According to one obituary, "Regardless of whether he was directing a light comedy, war epic or crime drama, Mr. Guillermin had a reputation as an intense, temperamental perfectionist, notorious for screaming at cast and crew alike. His domineering manner often alienated producers and actors... But Mr. Guillermin’s impeccable eye and ability to capture both intimate moments and large-scale action scenes usually overcame that reputation."
Guillermin was born Yvon Jean Guillermin in London on 11 November 1925. His parents were French expatriates, Joseph and Genevieve Guillermin; his father worked in the perfume industry. Guillermin grew up in England and attended the City of London School and the University of Cambridge. He joined the Royal Air Force at age 19.
After mustering out of the Royal Air Force at the age of 22, Guillermin's directorial career began in France with documentary filmmaking. According to a critical review of Guillermin's work, "One of his stylistic constants, an expert use of handheld camera to add grit and muscle to key scenes, may be rooted in those early efforts, and they function as counterweights to Guillermin's penchant for forceful lines, a very plastic sense of interior spaces, and use of overhead shots... Guillermin's interest in conveying how people and spaces relate to one another and how decisions are reached and carried out suggests a spark to his filmmaking that one might call Griersonianeven if the grandfather of British documentary focused on social development and progress as opposed to collapse."
In 1948 he moved back to London. With Robert Jordan Hill he set up a small production company, Advent Films. Together they made Bless 'Em All (1948) which Guillermin helped produce. They co-directed High Jinks in Society (1949), a comedy with the cockney character actor Ben Wrigley. The company was backed by Adelphi Pictures for whom Guillermin made four further features: Melody in the Dark (1949), which he scripted for Hill to direct; Torment (1950), known as Paper Gallows in the US; Song of Paris (1952) (a.k.a. Bachelor in Paris) and The Crowded Day (1954) (a.k.a. Shop Soiled).
He went to Hollywood in 1950 to study film-making methods.
Other films he made around this time include two based on scripts by Alec Coppel, The Smart Aleck (1951) and Two on the Tiles (1951). He also directed Four Days (1951), and Miss Robin Hood (1952), the latter starring Margaret Rutherford. He worked on such TV shows as Strange Stories (1953), and Your Favorite Story (1953). His film Operation Diplomat (1953) was described as "the first example of prime Guillermin... a 70-minute programmer so tautly directed that every image counts, every detail matters, every actor's movement feels perfectly timed-a true gem."
It was followed by Adventure in the Hopfields (1954), a children's film; and a Spanish shot movie - Tormenta (1955), also known as Thunderstorm. There were other TV series, The Adventures of Aggie (15 TV episodes, 1956–57) and Sailor of Fortune (1957-58). According to the BFI, "it was a modest beginning but he soon hit his stride with a string of films that transcended their meagre budgets to reveal a genuine talent."
His first major movie was Town on Trial (1957), a thriller starring John Mills. Maureen Connell had a small role; she would soon marry Guillermin. According to the BFI, "Detractors have too often accused Guillermin of being merely a journeyman, lacking any real style of his own. The defence would do worse than to offer Town on Trial as its Exhibit A, drawing particular attention to its breathtaking PoV shot of the killer stalking a second victim that anticipates the camera gymnastics of Dario Argento."
Following this Guillermin announced he would make Insurrection about the 1916 Easter Rising for Carl Foreman based on a story by Liam O'Flaherty. Instead Guillermin made another movie with Mills, I Was Monty's Double (1958), the story of Operation Copperhead with M. E. Clifton James playing himself.
His reputation also increased when he made The Whole Truth (1958), with Stewart Granger, George Sanders and Donna Reed.
Guillermin was then hired by producer Sy Weintraub to help re-invigorate the Tarzan series. The result was Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959), now regarded as one of the best Tarzans. One writer called it "the most relentless and brutal Tarzan film ever made - it's Guillermin's Heart of Darkness.
It was followed by a heist film with Aldo Ray and Peter O'Toole, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960) and Never Let Go (1960) with Peter Sellers; Guillermin also wrote the story. Waltz of the Toreadors (1962), based on a Jean Anouilh play, reunited him with Sellers. Tarzan Goes to India (1962) was another popular Tarzan film.
Guns at Batasi (1964) was an adventure-drama set in the last days of British colonialism. It was released by 20th Century Fox whose head of production Darryl F. Zanuck became a fan of Guillermin and signed him for two more films - Rapture (1965) and The Blue Max (1966). It starred George Peppard who said working with Guillermin was "the most exciting, creative experience I've ever had." Zanuck was a mentor to Guillermin. "If he'd said he'd wanted a picture on a lab technician in the Sahara, I'd have done it eagerly," said Guillermin.
Guillermin then received an offer to work in Hollywood, reuniting him with Peppard: P.J. (1968) (formerly known as Criss Cross). It was followed by another with Peppard, House of Cards (1968)
The Bridge at Remagen (1969) was a World War Two film originally shot in Czechoslovakia. Rl Condor (1970) was a rare Western.
For MGM he made Skyjacked (1972), a popular thriller with Charlton Heston and Shaft in Africa (1973). He was also meant to make The Palermo Affairfor Walter Seltzer but it was never filmed.
He had a big hit with The Towering Inferno (1974) for producer Irwin Allen. Allen got most of the critical kudos which annoyed the director. "I wanted to fight it because dammit I made that picture," said Guillermin. "But I let the studio talk me out of it.They said it would only hurt business. But I was wrong, I should have fought."
He was meant to make Hennessy but was replaced by Don Sharp.
He was meant to direct Midway (1976) but was replaced by Jack Smight. His next job came from Dino De Laurentis who was looking for a director for his remake of King Kong (1976). He had been turned down by Steven Spielberg, Milos Forman, Roman Polanski and Sydney Pollack before going with Guillermin. "To me John Guillermin is a talent guy," said De Laurentis. "He is a strange character, but this don't mean anything to me. All directors are strange characters. Bergman is a strange character, Fellini is a strange character - all directors. He was very open to special effects. And then, he believe in the story; he believe in the love story. And if he believe in it, it works. Because John GuiIIermin believe in this fantastically human love story... Every director at one point jump from one category to another category. No director can be genius from first movie. You must give a chance when people are talented. And I recognize in John some quality. And he did it with KONG. He surprised you, surprised all critics."
"The original 'Kong' was part of my childhood and I loved it," said Guillermin. "I dreamed about it. What I wanted to do was to re-create what d felt about it the first time I saw it, but still adapt the story to our own day. I didn't think and still don't that you could simply remake it... We all wanted and tried to get back to that lyrical childhood idea of the beauty and the beast. It was tricky trying to balance all the jokes on the one hand and the danger of bathos on the other, but I wanted it to be obvious that we regarded the material with sincerity."
King Kong starred Jeff Bridges who recalls "so many problems" on the film. "Every week or so John Guillermin would just explode, yelling at everybody. It got to the point where we waited for his blow ups." Writer Lorenzo Semple Jr said there was "a creative tension" between Guillermin and De Laurentiis which "helped us all".
Guillermin said in a 1976 interview, "I've been directing all over the bloody world for 27 years, learning my craft, and by now it's dripping from my fingers. I was ready for Kong and it was a lovely opportunity. It could've been better if we'd had more time. Still I'm damned proud. It works. It ain't bad."
Another success was Death on the Nile (1978).
"In Britain they seem to have run out of things to film," he said. "Over here there's an extraordinary freedom to take on an enormous variety of subjects."
"Guillermin was not very nice to me," said Lois Chiles, who had a small role in the film. "On my very first day when I questioned a direction I didn't understand, he stood there swearing at me. It was awful."
In the late 1970s, Guillermin was attached to make The Godfather Part 3 and worked on a script with Dean Reisner and Mario Puzo. He made the Canadian horror film Mr. Patman (1980). After this he was briefly connected to a big screen version of Tai Pan to star Roger Moore.
He was replaced on Sahara (1983) by Andrew McLaglen. There were two attempts to repeat the success of King Kong: Sheena (1984) and King Kong Lives (1986). Sheena starred Tanya Roberts who recalled "John screams until you get it right.. He shouted at me to be 'honest’, and he wouldn’t let up until I was. I’d be upset, but I worked harder until he was satisfied. He did his research, and he got sustained performances out of all of us.” Guillermin's son Michael died in a car accident during the making of Sheena.
Guillermin was still grieving while making King Kong Lives. He occasionally left the set halfway through a day’s shooting to go sailing. After one argument with the production staff, he stayed away for days. Filming was completed by an uncredited 21-year-old documentary film-maker, Charles McCracken.
Guillermin’s last film was The Tracker (1988), a made-for-TV western starring Kris Kristofferson.
For TV he was one of the directors on La Revolution Francaise Les Annees Lumiere (1989).
Town on Trial (1957) showed his early craftsmanship, with Guillermin managing to obtain a menacing performance from the usually benign John Mills. Guillermin in time became known more as a general entertainment director than as an auteur director, and in his later career as a director for films with big budgets and spectacular effects. He also became known as a pipe smoking exacting perfectionist, filming and refilming scenes to get exactly what he was looking for. Unusual camera angles and hand held camera shots were among his preferred options.
Memoirs of actors, editors and producers indicate that Guillermin was a difficult man to work with. He is described in Norma Barzman's book where he is mentioned in connection with the shooting of The Blue Max (1966) as having a "cold, stiff-lipped manner." Elmo Williams, producer of The Blue Max, described Guillermin as a "demanding director, indifferent to people getting hurt as long as he got realistic action . . . he was a hard-working, overly critical man whom the crew disliked. However, Guillermin was a master at camera setup."
Producer David L. Wolper wrote that Guillermin was "the most difficult director with whom I'd ever worked." Wolper further described Guillermin as "a real pain in the ass." Guillermin was directing Wolper's The Bridge at Remagen (1969). When some members of the Czech crew were late for the first day of filming in 1968, Guillermin screamed at them. He was told by a crew member if he did this again, the entire crew would walk off the set. Guillermin later told Wolper he could not set foot on the set one day because of the complexity of the filming. Wolper told Guillermin he was therefore sacked. Guillermin apologised and was re-employed immediately.
Ralph E. Winters was employed as editor for King Kong (1976) after a nice conversation with Guillermin. Winters described the director as "A skinny guy, dark, with very sharp features." In the screening room, Winters witnessed a frustrated Guillermin kicking the seat in front until it broke; Winters got an apologetic phone call the next day. Twenty-three years after the film was released, Guillermin called to compliment him on his work on King Kong.
Charlton Heston described Guillermin as an "imaginative and skillful director" with an "irascible streak."
Before filming started on Midway (1976), producer Walter Mirisch replaced Guillermin with Jack Smight after Guillermin requested more time and equipment, particularly aeroplanes, than the budget allowed. Guillermin was also replaced as director on Sahara (1983) by Andrew V. McLaglen.
Novelist James Dickey, who worked with him on the unfilmed Alnilam project in 1989, wrote that Guillermin was "one of those megalomaniacal directors who have to be given the gates of Heaven before they consider doing a project."
His work was re-appraised in Film Comment.
Why has Guillermin's career gone unrecognized? Easy: bad timing. Guillermin hit his stride at the end of the Fifties, just as a post-studio system style of filmmaking was arising with the French New Wave, Britain's Free Cinema, and so on. For the admirers of these idioms, Guillermin's meticulously executed and unapologetically classical works, such as The Blue Max (66) or The Bridge at Remagen (69), were anathema. The only Guillermin film that was somewhat in synch with the fashion of the day is Never Let Go (60), an excursion into England's underworld that functions as a perfectly constructed parable about the new middle class's fear of falling-a kitchen-sink noir. The problem wasn't so much the disdain of new wave hipsters, as it was one of the director's attitude. Guillermin is something of a melancholic: in his coolly unflinching cinema, tired, traumatized men in desperate situations fight with dour determination for a few shreds of dignity. There's nothing conventionally uplifting about his films; his tales of violence, grimy glory, and defeat conceded with stoicism, don't make for easy viewing experiences. At their finest, Guillermin's films are howls from the soul's darker recesses-theirs is a savage heart.
On 20 July 1956, Guillermin married actress and author Maureen Connell. They had two children, Michelle and Michael-John, the latter of whom died in 1983 in a car accident in Truckee, California. They resided in the Los Angeles area beginning 1968.
On 27 September 2015, Guillermin died in Topanga, California, from a heart attack. In addition to his daughter, Guillermin was survived by his second wife, Mary. He was 89.Evening Standard British Film Award 1980, for Death on the Nile.