The Mondo-Esoterica Guide to

Stanley Baker


Stanley Baker was born in 1928, in the Rhondda Valley, a heavy coal mining area in South Wales. Bound, like the rest of his family, for a life in the mines, he tried his hand first at boxing, then at acting in a determined effort to avoid a similar fate to that of his father - crippled after decades of mine working and left jobless. Encouraged to focus on his acting by a teacher, it was during a school performance, aged 15, that he was spotted by director Sergei Nolbandov who was on a location scouting trip for the Ealing war film Undercover (1943) which would substitute the Welsh hills to tell the story of the Jugoslavian partisans - Baker's role in the picture was minor but life changing. The next year he would appear on the London stage in Emlyn Williams' comedy play The Druid’s Rest alongside fellow Welsh valleyman Richard Burton, which sealed his decision to make acting a career and made him a lifelong friend (despite some future disputes between the pair). After the show closed Baker found a place in the Birmingham repertory company to develop his talents on the stage. Although too young to fight in the war itself, he was called up for military service in 1946 and served for two years.

On his release, he returned to the stage but also looked to the cinema, British film was going through a brief boom thanks to government quotas that forced cinemas to show a British production for every American import. Starting with the comedy All Over the Town (1949), Baker made a number of appearances in minor (often uncredited) parts and got his first noticable role as the Bos’un in Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951) alongside Gregory Peck. His biggest theatrical sucess came that year when he was cast along with Denholm Elliot in Christopher Fry's anti-war play A Sleep of Prisoners which toured both in Britain and America. He was getting noticed, at least by producers, and after playing the trecharous Modred in Knights of the Round Table (1953) he was cast as the brutal sailor Bennett in the grim war film The Cruel Sea (1953) and the all out villain Erik in the Hammond Innes adventure Hell Below Zero (1954).

These gritty adventure films were to form most of the mainstay of his career but for a couple of years he sampled a selection of genres. Laurence Olivier was keen to cast him as the victorious Henry Tudor in Shakespeare’s Richard III (1955) and his first encounter with the cinematic supernatural came in the BBC’s The Creature (1955), his first appearance alongside Peter Cushing (who incidentally played the same role in The Abominable Snowman (1957) the cinematic remake by Hammer, with Forrest Tucker in Baker’s role). A second BBC production, playing Edward Rochester in Jayne Eyre (1956) gave Baker his first romantic leading role, but like those to follow, it was not a traditional romantic hero he played. A pair of cinematic epics followed – in a desperate attempt to stave off the advances of television in the mid-1950s the film industry tried to make everything as big and colourful as possible – Baker was cast as the clever Achilles in Helen of Troy (1956) and as the loyal Attalus to Richard Burton’s Alexander the Great (1956).

Child in the House (1956) marked a return to his more realist films, playing a criminal father on the run from the law who has to swear his daughter to secrecy, more importantly the film marked Baker's first of six works with Cy Enfield, an American born director who was blacklisted in the States by the communist witchhunts but found work in Britain. Baker played another Hammond Innes villain in Campbell's Kingdom (1957) before teaming up again with Cy Enfield to play the symapthetic lead role in the tough Hell Drivers (1957) gaining his first top billing. This sucess was quickly followed up by Enfield with Baker taking top billing in Sea Fury (1958) and playing an airline pilot in Jet Storm (1959), although he had to take second billing to Richard Attenborough in the latter. The trio of films met with great public reception and as well as saving Enfield's all but ended career, they set Baker up as one of Britain's biggest acting stars and the roles started to pour in.

In 1959 he worked for the first time with another ex-pat American director, Joseph Losey - unlike Enfield he had not officially been blacklisted but was unwilling to face the witchhunts and exiled himself in Britain, making a name as a director of a series of small thrillers. For Blind Date (1959) he cast Baker in the second-billed role as a tough British detective opposite Hardy Krüger as his suspect - highly impressed by the performance he cast him on the other side of the law in Criminal (1960), considered to be one of the toughest British crime films. As with Enfield, Losey found a return to form thanks to Baker and the actor's reputation was even further enhanced.

With his track record in crime, Baker was the obvious first choice for the police detective in Hammer's grim Hell is a City (1960) and back on the criminal side in the dark heist film Prize of Arms (1962). Inbetween his police roles, he had played a number of military characters, appearing as a brutal British office fighting the Japanese in Hammer's Second World War film Yesterday's Enemy (1959) helmed by Val Guest, and as a Gestapo commander in Robert Aldrich's Greek set Angry Hills (1959). In 1961 he returned to Greece for his biggest role to date, as a British commando in Alistair MacLean's epic war tale The Guns of Navarone (1961) alongside Anthony Quinn, David Niven and Gregory Peck.

By 1962 Stanley Baker had become one of Britain's best known and most popular actors despite almost never playing sympathetic or romantic characters, his sucess overshadowing the 'middle class' heros like Dirk Bogard who had always been the popular mold until that time. Critics mulled on his rough looks and highly suited placement in the crime films he had made his name with - wanting to avoid permenant type-casting and looking prove his ability to act in different roles, Baker took on a pair of rather unorthodox romantic roles. Firstly as the journalist who proves most desirable for the young Jean Seberg in In the French Style (1963) and as the sexually frustrated and tempted Welsh novellist in Joseph Losey's Eva (1962) opposite Jeanne Moreau. A return to the world of epic cinema came with Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) for Robert Aldrich - Baker played the trecharous Sodomite King to Stewart Granger's Lot alongside a mostly Italian cast.

Despite the box office failure of the biblical epic, American co-producer Joseph E. Levine, was keen to make another film with Stanley Baker, seeing him as the best thing in the production. Baker suggested making a film called Zulu (1964), telling the story of the heroic British defence of Rorke's Drift in 1879 and Levine jumped at the chance. Wanting to retain complete control of the project, Baker set-up a production company and produced the film himself, along with Cy Enfield whom he brought in to direct. The film proved an amazing worldwide success and the trio quickly teamed up again for the desert-bound thriller Sands of the Kalahari (1965). Unfortunately this was to prove less memorable; several of the intended cast, including Richard Burton, pulled out and the film was eclipsed by the very similar, bigger budgeted Hollywood film Flight of the Phoenix (1965) which boasted a far more impressive cast list.

His final production with Joseph Losey was to give Baker his greatest chance to show off his acting talents - Accident (1967) saw him cast opposite Dirk Bogard as Oxford Professors locked in a desperate and doomed love triangle. However it was Baker himself who chose a return to his old criminal typecast for his own Oakhurst Pictures production company - playing the leader of heist gang in Robbery (1967), heavily based on the real Great Train Robbery of a few years ealier, and a sly criminal hunting the titular thief in Where's Jack (1969) set in 18th Century London. Unfortunately neither film was nearly as successful as their other production The Italian Job (1969), in which Baker didn't star, instead Michael Caine (who came to prominence thanks to Zulu) was given the lead role and went on to international fame as a result.

Fading from the public eye and with British cinema in another decline, Baker managed to stay in work but had fallen away from top billing and high ranking productions. Like many British and American actors he found European productions were keen to snap up ex-big names when they lowered their pay expectations - after the comedy La Ragazza con la pistola (1968) he played the upright British detective in Lucio Fulci's early giallo Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971) and a Venezuelan Police Inspector opposite Claudia Cardinale in French crime film Popsy Pop (1971). A last hurrah came with the British spy thriller Innocent Bystanders (1972) but by now Baker was starting to decline - a lifelong smoker, the early signs of lung cancer began to take their toll. He did continue to work, filming a couple of plays for the BBC, including the leading role as Robinson Crusoe, and playing his last police officer in the one-off ITV production Who Killed Lamb? (1974). How Green Was My Valley (1975) was his last British work and the most personal of all his roles, a BBC produced adaptation of the classic Welsh novel about a small mining community.

Now suffering greatly from the effects of the cancer he moved to the warmer climate of Spain and made two last productions, gaining the lead role in the classic Spanish romantic tale Pepita Jiménez (1975) and playing the villain Colonel Huerta in Zorro (1975) opposite the swashbuckling Alain Delon. In May 1976 it was announced that he was to receive a Knighthood, an announcement sadly tempered by the controversy surrounding the inclusion of several wealthy businessmen on the year's honours list. Tragically, Baker was never able to reach Buckingham Palace to be bestowed the honour, catching pneumonia and dying in Spain, aged just 48.

One of the most unusual stars to emerge in the 1950s, Baker marked the beginning of the 'tough-guy' era of cinema, that saw rough, working class actors like Steve McQueen and Sean Connery replace their besuited predecessors. Although creating himself a perfect niché in the British crime boom, at the hands of Joseph Losey he demonstrated a real acting talent and played in a wide variety of roles. Of his more than 50 films however, he will always be remembered for the film he himself conceived and worked to bring to the screen, the epic Zulu (1964).

DVD Reviews: Films starring Stanley Baker

Accident (1967)

Optimum UK Region 2 DVD
Baker plays in a very sensitive drama with a superbly subtle performance in his Harold Pinter drama.
Highly recommended.
Criminal (1960)

Optimum UK Region 2 DVD
A gritty, brutal leading role for Baker in Joseph Losey's film which could easily be ranked as the very best of the Brit-crime boom.
Highly recommended.
Eva (1962)

Optimum UK Region 2 DVD
An unusual romantic leading role for Baker in a film marred by heavy producer editing but still allowing a very fine performance.
Of interest to fans.
Hell Drivers (1957)

Network UK Region 2 DVD
Baker gets tough and gritty as an ex-con. Great acting from a team of British character actors and a good script.
Highly recommended.
Hell is a City (1960)

Anchor Bay US Region 1 DVD
Baker is a police officer on the trail of a killer in 1960s Manchester in this very realistic crime film from Hammer.
Prize of Arms (1962)

Odeon UK Region 2 DVD
A typical heist script gets a solid performance from Baker and is genuinely tense and enjoyable.
Robbery (1967)

Optimum UK Region 2 DVD
Baker's own produced crime film boasting a superb car chase sequence and an accurate recreation of the Great Train Robbery.


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All text in this page written by Timothy Young - June 2008.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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