John Mills

Starting out on stage as a song-and-dance man, John Mills developed into a versatile film actor in such contrasting items as Walter Forde's take on CS Forester's Great War naval adventure Brown on Resolution (aka Forever England), Graham Cutts's musical Car of Dreams (both 1935) and Sam Wood's James Hilton adaptation, Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939). However, it was after he was invalided out of the Royal Engineers that his everyman chirpiness and dependability enabled Mills to emerge as a major star during the Second World War. He ably served Anthony Asquith in Cottage to Let (1941), We Dive at Dawn (1943) and The Way to the Stars (1945), and Sidney Gilliat in Waterloo Road (1944). But Mills refined his craft under the tutelage of David Lean in four of his finest outings: In Which We Serve (1942); This Happy Breed (1944); Great Expectations (1946) and Hobson's Choice (1953). When peace resumed, Mills found himself in demand to play heroes in Charles Frend's Scott of the Antarctic (1948), Roy Ward Baker's Morning Departure (1950), Guy Hamilton's The Colditz Story (1954), Ralph Thomas's Above Us the Waves (1955) and J. Lee Thompson's Ice Cold in Alex (1958). However, he was also capable of playing flawed individuals at odds with a changing world, as in Ward Baker's The October Man (1947), Anthony Pelissier's The History of Mr Polly (1949), Edward Dmytryk's The End of the Affair (1954) and Ronald Neame's Tunes of Glory (1960), in which he played brilliantly against type opposite old friend Alec Guinness and won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival. With his daughter Hayley becoming a fixture at Disney, Mills himself gave a spirited performance in the studio's version of Johann David Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson (1960). But the 1960s saw Mills switch from leads to character roles, most notably in Roy Ward Baker's Flame in the Streets (1961) and Roy Boulting's The Family Way (1966), to which he contributed a moving display of working-class male vulnerability. Yet it was his mute display in David Lean's Ryan's Daughter (1970) that earned Mills the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and brought him the international renown that his British films had not always earned him. Increasingly seen in minor roles, Mills remained in demand to the end of his life (even though he was deaf and partially blind in his later years), racking up over 100 features with typically self-effacting turns in the likes of Douglas Hickox's Zulu Dawn (1979), Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982), Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996) and Mel Smith's Bean (1997), as well as TV series like The Zoo Gang (1974). Knighted in 1976, Mills never quite became a national institution, but he will always be fondly remembered as one of the most British of screen actors.

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