Star Archive

J. Lee Thompson (1914 - 2002)

There was a brief moment towards the end of the fifties when it looked like J. Lee Thompson was going to be a major director. Somehow it never quite happened.

John Lee Thompson was born in Bristol and educated at Dover College. After leaving school he went on the stage. This got him writing for the theatre and his second play Double Error got a brief West End run in 1935. The film right were purchased by BIP before the run and Thompson was employed at Elstree in the scriptwriting department. He also made his only screen appearance at this time in Midshipman Easy. He also had a stint as dialogue coach on Jamaica Inn (must have been a fun job!).   

The war interrupted his film career. He spent most of it in the RAF, but still found time to write for the stage. He resumed his film writing career after demob at Associated British and was given a chance to direct his own script for Murder Without Crime.

Murder Without Crime was scarcely noticed on release. His next, The Yellow Balloon, was a big hit and showed Thompson's gift with child actors.

His next film, The Weak and the Wicked, was moderately successful, but a significant landmark in his personal life. The writer, Joan Henry, on whose life the film is based, became his second wife. 

During the 50s he went from strength to strength. There were a few bland musical comedies forced on him by the studios, but his talent was for gritty social dramas. He brought out the best in actresses such as Yvonne Mitchell, Diana Dors, and Sylvia Syms. Gradually his work moved towards action blockbusters, reaching a climax with The Guns of Navarone.

The success of this, though he was only brought in as director at the last minute, sent him to Hollywood. Gregory Peck wanted to make a film of the book The Executioners and got Thompson over to do the job. This became the film Cape Fear, which established him in Hollywood.

He continued to work there for the next thirty years. He popped back for the occasional film, but never managed to hit the heights he achieved in the 50s. Most of his work consisted of low budget action pictures, notably a string of films starring Charles Bronson and a couple of Planet of the Apes sequels.

This body of work has tended to obscure the quality of the best of his 50s work. Thompson was never part of some great cinema movement, but he managed to put some grit into the bland world of 50s British cinema. And no one with Ice Cold in Alex on his CV has any need to apologise for under-achieving. 

Poster for Ice Cold in AlexStill from Northwest FrontierStill from Tiger BayStill from Northwest Frontier plus a review of J. Lee Thompson book


1951 Murder Without Crime
1953 The Yellow Balloon
1954 The Weak and the Wicked
1954 For Better, For Worse
1955 As Long as They're Happy
1955 An Alligator Called Daisy
1956 Yield to the Night
1957 The Good Companions
1957 Woman in a Dressing Gown
1957 Ice Cold in Alex
1959 No Trees in the Street
1959 Tiger Bay
1959 North West Frontier
1960 I Aim at the Stars
1961 The Guns of Navarone
1962 Cape Fear (U.S.)
1963 Taras Bulba (U.S.)
1963 Kings of the Sun (U.S.)
1964 What a Way to Go (U.S.)
1964 John Goldfarb Please Come Home (U.S.)
1966 Return from the Ashes
1968 Eye of the Devil (U.S.)
1968 Mackenna's Gold (U.S.)
1969 Before Winter Comes
1969 The Most Dangerous Man in the World
1970 Country Dance
1972 Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (U.S.)
1973 Battle for the planet of the Apes (U.S.)
1974 Huckleberry Finn (U.S.)
1974 The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (U.S.)
1976 St Ives (U.S.)
1977 The White Buffalo (U.S.)
1978 The Greek Tycoon (U.S.)
1979 The Passage
1980 Cabo Blanco (U.S.)
1980 Happy Birthday to Me (Can.)
1983 10 to Midnight (U.S.)
1983 The Evil that Men Do (U.S.)
1984 The Ambassador (U.S.)
1985 King Solomon's Mines (U.S.)
1986 Murphy's Law (U.S.)
1986 Firewalker (U.S.)
1987 Death Wish 4 (U.S.)
1988 Messenger of Death (U.S.)
1989 Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (U.S.)

 J. Lee Thompson at Amazon UK

 J. Lee Thompson at Amazon US