-faced, WASPy starlets of the period, such as Molly Ringwald and Lea Thompson, and her appeal crossed ethnic and gender lines.  So it's a shame that the Academy Board of Governors, which made such a heavy-handed point this year of wanting to acknowledge the contributions of women and people of color to the film industry, failed to mention Denise Matthews' brief but shining bid for movie stardom three decades ago.  So much for their purported efforts to promote diversity.

I first became aware of Denise Matthews not from her Vanity persona or her association with Prince, but from her early screen appearance, billed as "D.D. Winters," in the horror movie "Terror Train" (1980), one of the key, seminal slasher films from the early 1980s.  Jamie Lee Curtis starred as one of a group of college students targeted by a maniacal killer who has snuck aboard a train rented by senior year college students for a private costume party.  Matthews played the sexy and sympathetic Merry, who is friends with the blonde and ditzy Pet (Joy Boushel), both of whom are not targeted by the killer because they were not involved with the prank that traumatized the killer years earlier.  Throughout "Terror Train," however, the audience fully expects the characters of Merry and Pet to fall victim to the killer by being in the wrong place and the wrong time.  However, "Terror Train" refreshingly avoids that cliche and allows both women to survive.  As such, both Matthews and Boushel register well as appealing characters who add to the quirky, colorful milieu aboard the train because they are not merely plot devices meant to be killed off as a convenience.  Matthews has a good moment later in the film where her character stands watch over Jamie Lee Curtis' sleeping Alana, after the latter has had a violent encounter with the killer and is recuperating from the experience.  It allows Matthews to demonstrate that the character of Merry is a compassionate individual concerned with the well-being of her classmates and friends.  "Terror Train" offered Matthews a decent, medium-sized part to launch her film career.

After "Terror Train," Matthews continued to use the screen name "D.D. Winters" for her next role, playing the title character in "Tanya's Island" (1980), an odd, fanciful adventure directed by Alfred Sole where Matthews plays a Toronto-based fashion model named Tanya trapped in an unhappy relationship with her painter boyfriend Lobo (Richard Sargent).  Tanya ends up dreaming of being on a deserted island inhabited only by an ape she names "Blue," who she becomes close with.  Her boyfriend Lobo also turns up on the island as Tanya finds herself trapped in the middle of a love-triangle between both Lobo and Blue.  Despite the abundance of nudity displayed by Matthews throughout the movie, she makes Tanya a very likable and sympathetic character so that she never loses her dignity.  Matthews never condescends to the material and projects a warmth and vulnerability that allows the audience to care about her character.  Notwithstanding some silly and ludicrous scenes to play, Matthews gives a sincere and committed performance that goes a long way towards making the film watchable, particularly in the moments where Tanya communicates with the ape.  Matthews carries what is undeniably a very weird movie with confidence and aplomb and demonstrates her early promise as a film star of considerable charisma.

Matthews was off-screen for the next several years as she changed her professional name to Vanity and focused on establishing a recording career as the lead singer of the female pop trio Vanity 6, alongside colleagues Brenda Bennett and Susan Moonsie.  Her band's biggest hit was the satirically raunchy "Nasty Girl," a song written and produced by Prince and which established her persona as an assertive, take-charge individual confident in her sexuality and appeal with men.  In contrast to other so-called "dirty" songs that would follow, what distinguishes "Nasty Girl" from the rest of the pack is the playfully ironic edge that Prince, Matthews, Bennett, and Moonsie bring to the tune.  It is as if its collaborators were consciously aware of the extreme and ludicrous nature of the song--which celebrates the uninhibited promiscuity of its central figure, the so-called "Nasty Girl" of its title--and are inviting listeners to simply laugh along with them.  As mentioned earlier, when Matthews and Prince parted company both personally and professionally, she lost her chance to star as the female lead in "Purple Rain."  While one might argue that appearing in that film would have had a negligible effect on her career because it did not quite catapult her replacement, Apollonia Kotero (an appealing entertainer in her own right who did solid work in "Purple Rain"), to major stardom, I think Matthews would have done much more with this opportunity by virtue of the fact that she was already well established and would have been playing a role that was originally tailor-made for her.  I believe that Matthews arguably would have had more to gain from appearing in "Purple Rain."

Nevertheless, on her own, Matthews still made a good impression in films throughout the rest of the 1980s.  Matthews' most well-remembered movie role was her appearance in the martial-arts fantasy epic "The Last Dragon" (1985) playing music video show host Laura Charles, who is frequently kidnapped by a video arcade mogul who wants to force Laura into promoting his girlfriend's music career on her show.  Along the way, Laura meets and falls in love with good-hearted martial artist Leroy Green (Taimak), who continually comes to her defense whenever she is in jeopardy.  Matthews and Taimak enjoyed a genuinely warm screen chemistry, and made a very appealing couple.  Throughout the film, Matthews demonstrated an earthy sincerity which ensured that her character rose above damsel-in-distress stereotypes.  What makes Laura Charles the quintessential film role for Matthews is the manner in which she combined elements of beauty and genuine glamour along with an irresistibly shy innocence that has endeared the character to audiences.  Produced by legendary music mogul Berry Gordy, and energetically directed by the underrated Michael Schultz, "The Last Dragon" still has a strong cult following today and established Matthews as a viable leading lady in action-adventure films.

Matthews followed up with the female lead role in the outlandish spy-adventure "Never Too Young to Die" (1986), playing a glamorous secret agent who teams up with a high-school gymnast (John Stamos) to defeat the arch villain Von Ragner (Gene Simmons) who has killed Stamos' secret agent father (played by one-time James Bond George Lazenby) and is planning to poison the water supply in Los Angeles.  Confident in action scenes, and with a witty, glamorous, and assertively commanding presence, Matthews did creditable work in "Never Too Young to Die" (despite the outlandishness of its plot and production design) which makes one regret that she never had a chance to be an actual Bond Girl.

Matthews then had the most acclaimed role of her career, as the stripper who provides helpful information to blackmail victim Roy Scheider in John Frankenheimer's "52 Pick-Up," (1986), a tough, gritty film noir based on Elmore Leonard's novel.  As Doreen, Matthews effectively portrays a woman who is in over her head by associating with dangerous criminal types she is unable to extricate herself from.  Despite her character's inherently seedy milieu, Matthews ensures that the audience still cares about Doreen.  In her most effective scenes, Matthews portrays Doreen's sense of intimidation and terror with a palpable sense of dread.  She's particularly good in the scene where her boyfriend Bobby Shy (Clarence Williams III) viciously wakes her up and attacks her in bed to discern what information, if any, she has shared with Roy Scheider's character.  In another scene, Matthews vividly portrays Doreen's final terrifying moments as she tries to escape from an isolated warehouse by ramming her Ford Mustang into the barriers preventing her escape before being coldly gunned down by lead blackmailer Alan Raimy (John Glover).  Matthews' performance in "52 Pick-Up" works because she continually reminds the audience of Doreen's humanity.  The esteemed Roger Ebert praised Matthews' work in the film, noting how "she does what all good character actors can do: She gives us the sense that she's fresh from intriguing offscreen action."

By now, Matthews had established a viable screen image in action films, as an appealing female partner and sidekick who possesses qualities of strength and courage and always stays around when the bullets start flying.  She demonstrated these traits in "Deadly Illusion" (1987) a film noir written and co-directed by Larry Cohen where she played the cab driver girlfriend of private detective Billy Dee Williams, who helps him try to prove his innocence after he is wrongfully accused of murder.  She played a similar role, to even greater effect, in "Action Jackson" (1988), a lively, colorful action film where she plays Sydney Ash the heroin-addicted singer girlfriend of automobile mogul and crime lord Peter Dellaplane (Craig T. Nelson).  Sydney goes on the lam with police detective Jericho "Action" Jackson (Carl Weathers) after he has been framed for the murder of Dellaplane's wife Patrice (Sharon Stone).  A dark and hard-edged character, Matthews ultimately makes Sydney a sympathetic character by allowing her to demonstrate qualities of decency when she assists Jackson in the latter-half of the film in proving his innocence and, in the process, also improbably kicks her drug habit by going cold turkey.  She also gets to sing a couple of musical numbers in the picture, so that "Action Jackson" stands out as one of her more notable film appearances.  Roger Ebert again praised Matthews, noting that her performance was "the movie's one redeeming merit...Again this time, as in "52 Pick-Up," she shows a natural screen presence, a grace and easiness under pressure.  I had the feeling, watching Vanity in this unhappy movie, that she could play anyone in any movie and make it work.  She has a couple of nice song numbers, too...If [the filmmakers are] going to make another ["Action Jackson"], I suggest they decide if it's supposed to be a violent movie, or a comedy.  It might also pick things up if they put [Matthews] in the lead."

After "Action Jackson," Matthews continued her acting career in both films and television for about five more years before calling it quits in the mid-1990s.  By then, she had renounced her stage name Vanity and returned to being known as Denise Matthews, as she embarked on an entirely new direction in her life as a born-again Christian evangelist minister.  She surprised her fans by describing how years of drug abuse led to an overdose which caused her to lose both of her kidneys.  This makes her performance as Sydney Ash in "Action Jackson" all the more poignant in retrospect as she must have identified with her character's substance addiction in that film, as well as her quest to redeem herself by straightening out her life.  Matthews spent the next 20 years ministering about Christianity before passing away on February 15, 2016 at age 57 in Fremont, California from renal failure after years of increasingly deteriorating health.  What was interesting, in the aftermath of her death, was how people who were fans of Matthews from her days as Vanity expressed skepticism online as to her religious faith after her death.  It was as if people questioned her sincerity, and that she had merely traded one kind of extreme lifestyle for another.  However, I always felt that Matthews was sincere and genuine about her religious faith because she was consistent about it for the last 20 years of her life, a longer span of time than her singing and acting career had lasted.  I never believed that Matthews, who hoped people would not judge her negatively for her days as Vanity, ever needed to apologize for projecting glamour and sex appeal during her entertainment career.  In contrast, I always considered the issue that was of genuine concern with regards to her well-being was really her prior substance abuse, and not her sexy public image.  Nevertheless, I still found it rather ironic that she was instead being negatively judged by some of her fans regarding her motives for turning her back on her days as an entertainer and for choosing to focus on ministering her religious faith.

While researching her work as an evangelist, I found that Denise Matthews never used her Christian faith in an effort to promote hateful sentiments or be exclusionary to any groups of people, which some (but not all) who purport to be followers of Christianity are unfortunately wont to do; nor did she ever fail to apply her own exacting standards and philosophies to herself, both of which would be legitimate reasons for anyone to take issue with her faith if she had.  In contrast, even though it's quite clear that Matthews held fast to her religious convictions, I believe she tried to be as inclusive as possible with her faith.  Despite a discussion that took place several years ago on the fan message board, where some commenters accused her of being intolerant of gays and lesbians, a closer examination of the interview that was being referenced for purportedly expressing that sentiment demonstrates how Matthews was merely discussing the dangers of promiscuity in general with regards to all people--both straights and gays--and was not singling out any one group for exclusion or condemnation (a point which was made on that message board by several of her defenders).  She continually expressed love and respect for all people--including both gay and straight people--and did not operate from the perspective of being perfect and never having made mistakes.  In fact, she expressed the opposite sentiment--throughout that interview, Matthews discussed the hurt and pain she had experienced as a result of the choices she had made in her life, and acknowledged the things that she regretted most from her past.  While acknowledging during that interview that people have free will with regards to making personal decisions about their lives, she also reminded individuals to make reasonable and responsible choices for themselves.  I believe she simply wanted to share what she had learned with others who were similarly situated.  As such, Matthews does not deserve to have anyone judge her motives concerning her religious faith any more than having the Academy Board of Governors neglect to acknowledge her accomplishments as a film actress during this year's Oscar® ceremony.  Denise Matthews deserves to be remembered as an accomplished singer and actress whose star shined brightly for more than a decade, and who eventually left all of that behind and found peace and contentment sharing her religious faith in a sincere and compassionate effort to help others.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

"Flat Top" to "The Great Escape" to "Midway": An Interview with Producer Walter Mirisch

Walter Mirisch's remarkable career as a film producer is characterized by three words: quality, humility, and integrity.  Mirisch's work embodies the best aspects of Hollywood filmmaking by creating intelligent, entertaining, and daring motion pictures which reflect upon relevant subject matter affecting humankind without getting preachy or heavy-handed.  Mirisch--and the independent production company he formed with his brothers Marvin and Harold, The Mirisch Company--has been involved with some of the finest motion pictures made in the latter half of the 20th Century.  Whether he was producing Billy Wilder's brutally satirical comedies about the human condition or classic musicals such as "West Side Story" (1961) or "Fiddler on the Roof" (1971) or hard-hitting, provocative stories concerning racial tension such as "In the Heat of the Night" (1967), "Halls of Anger" (1970) and "The Landlord" (1970), the breadth and versatility of Mirisch's career remains impressive.  He has won three Academy Awards® throughout his career.  His first Oscar® was for winning Best Picture for "In the Heat of the Night" in 1968.  He later received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Irving Thalberg Award in 1978, as well as its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1983, and served as President of the Academy from 1973 to 1977.

Even though he is not normally considered a filmmaker who specialized in a particular genre or subject matter, throughout his career Mirisch has often produced films featuring military themes.  This includes World War II stories, as well as films set during the Korean War or during peacetime or with milieu not often dramatized on-screen, including the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.  Despite his interest in the subject matter, Mirisch has never been pigeon-holed as a "war movie" filmmaker, perhaps because his movies have their own unique perspective different from that of others working in the genre.  Mirisch's films acknowledge the importance and necessity of the military--even in satirical comedies like "The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!" (1966) and "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" (1966)--but are able to do so without any shallow or thoughtless jingoism.  His World War II films "The Great Escape" (1965) and "Midway" (1976) are rousing adventures dedicated to honoring the sacrifice made by military personnel in both the European and Pacific theaters of the war, but are still mindful of the seriousness of the subject matter.  Walter Mirisch graciously consented to a phone interview with Hill Place Blog to discuss the military-themed films of his career.  While this interview is not intended as a comprehensive survey on that aspect of his career, Mirisch nevertheless shares warm memories and insights on those films, as well as reflects upon unrealized projects that he still has great affection for.  I would like to thank Walter Mirisch for generously opening up his heart and memories for this interview.  Additional thanks must go to his son Andrew Mirisch and his Executive Assistant Renee Carly for their efforts in arranging this interview.  (Interested readers should check out Mirisch's excellent memoir "I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History" for further information on his extraordinary life and career.)

As a young man during the 1940s, Bronx-native Walter Mirisch attended the University of Wisconsin and Harvard Business School and had hoped to serve in the Naval Supply Corps during World War II.  However, he was unable to obtain a commission with the United States Navy and, instead, served his country as a civilian while working at a Lockheed plant in Burbank, California where he was responsible for developing a system of simplifying assembly-line procedures.  While one assumes that not being able to serve in the Navy might have influenced Mirisch's interest in producing military pictures, he candidly maintains that, "I couldn't pass the physical to get commissioned into the Navy during World War II, but I don't really know that that had any bearing on my continued interest in making films about the military.  There's simply something marvelous about bravery and dedication of people in the armed services and their patriotism.  I just liked the metier."

After the war, Mirisch remained in Southern California and fulfilled his dreams of becoming a filmmaker by landing a position at Monogram Pictures, one of the poverty row studios operating during the classic era of Hollywood.  Mirisch quickly established himself as a talented and fiscally responsible filmmaker producing entertaining fare such as the "Bomba, the Jungle Boy" series where he learned how to get the greatest amount of production values out of a minimal budget.  As his career progressed, Mirisch was promoted to head of production at Allied Artists, Monogram's subsidiary that was dedicated to making higher-brow films at a fraction of the cost spent by the major studios.  With greater creative freedom, Mirisch began producing films aimed at raising the prestige of the studio without undermining its financial bottom line.

Among them was the first of the military-themed films of his career, "Flat Top" (1952), the story of Korean War-era Navy Commander Dan Collier (Sterling Hayden) and his remembrances of leading a squadron of pilots against the Japanese a decade earlier during World War II.  For this modestly budgeted film shot in Cinecolor, Mirisch was able to arrange for assistance from the United States Navy, who allowed him to film scenes aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Princeton.  While clearly fond of films set in the military, Mirisch readily acknowledges that "there was no specific aspect of military life I was particularly interested in dramatizing in my movies.  It was just sort of as it came along.  I guess my first film in that genre was 'Flat Top.'  I got the idea for it and how to do the film on the limited budget that I had available to me at that time.  And I was able to put together what I felt was a really interesting cast for it--Sterling Hayden and Richard Carlson--and it sort of developed from there.  I was able to get enough of a budget from Monogram, the financier of the picture, to do it, well, half-way decently anyway.  And so that was a lot of the motivation for making that film and I thought we had a quite good script for the time and that was about it.  And (laugh) of course the best part of it was that it was an exceedingly successful picture at the box office!  God, it was a long time ago!  I haven't seen it in years myself, I'm sorry to admit.  We tried very, very hard to get as much production values as we could and stretch our dollars and it did work well and, of course, it became the inspiration years later for my film 'Midway'."

While still at Allied Artists/Monogram, Mirisch produced more films with a military-theme that used the Korean War as the backdrop.  Among them were "An Annapolis Story" (1955), directed by a young Don Siegel, a romantic adventure drama about two brothers who are midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland (played by Kevin McCarthy and John Derek) who become rivals for the affections of the same girl as they complete their education and attend Naval Flight School in Pensacola before being deployed to Korea.  Shot in Technicolor, Mirisch was again able to arrange for assistance from the United States Navy for this production, who allowed him to shoot second unit footage at the Naval Academy as well as on an aircraft carrier for this picture.  Mirisch next produced "Hold Back the Night" (1956) for Allied Artists, a low-key, almost existential black and white drama about a Marine Officer (John Payne), leading a company of Marines during the Korean War, who shares with them the story surrounding the bottle of scotch he has carried with him since World War II and has vowed to open on a special occasion.  As Payne and his men are surrounded by Chinese Army troops, he encourages them to continue fighting by promising to share the bottle of scotch once they have reached their destination.  Sensitively directed by Allan Dwan, "Hold Back the Night" is an underrated drama worthy of rediscovery.

Mirisch is amused and even a bit startled at being reminded of these lesser-known films from early in his career, "Oh my God!  'Annapolis Story' and 'Hold Back the Night'?  How the hell did you find those!  (laugh)  You dug deeply!  Well, on 'Annapolis Story,' again, I had a limited budget.  I had an opportunity to make a picture that was somewhat sizable using the Annapolis background and it was a very patriotic picture, which I felt was good in that period.  The story, as I recall, was somewhat...well, it's not very fresh.  Two brothers who are midshipman and in love with the same girl.  There's a word for it...and the word that I'm reaching for is 'corny.'   (laugh)  'Hold Back the Night' was a book by Pat Frank and I liked the book and I loved the gimmick in the story of the bottle of scotch, I think it was, and of course a lot of us do that sort of thing.  We wait for an appropriate occasion to acknowledge something, and somehow or other when you are finally doing it you never think that you really reached the epitome you had hoped for because something else has come along.  My recollection--and, my God, I can't remember the last time that I saw it--was that I liked it.  I thought that it was a quite good picture.  Allan Dwan did a very good job and he was quite an elderly man at the time.  I thought he really did a wonderful job with directing that picture."

Eventually, in the late 1950s, after establishing himself as a producer of quality films, Mirisch established The Mirisch Company with his brothers as an independent production company at United Artists.  He was about to embark on the most acclaimed and productive period of his career during the 1960s and 1970s, with countless acclaimed and successful films.  It would take awhile before Mirisch returned to making films set in the military with "The Great Escape" in 1963.  By that time, however, the United States was already involved with the Vietnam War.  Many of Mirisch's military-themed films were made in an environment where Vietnam had become a tangible reality in the lives of most Americans.  What makes his films interesting is that they are neither explicitly pro- or anti-war, which would be the default position of most filmmakers at the time.  Mirisch's films are unique because they acknowledge and respect the necessity for responsible military intervention under the appropriate circumstances.  When queried, Mirisch acknowledges that "I'm sure the Vietnam War had some bearing on the military films I made during the 1960s and 1970s.  I'm sure it did.  You know, you sort of had to be influenced by the environment you were living in and it certainly, I'm sure, influenced my work.  I can't quite connect it with any particular film in terms of story or character that I could give you as an example, but I am sure Vietnam did influence my work."

Perhaps one manner in which the controversial Vietnam War had bearing on Walter Mirisch's military films of the 1960s and 1970s was that they were not solely focused on dramatizing the United States armed forces.  Throughout this period, his films represented military personnel of countries other than the United States, and not merely as villains or antagonists.  "Midway" contains scenes showing the Japanese perspective on an equal basis as that of the American point-of-view.  In films such as "The Great Escape," military personnel from numerous Allied nations, such as the POWs depicted in that film, are shown working together as a team towards a common purpose.  In "The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!" the perspective of the Russian submariners are represented in a sympathetic manner so that they are not one-dimensional stereotypes.  And in "Cast a Giant Shadow" (1965), Kirk Douglas's American Army officer works closely to train and lead the Israel Defense Forces during the Arab Israeli war in 1948.  Because Vietnam was such a controversial conflict, with many arguing that perspectives other than that of the United States should be considered, it is possible that that may have inspired Mirisch to think outside the box as well with these films.

Mirisch acknowledges that, "Of course I was conscious that the films I made represented the perspectives of the military personnel of other nations.  I'll tell you what this is: It is what is inside the head and being of the filmmaker.  It reflects who and what you are because that is what you are putting into your film, which is probably different from other people who are coming from somewhere else and bringing a different mentality to it.  So, yes, I was conscious about wanting to see the perspective of other countries in these films.  In 'Midway,' I had scenes in that film showing the Japanese perspective.  I was trying to be egalitarian and show the other side as well.  I also thought that it makes it more interesting for audiences.  You know, if you have a fight scene, you want to know something about both of the antagonists.  Your understanding of what's at stake becomes much stronger with that approach.  That was the way I thought these stories should be told and that was what I tried to incorporate into my films.  That's what makes the films of disparate filmmakers different from one another."

One film that demonstrates Mirisch's ability to make a film that represents his own perspective with an established premise or storyline is "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), his Western remake of Akira Kurosawa's classic epic "The Seven Samurai" (1954).  With "The Magnificent Seven," Mirisch and director John Sturges transposed Kurosawa's story of 16th Century Japanese villagers who hire a half-dozen or so Samurai to protect them from bandits out to pillage their community to the Old West.  In Mirisch's version, seven gunfighters are hired to protect a Mexican village from bandits out to rob their community.  While the film does not appear to be a military picture, because the title characters are not organized or sanctioned by any formal government authority, a case could still be made that the film reflects some aspects of a military operation because it is about a group of people hired by the leaders of a community who come together to fight a common enemy.  When presented with that suggestion, Mirisch is quick to point out that "that movie is really about Samurais!  I never actually thought of it as a movie with military themes.  We just thought that it was a great story.  The Japanese picture that we based it on--Kurosawa's 'The Seven Samurai'--was a masterpiece.  And it was such great fun to translate it into the Western genre.  But, no, I never really looked at the characters in that film as a military operation.   But, of course, that framework found its way into 'The Dirty Dozen,' so perhaps there are some military themes there.  It's the same story translated into a military background so somebody else was smart enough to do it as a military picture!  (laugh)"  

In reflecting upon "The Magnificent Seven," Mirisch is quick to highlight the invaluable contribution made by actor Yul Brynner, who approached Mirisch with the idea of turning "The Seven Samurai" into a Western and starred as the de-facto leader of the titular gunfighters, Chris Adams.  As Mirisch recalls, "Yul Brynner was wonderful in it as Chris.  You know, when the idea first came up of Yul playing that particular part, I had great misgivings about it.  There was nothing in his career that would seem to have prepared him for that role.  Except when I talked with him and he expressed his feelings about the period and the Western genre and how he felt about Chris, you know, my confidence soared and I was very happy with the casting.  And, of course, that was one of those 'Golden Pictures' where all the casting seemed absolutely spot on!"

When Mirisch reunited three years later with "Magnificent Seven" director John Sturges and co-stars Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson for "The Great Escape," he achieved another of his greatest successes, a rousing and moving action adventure depicting the efforts by Allied prisoners of war to escape from a German POW camp during World War II.  Punctuated by iconic performances from its talented ensemble cast (which also includes James Garner, Richard Attenborough, David McCallum, and Donald Pleasance), with a finely tuned script and nuanced direction that never ignores the human element of the story, "The Great Escape" remains one of the most popular World War II epics ever made.  In a genre of films that normally highlights the importance of protocol and cohesion among military personnel, what makes "The Great Escape" unique is how it also celebrates its protagonists' ability, when necessary, to be rebellious and think outside the box.

Mirisch warmly recalls how, "we tried to make 'The Great Escape' special.  There'd been other films made about the subject matter and we wanted ours to be different and in addition to which it, again, it represented the mentality and the intellect or the intelligence or the whatever you want to call it of the particular picturemaker, and that was mine."  When asked which character or cast member from the large ensemble was his personal favorite, Mirisch candidly admits, "Oh, I don't know.  It's difficult to choose which character in 'The Great Escape' was my favorite.  It's like asking which is your favorite child.  You know, I just loved that film.  Steve McQueen, of course, is the outstanding character in it and a great deal comes from his personality.  And the same thing is true of Jim Garner and his contribution to the film.  I thought Donald Pleasance had a very, very moving role and I loved the way he played it.  But all of them were great.  Dickie Attenborough and the whole English cast were marvelous.  It was one of those pictures where everything was, as the British say, 'Spot on.'"

Despite the film's rousing and often witty and upbeat tone, one manner in which "The Great Escape" is notable is that many of the protagonists are either recaptured and/or killed by the end.  While many aspects of the real-life escape that the film depicted were altered for dramatic purposes, such as increasing the involvement of American military personnel in the story, the filmmakers still limited the number of actual prisoners who successfully escaped and were not recaptured to only three characters--Danny (Charles Bronson), Willie (John Leyton), and Sedgwick (James Coburn).  Mirisch and director John Sturges made a conscious choice not to alter that aspect of the story and, in so doing, underscored the sacrifice and courage of the real-life men that the film was based on.  Mirisch explains, "Are you kidding?  All those men--50 men--are murdered at the end of the film!  You know, this is serious business!  We wanted to keep that in the story, and not have a different ending by allowing more characters to escape, because we wanted people to know that the Germans weren't fooling.  This wasn't for fun.  In any case, the picture's very long as it is now.  (laugh)  Of course, you know, this is all a matter of selection and what you choose to put in the picture.  The picture is, I don't know, 2 hours and 40 or 50 minutes.  Or it was originally, I don't know what it may have been cut down to by now.  (laugh)  In any event, I don't think we could've made it longer with more men escaping."

Mirisch next tackled the 1948 Arab Israeli war with the production of "Cast a Giant Shadow" (1965) a bio-pic of American Army Colonel Mickey Marcus (Kirk Douglas) who trains Israeli troops in preparation for conflict with Arab forces.  Co-produced by John Wayne's Batjac Productions, "Cast a Giant Shadow" was partially shot on location in Israel.  When asked if there were any particular challenges making this film, Mirisch recalls that "I don't think we had any controversy making 'Cast a Giant Shadow' with regards to the subject matter.  I just remember when we were in Israel, we had been promised the cooperation of the Israeli army.  And one day we went out on location and they had a call to be someplace and they didn't show up when we had expected them.  While talking to our liaison officer, they told me that 'Very sorry, but we have a problem on the frontier and we had to move our troops' out where they had to participate in some sort of incident of the period.  It was challenging to film that on location because that was still a very politically charged area.  We thought with a reasonable amount of luck we could get through with what we needed.  But there were difficulties of this type that we sort of had to compensate for in one way or another."

Around this time, Mirisch humorously tackled the subject of Cold War anxiety with his upbeat comedy "The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!" (1966).  A satirical farce depicting the hysteria that results when a Russian submarine is accidentally grounded off the coast of a New England village, the film humorously dramatizes the culture-clash that ensues when Russian sailors are confronted with American civilians who regard them as enemies on sight.  The film was daring with how it portrayed the Russians in a sympathetic light, while at the same time satirizing the provincialism of the Americans they encounter.  It was a major hit and garnered several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Alan Arkin) and Best Screenplay.  Even though the Russian sailors are shown in a better light than most of the Americans in the film, Mirisch recalls that "There was no controversy at the time with portraying the Russian sailors sympathetically in 'The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!'  No, as a matter of fact (laugh) we had difficulty securing a submarine for the filming.  The United States Navy wouldn't give us a submarine to use in the picture (laugh) and so we asked the Russian Embassy if they would give us one of theirs.  But they read the script and they decided not to cooperate as well.  (laugh)  So we had to create our own submarine for the film.  There wasn't any real controversy, but nobody cooperated with the filming of 'The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!'  And you might think we were sympathetic to the Russians in our storyline, but they didn't think so!  (laugh)  We tried to compensate that perspective with humor, and it apparently worked because it was nominated as one of the five Best Pictures of the Year by the Academy."

During the 1960s, Walter Mirisch embarked on a series of World War II movies shot mostly in England whose production costs would be underwritten by what was known as The Eady Plan: a British government subsidy funded by a tax on box office receipts that was intended to encourage an increase in film production in the United Kingdom.  Many American producers were able to finance modestly budgeted films with higher production values by having the Eady Plan underwrite most of its costs so that the financial contribution made by the studio was minimal.  To qualify, 85 percent of the film had to be shot in the United Kingdom and the cast and crew had to be mostly made up of British personnel.  No more than three non-British personnel could be hired for these films in order to qualify for the Eady Plan subsidy.  Usually starring an American actor, and with an American director on board guiding the production, these half-dozen or so modestly budgeted films--which commenced with "633 Squadron" (1964) starring Cliff Robertson and directed by Walter Grauman; and continued on with "Attack on the Iron Coast" (1968) starring Lloyd Bridges and directed by Paul Wendkos; "Submarine X-1" (1968) starring James Caan and directed by William Graham; "The Thousand Plane Raid" (1969) starring Christopher George and directed by Boris Sagal; "Mosquito Squadron" (1969) starring David McCallum (already popular in America for his role on "The Man from U.N.C.L.E" TV series) and again directed by Boris Sagal; "Hell Boats" (1970) starring James Franciscus and again directed by Paul Wendkos; and "The Last Escape" (1970) starring Stuart Whitman and again directed by Walter Grauman--were all entertaining and colorful fare that proved successful at the box office.

When asked about these films, Mirisch recalls that "The movies I made in England in the late 60s under the Eady Plan came about this way:  I had found a book, I don't know, early on in the 1960s called '633 Squadron.'  It was about the Mosquito Bombers during WWII.  And I thought it was all fascinating and that led me into making the film '633 Squadron' which was shot in England as an Eady Plan picture and it was hugely successful.  And it actually recouped its whole cost out of the British Isles.  And so I thought we had come upon what looked like a very interesting formula for some pictures that would cost in the same area as '633 Squadron' and delineate various other aspects of the war.  And so that led to that program of pictures that we made over there.  It was quite a successful venture.  My participation in each of those films was all sort of different.  It depended on what my involvement in other films was at the time.  I was very involved in the preparation of the scripts for all of them.  When it came time to execute each of them, depending on where I was with the rest of my career, affected my involvement in the actual production of each film.  The formula for each of those films was to have an American leading man and a mostly British cast and crew.  That was the formula.  We wanted to have a picture that would hopefully have appeal with American audiences and yet we had to conform with all of the requirements of the Eady Plan."  When Mirisch is asked about the interpretation that some fans of the films have made regarding a recurring theme that appears in many of them--that the main character is haunted by some tragedy in the past that causes him to have difficulty winning over the confidence of the other military personnel he is working with--he good naturedly admits that "I was not conscious of that aspect of the scripts while we were developing them (laugh) and if that is true--and I've never heard of that interpretation before!--but if that was true it's probably just a reflection of my having run out of inspiration.  (laugh)"

Mirisch next returned to the genre of military-themed movies with his historical epic "Midway" (1976) starring Charlton Heston.  An all-star ensemble picture dramatizing the decisive naval battle that took place at Midway Atoll in the Pacific in early June 1942, it was the first film Mirisch produced at Universal after parting company with United Artists.  The film is remembered for its large cast of stars in cameo roles and with its use of the Sensurround sound process that highlighted the noise, sound effects and explosions during the battle sequences.  It was a major box office hit at the time--earning more than $43,000,000 in its original release--and continues to be rerun on TV and cable since then.  One aspect of "Midway" that still stands out today is the film's extensive use of actual library footage of the historical battle in order the dramatize the event.  While some critics presumed that this was done in order to minimize the film's special effects budget, Mirisch is quick to point out that "it was an aesthetic and creative choice to use library footage of actual aerial and battle scenes for 'Midway.'  It was not done as a cost-cutting measure.   And, as a matter of fact, at the front of the picture I acknowledge the use of the library footage because I wanted audiences to feel a certain amount of reality in what we were showing them, and that a lot of this stuff in the film was based on what actually happened in naval aerial combat."

Mirisch is quick to highlight how "Midway" was one of his favorite filmmaking experiences because he enjoyed working with the United States Navy while making the film, "The assistance I received from the United States Navy to make 'Midway' was sine qua non!  One invaluable contribution was that they made their library of actual filmed aerial and battle footage available to me.  And they were very cooperative in helping us do blow-ups of all the 16mm film footage that they had, and the people in their archives were just wonderful to our editors.  Another invaluable contribution is that they allowed us to film on board the U.S.S. Lexington while it was deployed on training exercises.  We went to sea with a training mission in the Gulf of Mexico and we were at sea for about a week and we were permitted to use the facilities aboard the carrier for filming.  It was a World War II-type carrier that was still being used for training and we were given access to all the spaces that they weren't employing in their training mission.  They were great and it was a wonderful experience being aboard ship and being part of the company during that whole period."

Through the years, Mirisch has received feedback from Naval personnel on the impact and influence that "Midway" has had on their understanding of the battle and on military protocol.  After I shared with Mirisch an anecdote from a friend of mine, a retired Naval officer, that the battle staff course he attended early in his career screened "Midway" in order to demonstrate the kinds of events that might occur during an actual battle, his interest was piqued as he recalled a similar incident concerning that film, "Oh really?  I'll tell you a little story.  Some years ago--I don't know, it must be 10, 15 years by now--the Navy had retired an aircraft carrier that they had named the U.S.S. Midway.  And they kept it in San Diego harbor as a museum.  Of course, the carrier itself, the Midway, was built later on and wasn't in the war, but it was given that name.  And they invited me to come to the opening ceremony of this museum and I went down there and I'm sitting on the podium with all these Naval officers and I said 'You know, I'm very flattered that you invited me to come here.  I wasn't myself in the Navy, nor was I at the Battle of Midway, and so I very much appreciate your inviting me.'  And this three-star Naval Admiral said to me, 'Oh my God! What most of us know about the battle, we learned from your picture!  (laugh)  And so that's why we wanted you to be here!'  It sort of was a bit gratifying for me to hear that because it was a reverse expectation on my part!  I guess it was because it was a different generation and they'd seen the picture and they believed everything I said!  (laugh)  'The Power of Film!'"

After "Midway," Mirisch produced the disaster/suspense melodrama "Gray Lady Down" (1978), a story depicting the efforts of the United States Navy to rescue the crew of a submarine that has been struck by a freighter amidst heavy fog and is trapped underwater on the ocean floor.  "Midway" star Charlton Heston returned to play the commander of the imperiled submarine, with Stacy Keach and David Carradine playing Naval officers leading the rescue efforts.  An entertaining thriller that highlights the United States Navy's deep-submergence rescue capabilities, Mirisch recalls how "'Gray Lady Down' was after I did 'Midway' for Universal.  It started out as a book, and it was a very interesting premise, I thought.  And it also presented a very good starring role for my friend Charlton Heston who I just finished working with in 'Midway.'  I just said to him, 'I think I found something else that we can do together' and the Navy again assisted in providing vessels we could use for filming, so that all contributed to the making of that picture.  It's a pretty good picture, I think.  What's interesting about 'Gray Lady Down' is that there's no opposing military force acting as the antagonist in that picture.  It's a story of survival, so the sea is the antagonist!  I still think it's sort of miraculous how the Navy accomplishes that sort of rescue operation, and I hoped it would be so to an audience."

In the 1980s, Walter Mirisch worked on two military-related film projects that never came to fruition.  One was another historical epic about a famous World War II naval battle in the Pacific with the working title of "Turkey Shoot," which would have been a dramatization of the Naval battle known informally as "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" that took place in the Philippine Sea during June 1944 and adversely affected Japan's ability to conduct large-scale carrier operations.  Mirisch spent years attempting to interest Universal in the project before moving his company back to United Artists for a brief period of time, where UA allowed Mirisch to develop the screenplay for it.  After a change in management at United Artists necessitated a move back to Universal, Mirisch presented the script for "Turkey Shoot" to Universal studio head Ned Tanen, who felt that there was little interest in World War II-themed dramas at the time.  The other unrealized project was a story about the development of the F-117 Stealth Bomber.  The United States Air Force assisted Mirisch with researching the project by allowing him to visit Tonopah Air Force Base in Nevada, where the stealth had been developed and tested.  He was allowed to meet with the personnel who worked on the bomber, as well as fly an F-117 simulator.  Despite having a first draft script completed, that prospective film ultimately languished in the development process for so long that the timeliness of its storyline had passed and the project fell by the wayside.

When asked if there is still a chance for either "Turkey Shoot" or the stealth bomber film project to reach fruition, Mirisch candidly admits that "Every once in awhile I think of digging 'Turkey Shoot' out again.  It is the greatest military Naval victory in American history.  And I thought it was an extraordinary story and would have made an extraordinary picture.  The script for it was structured similarly to 'Midway,' with multiple characters and told from both sides.  There were leading Japanese characters in it.  I don't know...I think if I ever make another picture that that should be it.  I think it's somewhat doubtful by now.  Time sort of caught up with me.  (laugh)  And I remember that I got very excited when I heard about the stealth bomber.  I became very enthused about the subject and I went to the training area and interviewed all of those marvelous pilots who flew those planes...but, of course, you know time has made that story rather obsolete by now.  However, it's been very interesting letting my mind go back over those experiences again.  It's nice to know that there are people who would still find that material relevant and intriguing."

Walter Mirisch surrounded by family at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art tribute to his career

Well into the seventh decade of his career, Walter Mirisch remains active in filmmaking.  He still works out of his offices at Universal, the studio he has been associated with since the 1970s.  Mirisch was recently Executive Producer of the Hallmark television movie "Bridal Wave" (2015), and is developing a new "Pink Panther" feature film.  An upcoming remake of "The Magnificent Seven" (2016), due out in theaters this September and starring Denzel Washington, will credit Mirisch as Executive Producer.  Because he remains more active than industry professionals half his age, it is apparent that the final chapter of Walter Mirisch's career has yet to be written.  When asked which of his military films is his favorite, Mirisch acknowledges "I don't know...I think 'Midway.'  I mean, there's nothing better than 'The Great Escape.'  They're sort of different experiences for me, personally.  The personal experiences on 'Midway' were wonderful--I just loved meeting those guys and living on the aircraft carrier and all of that.  That was one of the greatest filmmaking experiences of my life.  Clearly, though, 'The Great Escape' is the better picture.  I think 'The Great Escape' is one of the great wartime pictures.  I'm exceedingly proud of it.  It was superbly cast and a truly great film that I think still does not show its age, or else it would not have been nearly so successful as it was.  I am always grateful when a film I have made has been successful and has touched and reached an audience in some way.  You know, that's really what a filmmaker hopes for and that is deeply touching to me when it does happen because that is the epitome of what a picturemaker really seeks to achieve.  You hope to get to reach people in, well, as they say: 'Where they really live.'"