Whether you’re a cinephile or casual moviegoer, chances are you’ve enjoyed his fine performances on cinema screens throughout the decades. Pick a film genre; fantasy, horror, adventure…just to name a few. His is a familiar face over the entire gamut. From mainstream to offbeat, David Warner, actor extraordinaire, has graced screens with an abundance of talent. David Warner, born 29 July 1941 in Manchester, Lancashire, UK, continues to perform, recently celebrating his 80th birthday.
The depth of David Warner’s career could easily fill a book. Known as a popular supporting and character actor in his later years, Warner was also a fantastically unique leading man in the sixties. As a young Shakespearean actor, David Warner made his professional stage debut in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1962. His film career began a year later, playing Blifil in Tom Jones (1963). In 1965, Warner would perform the title role in Hamlet on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Soon following, he had his first motion picture starring role in Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment, also known as Morgan! (1966).
Directed by Czech-born filmmaker Karel Reisz, Morgan! fits into the transitional period of the sixties when pop culture, led by the Beatles, began to expand to astronomical heights. Morgan! is a perfect example of a mid-sixties British film attempting to bridge the gap between traditional comedy and the oncoming age of permissiveness. Filmed in black and white by cinematographers Larry Pizer and Gerry Turpin, it features bizarre, surreal sequences encompassing mental instability and obsession…which makes one ponder how much further this film may have gone visually only a few years later.
Morgan Delt (David Warner) is an eccentric artist born into a working-class family of communists. The film begins with Morgan’s wife Leonie (played by the lovely Vanessa Redgrave) seeking a divorce in court. Leonie comes from a wealthy upbringing. With little background presented for viewers, we may assume their wedding was an unplanned affair between a struggling artist and a financially secure socialite. Although the couple seems to get along fine personality-wise, they just can’t coexist or come to terms with the same lifestyle.
David Warner…tall, lanky, and displaying a fab look perfect for the times, comes off quite well. There is a casualness to this film, which seems completely out of sync with the madcap antics witnessed throughout. Morgan! throws viewers off balance because we see an obsessed man committing dangerous stunts in an effort to win back his wife and absolutely no one involved appears too alarmed or threatened. Leonie strikes back sporadically in order to distance herself from the madness…yet she often smilingly accommodates Morgan’s misbehavior. As mentioned, they still enjoy each other on a level that transcends marriage. Robert Stephens, known to many as Sherlock Holmes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, has an amusing role as Leonie’s new love interest, also taking Morgan’s antics very nonchalant.
Morgan! originated as a 1962 BBC television production titled A Suitable Case for Treatment written by playwright David Mercer (with Ian Hendry playing lead). Morgan Delt has lost his raison d’être as he clings to both failed marriage and his mother for comfort. Morgan is also consumed with defining himself as a leftist. His automobile is a kind of traveling collage with images of Lenin, Marx, and Trotsky. He even offers a socialist history lesson to a (luckily easygoing) neighborhood police officer, who takes it all in stride.
The political philosophy of Morgan Delt surprisingly doesn’t make Morgan! a political film. Morgan is a lost soul in the modern world, as he keeps failing to connect with society. He clings to his leftist beliefs mostly because he was raised to trust in them by his die-hard communist parents. There’s even a scene of Morgan taking his mother to Highgate Cemetery in London to visit the grave of Karl Marx.
Constantly replicating the hammer and sickle wherever he can, Morgan uses his beliefs as a comfort zone while he futilely strives to find his place in life. Morgan could very well have been nurtured as a right-winger and the premise of the film would not have changed. Therefore, what meaning can we take away from the story? If one cannot make sense or conform to society, are they justified or simply mentally ill? Give Morgan! a watch, and then ponder these questions. Belief systems, either political or religious, often cannot compensate for dealing with life’s craziness. King Kong and Tarzan aficionados will rejoice, as Morgan looks to the law of the jungle to seek out the meaning of existence. Nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, David Warner going ape in a gorilla suit is worth the price of admission alone!
In 1968 David Warner played the lead in a satirical comedy targeting corporate control and recreational drugs. Stylishly, Work is a Four-Letter Word appears a bit dated by 1968 standards, but still, David Warner is brilliant as a local working-class man gone hip. The film, based on the stage play Eh? by Henry Livings, may have been courting both traditional and counterculture audiences. On one hand, we have an entire cast portrayed as complete conformists, and on the other, David Warner pushing limits of…everything! Sporting fabulous blond hair, with relentless energy in every scene, the actor steals the show and makes it his own. David Warner looks as if he can walk right off the set and become a cynical rock ‘n’ roll superstar.
David Warner portrays Valentine Brose, an edgy young man who is obsessed with growing psychedelic mushrooms. Brose takes a job as a nighttime plant attendant in the massive, modern DICE Corporation which overshadows his neighborhood. The management of DICE seeks to automate the factory yet they are still maintaining a quota of workers regardless of need. Uninterested in work, Brose uses the position to clandestinely grow his mushrooms in the basement of the factory. The steam from the boiler rooms makes growing conditions perfect. Popular UK singer Cilla Black portrays Brose’s newlywed wife, Betty, who constantly (to no avail) tries bringing Brose around to mainstream thinking. In reality, Brose is only interested in preserving his state of mind and harvesting psychedelic mushrooms. Career, position, and money all mean nothing to him.
Work is a Four-Letter Word eventually becomes too frenetic, devolving into an ensemble of characters all having a mind-altering good time. Valentine Brose may be cultivating an ulterior motive. More appears to be going on in his mind than he leads on. Brose is getting satisfaction spreading his mushroom philosophy to both locals and corporate types. Slight, passing lines of dialog stand out as Brose criticizes both culture and religion…genuinely mocking and discounting the local Church of England vicar (Alan Howard). Brose ends up quite an anarchist, either by design or default…you decide.
Work is a Four-Letter Word was directed by famed stage director Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Hall directed David Warner on stage previously, including the original production of Eh? in 1964. David Warner’s brilliant stage performances were now opening doors to cinematic work and directors such as Hall were taking notice of the young thespian’s talent.
Michael Kohlhaas – Der Rebell is a sweeping 1969 West German historical epic beautifully filmed by director Volker Schlöndorff. Adapted from a novella by Heinrich von Kleist, it is loosely based on the real-life 16th-century German rebel named Hans Kohlhase. The film remains a magnificent tour-de-force performance by David Warner.
Michael Kohlhaas (Warner) is a horse trader who has established a comfortable existence in medieval Germany with his children and loving wife (Anna Karina). Soon, however, his life spirals out of control in a very Kafkaesque sense. On way to market, Kohlhaas is stopped by an aristocratic landowner who demands a toll and a pass card for the horses to continue. After quickly paying the toll, Kohlhaas admits he has no knowledge of ever needing an official pass. When he finally ends up in the city at the market, Kohlhaas is told by the local authorities there is no pass required. Kohlhaas, unfortunately, was forced to leave two of his prized horses behind as security. Upon returning to face the aristocrat, Kohlhaas discovers his horses have been severely abused and malnourished. He will not accept the horses back in their decrepit condition. Kohlhaas demands his horses be returned to their healthy state or else he will take action. What follows is a descent into bureaucracy and ultimately, rebellion.
Keep in mind the framework of the story is structured around historical events, making viewers that much more invested. At first, Kohlhaas initiates legal proceedings to bring the aristocrat to justice, with only limited, unacceptable results. Here lies the dilemma. Knowing how government bureaucracies of any age have often shortchanged common citizens, many will cut their losses and take whatever limited compensation is offered. Not Michael Kohlhaas. After tragedy befalls his beloved wife, who attempts to have their case heard in Dresden, Kohlhaas begins a personal vendetta to right what is wrong. Along the way, he picks up an army of followers and becomes a hero among common villagers, all welcoming his band of fighters with open arms.
Eventually, Michael Kohlhaas – Der Rebell becomes an epic tale of commoners rebelling against the government. The politics of the film reside in the philosophy of personal freedom to defend what one has worked for and earned to the bitter end. The scenario of the film, however, presents atrocities eventually occurring on the rebel side as their numbers increase. Government forces basically remain indifferent until the rebels develop into a formidable disruption. David Warner excels as a man resolute to recover what is rightfully his and achieve justice.
Michael Kohlhaas – Der Rebell examines a leader who initially fights for a good cause then must face his own conscience when roused followers transform the mission into meaningless violence. In this case, Kohlhaas remains true to his goal of the return of his horses in healthy condition. He has not recruited his army…they have willingly come to him. Unlike others in history who would harvest increased power, Kohlhaas distances himself and remains focused on the outcome. The consequences of his actions are, sadly, grueling and heart-wrenching. The impressive cast also includes Anton Diffring, Michael Gothard, Anita Pallenberg, and a brief role by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. However, it is David Warner’s intense, commanding performance that makes the film a lost gem ripe for rediscovery.
David Warner was also busy with many supporting roles during this era. As the seventies arrived, he worked with director Sam Peckinpah, including the role of Henry Niles in the controversial Straw Dogs (1971). Warner’s turn as the shifty (but charming) Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloan in Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) is especially endearing. This heartfelt, emotional western featuring Jason Robards and Stella Stevens is a must-see. Closing out that decade, Warner appeared as Jack the Ripper confronting Malcolm McDowell’s H.G. Wells in the successful (and fan favorite) Time After Time (1979). The list goes on to this very day. Recently appearing in Mary Poppins Returns (2018) as Admiral Boom, David Warner continues to shine on screen. As a leading actor, or in supporting roles, David Warner’s cast of amazing characters carry on.