17.7.1898 – 23.3.1999
Born in 1898 in Winnipeg, he saw his first film in 1905 in a Chinese restaurant - the nitrate film caught fire and the gas illumination exploded. It was some time before he saw another. Surprisingly, one of his first jobs was as an apprentice projectionist. He cranked the film, fed the carbons to the arc lamp, sold the tickets and hired the piano player. In 1915 he graduated from floor sweeper to lab technician at the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co. in Hollywood.
In 1916, during World War 1, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and served in France. In 1920, he worked as assistant cameraman on such films as Peck's Bad Boy (1921 Directed by Sam Wood, photographed by Alfred Gilks & Harry Hallenberger) with Jackie Coogan and Beyond the Rocks (1922 Directed by Sam Wood, photographed by Alfred Gilks) with Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. He attached much of his later success to the variety of his experiences in Hollywood.
“I became known as the crazy Canuck because I preferred to work out in the open. It seemed much more exciting than working on a stage. My stuff was always straightforward. I never wanted people to say, "Gosh, how did he do that?" I just wanted it to be natural.
Fascinated with aviation, Borradaile got to know Charles Lindbergh, before his Atlantic flight, and worked with Howard Hughes - whose enthusiasm and manner impressed him. In 1928, he helped to shoot the aerial scenes on Hughes's aviation epic Hell's Angels (1930 directed by Howard Hughes, Borradaile was one of 24 uncredited aerial cameramen). These are still among the finest ever shot.
In 1929, he worked as camera operator on The Love Parade, an Ernst Lubitsch musical (1929 photographed by Victor Milner) with Maurice Chevalier. "Working in the sweat boxes (to silence the noisy cameras before individual camera blimps) drove me to conclude that I would leave movie-making if I could not work outdoors." He was then sent on a one-year contract to the Paramount studios in Joinville, near Paris, as director of photography - a new job created for talkies, which required multiple cameras and someone to control them. He did not relish the endless interiors but he had a mortgage to pay.
In France he met and married a continuity girl called Christiane Lippens (until her death in 1996). He also met Alexander Korda, who had just directed Marius (1931 photographed by Theodore J. Pahle), and moved with him to England when Joinville closed. He was with Korda when their hired limousine crashed; Korda was stunned and Borradaile sustained a fractured skull. He then went down with scarlet fever.
When he had recovered, Korda invited him to join his new company, London Films. "I always enjoyed working with Alex, for he had an excellent understanding of all aspects of film-making." He had a fruitful relationship with Korda's French cameraman Georges Périnal BSC, [operating main unit and] working on the 2nd unit and the exteriors of such films as The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933 Directed by Alexander Korda, photographed by Georges Périnal), the first British film to win an Oscar, and on The Private Life of Don Juan (1934 Directed by Alexander Korda and photographed by Georges Périnal), with Douglas Fairbanks senior.
Borradaile was an adventurer and happily went to the inhospitable Belgian Congo and Uganda to shoot exteriors for Sanders of the River (1935 Directed by Zoltan Korda with main unit cinematographer Georges Périnal). He was made director of the African camera unit, photographing all the scenes that would be used as back projection in the studio.
In 1934, he shot Julian Huxley's documentary The Private Life of the Gannets at Grassholm Island, Wales. For one scene, he used a [1930’s] Stranraer flying boat, power-diving the rookery to simulate the effect of a gannet returning to its nest. The film won an Oscar for short subject.
Late in 1934, Korda introduced Borradaile to a Mr T. E. Shaw, not the bearded playwright he expected, but [from the Royal Tank Regiment] the nom de paix of Lawrence of Arabia. He turned up on his motorcycle to discuss a possible film of his Revolt in the Desert. "An intensely private and unhappy man," thought Borradaile. Lawrence died in 1935 as a result of a motorcycle crash, and, despite many attempts, the film was never made.
Borradaile admired Robert Flaherty, and the vivid realism of his films like Nanook of the North (1922), and he threatened to leave London Films when the company wouldn't let him work with him on Elephant Boy (1937 Directed by Robert Flaherty and Zoltan Korda, photographed by Osmond Borradaile). Korda gave in.
In India, Borradaile was impressed by Flaherty's respect for all those he worked with, but felt he lacked a certain technical knowledge. And Flaherty had no time for producers. He spent almost a year in India, refusing to send any footage back to London. Korda recalled the company and some of the picture had to be restaged at Denham. It was Borradaile who discovered in the stables of the Maharajah of Mysore the boy (Sabu Dastagir) who became internationally famous as Sabu. He persuaded Flaherty to give him the lead and he and Sabu remained close friends. (SABU died unexpectedly of a heart attack whilst following a career as a film actor in Hollywood in 1963 aged 39.)
In 1937, Borradaile returned to England to film the Coronation. "I broke all the rules by telling the King where to move and physically placing him in certain shots. But he was very co-operative." The same year, he travelled to northern India to photograph exteriors for The Drum (1938 Directed by Zoltan Korda. Main unit by Georges Périnal), a tale of revolt in the Himalayas to be shot in Technicolor. Location trips could be hazardous - the company came under fire from hostile tribesmen. The heat was severe and at one point a pack-mule carrying the exposed film hurtled over a precipice. Miraculously it survived, and the film was undamaged. Borradaile lost 26 pounds during the trip.
For The Four Feathers (1939 Directed by Zoltan Korda) he filmed in the Sudan with thousands of extras and a camel brigade, enduring heat and even a locust plague. The company found a Sudanese veteran of Omdurman who agreed to charge the guns, but refused to fall off his horse. He explained he had charged the guns without perishing in 1898 and he'd be damned if he'd be killed for a film of it!
When Borradaile had finished these exteriors, Georges Périnal completed the interiors at Denham. The picture was nominated for an Academy Award for best colour cinematography in 1939. The following year The Thief of Baghdad, on which he worked as associate photographer, won the Oscar for colour cinematography but the award went to Georges Périnal. After his death, Périnal's family gave it to Borradaile. (French by birth but domiciled in the UK, Georges Périnal became one of the founding members of the British Society of Cinematographers in 1949.)
In 1939, Borradaile worked on Korda's The Lion Has Wings (1939 Directed by Adrian Brunel , Brian Desmond Hurst, Michael Powell and Alexander Korda, uncredited, photographed by Osmond Borradaile, Bernard Browne and Harry Stradling Sr.), a hastily concocted propaganda film, and in May 1940, went to Holland to shoot exteriors for Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (main unit cinematographer Rudolph Maté). It was just before the Nazi invasion and German fifth columnists made the experience eerily close to the film's theme, mysterious black vehicles interfered with car chases, windmills refused to operate . . .
Borradaile was eventually arrested and flown back to England, where he was debriefed by British intelligence. He joined the Home Guard and then went to Canada with his family to do 2nd unit work on 49th Parallel (1941 directed by Michael Powell), shot by Freddie Young. He got back to Britain on the first of the “lease-lend” destroyers*.
[*The Lend-Lease policy, formally titled "An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States", was a program under which the United States supplied Free France, the United Kingdom, the Republic of China, and later the USSR and other Allied nations with food, oil, and materiel between 1941 and August 1945. This included warships and warplanes, along with other weaponry. It ended in September 1945. In general the aid was free, although some hardware (such as ships) were returned after the war. In return, the U.S. was given leases on army and naval bases in Allied territory during the war.]
Commissioned as a captain in the Army, he went to Ethiopia to film The Lion of Judah, a propaganda film about Haile Selassie [Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974]. A contributor to the script was Colonel Orde Wingate. Anxious to cover the siege of Tobruk, Borradaile sailed aboard an Australian destroyer which was dive-bombed. He got the camera gear out and secured excellent coverage of the siege. Aboard a minelayer he again came under attack - he grabbed his camera and saw through the viewfinder the sort of action shots he had dreamed of. Unfortunately, one bomb struck too close and he was knocked unconscious. Two officers saved his life and the ship exploded minutes later with the loss of 38 lives.
He returned to England with a mass of injuries, but his camera had saved his face. He learned that three of his assistants had been killed in action in various theatres of war. He went to Canada to work with the National Film Board, a period he felt was disappointingly unproductive - the major obstacle being his lack of rapport with the Commissioner, John Grierson. To his relief, the Rank Organisation asked him to return to make a picture about the RAF - Signed with their Honour - a difficult production which, even though the aerial material had been shot, was never completed.
He resumed his hazardous wartime travelling with a trip to Australia to photograph Harry Watt's The Overlanders (1946), about the epic 1942 cattle drive from the Northern Territories to Queensland to prevent the herds falling into the hands of the Japanese. During production, the unit heard of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
He had no sooner returned to England than Korda sent him to Africa for a Hemingway story, The Macomber Affair (1947 main unit cinematographer Karl Struss), directed by Zoltan Korda, with Gregory Peck. Borradaile was delighted when Hemingway called his footage first class. He went to Antarctica in 1946-47 to shoot 2nd unit exteriors for Scott of the Antarctic (1948 directed by Charles Frend, main unit Jack Cardiff and Geoffrey Unsworth), travelling 30,000 miles in six months, Borradaile also shot the locations in Switzerland and Norway. "I have yet to see anything in the cinema," wrote the critic Paul Dehn, "approaching the almost unearthly loveliness of some of Osmond Borradaile's exterior photography."
He worked on the English scenes for Howard Hawks's comedy I Was a Male War Bride, in 1949, with Cary Grant. Two years later, he was chief cameraman for the National Film Board's documentary, Royal Journey (1951), about the tour of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh to Canada - which won a British Academy Award.
In 1952, he retired from the film industry and moved with his family to the 80-acre Cheam Farm at Chilliwack, British Columbia, where he became a dairy farmer. In the 1960s he devoted himself to the growth of British Columbia's fledgling film industry. In 1966, Robert Krasker BSC, who had trained with Borradaile in London and gone on to win an Oscar for The Third Man (1949 Directed by Carol Reed), asked him to come out of retirement to shoot 2nd unit on The Trap (1966 Directed by Sydney Hayers), with Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham. [Alex Thomson: “…and a film for the British Columbia Centennial called "Tall Country", followed by another for Alberta's Centennial titled "West To The Mountains". He did a very sensitive study of Roderick Haig Brown called "Country Magistrate" which began a friendship and shared interest in fishing.”]
In 1982, he was named a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1999, he received the Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur from the French government for his service in the First World War. With his daughter Anita Hadley, he wrote the story of his adventurous career:
Life Through a Lens, Osmond Borradaile with Anita Borradaile-Hadley. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-7735-2297-2.
The Independent 4/5/1999