January 2, 2017


Sir John Mills (1908-2005) b. North Elmham, Norfolk, England.

John Mills

British actor, one of the more appealing representatives of British decency in wartime and post-war cinema. It is surely culturally significant that in 1947 the decent, unassuming and likeable John Mills displaced the wicked James Mason from the top of the popularity charts.

Born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills in Norfolk in 1908, Mills started in the chorus line of musical revue, and made his screen debut was opposite Jessie Matthews in The Midshipmaid (1932). In the 1930s, his association with the patriotic valour of the common man was established in the role of Seaman Albert Brown in Forever England (1935). Mills roles in In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944) and Waterloo Road (1945), represented the 1940s version of the working-class hero: the little man caught up by war or the threat of war but with no aspiration to be other than he is, no imaginings other than to sort things out back home. Unlike Stanley Baker, who also represents class difference in the war film, the Mills character seems to have no inner anger or spite.

Director David Lean allowed Mills to briefly break his stereotypical shackles when casting him as the grown-up Pip in Great Expectations (1946). In civilian clothes, he was also Mr Polly in The History of Mr. Polly (1949) or Charles Laughton‘s biddable son-in-law Willy Mossop in Lean’s Hobson’s Choice (1954). He returned once more to typecast wartime heroics in The Colditz Story (1955), Above Us the Waves (1955) and the box-office success Ice Cold in Alex (1957). Mills rose through the ranks and gained authority, swagger and a moustache; particularly in Tunes of Glory (1960), his favourite film in which he co-starred with Alec Guinness. Aged 60, Richard Attenborough cast him as blimpish Field Marshal Haig in the anti-war Oh! What a Lovely War (1969).

He was, however, still able to return to his humble origins in Ryan’s Daughter (1970), for which he received an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the village idiot Michael. The Oscar did little for Mills career, although Attenborough wanted him as Kitchener in Young Winston (1972) and again as Lord Chelmsford in Gandhi (1982). Subsequently, he returned to cameo roles in films as diverse as Deadly Advice (1993), the comedy Bean (1997) and Kenneth Branagh‘s Hamlet (1996). He also travelled the country in a one-man show of reminiscences, anecdotes and even the occasional song. He was knighted in 1976 and died April 2005 aged 97.

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