Bright Lights Film Journal

Play-Actor: On Trevor Howard

“The whole point of Howard’s screen persona was surely its combination of the ramrod-straight and the slyly subversive, and its creation of a façade that was eternally gruff yet perpetually seemed to be in on some wonderful joke.”

In 2001, a British scribe named Terence Pettigrew caused a minor furor in the jaded industry of movie star biographies with his book on actor Trevor Howard. Howard made something of a career out of the stiff upper-lipped English officer — The Third Man leaps immediately to mind, but he also appeared in The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Battle of Britain, and as the epitome of the ramrod military type in The Way to the Stars. More to the point, Howard was widely believed to have been one of those rare thespians who had actually put themselves in harm’s way during military service, and thus had earned the right to play men in uniform. He joined Britain’s Royal Corps of Signals in 1940, when he was 27, and was long thought to have had a distinguished time in the Second World War. In 1945, journalists started to write stories saying that he had been awarded the Military Cross for his service in the airborne forces. A press release publicizing I See a Dark Stranger, made in 1946, repeated the Howard-as-hero line, although it described him as “very reticent” about his military career. It also said he had accidentally been dropped into the Atlantic during one naval encounter. Another story had him clinging to a glider that had been shot down over the sea, holding on for 11 hours while several of his platoon died. Notes for the press issued for The Long Duel in 1967 actually quoted Howard as having requested a transfer to an airborne division because “I was bored and I just wanted a little excitement.”

So it all came as a bit of a shock — or, as Variety put it, a “bio bombshell” — when Pettigrew oute/d the subject of his book as a serial fantasist who had actually been discharged from the army not in 1945 but in 1943, had never won a medal of any kind, and what’s more had been deemed unfit for service because of his “psychopathic personality.” No wonder Howard had thought it best to be “reticent” about his military career. Oddly enough, it transpired that he’d at one time actually cooperated with Pettigrew on the offending book, which began life in 1980 but wasn’t to see the light of day for another 20 years. Howard died before its publication, but his widow Helen Cherry, a distinguished actress (The Mark of Cain, Delayed Flight) was left to denounce the claims and dismiss the book as “sensationalist.” It later turned out that much of Howard’s official record was still classified, but that enough had been leaked to confirm the truth of Pettigrew’s central thesis. Confronted by this evidence, his wife remarked only that “Trevor did not spread any of these stories; in fact it was his mother who claimed he had the Military Cross — she even told me. Trevor had a reasonable war record, and he had nothing to be ashamed of.” Not long afterward, Helen Cherry herself died at the age of 86.

With due respect to Variety, the fact that Trevor Howard may have been considered a “psychopathic personality” by the 1940s British military brass doesn’t strike me as a bombshell. It would strike me as such if they had deemed him to be a mild-mannered team player. The whole point of Howard’s screen persona was surely its combination of the ramrod-straight and the slyly subversive, and its creation of a façade that was eternally gruff and yet that perpetually seemed to be in on some wonderful joke. Put another way, he had that sense of latent menace — that he could as easily slap you as shake your hand — that’s the hallmark of a particular kind of leading man. Maybe it’s me, but the fact that Howard may have embroidered his war record isn’t exactly up there in the pantheon of great Hollywood scandals. One of these days, somebody may tell us that John Wayne was actually a draft dodger, or that Cary Grant gobbled LSD and smacked his young wife around. But until then, my admiration of the marvelously devious Howard, all repressed fury and clipped diction, and in general as gritty as a half-finished road, remains unabated. Few screen stars have commanded such empathy, or conveyed more feeling by the use of their eyes. Howard’s special gift was to make the audience see him thinking, and his voice — which ultimately became a roar — was redolent of a certain conviction and fixity of purpose. If he said it, he meant it. To watch Howard in Brief Encounter (1945) and then to fast-forward to Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1980) is to watch him grow convincingly from a tragic hero into a truculent misfit, and even in the surreal depths of the latter role, to reach peaks of heart-tugging grandeur. He may have made a habit of playing authority figures on screen, but there was always more to him than just a talent for barking orders at nervous flunkies and swilling gin-and-tonics on the verandah. You always got the impression that Howard secretly despised the suave English officer class he could impersonate but emphatically wasn’t part of, and it’s this thin film of contempt that gives his best roles such power. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if he apparently took liberties with his war record. To do so would have been entirely consistent with the anarchic prank he seemed to be playing all along.

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Trevor Howard was born in Cliftonville, Kent, one of those provincial English towns that are a synonym for decorum, in September 1913. He was the son of an insurance agent who worked in Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was then called) and a Canadian mother. He later credited the loneliness of his early years for giving him both a lifelong shyness and a love of play-acting. The roots of many of our finest screen performers lie in the nursery. Howard remembered his school days in the familiar manner of actors: “I was vulnerable and weak, so the only way I could protect myself was by showing off. The bigger boys liked my jokes and impressions of teachers.” Variety was to remark in its obituary of Howard that he “had a deep fear of abandonment stemming from a lonely youth, which accounts for his deceptions in later life.” For those of us unwilling to descend too far into the briar patch of psychiatry, let’s just say his parents were of that generations of Brits — or Canadians — who in general took a restrained approach to showing their emotions. Young Trevor went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1932 and acted on the London stage for several years before World War II. Even then, he made a point of never seeming to take his profession seriously — the important business of life, he would assert, was cricket and drink, not necessarily in that order. But he never succeeded in disguising the fact that he was one of the most accomplished character actors of his kind.

In time, Howard became a British national institution through his portrayal of the flawed but rigidly noble officer type, and at his best made even the flimsiest script compulsive viewing. His finest moment on celluloid was probably his robustly subtle study of the anguished Scobie in The Heart of the Matter (1953), although The Third Man (1949) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970) both have their moments. He had a markedly irreverent view of most Hollywood icons, and thought Marlon Brando, his co-star on Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), a “total slob — the only flair he had was the one in his nose.” Frank Sinatra, who he worked with on Von Ryan’s Express (1965), struck him as a “spoiled kid” surrounded by sycophantic “gorillas.” What set Howard himself apart from many of his contemporaries was his willingness to play unsympathetic roles — distant fathers, sadistic teachers, crusty military officers, and other unlovable but highly actable types with a sly or shady edge. Although he was more inclined to scowl than smile, you always felt he epitomized correctness and a peculiarly British sort of rectitude. You would have entrusted your firstborn child to him.

Given Howard’s later gift for playing a succession of imperturbable if slightly stolid Englishmen, it’s worth noting again that he got his big break in the classic David Lean tear-jerker Brief Encounter (1945). Lean wanted an unknown he could mould into the part of the repressed but erotically charged doctor with designs on Celia Johnson. Howard was his man, and immediately showed his gift for making dullish, ordinary professionals who might otherwise be dismissed as types into arresting individuals. (Although sparks flew with the authoritarian Lean — who thought Howard “just didn’t get” some of the nuances to the movie’s love scenes, and who failed to even invite his leading man to the film’s premiere — the two worked happily together again 25 years later on Ryan’s Daughter.) Howard’s stern and somewhat humorless appearance also made him invaluable in light comedy. Few actors could discover more dramatic mileage in a murmur or a curled lip, whether from a Crimean War cavalry officer or a clubman grunting from his armchair to his neighbor.

Although Howard was gainfully employed in film and theater for the next 40 years post-Brief Encounter, he seemed to revel in the contrariness of periodically tearing up the blueprint and playing against type — notably in his Emmy-winning titular role in TV’s The Invincible Mr. Disraeli (1963). In some ways, his career started all over again in his early fifties, ripping up the caricature he had become to reveal an actor of wiry intensity. It’s similar to what Robert De Niro did later, but the other way around and much better. Howard wanted to push himself, “to be scared in ways I didn’t know the answer to.” There was a touch of Alec Guinness, another master of decline management, about the way he handled his later career, although having interviewed them both I can confirm they had little else in common besides the craggy visage and a disdain for the more flamboyantly “luvvy” affectations of their trade. Guinness was aloof, polite, clearly on auto-pilot, whereas Howard always seemed to be just barely containing some mounting splenetic rage. Maybe it was just me, but he banged the table a lot. When he wasn’t doing that, he often threw his arms in the air. It only added to the atmosphere of the occasion that even then, in his early seventies, he still had that magnificent rumble to his voice, a sinewy body, and the hair of God. I may have been saved only by the fact that I happened to share one of Howard’s aforementioned two great burning passions in life — cricket — which was enough to get us through the allotted 60 minutes without actual bodily harm.

The other great passion? Booze. You probably already know about the generation of British actors who came up in the 1950s — O’Toole, Burton, Harris, and Reed to name but four — whose theatrical skills were matched only by a tendency to overdo the Bacchic rites. Howard lost nothing by comparison to such illustrious company. One example: preparing to shoot a scene in Sons and Lovers (1960), some of the crew were alarmed by a curious noise emanating from Howard’s dressing room. This struck director Jack Cardiff as “something like the distress call of a wounded rhino,” and it brought a hurried delegation pounding down the narrow corridor to assess the problem. They found Howard physically unharmed but in a state of some apparent mental agitation. While the actor himself paced restively from one side to another — “like a caged tiger,” Cardiff told me, extending the big-beast metaphor — the room appeared to have been the scene of some disastrous recent experiment involving several free-spirited rock stars and a crate of Jack Daniel’s. “The walls, chairs and table had all been thoroughly trashed, and there was an empty whiskey bottle embedded in the TV set,” Cardiff recalled. As the unit nurse set off in search of tranquillizers, one of her colleagues asked Howard’s wife, Helen, what all the commotion had been about. “Just,” she said smoothly, “Trevor rehearsing.” In another unusual professional departure, Howard would sometimes call his fellow cast members together and encourage them to loudly criticize each other as they read through their lines, “in order to conquer the old bogey of stage fright.” By all accounts, it was an arresting experience. As a nervous actor declaimed, Howard would urge the rest of the company to be as bluntly abusive as possible, heckling ruthlessly, laughing aloud, and farting. Weirdly, it seems to have worked. One terrified young ingénue who had been through Howard’s system said she was now so confident, she could do Lady Macbeth “standing nude in the middle of a football pitch.’

The archivists can debate whether or not Trevor Howard was a war hero; what’s beyond refute is that he was an extraordinarily brave actor, beloved of the camera, whose range was deep if not always wide, who consistently avoided the safe career option, and who gave some of the most disturbingly watchable performances ever committed to celluloid: evilly funny, suavely sinister, frighteningly believable. That’s surely enough.