“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.”
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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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.
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.