Desmond Davis, film director best known for the fantasy epic Clash of the Titans – obituary

Desmond Davis
Desmond Davis

Desmond Davis, the film-maker, who has died aged 95, worked for half a century in British cinema and television, and reached his widest audience with a one-off excursion into fantasy epic as the director of Clash of the Titans (1981).

A mythological hodgepodge loosely based on the legend of Perseus, Clash of the Titans boasted distinctive stop-motion special effects and monsters overseen by Ray Harryhausen, while Davis dealt with the actors – including the throng of distinguished British thespians playing gods on Mount Olympus.

He allowed Laurence Olivier to chew the celestial scenery as Zeus, but otherwise Davis made memorably understated comedy from the bickering of the Immortals, as in the scene in which Maggie Smith’s Thetis recounts to Claire Bloom’s Hera how Zeus had tried to ravish her after transforming into a cuttlefish: “Beat him at his own game. I simply turned myself into a shark.”

The Kraken in Clash of the Titans - Alamy
The Kraken in Clash of the Titans - Alamy

The shoot was not always plain sailing. Permission to film in an amphitheatre in Rome was rescinded at the last minute when the Italian authorities discovered that the picture had an ancient Greek setting. Davis and his team rapidly altered their location trucks, chair backs and script covers to read “Constantine the Great” and successfully reapplied.

Clash of the Titans received mixed reviews but proved enduringly popular. A remake in 2010 failed to recapture the original’s charm.

Davis was a serious, intelligent film-maker – Harry Hamlin, who played Perseus in Clash of the Titans, recalled that he always had a copy of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in his back pocket – and a surprising choice to helm sword-and-sandal hokum.

He had been chosen partly for his ability to handle classical actors – as demonstrated in his highly praised 1979 production of Measure for Measure for the BBC – but also because the producer, Charles Schneer, had long admired Davis’s film Girl with Green Eyes (1964).

That picture, adapted by Edna O’Brien from her novel The Lonely Girl, was Davis’s directorial debut and widely regarded as his finest work. Produced by Tony Richardson’s Woodfall Films and set in Dublin, it starred Rita Tushingham as a young woman fresh out of convent school, with Lynn Redgrave as her worldlier best friend, and Peter Finch as the roué who seduces her (“If Mother Superior could see you now …”).

Davis had been Richardson’s camera operator on A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Tom Jones, films admired for capturing the fresh, taboo-busting spirit of the early 1960s. Girl with Green Eyes was commended for a similar youthful vigour, owing much to a rapid style of editing inspired by Richardson’s work. It won the Golden Globe for Best English-Language Foreign Film.

Davis during the making of Clash of the Titans - Everett Collection Inc/Alamy
Davis during the making of Clash of the Titans - Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Davis was reunited with Tushingham and Redgrave in Smashing Time (1967), casting them as two Northern girls seeking fame and fortune in Swinging London. The film was a flop, however, as the Carnaby Street excesses satirised by George Melly’s script were already old-hat by the time it was released.

More successful were two further collaborations with Edna O’Brien: the wistful I Was Happy Here (1966), with Sarah Miles as a woman who makes the mistake of forsaking Ireland for London and marrying an Englishman; and The Country Girls, made for television in 1983 and starring Sam Neill. Edna O’Brien referred in her memoirs to the “happy and congenial” experience of working with Davis, a view widely echoed over the years by other colleagues.

Desmond Stanley Tracey Davis was born in London on May 24 1926, the son of William Davis, a company director, and his wife Dorothy. His father encouraged him to pursue an early passion for photography.

Peter Finch and Rita Tushingham in Girl With Green Eyes, which was widely regarded as Davis's best work - AF archive/Alamy
Peter Finch and Rita Tushingham in Girl With Green Eyes, which was widely regarded as Davis's best work - AF archive/Alamy

Des graduated from the Regent Street Polytechnic school of Photography and Cinematography in 1944 and went on to become a clapper boy for Riverside Studios, beginning with the Elsie and Doris Waters comedy It’s in the Bag.

He was soon called up, however, and was trained in battle photography at Pinewood Studios with the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU). He served with South East Asia Command and Middle East Land Forces, recording footage now held by the Imperial War Museum.

In later life Davis wrote on more than one occasion to The Daily Telegraph to complain that, although AFPU footage was widely used in documentaries, the unit was rarely credited and largely forgotten. Many AFPU men had been killed or taken prisoner, and he expressed pride in being “part of a service whose daring and sacrifice provide today’s vision of the past”.

After demob he resumed work as a clapper loader, on films including John Huston’s The African Queen (1951);- he went on to work for Huston several times.

He worked his way up to become a camera operator, but became fed up with the “stuffy, studio-bound atmosphere making films by numbers for Pinewood”, and was delighted to join Tony Richardson at Woodfall. He was recruited because his work with the AFPU had made him familiar with hand-held cameras, which Richardson, who avoided studio filming as much as possible, favoured for their naturalistic effect.

He became Richardson’s “right-hand man”, but thought his chance to be a director had passed until the day came when Richardson told him he could direct Girl with Green Eyes: “He entirely changed my life in one moment.”

Davis’s other early films included The Uncle (1965), a wry comedy about a lonely seven-year-old boy, and A Nice Girl Like Me (1969), in which Barbara Ferris was an unmarried mother pretending to her family that she was looking after a baby for a friend.

Faye Dunaway and Sarah Miles in Ordeal by Innocence - Photo 12/Alamy
Faye Dunaway and Sarah Miles in Ordeal by Innocence - Photo 12/Alamy

In the 1970s he found work in television, directing episodes of Follyfoot, The New Avengers and Play for Today, as well as an adaptation of L P Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy; the Telegraph’s Sean Day-Lewis praised it as “a richly evocative experience”, owing to Davis’s “care and sensitive attention to atmosphere”.

After Clash of the Titans Davis directed a film of Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence (1985), starring Donald Sutherland, Faye Dunaway and Christopher Plummer. For US television he made The Adventures of Little Lord Fauntelroy, Camille (a Dumas adaptation with Greta Scacchi and Colin Firth), and The Sign of Four with Ian Richardson as Sherlock Holmes.

In the 1990s he worked on the BBC police series The Chief, starring one of his favourite and most frequently used actors, Tim Pigott-Smith. His last project before retirement was Alan Plater’s television film Doggin’ Around (1994), with Elliott Gould as an American jazz pianist struggling to make sense of Lancashire.

Des Davis was divorced from his wife Shirley, whom he married in 1963. His son Tim survives him.

Desmond Davis, born May 24 1926, died July 3 2021