John Frankenheimer ’51 – An Appreciation

Editor’s note: just a quick addendum to Bob’s tribute: another Williams film great, John Sayles ’70 once worked for Frankenheimer (The Challenge, 1982). Listen to a podcast interview with Sayles to learn more about how that came about (the story begins at 06:03).

What we Owe Film Maker John Frankenheimer ‘51

We are at the top of the generational cohort of the Baby Boom. We have lived lives that were coexistent with the Cold War. Our political outlook during our adolescence—before we matriculated at Williams—was shaped by the tumultuous Kennedy administration years. Film became an important medium of the times that we embraced.
Although he is not a household name, a movie director named John Frankenheimer (1930-2002), Class of 1951, was an important influence on our young lives and minds. We did not recognize then, or indeed until now, that he was a fellow alumnus.

Among the directors of “political message” films, he was not Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove) or Stanley Kramer (Judgment at Nuremburg). But he did direct the original version of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the Korean War psychological thriller, which has been praised, along with Dr. Strangelove, as “a masterpiece of the Cold War.” The Library of Congress made it one of only 100 films inducted into its National Registry.

Another of his thought-provoking movies was The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), which considered the question of the death penalty. Still another, Seven Days in May (1964), raised timely concerns about the danger of the loss of control by our civilian government over the military in the nuclear age. The fourth Frankenheimer movie of our youth of special note is The Train (1964), a gripping cat-and-mouse story of World War II.

All of these films were shot in black and white, which enhanced their impact.

During his lifetime Frankenheimer produced other works, both for the screen and for television, besides the aforementioned films, but these were viewed by us at a formative point in our lives. Of course they entertained us, but they also gave us major issues to wrestle with. They represent a remarkable body of work in a short period of time.

Williams College honored John Frankenheimer, English major, Class of 1951, with a Bicentennial Medal. Professor Frederick Rudolph ’42 wrote this to accompany the award: “With pride in the knowledge that this passion for directing came to life here on the stage of the Adams Memorial Theatre, and regretful that local ordinance prevents us from embedding your star in the sidewalk of Main Street, your alma mater is pleased to add to your honors this one of its own.”

In the galaxy of distinguished alumni of accomplishment, he was not President James Garfield or Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, but John Frankenheimer’s films have special meaning for us.

– Bob Heiss

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