Book Review: JR Jordan’s ‘Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures’

Some weeks back, I received an e-mail from someone named Joe Jordan, who wanted to know if (since I had reviewed The Desert Rats), I would like to have a copy of his book about the film director Robert Wise.

I rarely turn down an offer of a book, unless it’s something that I absolutely know will not be my cup of tea. But a book about classic cinema? I said thank you to Joe, and waited for my copy of Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures.

Meanwhile, I went off and did a quick search online to find out more about Robert Wise (1914-2005). Because, frankly speaking, unlike (for instance) Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder, this was a name that didn’t immediately conjure up a list of films. I knew of Robert Wise, of course, but I am ashamed to admit I couldn’t have named a single film he’d directed (The Desert Rats didn’t count, since Joe had told me about that).

On IMDB, on the Robert Wise page, I was greeted by posters of some of Wise’s most famous films, and instantly, I remembered this credits frame.

How could I have forgotten? Robert Wise was the man who directed one of my favourite feel-good films of all time (and my favourite Hollywood musical), The Sound of Music. And he directed several other films that have been on my watch list for many years now: West Side Story (yes, yes, I know…), Run Silent Run Deep, and The Andromeda Strain among them.

Jordan’s book examines these, as well as the other films that comprise Wise’s filmography. Jordan begins with a brief (very brief, it’s only a few paragraphs) pertaining to Wise’s work before he became a film director. The most prominent aspect of his pre-directorial days is Wise’s work as an editor, including for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Wise’s editing of Citizen Kane is mentioned, but not really dwelt upon; the book devotes itself to the forty films that Wise directed in the course of a directorial career that stretched from the 1940s to 2000. From The Curse of the Cat People (1944) to the TV movie A Storm in Summer (2000).

Jordan moves chronologically through these forty films, one chapter per film. The chapters follow a set pattern. The film is introduced by way of explaining how it came about and how Robert Wise got the job of directing it. This is followed by a brief synopsis of the film.

Following the synopsis is what, in most chapters, forms about half the chapter: a detailed analysis of the film, including descriptions of some key scenes, important characters and events, as well as noteworthy dialogues. Jordan delves deep into the film in question, examining how Wise uses a character or a camera angle (for instance) to reinforce a certain message, or how symbolism works in a certain film, or how a film differs from (and/or bears a resemblance to) the literary work from which it was adapted.

In most of the chapters, this is followed by an interview with someone who was part of the film or in some way connected to it. Invariably, these are people who formed part of the cast, though occasionally there are interviews with others: with Alan Dean Foster, for instance, who wrote most of the story for Star Trek: The Motion Picture; and with Neile Adams, Steve McQueen’s wife, who reminisces about living in Taiwan during the shooting of The Sand Pebbles.

For me, these interviews were the most interesting and satisfying part of the book. They sometimes offer a brief glimpse behind the scenes, and they offer an insight into the man and the director who was Robert Wise. Many of the actors interviewed talk about how most of Wise’s directing was done at the casting stage of the process: he made sure he chose the right actor for the role, and when the film was being shot, Wise tended to not interfere with the actor’s understanding of the role or his/her portrayal of it. Wise, perhaps because of his early work as an editor, also seems to have been exceptionally organized. He would work from storyboards which would be prepared well in advance, so that when he came on set, he knew exactly how the scene would be filmed.

Talking about Wise’s films, I was amazed by the versatility of this man. Unlike the average film-maker whom one can pretty much slot into a given set of genres, Wise seems to have excelled at almost every genre. From the musical (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) to science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) to horror (The Haunting, The Body Snatcher) to war (The Desert Rats, Destination Gobi, The Sand Pebbles) to comedy (Something for the Birds) to noir (Captive City), boxing films (Somebody Up There Likes Me), drama, historicals—Wise seems to have done every type of film. And done them well: he won four Oscars and was nominated for many other awards.

In the course of the interviews in this book, a vivid picture of the personality of Wise comes through as well. Most of those interviewed describe Robert Wise in similar terms: as a ‘class act’, a ‘humanitarian’, a ‘very sweet and funny man’, ‘professional and low-key’, and a gentleman. They talk of his intelligence and his commitment to his work. A glimpse is also offered at times of the ethical side of Wise. Sandra de Bruin, who acted in The Andromeda Strain, for instance, narrates an incident when, sometime after the film, she had dropped by to meet Wise at work on her way to an audition with another film-maker whose office was nearby. The other film-maker started to make overtures to de Bruin, insisting she have a glass of wine—but before it got out of hand, Wise (having realized that de Bruin had been in the film-maker’s office far too long) sent an associate to rescue de Bruin on some pretext. Sandra de Bruin recalled that “Bob had an aversion to producers and super stars taking sexual advantage of starlets…

The rest of the book, its descriptions about the films, for instance, is not something that really stayed with me. The detailed analysis of each film may be lost on anybody who hasn’t seen the film (I, despite having not seen most of the films in this book, diligently read through every single chapter, and found myself feeling quite lost at times, unable to keep up with characters and their motivations). Even if you’ve seen the film and know it pretty well (as was the case with me vis-à-vis The Sound of Music), the detailed analysis is not always extraordinary; there was not too much of that “Wow, this would never have occurred to me!” sort of epiphany happening.

Despite that, an interesting read, and Jordan’s research is obviously thorough: you can see that this is a writer who’s delved deep into his subject and knows it pretty much inside-out. The subject, of course (as is evident by the name of the book) being the motion pictures of Robert Wise. Not Robert Wise the man, not his life outside of his cinematic career, but the forty films he made during that career. Almost nothing of Wise’s personal life comes through here, other than fleeting mentions of his wives, Patricia Doyle (m 1942-1975) and Millicent Wise (m 1977-2005). So if it’s gossip you’re looking for, this is not the book to read. But if you want to know about Wise’s cinema, I recommend this book as a valuable companion volume to his oeuvre.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: JR Jordan’s ‘Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures’

    • Yes! He comes across as a really nice person. Of all the people interviewed, no-one said anything that wasn’t complimentary to Wise. Talking about the musicals, I do feel embarrassed that I’ve always associated The Sound of Music with Rodgers and Hammerstein to such an extent that I’d never even really bothered to see who directed the film. Which is sad, because I think the film itself is a very enjoyable one, with the songs fitting in well.

      • Yes, me too! I think it’s what everyone does, and that’s the thing about the stuff he adapted. It’s weird because he’s a very important director, but because he doesn’t fit the auteur idea of a director, people don’t think about him as a “great” director.

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