Meet the Manchester-born writer behind Hollywood’s historic classics

We look back on the life of Robert Bolt, the Manchester Grammar School boy who became the one of the most successful screenwriters in cinema history.

By Manchester's Finest | 11 February 2020

Share this story

“Fucking hell!”

These were the famous first words uttered by Robert Bolt after his long struggle of being unable to speak and having a paralysed right side.

The heart attack and stroke which caused this struck in 1979 whilst working with long time directorial collaborator David Lean on a Mutiny on the Bounty film project in French Polynesia.

It was a notoriously disastrous trip: Bolt enjoyed bars, restaurants and cinemas, and Bora Bora, at the time, barely had a telephone line. He was offered to be President of the Jury at the ’79 Cannes Film Festival, but had to refuse because of the project’s uncertainty.

Moreover, the project’s financiers had serious concerns about Lean’s epic aspiration taking it way over budget – which it did.

A life-size replica of the historic navy vessel The Bounty was built at a multi-million dollar cost, only for the project to be abandoned entirely. That is, until 1984, when it was resurrected and finally filmed. A new cast and director brought it to fruition, but Bolt’s masterful screenplay, completed just a day before shooting, persevered.

You’d think that suffering a massive stroke that paralyses the entire right side of your body would end whatever career you had, but Bolt trained himself to use his left side and a new electronic typewriter.

He’d go on to write one more complete screenplay for The Mission (1986), which won the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Born in Sale in 1924 to a Manchester shopkeeper, Bolt attended the Manchester Grammar School and University of Manchester, serving in the RAF between 1943-1946.

He’d develop an interest in both communism and the history of Sir Thomas More before teaching English for a number of years in Somerset. Whilst teaching, he was tasked with putting together his school’s nativity play. This would be his first taste of playwriting, and within five years of that production, he had written and reworked more than 20 plays for the stage and radio, most of which were for the BBC.

His big break came in 1954 with his radio play A Man for All Seasons, a dramatised story of the clashing of Sir Thomas More and King Henry VIII over his divorce to Catherine of Aragon. He would adapt it for the stage in 1960 to critical acclaim.

By the turn of the decade, he was earning £1,000 a week from his writing. Journalists lined up to write profiles on him whilst he wrote long-read articles supporting nuclear disarmament.

The cinema to Bolt was, at the time, nothing more than a simple pastime; the occasional night out perhaps. But when Hollywood came knocking, it came knocking in full force, and Bolt opened the door and embraced it with open arms, diving head first into a world of success and seemingly endless money.

Director David Lean was working with producer Sam Spiegel on a film based on the life and works of T. E. Lawrence, the notorious British officer who united the Arab tribes against the Ottomans in WWI. The script, however, was a mess, and Bolt was brought on board for a provisional seven weeks to spruce it up.

What started as a seven week makeover turned into a year-long rewriting of the whole thing, and the end result is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed films in Hollywood’s history: Lawrence of Arabia. It won countless awards and made a star of Peter O’Toole, and made Robert Bolt the most sought after writer in Hollywood.

This switch from the stage to the screen caused great upset among those in the world of theatre. They had lost one of their greatest talents to Hollywood.

Theatre actor and director Frith Branbury perfectly summed this mood up in a letter to the author of Bolt’s biography: “I have to tell you, Bob Bolt was a terrible disappointment. I thought he was going to be a really important dramatist but he preferred Sam Spiegel’s yacht.”

However, writing the script for Lawrence was no small task, even for Bolt. By September 1961, Lean was running out of scenes to shoot, and the second half of the script was unfinished. The only problem was that, at this time, Bolt was in prison.

A long-time supporter of nuclear disarmament and a member of the ‘Committee of 100’, Bolt had been arrested and imprisoned following a CND protest. As he would be making money from his writing, he was banned from continuing the script whilst imprisoned.

Once producer Sam Spiegel found out, he lost it – the entire film was in jeopardy. Spiegel forced Bolt’s hand, leaving him little choice but to sign a declaration stating he would no longer engage with CND activities to ensure his release and continue the script. Bolt, being the principled man he was, deeply regretted this decision. Once Lawrence was completed, he never spoke to Spiegel again.

Throughout the sixties, he became the world’s highest paid screenwriter, and if a screenplay had his name on it, producers never said no. He would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for two other Hollywood classics: Doctor Zhivago (1965) and the film adaptation of his own play, A Man for All Seasons (1966).

But Robert Bolt was so much more than simply the man who wrote Lawrence, Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons, and his life was beset with as much tragedy as it was successful.

The ease with which he told epic stories for the screen set a benchmark for decades to come, but the moral conflicts which often featured in his writing reflect the turbulence of his own personal life. Throughout his four marriages (two of which were to actress Sarah Miles), he tragically lost his first marriage’s daughter to suicide, and his son with Sarah Miles had a long-term addiction to heroin.

More controversially, during his first marriage to Miles, a former ‘lover’ of hers, writer David Whiting, was found dead in her motel room whilst filming The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. She was acquitted of his murder, but the accusations took their toll on Bolt and Miles’ private lives.

Now, 25 years since his death, it’s clear that Robert Bolt’s influence over the world of cinema has not waned. Last month, Quentin Tarantino won his third Golden Globe for Best Screenplay with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (after Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained), matching Bolt’s record. He made sure to pay his respects to Bolt’s legacy, describing the Manchester-born writer as the “dean” of screenwriting.

Manchester’s HOME cinema recently screened a selection of Robert Bolt’s work as part of their annual retrospective of British screenwriters.