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Michael Anderson, ‘Dam Busters’ director, dies at 98

Director Michael Anderson in 1956. (Holiday Films/Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

Michael Anderson, a British director whose 1955 film “The Dam Busters” became one of the most popular wartime dramas ever made and launched him to a filmmaking career that included the all-star Oscar-winner “Around the World in 80 Days” and the sci-fi fantasy “Logan’s Run,” died April 25 at his home on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. He was 98.

His family announced the death and said the cause was heart disease.

Mr. Anderson was born into an acting family and entered British cinema as an errand boy and movie extra. He became an assistant to directors Noël Coward and David Lean on the first-rate World War II film “In Which We Serve” (1942) and began his professional rise after service in the British army’s Royal Signal Corps.

His breakthrough was “The Dam Busters,” about the 1943 British raid against the Ruhr dams in Germany’s industrial heartland. The mission involved the dropping of “bouncing bombs,” which skipped along the surface to avoid torpedo netting, hit the dam and exploded many meters down. The British Lancaster bombers, flying at the perilous height of 60 feet above water, were raked by German antiaircraft fire, and 53 of the 133 men in the aircrews were killed.

Mr. Anderson began filming a decade after the war, at a time when the British moviegoing public had wearied of screen propaganda about stiff-upper-lip bravery in combat. In a departure, “The Dam Busters” emphasized the rigors of scientific trial and much error as well as the understated, sardonic humor among the principal players, which included Michael Redgrave as aeronautical engineer and bouncing-bomb mastermind Barnes Wallis and Richard Todd as Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who led the squadron on the mission.

To re-create the sortie over the Ruhr, the Lancasters had to fly far lower even than on the actual raid. “Sixty feet didn’t photograph like 60 feet,” Mr. Anderson later told an interviewer. “It photographed like 200 feet. We had to go down to 30 feet in some cases.”

For all its primitive special effects, the attack sequence was said to have been echoed in the climax of “Star Wars: A New Hope” (1977) when rebel pilots fly into the heart of the Death Star.

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Cinematographer Erwin Hillier’s inventive black-and-white camerawork imbued the film with a quasi-documentary feel, seamlessly incorporating actual test footage and serving as a somber counterbalance to the jaunty title march by Eric Coates that became a staple of British military parades and sports events for decades.

“The Dam Busters,” Britain’s top-grossing film of the year, vaulted Mr. Anderson to the attention of Hollywood producers. He was recruited to showman Mike Todd’s big-budget adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956), starring David Niven as balloonist and adventurer Phileas Fogg and Cantinflas as his trusty man­servant.

The film was a bloated affair, shot in more than 100 locations worldwide and with cameos by Frank Sinatra, Buster Keaton and Marlene Dietrich providing much of the thrust. But it garnered five Academy Awards, including best picture, and earned a best-director Oscar nomination for Mr. Anderson.

His subsequent career included promising material often hampered by uneven scripts. His adaptation of “1984” (1956), with Edmond O’Brien as George Orwell’s dystopian hero Winston Smith, featured the jolt of an alternative “happy” ending for American audiences.

The suspense drama “The Wreck of the Mary Deare” (1959), with Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston, sorely lacked in pacing, as did the spy thriller “The Quiller Memorandum” (1966), with George Segal as an American ­secret agent and Max von Sydow as a knuckle-cracking neo-Nazi.

One of Mr. Anderson’s finest midcareer efforts was “Conduct Unbecoming” (1975), based on Barry England’s play about an officer in colonial India accused of rape. It starred Michael York. “Its taut construction, mounting tension and polished performances make for a fascinating entertainment,” New York Times film critic A.H. Weiler wrote.

The next year, Mr. Anderson directed York in “Logan’s Run,” a special effects-laden drama about a futuristic society that encourages hedonistic abandon by young people — until they are killed at age 30, to control population growth. It was a commercial smash but critical flop.

Mr. Anderson’s journeyman career included several horror film credits, among them “Orca” (1977), as well as the religious dramas “The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968), with Anthony Quinn as a Russian who becomes pope, and “The Jeweller’s Shop” (1988), starring Burt Lancaster and based on a 1960 play about the sanctity of marriage by Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II.

The challenge of the latter “was as much a matter of catching the spirit of the book as doing it literally,” Mr. Anderson told the Toronto Star. “For instance, there were lines like, ‘The eternity of man passes through love.’ Now how do you get an actor to say that?”

Michael Joseph Anderson was born in London on Jan. 30, 1920. His first outing as a solo director was “Waterfront” (1950), a melodrama about a sotted Liverpool merchant mariner (Robert Newton) who abandons his pregnant wife, only to stir further trouble upon his return years later.

His final credit was “The New Adventures of Pinocchio” (1999), a live-action movie starring Martin Landau as Geppetto.

In 2012, Mr. Anderson received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of Canada.

Survivors include his third wife, Adrianne Ellis. A complete list of survivors could not immediately be determined.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this obituary said that “Around the World in 80 Days” was released in 1986; it was 1956. The story has been revised.

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