Pondering the imponderables

Seventy Light Years
May 28, 1999

Freddie Young, who died last December, entered the film business in 1917 and finally retired, at the age of 85, 70 years later. If he had retired, or died, at 60 he would most likely be no better remembered than, say, Robert Krasker (who photographed Odd Man Out , Great Expectations and The Third Man ) - as one among many highly talented cinematographers in the British film industry. But in 1962 Young teamed up with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia , and from that partnership came his three Academy awards (for Lawrence , Doctor Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter ) and his status as one of the great creative artists of the movie camera, a member of the select pantheon that includes Gregg Toland, Georges Perinal and James Wong Howe.

Having started out during what he calls "the romantic, buccaneering phase of the movies" before the unions clamped down on casual versatility, Young was able to explore a range of film-making activities that included lab assistant, editor and unofficial stunt man. At the other end of his career he directed his first - and last - film (a modest tele-film called Arthur's Hallowed Ground ) in his eighties. But one job he never turned his hand to was script-writing; words, as this book shows, really were not his thing. The prose has the slightly homogenised feel of most "as told to" stories, and the anecdotes sputter rather than detonate.

Seventy Light Years also lacks that leaven of malice that distinguishes the best autobiographies. Though Young tells us (not without a touch of pride) that he was reckoned in the industry to be "a bit of a bastard", his recollections are mostly good-natured and quite devoid of scandal.

A hint of veiled distaste for Michael Powell shows through, and Young cannot resist poking fun at the absurd Gabriel Pascal, showing up in comic-opera garb on location for Caesar and Cleopatra . The account of shooting George Cukor's disastrous Soviet-American co-production, The Blue Bird , in Leningrad yields a touch of asperity at Cukor's over-eager buck-passing. "From now on Freddie's in charge. I'm giving up all responsibility.") But nobody suffers serious attack, and with certain directors (John Ford, for one) Young's tone verges on the reverential.

Nor do we get much in the way of personal revelations. Young's childhood is disposed of in a two-page prologue; a brief paragraph introduces his first wife, and 80 pages later another tells us of her death from cancer. This comes across not as callousness, but as old-fashioned reticence. A rare exception is the account of his joy at becoming a father for the first time at age 62. But otherwise the book is just what it says on the cover, "A life in the movies": the public, not the private life.

Within those limits, the book is rich in insights. There are fascinating details of early laboratory technique, which Young likens to "amateur still photography on a grand scale", perilously dependent on informed guesswork. But he makes it clear that, even half a century later when both equipment and technique had grown infinitely more sophisticated, the key to great camerawork still lay in imponderables - in the instinct, judgement and imagination of a supremely gifted cinematographer. The celebrated mirage shot in Lawrence , when Omar Sharif on his camel eerily materialises out of the shimmering haze, was achieved by Young's pioneering choice of a 500mm telephoto lens. By contrast, one of the most dramatic shots in Zhivago owed its effect to Young remembering a long-abandoned trick with gauze dating back to the silent era.

Young's pleasure in technical ingenuity does not extend to the elaborate post-production wizardry that in recent years has come to dominate mainstream film-making. "I don't much care for the trick stuff," he observes. "I prefer actors and getting on with the story." Today's Hollywood blockbusters, with their overweening special effects and all-powerful computer-generated imagery, hold little appeal for him. "A lot of creativity has been taken away from the cameraman," he notes ruefully, "whereas in our day we had to do it all in the camera. You had to use your imagination ... I think I worked in the best years of the film industry."

"It's a very simple technique, really, making a film," Young remarks towards the end of his book. Given the infinite pains that, in the preceding pages, we have seen him put into creating the seemingly effortless grace and lush romanticism of his images, this might sound like false modesty. But in fact it is the expression of an ideal.

Philip Kemp is a freelance critic and film historian.

Seventy Light Years: A Life in the Movies

Author - Freddie Young
ISBN - 0 571 19793 0
Publisher - Faber
Price - £17.99
Pages - 164

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