Even in his 1950s heyday, a lot of people would have thought twice before crossing a busy road to see Richard Todd. Yet he was enormously popular. With clean-cut, chiselled features you could cut your hand on, nicely proportioned shoulders and more virtue up front than a van-load of Bibles, Todd looked as if he had come off a drawing-board instead of having been born the usual way. Wisely, he made the most of what he had, which could be summed up as an inability to sit still while there was a horse to leap astride, a swollen river to swim, or a tree to vanish into.
His first big success was as a dour Scots Guards corporal in The Hasty Heart (1949, Vincent Sherman). The setting is a wartime Burma field hospital, and Todd, unknowingly, is riddled with some fatal disease. He is arrogant and dismissive, more difficult to handle than a Scots football fan at closing time, but everyone else, including fellow patient Ronald Reagan and nursing sister Patricia Neal, knows that his number is up so tolerance prevails.
Looking every inch a stage weepie – which it originally was – the story rumbles on towards a predictable climax, with Todd learning of, and coming to terms with, his condition, but not before a rather pathetic attempt to woo Miss Neal – ‘I’ve good teeth,’ he insists. Todd’s playing is in tune with the sombre mood of the piece and his faltering, change-of-heart address at the end works reasonably well, but some of the earlier writing lacks conviction.
He was another terminal case in Flesh and Blood (1951, Anthony Kimmins), a consumptive medical student who discards pushy girlfriend Ursula Howells for some peace and quiet – only to find his action has precisely the opposite effect. Miss Howells rounds on him like a demented fishwife, hollering, ‘I wish you’d die!’ to which poor Todd, semi-convulsed in yet another coughing fit splutters, ‘I’m . . . doing . . . my . . . best!’ She gets her wish, but Todd reappears as his own grandson, an even worse cad with the ladies. ‘Do you think I’d have let you kick me around all this time without adoring you’, trills Glynis Johns, pacifist daughter of an ammunitions tycoon when, after she has carried out a chequered pursuit of the rotter, he grudgingly proposes to her.
Walt Disney picked Todd for three costume actioners, including an attempt at Robin Hood, during 1953-1954, as if determined, at all costs, to establish him as Errol Flynn’s successor. In The Sword and the Rose (1953, Ken Annakin) and Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (1953, Harold French) only the costumes, and Miss Rice were changed. Disney brought in his Flesh and Blood co-star Glynis Johns, plus Robin hoodlums James Robertson Justice and Michael Gough.
Todd risked being adversely compared with Errol Flynn for a second time as Raleigh to Bette Davis‘ Elizabeth in Virgin Queen (1955, Henry Koster), which did nothing for Todd, but reminded audiences how far ahead of his imitators the charismatic Flynn had been in his heyday.
Todd rose to the bait as wartime flying ace Guy Gibson in The Dambusters (1955, Michael Anderson), a pleasantly restrained performance projecting strength of character without showiness. Todd had not been an easy actor to accom- modate dialogue-wise, but the hero of the Mohne and Eder dam raids settled on his shoulders like an expensively tailored jacket, and the film, whose over-reverence for its subject was its only obvious flaw, was hugely successful.
Several factors helped to maximise its impact. There was Todd’s remarkable physical resemblance to Gibson, and Michael Redgrave’s to Dr (later Sir) Barnes Wallis, the bouncing bomb’s dogged inventor; there was the near-documentary feel of the early experimentation sequences, the squadron briefings and the raid itself; the despairing loss as well as the triumph expressed by Redgrave as the dreadful death toll becomes known, due as much to the dangers of low flying in the dark in a target zone surrounded on all sides by steep hills as to the enemy’s defending battery stations; and there was the stirring theme music by Eric Coates, impossible to hear then or now without the spirits being stirred.
Nothing much stirred watching D-Day Sixth of ]une (1956, Henry Koster), which used the Normandy landings as backdrop for a turgid love triangle involving Todd as a British colonel, Dana Wynter as his girlfriend, a cross between Mary Poppins and a toothpaste commercial, and Robert Taylor as a married Gl captain who fills in for Todd while the lad is engaging the Hun elsewhere.
Even though it means putting the china doll-like Miss Wynter in storage for a while, Todd is no shrinking violet when the call-to-arms comes. ‘I have a singular theory – the quicker more of us go, the quicker more of us’ll come back,’ he tells Miss Wynter. Her grumpy old retired defence chief dad is in agreement – ‘A bit of cold steel now is worth twenty Americans later,’ he urges, before killing himself because he is too old to kill others.
Miss Wynter’s tally falls short of twenty Americans, presumably because not enough of them looked like Robert Taylor. Their dreary, lukewarm affair has to be heard to be believed. Apologising for her father’s dismissive attitude towards LIS troops – they meet originally when Taylor is sent along to smooth out an incident involving her father and a group of Gls – Miss Wynter explains rather grandly: ‘We [meaning the British] are not much good at being thank- ful. We haven’t had an opportunity to he thank- ful to anyone, except maybe God, in several hundred years.’
Later, on a dance floor, she ticks him off: ‘Don’t be cross but would you mind awfully not calling me Honey.’ Sitting in a cafe overlooking the Thames, the watchful Taylor acknowledges the presence of the moon. Miss Wynter coos, ‘Please God, let him be looking at it,’ apparently unaware that any soldier staring at the moon is unlikely to notice an enemy sniper creeping up behind him.
In the end. Miss Wynter loses both of them. Taylor is badly wounded in action and shipped home to the USA, and Todd is killed when he trips over a land mine on the newly-liberated beachhead.
It took the filming of a real-life heroic naval incident, the escape from Chinese waters of the RN frigate Amethyst in 1949, after months of blockading, as Yangtse Incident (1957, Michael Anderson), to restore Todd’s prestige after D-Day Sixth of June. Todd played the ship’s commander, the redoubtable Commander Kerans – a part which suited his sharp-eyed, closed-mouth style comfortably – and the tension of the wait in Communist waters followed by the ship’s nimble getaway down the Yangtse River under cover of darkness, was graphically conveyed without the need to resort to expensive special effects.
In Danger Within (1959, Don Chaffey), a wartime POW drama, Todd was a paratroop colonel who heads the obligatory escape committee, plagued on this occasion by the presence of a mysterious traitor. He appeared against type in Never Let Go (1960, John Guillerman), as a seedy cosmetics salesman whose car is nicked by sadistic Birmingham car-thief Peter Sellers. In the conflict that follows, Todd is the underdog but he comes through in a way that Sellers could never have anticipated. This was an intriguing – but not altogether successful – pairing of two stars playing outside their familiar selves.
By the early 1960s, he was beginning to run out of steam. He played a Gary Cooper-style lawman in The Hellions (1961, Ken Annakin), urging the inhabitants of a remote 19th-century South African township to find their backbone and repel Lionel Jeffries’ outlaw gang. In The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin) he risked re- minding us of his earlier Normandy landings caper, in a small role as a British Army major, again refreshingly brisk and stiff-upper-lip among hordes of laconic Americans.
In one of his later films, Asylum (1972, Roy Ward Baker), a modest Amicus horror compilation, Todd’s was the first story, a loony tale in which he and lover-doll Barbara Parkins bump off and dismember his troublesome wife, Sylvia Sims. He packages the assortment of odd limbs in neat brown paper packs, and stores them in a freezer till he can get around to final disposal. But the victim refuses to rest in pieces. Like a well- drilled football squad, the gory parcels gang up to inflict a nasty surprise on Todd and his girlfriend.