There were many reasons to cherish the great Hollywood actor James Garner, who passed away last month at the age of 86.
When I was a kid in the 1970s he was arguably the coolest man on TV, thanks to his turn as the easy-going, smooth-talking though financially hard-pressed private investigator Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. In his youth he served in the Korean War and was awarded two Purple Hearts, although to get the second one he suffered the ignominy of being strafed in the bum by friendly fire from a US fighter jet – a somehow Rockford-esque thing to happen. He was a staunch liberal and on August 28th, 1963, sat in the third row from the front while Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a Dream’ speech in Washington DC. Also, some Californian Democrats pushed him, unsuccessfully, to run for the post of state governor in 1990. Somehow, I can’t imagine Jim Rockford doing any worse as Governor of California than the Terminator did.
One position he did hold was as vice-president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, back in the days when the guild-president was a certain Ronald Reagan. “Ronnie never had an original thought,” Garner recalled in his 2011 autobiography, “and we had to tell him what to say.” Some would say that the situation hadn’t changed any by the time Reagan was elevated a higher presidency in the 1980s.
He was also an unapologetic pot-smoker for much of his life, partly, I’m sure, because it had a soothing effect on the pain that was a legacy of his war injuries and the stunt-work he’d done in his film and TV work. (In fact, the sorry condition of Garner’s knee and back was one reason why The Rockford Files ended its run in 1980.)
And he was one of the very last actors to be associated with that once-mighty genre, the western. Thanks no doubt to his starring in the TV western series Maverick, which ran from 1957 to 1962, he was cast in a string of western movies, including Shoot-out at Medicine Bend (1957), Duel at Diablo (1966), Hour of the Gun (1967), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), Skin Game (1971), One Little Indian (1973), The Castaway Cowboy (1974), Sunset (1988) and, inevitably, the cinematic update of his old TV show, Maverick (1994), which had Mel Gibson in the title role and Garner bumped up one generation to play his dad. In both Hour of the Gun and Sunset, meanwhile, he filled the boots of Wyatt Earp.
Actually, with Garner’s passing and the recent death of Eli Wallach, the only great western actors I can think of who are still with us are Clint Eastwood and L.Q. Jones – though if you’re loose with your definition of ‘western actor’, I suppose you could include Kirk Douglas and Sam Elliott as well. Which is sad.
(c) United Artists
For me, though, Garner’s finest hour came in 1963 with the John Sturges-directed prisoner-of-war epic The Great Escape – what else? The film’s nonsense, of course, but it’s brilliant nonsense. As Time magazine said of it: “There is no sermonising, no soul-probing, no sex. The Great Escape is just great escapism.” Garner excels in the role of the captured American pilot Hendley, a devious and manipulative type who fools and bribes the German guards, such as the hapless Werner-the-Ferret, into supplying him with equipment needed for the mass break-out planned at Stalag Luft III. Later, Hendley develops a conscience when his affable fellow-prisoner Colin Blythe goes blind. (Blythe is played by Donald Pleasence, just before Donald turned all goggle-eyed and sinister and started playing madmen and criminal super-geniuses hell-bent on destroying the world.) Selflessly, he offers to take the ailing Blythe with him when he makes his escape-attempt from the camp.
Garner and Pleasence do get out of the camp and they almost make it to freedom. In fact, they’re mere yards away from the Swiss border when that pesky German airplane they’ve commandeered develops an engine fault and crashes. (Vorsprung durch Technik? Not in this film.) Then while the bloodied Garner tried to compose himself amid the plane wreckage, the sightless Pleasence goes stumbling off in the direction of an approaching German patrol, and one of the German soldiers raises his rifle… Only a brute would fail to have a lump in his or her throat at what happens next.
I end up watching The Great Escape about once a year – usually around Christmas or New Year, because it’s guaranteed to turn up on the festive schedule of some TV channel or other. And every time I see this sequence, I find myself hoping against hope that somehow, this time, things will turn out differently and that plane will limp on a little further and carry its two passengers to Switzerland, where they can live happily ever after. But the bastard thing never does.