The public image of Richard Burton (1925-1984), for better or for worse, will forever be intertwined with Elizabeth Taylor (who he married twice) and for a lifetime struggle with alcohol. But at his Hollywood start, Burton established himself as a top Shakespearean actor on par with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Poor film choices—a number of them with Taylor—helped dilute that prestige during his lifetime. Looking back now, thirty years after his passing, there are more triumphs: Hamlet, Becket, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1984, etc. than failures like the bottom of the barrel, The Klansman (1974).
Here are four films (two hits, two lesser-known efforts) that show the versatile range of a man who once with self-deprecating humor mused, “The Welsh are all actors. It’s only the bad ones who become professional.”
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)
“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me...” – Alec Leamas
For many, this is the definitive spy film and Richard Burton’s commanding portrayal of Alec Leamas is the one performance to measure all that came before and after against. Down-and-out Leamas is an alcoholic British agent who is morally and physically spent and when a recent mission goes badly—an agent under his guidance is killed—it appears his career may be over but his superior asks him to stay out in the cold… just a little bit longer. Leamas is seemingly demoted to working in the Agency’s banking section and is promptly spotted by the Communist Germans as a likely defector. He is questioned in the Netherlands with the alleged plan of selling out a high-ranking intelligence officer and then is squirreled away to East Germany where the questioning turns less than pleasant. Leamas has also fallen in love with the idealistic Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) and finds some comfort from his profession’s ruthlessness in her arms, but to his chagrin he inadvertently makes her an accomplice in the deadly spy games he’s playing. Their final scene of flight toward The Wall and the aftermath is haunting and not to be missed. Burton won a Bafta Award for his performance but lost the coveted Academy Award to Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou.
Trivia: This was the debut film appearance of the George Smiley character and he was played by actor Rupert Davies. Smiley would return in several more John LeCarre movies like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982) where he would be played by Alec Guinness.
Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Lt. Morris Schaffer: “Look, Major, this is primarily a British operation. I'm an American. I don't even know why the hell I'm here.”
Major John Smith: “Lieutenant, you're here because you're an American.”
Alistair Maclean’s adventure novel was a huge film hit for Richard Burton in 1968 that saw him teamed with the rising film superstar Clint Eastwood. Plot: During WWII, George Carnaby (Robert Beatty), a U.S. Army Brigadier General is captured, interrogated, and held in a fortress high in the Alps of southern Bavaria. Enter Major John Smith (Burton) and U.S. Army Ranger Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Eastwood), who lead a team of commandos to rescue the general. Accompanying them is an MI6 Agent named Mary Elison (Mary Ure) whose purpose for being there is initially known only to Major Smith. Where Eagles Dare is a big, don’t think about it too closely, thriller that is still great fun. The title comes from Richard III: “The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.” Burton would attempt to follow the success of this war movie with similar action fare (Raid on Rommel, Breakthrough) with only 1978’s Wild Geese coming closest for pure adrenaline rush.
In his December 1, 1968, diary entry, Burton writes, “It appears that Where Eagles Dare, a film I made earlier this year is a thrilling film and is likely to be a huge grosser. The few people who’ve seen it are enraptured. It’s a Boy’s Own Paper fantasy with a vengeance. I kill half the German Army.” Source: The Richard Burton Diaries.
A footnote among the slew of 1970’s violent crime films that included Get Carter (1971)and The Squeeze (1977). The movie, about a heist, initially received rotten to tepid reviews with Burton being heavily faulted for his delivery of a Cockney accent (his character was allegedly modeled after the gangster Ronnie Kray). Though Villain performed well enough in Britain, it was a bust internationally and helped to erode his box office status according to one of his biographers. Burton and Ian McShane play lovers and years later in an interview for The Daily Mail McShane recalled the uncomfortable, sadistic lovemaking: “After kissing me, he's going to beat the hell out of me and it's that kind of relationship—rather hostile. It was very S&M. It wasn't shown in the film.” Also, according to McShane, Burton asked the younger actor if he knew why he was glad McShane was doing the film: “I said, ‘Why? He said, ‘You remind me of Elizabeth.’” Fans of the two leads or hardboiled films in general should definitely take a look at this overlooked curio.
In his February 5, 1972 diary entry, Burton who was reading a new script, offers an explanation of sorts as to why this crime film failed: “I read a script in NY – the book of which I have already read – called Sir, you bastard and which is very and horribly compelling (about police corruption) but suffers from the same weakness as Villain. It will not be understood by the yanks. And one can’t make pictures nowadays for London only.” The Richard Burton Diaries.
Burton plays a Catholic priest named Goddard who has a pet student fondness for one of his students named Benjamin 'Benjie' Stanfield (Dominic Guard). However the feeling is not mutual and the rebellious young man plays a trick on Goddard by convincing him to hear a confession in which he lies that he has had sex with male and female drifters who live in the woods behind the school. Goddard is visibly disturbed, shaking, as he listens to Benjie’s confession and his attitude cools toward the boy, forcing the student to do humiliating chores as penance. Father Goddard then asks the local police to remove the vagabond named Blakely (Billy Connally) that Benjie admires. Cops show up and break his beloved banjo and destroy his camp. When Benjie once again meets up with Blakely, the drifter is disgruntled and has also grown tired of the Catholic student. Benjie picks up a rock, but what happens is not shown as the action switches back to Benjie asking Father Goddard to hear his latest confession which the priest cautiously grants. A bit slow, chilling, and ultimately rewarding film. One of the best movies of Burton’s later period that also includes the Wagner mini-series and 1984.
According to IMDb, Burton had wanted to play the part of Father Goddard for some time and brought it to producer and friend Elliott Kastner—who he had worked with on three previous films including Villain—but major studios were unresponsive. So Kastner raised the finances himself and Burton took a much smaller paycheck.