It wasn’t an ideal moment for Robert Bolt to be arrested. After midnight on September 18, 1961, the police removed him from a Trafalgar Square sit-in along with other leading playwrights including Arnold Wesker and John Osborne. All were members of the Committee of 100, a coalition of public figures outspoken in their opposition to the nuclear arms race. Bolt could be released upon signing a pledge to keep the peace but he was unwilling to do so, causing much consternation for the team anxiously waiting for him to finish the screenplay for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Eventually, the film’s producer Sam Spiegel stepped in and persuaded Bolt to sign the pledge, but the capitulation haunted Bolt for the rest of his life. After all, it was exactly the kind of moral dilemma faced by the characters in his work.
In fact, Lawrence of Arabia proved to be just the start of a sky-scraping film career for Bolt, now being celebrated at HOME in Manchester as part of the venue’s annual British Screenwriters strand. Curated by Andy Willis, professor of film studies at the University of Salford and HOME’s senior visiting curator, it encompasses screenings of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, as well as The Mission, Lawrence of Arabia itself, A Man for All Seasons (adapted by Bolt from his award-winning stage play about Sir Thomas More), and a one-hour intro to Bolt’s life and work led by Willis.
Speaking to Northern Soul, Willis characterises Bolt’s work as “large-scale films, especially when working with Lean, that whilst operating on such a big canvas never forget the importance of character. They often centre on characters who have to consider and often question the course of action that historical forces seems to be pushing them in. These films ask us to reflect on the choices these characters make and the conclusions they draw.”
But Bolt had quite a journey to get to these huge widescreen epics. Born in 1924, he lived at 13 Northenden Road in Sale, now a wine merchants a short totter to the local tram stop. His parents were Methodists, his father the proprietor of a modest furniture business. Bolt himself was an intelligent boy, educated at Manchester Grammar School and subsequently the University of Manchester, with a wartime interlude serving as an Army office in West Africa. For a time, he paid the bills working as an English teacher in a Somerset independent school while developing his interest in writing with a number of BBC radio dramas. Several of them were developed for the stage – indeed, A Man for All Seasons started life in July 1954 on the BBC Home Service – and his resulting theatre successes then led on to big screen opportunities.
Superficially it might seem surprising for a lad from Sale to be so fascinated by great figures from history, but as Willis explains: “There is a sense that Bolt first addressed historical figures from a moral perspective. Certainly, with A Man for All Seasons he wanted to explore a character who was willing to stand up for what he believed whatever the cost. Bolt had been involved in organisations like CND, so I think these kinds of people were interesting to him. In fact, in an early stage work, The Tiger and the Horse, the idea of commitment to CND is one of the central issues of the play. The Committee of 100 was a more radical CND group headed by Bertrand Russell, and Bolt’s anxiety about the more radical elements of that grouping also seems to reflect that of some of the characters he would later write.”
It could be argued, though, that Bolt’s later career went awry. By the time of Ryan’s Daughter in 1970, he was said to be the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, with two Oscars to his name and a CBE on the horizon. But his produced work-rate fell away almost to nothing as the decade went on and he suffered a serious stroke in 1979 that made further writing difficult. Nevertheless, his screenplay for The Bounty, originally planned by David Lean as a vast two-film sequence, eventually emerged in 1984, directed by Roger Donaldson. Bolt also scripted The Mission, the 1986 movie directed by Roland Joffé about the destruction of native culture in 18th century South America. Both displayed Bolt’s undimmed gift for telling large-scale stories centred on all-too-human characters torn by their conscience, and both were garlanded with major awards.
For Willis, The Mission is a real highlight of the HOME season. “It shows that Bolt’s ideas and concerns about moral questions still had traction decades after he began creating work that focused on them. It is also the work that people seem most surprised he was involved with.”
Indeed, for all his success, Bolt’s work is often better known for the directors he worked with (Lean especially) than for his input as writer. Is there a risk that he’s been overshadowed and underappreciated?
“As ever, if you’re a writer working with a major talent, the director is often given the credit for the achievements seen on screen,” Willis says. “That was the case in the first British screenwriter retrospective HOME organised around the work of Jim Allen, whose work is often overshadowed by his collaborations with Ken Loach, and it’s also the case with Bolt. When asked why we’ve gone for a retrospective on Robert Bolt, people have been visibly surprised when I’ve listed his work.”
Bolt died in 1995 in Hampshire at the age of 70, and it’s tempting to wonder how much more well-known he’d be today if he’d chosen a different path.
“Speculation about Bolt’s career direction is really interesting,” agrees Willis. “His commitment to liberal causes in the late 1950s and early 1960s suggests a writer who may have gone in a more political direction. His early stage success suggests someone who could have been a major theatrical figure. The two together maybe indicate a career of major plays and more political film scripts or television dramas. However, once in the orbit of David Lean and such major cinema productions that paid so well and brought such acclaim, there seemed no changing track. And when one looks at his body of work and his achievements, why not?”
By Andy Murray, Film Editor
Images courtesy of HOME.
British Screenwriters: Robert Bolt runs at HOME in Manchester until January 21, 2020. For more information, click here.