Obituary: Joseph Strick

Controversial director who also produced Oban-set otter film Ring of Bright Water

Born: 6 July, 1923, in Braddock, Pennsylvania.

Died: 1 June, 2010, in Paris, aged 86.

JOSEPH Strick was one of cinema's true mavericks. He provoked controversy with his adaptations of James Joyce's Ulysses (1967) and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1970), won an Oscar for his documentary Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1971) and produced the classic Scottish otter film Ring of Bright Water (1969).

Ring of Bright Water was based on the book by Gavin Maxwell about his life with his pet otter, Mij, at Sandaig (Camusfearna) in the West Highlands. The film version starred husband and wife Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, fresh from their success on another animal movie Born Free (1966).

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It was shot on location at Seil island and elsewhere in the Oban area, fictionalising Maxwell's story to the extent that his alter ego is a London office worker, who buys Mij in a pet shop, whereas Maxwell brought him back from Iraq. Its gentle charm, lasting family appeal and soppy theme song stick out like a proverbial sore thumb amid all the sex and controversy on Strick's resum. But Strick normally worked very much as an independent director and producer, with all the financial struggles that entails, and this was a job of work for the big Rank company with a guaranteed pay cheque.

It was not his first visit to Scotland. The Savage Eye, a drama about a young, divorced woman in Los Angeles, had its world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1959 and caused a sensation, with extra screenings quickly arranged to satisfy demand. In a recent interview, Stick said his career effectively began in Edinburgh.

Strick enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbour and learned his craft as a cameraman with the US Army Air Force. After the war, he acquired an army surplus camera and made Muscle Beach (1948), a documentary about bodybuilders in California.

He spent much of the 1950s working in science and technology, setting up several firms, which he later sold. "I decided to leave the business to make some money so that I could make my own movies," he said.

The Savage Eye was shot on grimy Los Angeles locations over several years, and after being acclaimed at Edinburgh went on to win a Bafta.

The Jean Genet adaptation The Balcony (1963), starring Shelley Winters and Peter Falk, might have signalled a progression to starry Hollywood movies – even though it was initially banned by the British censors, who were nervous about the inclusion of a lesbian kiss, but changed their minds a few months later.

Strick was never one to take the obvious road. He had a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company and made a documentary about the 1966 British general election, The Hecklers.

It chronicles a bygone age of public meetings, angry, unscripted interventions from the floor and how various politicians dealt with them. Harold Wilson did rather well. Ted Heath did not. The documentary was controversial, with politicians claiming Strick's presence encouraged misbehaviour.

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But the controversy over The Balcony and The Hecklers was nothing compared with that over Ulysses, which he co-wrote, produced and directed, with Milo O'Shea as Joyce's hero Leopold Bloom in a film of a book which was itself hugely controversial and many thought unfilmable. He spent years getting the finance together.

The British censors refused to pass it without cuts, but a string of local authorities, – including Hawick, where councillors approved the film without even watching it – approved screenings in their areas. It was reputedly the first time the F word had been heard in a British film.

However, some subtitles were apparently removed to protect the sensibilities of the Cannes Film Festival audience. "He stood up and yelled out that this film had been censored," his son, David Strick, told the Los Angeles Times.

"He went upstairs to the projection booth and turned off the switches. He was then pushed down a flight of stairs by festival goons, basically. My father and his associates withdrew the film immediately from the festival."

After Ring of Bright Water, Strick returned to the United States and courted controversy once again with his documentary on the infamous My Lai massacre, when US soldiers killed unarmed Vietnamese villagers. It won him an Oscar; he already had a nomination for his Ulysses script. But he would direct only three more films over the next quarter of a century.

Strick returned to Joyce with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1977), with a cast that included John Gielgud and TP McKenna. He rekindled his interest in wildlife when he produced Never Cry Wolf (1983), an adventure drama about wolves.

He is survived by his second wife and four children.