Nationality: British. Born: Felixstowe, Suffolk, England, 22 February 1908. Military Service: Royal Engineers, 1940, began making propaganda films; medical discharge for duodenal ulcer, 1941. Family: Married 1) the actress Aileen Raymond, 1931 (divorced 1940); 2) the actress Mary Hayley Bell, 1941, daughters: the actresses Juliet and Hayley, son: Jonathan. Career: At 16, clerk with Ipswich corn merchant; 1927—London stage debut in chorus of The Five O'Clock Revue ; joined repertory company The Quaints, tour of Far East; 1931—in stage version of Noël Coward's Cavalcade ; 1932—film debut opposite Jessie Matthews in The Midshipmaid ; 1938—invited by Tyrone Guthrie to join Old Vic company; 1949–50—produced and appeared in two films, The History of Mr. Polly and The Rocking-Horse Winner ; 1961—on Broadway in Terence Rattigan's Ross ; 1967—in TV series Dundee and the Culhane ; 1977—on stage in Separate Tables , Goodbye, Mr. Chips , 1982, Little Lies , 1983, and Pygmalion , 1987; 1989—in TV mini-series Around the World in 80 Days , Night of the Fox , 1990, and The Sands of Time , 1992. Awards: Best Actor, Venice Festival, for Tunes of Glory , 1960; Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, for Ryan's Daughter , 1970; knighted, 1977; London Evening Standard Special Award, 1979. Agent: ICM, 388 Oxford Street, London W1, England.
The Midshipmaid ( Midshipmaid Gob ) (de Courville) (as Golightly)
Britannia of Billingsgate (Hill) (as Fred); The Ghost Camera (Vorhaus) (as Ernes Elton)
A Political Party (Norman Lee) (as Tony Smithers); The River Wolves (Pearson) (as Peter Farrell); The Lash (Henry Edwards) (as Arthur Haughton); Doctor's Orders (Norman Lee) (as Ronnie Blake); Those Were the Days (Bentley) (as Bobby); Blind Justice (Vorhaus) (as Ralph Summers)
Brown on Resolution ( Forever England ; Born for Glory ; Torpedo Raider ) (Forde) (as Able Seaman Albert Brown); Car of Dreams (Melford and Cutts) (as Robert Miller); Royal Cavalcade ( Regal Cavalcade ) (Bentley and others) (as boy); Charing Cross Road (de Courville) (as Tony)
First Offence ( Bad Blood ) (Mason) (as Johnnie Penrose); Tudor Rose ( Nine Days a Queen ; Lady Jane Grey ) (Stevenson) (as Lord Guildford Dudley)
O.H.M.S. ( You're in the Army Now ) (Walsh) (as Cpl. Bert Dawson); The Green Cockatoo ( Four Dark Hours ; Race Gang ) (Menzies and William K. Howard) (as Jim Connor)
Goodbye Mr. Chips (Wood) (as Peter Colley as a young man)
Old Bill and Son (Dalrymple) (as young Bill Busby); All Hands (Carstairs—short); Dangerous Comment (short); Now You're Talking (short)
Cottage to Let ( Bombsight Stolen ) (Asquith) (as Lt. George Perrey); The Black Sheep of Whitehall (Hay and Dearden) (as Bobby)
The Young Mr. Pitt (Reed) (as William Wilberforce); In Which We Serve (Coward and Lean) (as Shorty Blake); The Big Blockade (Frend) (as Tom)
We Dive at Dawn (Asquith) (as Lt. Freddie Taylor)
Victory Wedding (Matthews—short); This Happy Breed (Lean) (as Billy Mitchell); Waterloo Road (Gilliat) (as Jim Colter)
Total War in Britain (Rotha—doc) (as narrator); The Way to the Stars ( Johnny in the Clouds ) (Asquith) (as Peter Penrose)
Great Expectations (Lean) (as Pip Pirrip); Land of Promise (Rotha—doc) (as voice)
So Well Remembered (Dmytryk) (as George Boswell); The October Man (Baker) (as Jim Ackland)
Scott of the Antarctic (Frend) (as Capt. Robert Falcon Scott)
The History of Mr. Polly (Pelissier) (as Alfred Polly, + pr); Friend of the Family (Hill—doc) (as narrator); The Flying Skyscraper (short) (as narrator)
The Rocking-Horse Winner (Pelissier) (as Bassett, + pr); Morning Departure ( Operation Disaster ) (Baker) (as Lieut. Comdr. Armstrong)
Mr. Denning Drives North (Kimmins) (as Tom Denning)
The Gentle Gunman (Relph and Dearden) (as Terence Sullivan)
The Long Memory (Hamer) (as Davidson)
Hobson's Choice (Lean) (as Willie Mossop)
The Colditz Story (Hamilton) (as Pat Reid); The End of the Affair (Dmytryk) (as Albert Parkis); Above Us the Waves (Thomas) (as Commander Frazer); Escapade (Leacock) (as John Hampden)
War and Peace (King Vidor) (as Platon Karatayev); It's Great to Be Young (Frankel) (as Mr. Dingle); The Baby and the Battleship (Jay Lewis) (as "Puncher" Roberts); Around the World in Eighty Days (Anderson) (as London cabbie)
Town on Trial (Guillermin) (as Supt. Mike Halloran); The Circle ( The Vicious Circle ) (Thomas) (as Dr. Howard Latimer)
Dunkirk (Norman) (as Corporal Tubby Binns); Ice Cold in Alex ( Desert Attack ) (J. Lee Thompson) (as Capt. Anson); I Was Monty's Double ( Hell, Heaven or Hoboken ) (Guillermin) (as Major Harvey)
Tiger Bay (J. Lee Thompson) (as Superintendent Graham); Season of Passion ( Summer of the 17th Doll ) (Norman) (as Barney)
Swiss Family Robinson (Annakin) (as Mr. Robinson); Tunes of Glory (Neame) (as Lt. Col. Basil Barrow)
The Singer Not the Song (Baker) (as Father Keogh)
Flame in the Streets (Baker) (as "Jacko" Palmer); The Valiant (Baker) (as Captain Morgan); Tiara Tahiti (Kotcheff) (as Lt. Col. Clifford Southey)
The Chalk Garden (Neame) (as Maitland)
The Truth about Spring (Thorpe) (as Tommy Tyler); King Rat (Forbes) (as Smedley-Taylor); Operation Crossbow ( The Great Spy Mission ) (Anderson) (as General Boyd)
The Wrong Box (Forbes) (as Masterman Finsbury)
The Family Way (Boulting) (as Ezra Fitton); Chuka (Gordon Douglas) (as Colonel Stuart Valois); Africa—Texas Style! (Marton) (as Wing Commander Howard Hayes)
Run Wild, Run Free (Sarafian) (as Moorman); Oh! What a Lovely War (Attenborough) (as Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig); Lady Hamilton ( Emma Hamilton ; The Making of a Lady ) (Christian-Jaque) (as Sir William Hamilton); La morte non ha sesso ( A Black Veil for Lisa ) (Dallamano) (as Insp. Franz Bulov)
Adam's Woman ( Return of the Boomerang ) (Leacock) (as Sir Philip); Ryan's Daughter (Lean) (as Michael)
Dulcima (Nesbitt) (as Mr. Parker)
Lady Caroline Lamb (Bolt) (as Canning); Young Winston (Attenborough) (as General Kitchener)
Oklahoma Crude (Kramer) (as Cleon Doyle)
The Human Factor (Dmytryk) (as Mike McCallister)
Dirty Knight's Work ( Trial by Combat ; Choice of Weapons ) (Connor) (as Bertie Cook)
The Devil's Advocate (Green) (as Blaise Meredith)
The Big Sleep (Winner) (as Inspector Jim Carson); The Thirty-Nine Steps (Sharp) (as Colonel Scudder); Dr. Strange (De Guere—for TV)
Zulu Dawn (Hickox) (as Sir Henry Bartle Frere); Quatermass Conclusion (Haggard) (as Prof. Bernard Quatermass)
Gandhi (Attenborough) (as Lord Chelmsford)
Sahara (McLaglen) (as Cambridge); A Woman of Substance (Sharp—for TV) (as Henry Rossiter)
Masks of Death (Baker)
Murder with Mirrors (Lowry—for TV) (as Lewis Serrocold); Edge of the Wind (Ives—for TV)
When the Wind Blows (Murukami—animation) (as voice of Jim Bloggs); Hold the Dream (Sharp—for TV) (as Henry Rossiter); Witnesses
Who's That Girl? (Foley) (as Montgomery Bell)
The Lady and the Highwayman (Hough) (as Sir Lawrence Dobson); A Tale of Two Cities (Monnier)
Ending Up (Sasdy—for TV) (as Bernard)
The Last Straw
Galaxies Are Colliding
Harnessing Peacocks (James Cellan Jones—for TV) (as Bernard); Frankenstein (Wickes—for TV) (as DeLacey)
Deadly Advice (Fletcher) (as Jack the Ripper)
Hamlet (Branagh) (as Old Norway)
Bean (Mel Smith) (as Chairman)
Cats (Mallet—for Video) (as Gus the Theatre Cat)
The Best of British Cinema (as himself—for Video)
Sky West and Crooked ( Gypsy Girl )
Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please , New Haven, 1981.
Interview in Photoplay (London), July 1980.
Tanitch, Robert, John Mills , London 1993.
Johnson, Ian, "Mills," in Films and Filming (London), June 1962.
Current Biography 1963 , New York, 1963.
Williams, J., "Oscar, Oscar," in Films Illustrated (London), July 1971.
Marill, Alvin, "John Mills," in Films in Review (New York), August/September 1971.
Dacre, R., "John Mills," in Film Dope (Nottingham, England), January 1990.
Stars (Mariembourg, Belgium), September 1991.
Roberts, J., "John Mills," in Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), August 1992.
* * *
Whether stuck in the middle of the desert ( Ice Cold in Alex ) or stuck in the frozen climes of the South Pole ( Scott of the Antarctic ) or stuck at sea ( In Which We Serve ) or stuck in a prisoner-of-war camp ( The Colditz Story ), John Mills is so unfailingly cheerful, brave, and decent one gets the sense that were he to be cast against type, perhaps to play Adolf Hitler or Genghis Khan, we would warm to his performance and have him home to tea nonetheless.
It is surely significant that Mills first came to prominence in the war years, a period of consensus in British politics when decency—as embodied in 1946 by the Attlee government—was briefly fashionable, and where class, privilege, and good looks were not the sole criteria on which the British movie star was judged. As Jeffrey Richards has observed, Mills's great achievement has been "to show the qualities of English decency operating at every level of society." In 1947, Mills toppled Gainsborough Studios' aristocratic "cad and rotter," James Mason, from his perch at the top of the popularity polls. It is quite inconceivable that Mills would ever have bludgeoned Margaret Lockwood with an iron poker (as Mason did in The Man in Grey ). Nor, in later life, would Mills have been happy corrupting nymphets (as Mason did in Lolita ). Whether as character actor or leading man, Mills maintained morals, principles, and basic humanity. Given the opportunity to follow Granger and Mason to Hollywood, he plumped for Britain.
Sometimes, Mills could exude an irritating sanctimony and smugness. As Pip in David Lean's Great Expectations , he is dull and bland beside the gallery of Dickensian grotesques (Finlay Currie as the shaven-headed convict, Mr. Jaggers, Miss Havisham, and company); it seems very unlikely that Jean Simmons would ever have fallen for such a lackluster hero. And in Lean's This Happy Breed , Mills's decency and loyalty to Nöel Coward's quaint ideal of the family—Mills's portrayal of the boy-next-door—as in In Which We Serve , is faintly grating.
In the 1950s, as prosperity set in, and as Churchill and then Macmillan attempted to gnaw away at the "consensual decency" of the previous decade, Mills stood as a totem of the old values. Generally, British 1950s war films are seen as symptomatic of imperial anxiety, of Albion attempting to cope with its loss of significance in the world, with the growing pains of Suez and the disappearing empire. As British world influence dwindles, British filmmakers try to reinvoke martial myths of the recent past. Seen in such a light, Mills, forever dressed in khaki, seems a reactionary figure in such films as Tunes of Glory , which was, of course, that film's point about his character.
It comes as something of a surprise to discover that Mills, like Cagney (to whom, although gentler with grapefruits, he is in some sense a British parallel), started off his career in musical comedy. Somehow, one does not think of him singing and dancing. In later years, Mills tried to break away from his Mr. Decent type; he played a deformed deaf-mute in Lean's Ryan's Daughter , a performance that won a him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, although it borders on the freakish. He marvelously played the stiff-necked dad of newlyweds Hywell Bennett and daughter Hayley in The Family Way . And he has even attempted to play the villain from time to time—as in the serial killer omnibus Deadly Advice , where he played Jack the Ripper. As General Haig, the butcher of the Somme who sent hundreds of thousands of British soldiers to their death, in the earlier Oh! What a Lovely War , he laced his villainy with sympathy to create a realistic human portrait. In all these films, he demonstrated that he is a far more versatile actor than his war-hero persona often allowed. Nonetheless, he will always be remembered as brave Shorty Blake with the stiff upper lip or as Courageous Captain Scott—as the chivalric and conscientious protagonist of a dozen British war movies.
—G. C. Macnab, updated by John McCarty