Film director whose collaboration with John Wayne extended the life of the western
Three long shadows lay heavily across the career of the film director Andrew McLaglen, who has died aged 94: those of two actors, his father, Victor McLaglen, and John "Duke" Wayne, and that of the director John Ford. By making mostly westerns, four of which starred Wayne, and by casting many actors from Ford's repertory company, such as Harry Carey Jr and Ben Johnson, McLaglen brazenly invited comparison with the great director. Yet he denied being influenced by Ford. "I never thought of John Ford at all. I knew Ford from the time I was 13 years old because my father worked with him. But once you direct, you become your own person," he said.
Nevertheless, take away Ford's eye for visual composition and poetry, and play up his machismo, slapstick and sentimentality, and you have a movie by McLaglen. With good scripts and Hollywood legends such as Wayne and James Stewart, McLaglen made some entertaining action movies and was able to extend the life of the western beyond the genre's sell-by date.
McLaglen was born in London, the year that his father, a former boxer, appeared in his first film, Call of the Road (1920). After establishing himself in about 20 silent British pictures, McLaglen senior was offered a Hollywood contract in 1924, and 18 months later was joined in Los Angeles by his wife, Enid (nee Lamont), daughter and five-year-old son. From a very early age, the young McLaglen was around movie people and on the sets of many of his father's films. Standing at 6ft 7in, he was even larger than his hulking father, who was a kind of talisman of Ford movies, of which he made more than a dozen.
Immediately after graduating from the University of Virginia, McLaglen entered the movies, as assistant director to Albert Rogell on Love, Honour and Goodbye (1945), a comedy featuring his father. In the cast was Veda Anne Borg, who became McLaglen's first wife the following year. He went on to be an assistant director to Ford on The Quiet Man (1952), in which Wayne and Victor McLaglen have an epic fist fight, and to William Wellman on four films, three of which – Island in the Sky (1953), The High and the Mighty (1954) and the anti-communist Blood Alley (1955) – starred Wayne.
Also featuring "Duke" was the McCarthyite Big Jim McLain (1952), which co-starred Borg and Wayne's protege James Arness; the latter was to star as Matt Dillon in the long-running television horse-opera Gunsmoke, of which most episodes between 1956 and 1965 would be directed by McLaglen. Arness played the lead in McLaglen's first film as director, Gun the Man Down (1956), a low-budget western, which was followed by a low-budget film noir, The Man in the Vault, in the same year; both were made for Wayne's Batjac company. McLaglen then got a chance to direct his father in The Abductors (1957).
If all of this has a hint of nepotism, McLaglen set out to prove he could make a career in his own right. In 1958, he signed a long-term contract with CBS, where he directed 96 episodes of Gunsmoke, 98 episodes of Have Gun – Will Travel and, in a rare departure from TV westerns, several episodes in the Perry Mason courtroom series. He also directed his father in his last role, in a Rawhide episode (1959).
McLintock! (1963) was McLaglen's first picture starring Wayne, whose sons Patrick (juvenile lead) and Michael (producer) were also involved. The boisterous western had Wayne as a cattle baron taming his shrewish wife (the Ford favourite Maureen O'Hara). When an interviewer suggested to McLaglen that Wayne was said to have all but directed many of his pictures, he replied: "I was lucky enough not to have that happen. I think that impression has to do with the respect John Wayne had for the director. He didn't force himself on the director."
Although McLaglen continued to direct for television, he concentrated on feature films from 1965, the year he made Shenandoah, arguably his best film.* Starring James Stewart at his most humane, it captured the heartbreak of the American civil war. Stewart was then paired with O'Hara in The Rare Breed (1966) and with Dean Martin in Bandolero! (1968), while Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark led a wagon train in The Way West (1967) – all proficient rather than inspired westerns.
McLaglen made three more westerns with Wayne. In The Undefeated (1969), Wayne is a Union colonel confronting a Confederate colonel, a moustachioed Rock Hudson. Chisum (1970) starts with Wayne silhouetted against the sky and ends the same way, though nothing in between quite justifies these iconic Fordian shots, while Cahill US Marshal (1973) has Wayne, looking every day of his 66 years, out to teach George Kennedy not to corrupt the youth of America.
McLaglen's several war movies suffered by comparison with better examples of the genre. The Devil's Brigade (1968) was similar to Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen, made in the previous year. The plot had a dour William Holden ordered to train a bunch of thugs to take on the Nazis in Norway. (In 1985, McLaglen took on the sequel to the Aldrich film, The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission.)
The Sea Wolves (1980), another second world war action picture, was somewhat reminiscent of The Guns of Navarone (1961), the similarity emphasised by using the same leads, Gregory Peck (attempting a British accent) and David Niven. Also cast was Roger Moore, who had appeared, with Richard Burton and Richard Harris, in McLaglen's The Wild Geese (1978), about mercenaries in Africa. Ostensibly promoting racial understanding, the film was shot in South Africa at the height of apartheid.
All of these rollicking adventures proved that, at the box office at least, familiarity breeds content. McLaglen's penultimate feature was Return From The River Kwai (1988), which again braved comparison with David Lean's 1957 classic.
McLaglen, who was married four times, is survived by a son, Josh, and a daughter, Mary, both film producers, who got their start on their father's films. His son with Borg, Andrew, died in 2006.
• Andrew Victor McLaglen, film and television director, born 28 July 1920; died 30 August 2014