He directed his first feature film at the age of 27, and it became a landmark in Canadian cinema. The Grey Fox (1982), the tale of a gentleman bandit who sought refuge in the wilds of British Columbia at the turn of the century, was a remarkably self-assured debut. A western romance unlike any other, it possessed a quiet grandeur, an intimate sense of time and place that suggested Canadian film-makers could create their own version of Hollywood magic. The Grey Fox was, in fact, the first major English-Canadian movie to attract serious international acclaim. Its director, Phillip Borsos, went on to make another four movies, including the troubled epic Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1991). His final film, a touching family adventure titled Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog, is now playing across North America. Borsos died last week after a 10-month battle with acute myeloid leukeumia. He was 41.
Perhaps more than anyone, Borsos incarnated the dreams and frustrations of what it means to make movies in Canada. He stubbornly refused to accept the limitations imposed on him, both financial and artistic. He did not want to make narrow little Canadian films. He wanted to make movies, big movies that would strike a universal chord. If necessary, he would use Hollywood money, but without buying into Hollywood values or surrendering his vision. "He was a powerful personality who never took no for an answer," says Peter O'Brian, who produced three of his films. "He never considered time or budget to be an impediment. He had the highest standards, and he was so determined that he would keep developing projects for years - he never thought that there would be a time limit like the one that was set by this disease."
On the set, Borsos was a perfectionist, taking time to create exquisite images. But he also displayed an acute sensitivity to actors, an ability to locate a mood. While working with him in China, Bethune star Donald Sutherland became a friend. "As a director of a scene - of actors," Sutherland told Maclean's last week, "he had the genius to comprehend the deepest moral issues involved and re-create them on-screen with great joy."
The son of a Hungarian sculptor and an English nurse, Borsos was born in Tasmania and moved to Trail, B.C., when he was 5. As a Grade 11 student, he acquired a 16-mm Bolex camera from his father and began his obsession with film-making. In the late 1970s, Borsos made documentaries for the National Film Board, including Nails (1979), a simple study of nail manufacturing, which received an Oscar nomination. Then, teaming up with Toronto-based producer O'Brian, Borsos directed The Grey Fox, based on the true story of Bill Miner, an American stagecoach-bandit-turned-train-robber who fled to Canada. The movie's rhapsodic landscapes prompted critic Pauline Kael to call Borsos "an inspired image maker." At the heart of the film is a beautifully understated romance between Miner (Richard Farnsworth) and a suffragette flirt played by Jackie Burroughs.
Impressed by The Grey Fox, Hollywood hired Borsos to shoot The Mean Season (1985), an atmospheric thriller set in Miami with Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway. Then, for his third picture, he joined forces with Disney and O'Brian in Toronto to shoot One Magic Christmas. Mixing Capraesque fantasy with a daring streak of contemporary realism, it is a fable about a Scrooge-like mother (Mary Steenburgen) whose laid-off husband is shot dead in a bank robbery just before Christmas. An unlikely angel (Harry Dean Stanton) comes to the rescue and, with Santa's help, restores her faith in miracles.
Borsos faced his toughest challenge in making Bethune . The movie, chronicling the life of Canadian battlefront surgeon Norman Bethune, was a labor of love that turned into a production nightmare. There were delays, crew mutinies, technical disasters and endless feuds over the script. On location in remote areas of rural China, with Chinese bureaucrats as his co-producers, the director was pushed to the limit. Still, he came up with some extraordinary footage and drew the performance of a lifetime from Sutherland. Bethune consumed four years of the director's career. In the end, the producers froze him out of the final editing process and finished the film without him.
Borsos was able to make his last film, Far From Home, in his own backyard, shooting several scenes on and around the property on Mayne Island, B.C., where he and his wife, Beret, summered with their sons Angus, 8, and Silas, 5. Based on his script, with characters named after his children, it was his most personal film, an adventure about a boy stranded in the woods with his dog. The movie's haunting landscapes and straightforward storytelling bear the director's unmistakable stamp. "Phillip preferred sentiment over sentimentality," says O'Brian, who produced Far From Home for 20th Century Fox. "There is a little scene where the boy sits down and cries," he recalls, "and the studio people were astounded that Phillip didn't have the dog lick the salty tears off his face. Instead, Phillip just had the dog look at him from 20 m away, leaving room for something to happen. He didn't like the obvious."
Borsos began and ended his career with pictures that captured the stern beauty of Western Canada. Although his five movies are radically different, each bears his distinctive vision. "His style was so rich," says O'Brian. "Everything had to be shot a particular way. He liked a very strong frame, with a very direct angle to the subject. Everything had to be firm and solid. The number 1 thing for Phillip was to find the point of true origin. It couldn't be good unless it was honest. He was faithful to that every day that he worked."
Maclean's February 13, 1995