James Donald
(1917-1993)
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James Donald had a career dedicated primarily to stage work and supporting film roles and this was broken by a short period of post-war stardom, which he owed to his lean good looks and to his ability to project the idealism of the scientific visionary.

James Donald was born on 18 May 1917 in Aberdeen. He made his first professional stage appearance sometime between 1935 and 1938, but would not achieve theatrical stardom until 1943's with 'Present Laughter'. Donald began making films in 1942 but he would destined to play a range of small roles all through the 40's and some of the 50's. One of his early roles was in the naval epic 'In Which We Serve' (1942), followed by the most intelligent and least amenable of the Army recruits in 'The Way Ahead' (1944).

His medical pioneer in 'White Corridors' (1951) and his aircraft designer in 'The Net' (1953) have a convincing intensity - which was common in so many of his roles. As the unvisionary 50s wore on, British cinema ceased to offer such roles, and Donald was overtaken by safer and tweedier male stars.

He is most fondly remembered for his incisive performances in a trio of POW dramas. Firstly the classic David Lean epic Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). He plays Col Nickolsons foil, the very human idealistic doctor who considers first the lives of his men and then the values and ethics of a British Officer should be as a POW. Curiously whilst Nicholson is portrayed as the classic straight down the middle British Officer, as the film progresses he ends up unwittingly working for the Japanese. Interestingly it is Donalds character that refuses to be part of the bridge opening because he considers it collaboration. At the end of the film he looks down on the wreckage of the bridge and speaks the final lines,

`madness, madness'.

The second role for in which Donald achieved world wide success is as the SBO (senior British Officer) in John Sturges film The Great Escape (1963). One of my fondest moments from the film, and I have so say there are so many to chose from, is the final scene with Hannes Messenger. Donald is the first POW to find out that the Gestapo have murdered 50 of his men. In a hard scene to play, he manages the line between stiff upper lipped RAF Group Captain and a very affected man who has just lost so many friends.

 


 













 

 

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