“There isn’t a fucking comma in the original script [for Dangerfield, aka Scorpio] that I used,” Wilson says. “All that about Burt and double agents is my own experience. If you weren’t involved in that world, then it’s hard to understand. I come from that kind of family. My uncle fought in Spain. I knew all about that when I was nine years old.”
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Gerald Wilson began writing Hollywood screenplays at just the right time for an iconoclast – 1970. Like his friend and fellow screenwriter Alan Sharp, Wilson specialised in unsentimental Westerns and thrillers that upended conventional takes on masculinity, race, and the nation’s manifest destiny. Forget about virtuous heroes, redemption arcs, and happy endings. Both writers were lucky to catch the moment when such dark material could attract studio backing.
The critical neglect of the best films written by Wilson – Lawman (1971), Chato’s Land (1972), and Scorpio (1973) – may simply be due to the priorities of the auteur theory. All were directed by Michael Winner, a cheerful sleaze merchant who latterly specialised in violent vigilante movies. Winner was never much of a stylist (beyond a fondness for fast zooms) and eventually traded competent craftsmanship for slapdash sensationalism. Yet whatever his limitations, Winner surrounded himself with talented collaborators: composer Jerry Fielding, cinematographer Robert Paynter, and many of the era’s best actors. While Wilson’s screenplays for The Stone Killer (1973) and Firepower (1979) were ill-served by the director, the earlier trio made it to the screen relatively unscathed.
“The point is, if Michael worked with good people, he was good,” Gerald Wilson, now 91, remembers from his home in Ireland. “He was not a bad director despite the English critics. He was respected in France, he was respected in America, he was respected even in Japan. But Michael always played the clown and that was held against him.” Nevertheless, Wilson grants, “his judgement was often very wrong, or became wrong.”
The Winner-Wilson collaboration might also seem politically unlikely. Wilson’s Marxism rendered him “persona non grata” in McCarthyist America until the Johnson administration. Winner was a member of the British Conservative Party and a law-and-order windbag. But Wilson never took Winner’s politics seriously. “Michael’s idea of an intellectual pursuit was a child’s crossword,” he remembers with a laugh. “Michael was a wealthy man, part of that Cambridge-Oxford elite, playing the clown, never being serious. I have nothing against Michael.”
Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, grew up in Canada, and traveled extensively in his youth.
“My career is very strange,” Wilson says. “I went to sea very early. I was sixteen, had a scholarship from the seaman’s union for my education, and every holiday I had to go to sea. I worked on tramp freighters over half the world. After that I transferred to study at the Haileybury School of Mines and became a geologist. I spent the next seven years living with the Cree Indians and the Inuit in the Arctic.”
He settled in England in 1955 and eventually wrote for TV – a string of 1964 episodes of Crane, a smuggling adventure set in Morocco, as well as episodes of No Hiding Place (1963), The Man in Room 17 (1965), Champion House (1967), and Vendetta (1967). He made his feature film debut writing Robbery (1967), directed by Peter Yates, although his screenplay was drastically rewritten.
Wilson found better respect for the integrity of his work – initially, at least – with Michael Winner. Their first collaboration, Lawman, was one of a series of films the director made for United Artists under studio executive David Picker. This dour Western presents a glamourless landscape of dust, sweat, and grime, and Jerry Fielding’s epic score underlies the story’s tragic melancholy. The assembled cast was superb: Burt Lancaster as the proto-fascistic Sheriff Maddox, with support from Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Sheree North, and Robert Duvall.
Wilson joined the shoot on location in Durango, Mexico. He had extensive knowledge of Westerns and was drawn to the genre for its vast possibilities. “The Western is the visual literature of the American myth,” he says. “You can use the Western for almost anything you want to say.”
Lawman is largely forgotten but worthy of rediscovery. This quietly tense drama is punctuated by brutality as an intractable sheriff attempts to round up a gang of cowboys responsible for a drunken killing. Lancaster had played the legendarily virtuous lawman Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), but Lawman challenges that convention by suggesting a tin star was little more than a licence to kill.
“I got the idea that if you’re a law and order person and you’re rigid, then you’re a dangerous figure,” says Wilson. “So I created this figure Maddox who can’t bend, can’t alter, he’s right all the way down the line, the law is the law. I wanted to comment on the fact that law and order becomes a vicious instrument if it’s not blended with a certain amount of humanity.”
This may seem like an unusually subtle theme to hand to a director who would make three Death Wish movies, but in his own way Michael Winner seems to have understood Maddox’s contradictions (as he explained to his leading man: “your character is a total arsehole, Burt”). Winner was happy to defer to a masterful script that becomes subversively empathetic to the plight of killers who face such uncompromising retribution. “There are no villains in the film, purposely,” says Wilson. “I tried to use every icon of the Western without the villain.”
Wilson found the director “very fair . . . he did not change a comma. Not a comma! He directed what I wrote, which was a new experience for me after Robbery,” he says. “Lawman is a well-directed film. It has mistakes, people move around too much, but Michael understood what I was talking about.”
The team reunited the following year in Almería, Spain, to make Chato’s Land. This was the first of numerous Winner films to star the taciturn Charles Bronson. Jack Palance was cast as a former Confederate officer. Meanwhile Robert Ryan, who’d brought an understated dignity to his role in Lawman, was unable to join the production.
“I wanted Robert Ryan for the main brother,” Wilson recalls. “He loved the script but he said to me secretly he was dying of cancer and he couldn’t do the strenuous work required by a Western.”
Chato’s Land begins with a part-Apache man killing a white man in self-defence. He must then escape into the desert to evade a posse of avengers. The story revives an enduring subgenre of the Western – the cavalry’s quest for an escaped Apache (the superficially similar Ulzana’s Raid, written by Alan Sharp and starring Burt Lancaster, would also be released in 1972). Countering a long tradition, the screenplay’s sympathies are with Chato, whose family are victimised by the bloodthirsty avengers. Like other Westerns of the era, the screenplay had allegorical intentions. “The Italian critics saw that I was talking about Vietnam,” Wilson says. “But they were the only ones that did.”
With his early experience as a geologist living among indigenous people, Wilson brought his own insight to the story. “I don’t know any Hollywood director except Sam Peckinpah who actually knew Indians as I knew them,” he says. “I was fascinated by the fact that people who go into the wilderness without experience inevitably come to some disaster, but to a person who’s indigenous to that area it’s a powerful ally.”
A lean and effective Western chase thriller, Chato’s Land is diminished by Winner’s voyeuristic depictions of sexual violence, which would become one of his trademarks. It also marked the last of Wilson’s entirely original screen stories for the director. From then on he would be called on to rewrite and adapt existing properties.
Next was an international thriller about a CIA assassin called Dangerfield. Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon had already signed on (Paul Scofield would later join the cast in a rare film role). Wilson spent a few weeks rewriting the original screenplay by David W. Rintels. Dangerfield would be renamed Scorpio, and Wilson would use the spy thriller framework to meditate on friendship and the legacy of the Cold War.
“There isn’t a fucking comma in the original script that I used,” Wilson says. “All that about Burt and double agents is my own experience. If you weren’t involved in that world, then it’s hard to understand. I come from that kind of family. My uncle fought in Spain. I knew all about that when I was nine years old.”
Wilson drew on his knowledge of two famous men from opposite ends of the political spectrum. His “close friend” Miles Copeland (1916-1991) had been one of the CIA’s top operatives in the Middle East and involved in numerous CIA-backed coups d’etat. Copeland was able to explain to Wilson the inner workings of the CIA.
Wilson also knew Artur London (1915-1986), the veteran Czechoslovakian communist who had been a victim of the 1952 Slánský show trial and sentenced to life imprisonment before a reprieve after the death of Stalin. London’s experience had been recently filmed by Costa-Gavras as The Confession (1970). One day Wilson asked London if his ordeal had altered his political opinions.
“Artur said to me something which was important,” Wilson remembers. “He said, ‘I was a communist when I was sixteen. I went to Spain and I fought for the Republic. I fought in the underground against the Nazis. I was not going to let the Stalinists take that away from me. They were not communists, they were Stalinists!’ So that is the Paul Scofield figure. . . . I used Artur’s own words, actually quoted Artur, with his permission.”
Despite the screenplay’s unambiguously dim view of the CIA, Michael Winner somehow managed to charm his way into shooting parts of the film inside the actual agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia – a cinematic first.
“Actually shot in the fucking headquarters!” says Wilson. “Movie men walk around with cameras! And the head of the CIA wanted to get his picture taken with Burt Lancaster. . . . Absolutely ludicrous.”
Scorpio remains compelling and underrated, if finally uneven. Most of its core relationships are well drawn, especially between the old spies played by Lancaster and Scofield inhabiting a Vienna that intentionally evokes The Third Man. There are a couple of gripping action sequences, and Fielding’s score introduces a forlornly romantic Gallic mood. But the otherwise superb Alain Delon seems never entirely at ease acting in English, and Winner summons consistently blunt line deliveries from the numerous CIA operatives who dish out exposition inside their drab headquarters.
Its labyrinthine espionage plot and cynical depiction of the intelligence community place Scorpio somewhere between the novels of John le Carré and the paranoid conspiracy thrillers that would emerge in the wake of the Watergate scandal. By remarkable coincidence, one scene in Scorpio was shot inside the Watergate Hotel during the summer of 1972, and Winner was actually staying at the hotel on the night when Nixon’s “plumbers” broke into the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the complex.
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Then things went downhill. Winner brought in Wilson to write The Stone Killer (1973), adapted from John Gardner’s 1969 novel A Complete State of Death. Both Winner and United Artists wanted the drama shifted from a small town in England to an American city, and the subject changed to the mafia.
“Why they bothered giving all that money to John Gardner I don’t know,” Wilson says. “The book was of no value to me. I read it carefully, nothing I could use there. . . . So I made up this story about an internal war within the mob, the elimination of the old Moustache Petes, and the establishment of the new order under Luciano.”
With Charles Bronson as its morally untroubled hero, The Stone Killer wound up an undistinguished vigilante cop thriller of the type initiated by Dirty Harry (1971). Wilson felt Winner’s filmmaking craft was slipping.
“The trouble was that by this time Michael was not careful anymore,” he says. “The film was getting chaotic now. Violence was there for violence’s sake – car chases, shootings, bang bang bang, but that’s modern film anyway. I’m not happy about The Stone Killer, but it was a very successful film financially, and it did nobody any harm.”
Winner continued the vigilante theme to even greater financial success with Death Wish (1974), the first in a long series. It has been reported that Gerald Wilson contributed uncredited rewrites to the screenplay, based on a novel by Brian Garfield.
“No, that is not true,” Wilson says. “I was offered Death Wish at the beginning. The book was fascinating. You watch the slow disintegration of a liberal warrior into a killer. He’s out of his skull, he’s out of control, he’s nuts. He’s not a hero. The book is an interesting study of a good man gone crazy.”
Wilson was initially interested in writing the film, especially when Henry Fonda was mooted for the lead role. “But then I’m told, no, they don’t want that slant – ‘He’s gotta be a hero.’ I point out that if he takes the law into his own hands and starts shooting people, it’s hard to make him a hero. ‘We’ll make the villains very bad,’ they say. ‘Nasty. Bang bang bang bang.’
“My conscience would not allow me to have anything to do with this,” Wilson says. “I simply said, ‘it’s wrong, it’s not the book, and what you’re doing is both dangerous and immoral.’ Having taken my high snobbish virtuous position, they got someone else and they made Death Wish. It made a lot of money for everybody and it turned out exactly as I predicted. Every time he shot someone in the movie, the crowd in the cinema clapped or cheered. That was incredible! An example of dangerous thinking. It was an ugly film and they kept making them and they got uglier and uglier. There were no rewrites, I had nothing to do with it. I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.”
One tantalizing unmade project outside Wilson’s work for Winner was an adaptation of Butcher’s Moon (1974) by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake), from the same series of heist thrillers that provided the source for Point Blank (1967). Butcher’s Moon would have starred Burt Lancaster and Alan Arkin, but was canceled due to internal politics at 20th Century Fox. “Everything was cast and they fired the head of the studio. Alan Ladd Jr. came in,” Wilson says. “As you know in Hollywood that means all the films that were scheduled are canceled.”
Meanwhile, Michael Winner continued to produce films in the US and UK – Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), The Sentinel (1977), and a remake of The Big Sleep (1978). The Winner-Wilson collaboration resumed with Firepower (1979).
“Oh, God, that is a real disaster!” remembers Wilson.
Firepower had an unlikely origin: an unmade Dirty Harry sequel written by Bill Kirby. When Clint Eastwood rejected the Kirby script, Warner Bros. assigned the property to Winner, who hired Wilson to rework the idea.
In Wilson’s conception, “Firepower was originally about a top button man who has retired and become a gardener. He’s out of the mob.” Wilson’s interest was “to work with Alain Delon again after Scorpio. I wanted Delon to play the hero who comes out of retirement. He’s not a mindless killer, he’s a perfectionist, and he has to go to the West Indies – originally Trinidad in my mind – to carry out this assignment because he owes a top mobster, based very loosely on Meyer Lansky, a favour. And in his pursuit of his target a young West Indian girl, Estelle, helps. She puts herself in danger by doing that, so he feels he must protect her. And then he finds out that the man he’s supposed to kill, and does kill, isn’t the real target. He was a dummy. So he has to go back and finish the job.”
When financier Lew Grade became involved, the project started to change direction.
“Lew Grade used to have his meetings about six o’clock in the morning, which is not my best time,” Wilson remembers. “You get a big cigar and bacon and eggs, you sit down, and Lew says: ‘I have a great surprise for you, Gerry.’ ‘Oh, yes, what is that?’ ‘We have Sophia Loren for the girl.’ ‘What girl?’ ‘Estelle, the girl.’ I say, ‘Estelle is black, twenty years old, she’s a minor figure, and you have Sophia Loren?’ ‘Yes. And we don’t have Alain Delon. We have Charlie Bronson.’”
According to his autobiography, Michael Winner had come up with the idea with his typically blithe reasoning: Lew Grade wanted to finance a Sophia Loren movie, this was the only good screenplay Winner had on hand, so they left it to Wilson, under contract, to transform it into a Sophia Loren vehicle.
“Every day the script gets worse,” Wilson says. “Every day it gets worse. Every day it gets worse again! It’s terrible! I console myself by saying ‘when they get this mess, they will drop the project.’ So I hand it in, and I get a phone call expecting somebody to say ‘What is this garbage?’ Instead they say, ‘Wonderful job, Gerry! I knew you could do it. You’re the only one who could do it!’ I feel like saying ‘I’m the only asshole who would do it.’”
Meanwhile, Charles Bronson was unhappy with his new co-star and the rewrites. “He said, ‘What is this crap? I’m out,’” Wilson remembers. “This is two weeks before shooting. They don’t have a male lead. So they come up with James Coburn. It had become utterly ludicrous.”
O. J. Simpson also joined the cast on location in Antigua, St Lucia, and Curaçao.
“One final beautiful point,” Wilson says. “I wrote a scene where the hero has to get into a heavily guarded house to kill his target. I worked out so carefully how he could possibly get into this house. At which point Michael Winner – this was the beginning of our bad relationship – says to me, ‘Nothing happens in that scene.’ I say, ‘Michael, what do you mean? It’s a very tense scene.’ ‘No, nothing happens, Gerry.’ I say, ‘Have you ever seen Notorious, Michael? Hitchcock has a scene where Cary Grant has to come into a house full of ex-Nazis, climb a flight of stairs, pick up Ingrid Bergman in his arms, walk back down while they all stare at him, and walk out. And it is so tense.’ ‘No! Nothing happens in that scene, Gerry!’ I had lost my temper by this time, so I said, ‘What do you want? A bulldozer just plow into the house?’” Winner was ecstatic. “‘I knew you’d come up with the solution!’”
And that was how the scene was filmed. Wilson tried but was unable to remove his name from the film’s credits.
“The film comes out and it’s a mess,” he says. “It’s a terrible film. However, it’s a huge financial success, mainly in Japan.”
Although the two men maintained some contact, Wilson refused to work with Winner again. He turned his attentions elsewhere. He scripted Danny Huston’s well-received TV film Mister Corbett’s Ghost (1987), starring Paul Scofield and John Huston in his final screen appearance. Wilson’s favourite project of the later years was the four-part Finnish TV series Memoirs of a Small Town (1994), directed by Anders Engström. It is illuminating to see Wilson’s work interpreted by sensitive directors.
Meanwhile, Michael Winner continued to direct badly received films until the end of the century and established a second career as an opinionated restaurant critic. He died in 2013.
“I want to say one thing about Michael,” Wilson reflects. “We had terrible fights and we broke off finally with bitterness. But Michael was very fair. He always treated me well. I found him honest, I found him supportive, and when we were on good terms I enjoyed his company enormously.”
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Images are screenshots from the films.