Jack Hawkins was a name that kept coming up last
Who, you may ask, was Jack Hawkins? Was he a pirate ship cabin boy? No, that was Jim. Perhaps the inventor of the spinning
something-or-other, or Manchester United’s goalkeeper back in the Fifties.
He was none of the above, as far as I know. But one such person who did own that archetypically
unglamorous English name was a distant relative of mine – my cousin’s
father-in-law. A tall and imposing man, he
was interesting – at least to a curious twelve-year-old – because of his obvious
eye for the ladies and a waspish sense of humour, notably a sharp line in sarcasm
that seemed to cause great consternation among my other relatives, much to my juvenile
Jack’s name emerged last week at our Boxing Day party
during a conversation I had with his grandson, my second cousin, for whom I
recounted a fond childhood recollection.
For many years I looked forward to meeting the aforementioned Mr.
Hawkins at the Boxing Day gathering at my Aunt Doris’s house. My sense of anticipation was entirely
mercenary. It was based on Jack’s unfailing custom, before leaving the party,
of greasing my palm with a half-crown piece, a gesture accompanied by a conspiratorial
wink designed to convey that his gift was to be our little secret. Why it should have been a secret, I’ve no idea.
Anyway, somehow the conversation then meandered into a
discussion about a famous namesake, the gravel-voiced British film actor, a star
of British cinema in the post-war years.
That Jack Hawkins, though long departed from
this world, comes back to haunt our television screens over the holiday period with
almost infallible regularity. His
frequent appearances almost qualify as a Jack Hawkins Season, though his has never
been a recognizable star ‘name’ outside Britain,
and it would ring few bells in America. All the more remarkable, then, that he somehow
contrived to appear in the three most successful Hollywood blockbusters of his
day – actually for all time – even if they’re now reduced to holiday television
Each broke the prevailing box-office record, and each
won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.
The films in question are Ben Hur,
The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.
As resolutely British as his monicker might suggest, Hawkins
didn’t play the lead in any of them, though his name appears above the title
credit. In each role he plays the solid
military type for which his voice and bearing equipped him perfectly: a burly, jaw-jutting
stalwart of Empire – of the Roman or British variety; either would do.
In Ben Hur
he’s the shipwrecked Roman admiral who’s rescued by Charlton Heston’s Jewish galley-slave. In Kwai,
he leads the commando group sent to blow up the eponymous bridge. In Lawrence, he’s ruthless General Allenby, British
commander in the Middle East during the First World War, who finances Lawrence’s Arab uprising
against the Turks.
Such parts gave him some memorable imperial lines. In Ben
Hur he exhorts the rowers: “Row well, and live!” In Kwai
he gets to yell across the river at a colleague grappling with Alec Guinness’s demented
Colonel Nicholson: “Kill him … Kill him!”
And in Lawrence he enthusiastically orders an
artillery commander: “Pound them,
Charley, pound them!”
The three films form a pretty impressive thespian
trifecta. One can only hope that he negotiated
a percentage of the box-office receipts, though it seems unlikely.
For good commercial measure, he also appeared in two
favourite home-grown films: in The Cruel
Sea as a war-weary commander of a submarine-hunting frigate: and in Zulu, in which – too old to lead the
garrison at Yorke’s Drift – cast against type as a drunken preacher. In lesser films in between, he helped to save
infiltrated the German High Command on behalf of British intelligence, and occupied
the rank of chief inspector at Scotland Yard.
Is there a point to this piece, you may be wondering? There isn’t – none whatsoever.
But sometimes it’s pleasant to write about a subject with
no particular underlying message, and no cause for outrage.
Perhaps I’ll find something to write about John Smith. Any old John Smith will do. I ought to be able to find a few of them on
Wikipedia. And perhaps I once had an Uncle of that name.