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                                                 MOTIONPICTURE&PRO-VIDEO flash back
 In an age before computer-gener- ated epics, camera operator John Harris shot films which, quite lit- erally, had casts of thousands. But for all the recreated splen- dour and pageant of ancient times in wide-screen extravagan-
zas like Alexander The Great, El Cid and The Fall Of The Roman Empire, one of Harris’s more unsung assignments was genuinely a history-stopping moment.
This came in 1945 when, as a 21- year-old sub lieutenant in the British Navy, he officially photographed the sur- render of the Japanese at Government House in Hong Kong. Harris was at the time attached to NIL Div - the Naval Information Liaison Division -
the senior service’s equivalent
of the Army Film Unit where his counterparts included camera-
men like Gordon Dines, Bob
Thomson and Paul Beeson. In
charge of the unit was film-
maker Anthony Kimmins.
Much later and long back in civvy street, Harris would become one of the British industry’s most prolific and best-travelled operators work- ing regularly at the right hand of distinguished DPs like Robert Krasker, Denys Coop and Arthur Ibbetson.
As well as those aforementioned Spain-based, sword-and-sandal spectacu- lars, his prolific credits across 40 years include Trapeze, The Quiet American, This Sporting Life, Darling, Far From The Madding Crowd, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Heroes Of Telemark, Live And Let Die, Superman (on the flying unit), The Bounty, Shirley Valentine and Stepping Out.
Meanwhile... Harris’s adventures in the Far East were the culmination of war service which had begun in much more mundane circumstances when he start- ed out as an ordinary seaman strictly on the home front after call-up a couple of years earlier.
The war had begun raging, and Harris wasn’t yet 17, when he started in the industry as “a sort of assistant clap- per boy” in the camera department at Shepherd’s Bush studios. The big pro- duction at the time was Carol Reed’s shamelessly propagandising Young Mr Pitt, with Robert Donat as a flag-waving PM in time of national crisis. Freddie Young was the director of photography.
Harris’s main duty was hand-tests: that is, at the end of each scene, when they’d got the take they’d wanted, the camera would then be run for 10 feet. He would have to take that bit of film off to thedarkroomandbringbacka5x4 print – “I’d do wet negative down to a fine art in about 20 minutes,” he recalled. It was a bit like ye olde equivalent of Polaroiding set-ups.
He would become more intimately involved with the actual film-making after 5.30 each evening when he’d take over from the 15-year-old clapper boy Charlie French who was required to fin- ish at that time. After about a year, Harris was called into head of depart-
Love being directed at Isleworth Studios by its star, Robert Donat, who was suffer- ing from his recurring asthma problem. With the blessing of his DP, Jack Cox, Harris was seconded to Launder/Gilliat’s State Secret, a classy thriller being shot in the Italian Dolomites.
This was to be his first meeting with the great Robert Krasker, perhaps best known as the Oscar-winning cinematog- rapher of The Third Man, which he’d lit a couple of years earlier. After a pair of films as his focus puller, Harris eventual- ly graduated to Krasker’s operator on Another Man’s Poison which would be the first of more than 15 films in close collab- oration with the Aussie-born DP.
properly gauge the result of Harris’s commonsense initiative.
And what about that magnificent cli- mactic moment when Charlton Heston as El Cid, now dead but strapped upright on his steed to maintain morale at the head of his army, “rides out of the gates of History,” as the famous voice-over intones, “and into Legend”?
As Harris panned up, an extraordi- nary, inexplicable light eerily but rather appropriately engulfed both the horse and Heston - “not a flare exactly but completely unintentional as if a third person somehow had a hand in it,” Harris mused.
By the time, Krasker, Harris and Mann returned to Spain two years later for Roman Empire, Bronston’s own empire was on the slide. But this hadn’t stopped the producer from spending over $2 million on the Rome set alone at his refurbished Las Matas studio, just part of a whopping $18 million budget for a magnifi- cent movie which would inspire Gladiator more than 35 years later.
Back in Britain and much later in British Columbia, where he and Ursula moved
for a few years until 1996 when they settled finally in West Sussex retire- ment, Harris remained at the camera’s sharp-edge, a legacy he’s passed on to son Chris, who is one of Canada’s busiest operators.
Had he ever wanted to become a DP? Citing the odd stint on films like This Sporting Life and Little Lord Fauntleroy when he briefly assumed full lighting responsibilities, he admitted, “yes, I guess so.
“People like Ossie Morris used to push their operators up quite regularly. Bob Krasker never bothered in quite the same way. I suppose he liked to work with the same people all the time. If he’d pushed me, perhaps I might have got ahead.”
Harris’s fascinating life and career in film both pre- and post-Krasker suggest that he never exactly stood still either. ■ QUENTIN FALK
  ment George Hill’s office and told he was detailed to cross town and work at Gainsborough’s other studio, Islington: as a focus puller.
“My mouth dropped open. It was a very quick graduation. I remember say- ing, ‘I can’t’, but George replied that there was no-one else to go.”
He may even have added, in the great tradition, ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ So Harris switched from Lime Grove W12 to Poole Street, N1 where he came under the supervision of gangly operator George Stevens, aka The Horse, “thin as a rake but very re-assuring.” Until his call-up.
After the war, Harris eventually returned to Shepherd’s Bush where he found himself among some 12 complete camera crews often “lolling about the place” as there was usually only work for five at any one time. However, he soon man- aged to get back into the swing of produc- tion even enjoying his first ever – not count- ing the war, of course – foreign location on an Alpine adventure called Broken Journey.
His next ‘break’ was at the turn of the fifties during a hiatus on The Cure For
They filmed together all over the world – from Vietnam (The Quiet American) and Canada (The Trap) to Italy (Romeo And Juliet) and, of course, Spain, notably on El Cid and The Fall Of The Roman Empire, a pair of sprawling Sixties’ megadollar productions overseen by the mysterious, mittel-European mogul, Samuel Bronston.
Bronston’s too-brief reign in Spain brought Hollywood to Madrid in a tri- umph of conspicuous consumption – ranging from lavish sets to massive salaries - for a short series of epics which depended on highly-intricate and delicately-timed financing.
Harris, whose wife Ursula and three small children spent months with him in Spain during the making of El Cid, still has vivid memories of the shoot. Like the time when, after holding one particular shot for what seemed like ages, he started to pan of his own voli- tion. This was followed by a predictable earful from “loud-mouthed” American director Anthony Mann before a rueful “Thank God!” when Mann was able to
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