Gandhi’s General Dyer: Edward Fox was the quintessential Englishman onscreen
Indians may know him best playing one of the biggest villains of their recent history. But the cameo as Gen Dyer, the Butcher of Amritsar, in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was a rare break from the routine for Edward Fox, who in his over 100 onscreen appearances, usually played a more affable and unflappable but quintessential Englishman.
Coming to global prominence depicting a mysterious assassin in the film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1973), Fox, whose 80th birthday falls on Thursday, is equally known as a jaunty RAF officer in Battle of Britain (1969), a cheery British general in A Bridge Too Far (1977) and a courteous but canny police inspector in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d (1980) among many other roles of the sort.
Besides playing Winston Churchill in TV movie The Audience (2013), and King Edward VIII in TV series Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978), he has been seen playing other icons like Sherlock Holmes’ companion in Dr. Watson and the Darkwater Hall Mystery (1974), James Bond’s boss ‘M’ in the ‘unofficial’ Never Say Never Again (1983), King Arthur in Prince Valiant (1997) and a kindly character in an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (2007).
But despite his pukka background (including studying at Harrow and a stint in the Coldstream Guards), his plummy drawl and close friendship with Prince Charles, Edward Charles Morice Fox was not of the aristocracy, being born in London’s Chelsea to theatrical agent Robin Fox and actress Angela Muriel Darita Worthington, with his ancestors on both sides comprising inventors, dramatists and stockbrokers.
After his military service, Fox decided on a career in the performing acts but he only was credited in his fifth film -- a small role in British science fiction-cum-horror film The Frozen Dead (1966).
While in the 1960s he worked mostly on stage, including as Hamlet, he made his presence felt in his next few films despite the big names they contained -- in comic caper The Jokers (1967) starring Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed, The Naked Runner (1967) starring Frank Sinatra and The Long Duel (1967) with Yul Brynner (as a tribal chieftain in British India) and Trevor Howard. He was also seen in major British films like Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), Battle of Britain and The Go-Between (1971), where his role as an aristocratic landowner won him a BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actor.
It also brought him to the attention of acclaimed director Fred Zinnemann for The Day of the Jackal.
Zinnemann, known for his 1950s classics like High Noon, From Here to Eternity and Oklahoma but not having made a film since A Man for All Seasons (1966), was drawn to the project due to the challenge of keeping the interest of viewers, who could guess the ending. He also wanted the Jackal to be played by someone not so famous, rejecting Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson and Roger Moore for Fox.
And if you see the easy nonchalance with which the Jackal holds his own in the meeting with the conspirators, you would find it hard to believe that this scene -- the first to be shot -- took three days as Fox was nervous. He only did it well after the director assured him that it wouldn’t harm his career if he didn’t get it right.
While the film wasn’t financially successful as thought, it was a critical success and helped Fox’s career take off. Another of his memorable roles was as Inspector Craddock in The Mirror Crack’d, a film adaptation of the Agatha Christie mystery starring Angela Lansbury (as his aunt Miss Marple), Kim Novak, Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson and Pierce Brosnan (in his debut).
The actor was no stranger to controversy too. He had criticised Daniel Craig as the new James Bond, terming him “opposite of what Fleming intended, and I knew Fleming”. Last year, he opined men cheat in relationships “because we’re totally different creatures” and women should be more understanding “but it is very difficult for all women to be tolerant and patient and understanding”.
Proof that Fox, who is still acting, can still make his presence felt.
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