Before donning his Jedi robes for the role of Ben (Obi Wan) Kenobi in Tunisia in 1976, Alec Guiness enjoyed a storied acting career known for its diversity of roles, perhaps most notably under the auspices of legendary director David Lean. However, after the release of Star Wars, that notoriety was forever eclipsed by his association with one role, and while it made him financially secure for the rest of his life, it was an association he resented. Despite my abiding love for the original trilogy (and his performance) I actually don’t blame him.
Originally a noted stage actor, Guiness made his film debut with Lean’s 1946 classic version of Great Expectations, quickly followed up by Oliver Twist in 1948, another Lean adaptation of a Dickens classic. His future on screen was assured with these two performances, and while he continued his stage work, he appeared in several films per year throughout the 50s.
Guiness first became associated with Ealing Studios when he appeared in no less than 8 roles for the classic black comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets (voted as one of the Top 100 British films). Ealing was known for its blend of postwar drama and lightly satirical comedies that poked fun at all aspects of British life.
Guiness soon proved he had an equal facility for light comedy as for drama. His multiple performances as disparate characters in Kind Hearts represent a landmark of British cinema. In fact, that film proved what an amazing range he had as an actor. He also had no problem retreating to the background in character roles or ensemble pieces as we’ll see.
Some of his most noteworthy performances of the early 50s came in comedies such as A Run for your Money, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, Captain’s Paradise and The Ladykillers (all Ealing films save one). Guiness often delivered wonderfully befuddled performances as hapless civil servants, bumbling crooks and scheming husbands, connivers all, men intent on improving their station in life through less than scrupulous methods.
During the last few months I’ve overdosed on Guiness’ 1950s roles and whether he’s playing a priest, a ship captain, a crook or a civil servant, what all these performances share is an undercurrent of geniality, of sweet likeability – even the “bad” guys. As with other Ealing films you never find yourself in fits of belly laughter. More often, circumstances elicit a smile or a chuckle, but they come often.
Around this time, Guiness renewed his association with David Lean, appearing in what can arguably described as the maestro’s three finest films – Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. These films, especially Bridge, truly made Guiness’ name in the U.S., and prior to Star Wars would be the roles for which he was most known.
His role as Fasil in Lawrence is crucial to be sure, but his role as Col. Nicholson in Bridge is for me, the finest of his career. He imbued this by-the-book, stuffy, British commander with unwavering determination and unswerving loyalty, a man blinded by duty. Guiness’ scenes with Sessue Hayakawa (as the brutal POW camp commander) are nothing short of electric.
Between Bridge and Lawrence, Guiness made the last three truly noteworthy films of his career (unless you count Star Wars): The Horse’s Mouth, Our Man in Havana and Tunes of Glory. Prematurely aged for his role in The Horse’s Mouth, Guiness looked for the first time in his career as he would look as Ben Kenobi, and I did a double take when I first saw him, knowing this was 20 years prior.
Again, his amazing range is displayed in three wildly distinct roles. He plays a brilliant, eccentric artist in The Horse’s Mouth, a man who has managed to alienate all his friends and loved ones (and the establishment at large) for the sake of his art. It’s one of the mostly broadly comic roles of his career and a refreshing change of pace.
Our Man in Havana sees Guiness inhabiting yet another bewildered character – a local vacuum salesman in post-Castro Cuba recruited by the British secret service to be their eyes and ears. Tonally, it’s a strange film that veers between comedy and drama (with a great ensemble) but Guiness manages to effectively keep pace with the changes.
Tunes of Glory is an intense film about the self-serving commander of a Scottish battalion who, offended he has been relieved of his command, does everything in his power to undermine the authority of the new post commander (John Mills). It’s one of Guiness’ darkest roles, one veering on villainous. It’s also a departure as he is loud, bombastic and egotistical, rare traits for a Guiness character.
From there, Guiness retreated from the spotlight somewhat. He began appearing less frequently on film, but had some notable roles on television, including as George Smiley in the original BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Needing some star power and credibility for his young ensemble cast, George Lucas convinced Guiness to play the wizened Jedi master in Star Wars. Given a healthy profit participation, the actor acquiesced despite his bewilderment at the story. There are conflicting reports that claim Guiness demanded that Obi Wan be killed prior to the end of the film simply because he couldn’t stand uttering Lucas’ banal dialogue (his words, but I agree when it comes to the prequel trilogy!)
As Obi Wan, Guiness indeed lends Star Wars considerable weight. Perhaps, in the hands of a lesser actor, Lucas’ dialogue may come across as banal and hokey, but it is through Obi Wan’s words, and the gravitas he gives them, we believe in the power of the Force. I clearly recall how upset I was when he is dispatched by Vader during their duel (my favorite scene of the film, no matter how clumsy it appears now). And I always looked forward to his cameos (including the infamous “liar, liar pants on fire” scene from Jedi).
To every generation of fans born after Star Wars, Guiness was Obi Wan. He reportedly refused to sign photos of himself in Star Wars, and was openly critical of the films at every opportunity.
And as I said, part of me doesn’t blame him, given the breadth of his cinematic accomplishments. However, if I had the chance to speak to him directly I would tell him that, much like with Peter Cushing and later Christopher Lee, I may never have discovered him were it not for Star Wars, and sought out all these prior roles. You should too.