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Twice a Phantom
September 17, 2009 2:46 PM   Subscribe

David Niven was best known for his acting work in roles such as The Pink Panther's Sir Charles Lytton, aka the Phantom, a suave playboy burglar with, as calling card, a white glove embroidered with a "P". Niven is also remembered as a generous, if not always entirely truthful, fountain of (mostly saucy) anecdotes, as well as a famous wit. However, there was one part of his life about which he was always notoriously serious and tight-lipped: his military service in the Second World War.

A Gallipolli orphan, Niven had graduated in 1930 from Sandhurst. His early military career was however short-lived: three years later, escaping from arrest for insubordination, he resigned his commission on his way to America, where he was to start his film career as Anglo-Saxon Type #2008 from Central Casting.
After the war broke out, Niven abandoned his budding stardom to re-join the British Army. However, most units, possibly aware of Niven's less-than-shining previous military record, rejected him. It was thus that Niven ended up in a rather eccentric and secretive outfit called the GHQ Reconaissance Regiment. Their task? Reconnaissance and liaison behind enemy lines. Their nickname? The Phantoms. Their regimental emblem? A "P".
It's difficult to know whether Niven ever saw combat as a Phantom, although they were notorious for sending high-ranking officers to combat. Niven joined the unit as Major in command of Squadron A (this article includes a picture of him reviewing his squadron while wearing a helmet with the regimental "P"), but simultaneously worked in two propaganda films (together with his batman, a Pvt. Peter Ustinov). Later in the war he was attached to SHAEF, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
Apparently, he only ever gave one explanation for his discretion about the matter:

I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.
posted by Skeptic (39 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
My first instinct, upon seeing the blurb, was to moan: "Aw, no ... not David Niven too." Then I realized he died back in the 80's.
posted by RavinDave at 2:53 PM on September 17, 2009 [7 favorites]


Nice post Skeptic :)
posted by doctor_negative at 2:58 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


.
posted by found missing at 3:01 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sir James Bond.
posted by Artw at 3:08 PM on September 17, 2009


How enjoyable. I shall believe he saw active service and was a secret hero - just like in The Guns of Navarone.
posted by Quillcards at 3:10 PM on September 17, 2009


Outstanding post. I never knew all this about Niven and he's one of my favorite actors.
posted by darkstar at 3:11 PM on September 17, 2009


Thanks! This is a really interesting post, I had no idea.
posted by mdrosen at 3:32 PM on September 17, 2009


Excellent.

After all of his momentous inspired acting I'm ashamed to admit my favorite Niven film is Niel Simon's cheesy but hilarious Murder By Death where Niven apes himself and William Powell (as Nick Charles in The Thin Man) playing a detective Dick Charleston in his ever dry fashion.

Dick Charleston: [after noticing that he is incorrectly seated next to his own wife, Charleston asks to switch places with Wang. An instant after they both stand up, two rapiers fall from the ceiling to bury themselves in the gentlemen's chairs]

Dick Charleston: ... Just as I thought: another test that could have cost us our lives, saved only by the fact that I am ENORMOUSLY well-bred.
posted by tkchrist at 3:33 PM on September 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


Very nice post. Thanks.
posted by OmieWise at 3:33 PM on September 17, 2009


From the IMDB "anecdotes" link:

He knew his [first] wife, Primula Rollo, 17 days before he married her. He knew his second wife 10 days before marrying her.

Wow.

From the same link:

His first wife, Primmie, died tragically while attending a dinner at fellow actor Tyrone Power 's house. After dinner while playing hide and seek, Primmie opened what she thought was a closet door but instead tumbled down the basement stairs and onto the concrete floor. She died shortly after.

Tragic.
posted by mosk at 3:35 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


He knew his [first] wife, Primula Rollo

Wasn't she a character in Episode 2?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:45 PM on September 17, 2009


Gallipolli orphan

David Niven's mother wasn't killed at Gallipoli, so how does his father's death there make him an orphan?
posted by morganw at 3:47 PM on September 17, 2009


orphan:

–noun
1. a child who has lost both parents through death, or, less commonly, one parent.
posted by Skeptic at 3:53 PM on September 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


Niven fan reporting for duty, had no idea about the "P" for Phantom unit, very interesting and a great post.
posted by dabitch at 3:54 PM on September 17, 2009


Oh, this is cool. My mom loves David Niven; she'll like hearing about this.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:58 PM on September 17, 2009


This is wonderful.

When I was a kid, I was allowed to read anything in our house, and some of my favourites were Niven's autobiographies The Moon's a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses. They were probably partially or wholly ghost-written, but they helped me form an internal image of him as a naturally brilliant and broadly educated man, even though he was no academic. (I realize he may have taken many liberties with the truth in his books, but I come from the land that produced Farley Mowat, so I can live with that.)

John Mortimer described Niven's life as" Wodehouse with tears" at his memorial service in 1983. It appears there may have been rather more blood and sweat involved, too.
posted by maudlin at 4:03 PM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


The bit in Matter of Life and Death where he says "I love you, June. You're life and I'm leaving you" is one of those moments where, if I'm with company, I have to pretend I've something in my eye.

I always quietly hoped that if i did end up in the military I could be wittily heroic in the face of certain death like Peter Carter (whilst knowing that tended towards Bob Trubshawe in personality, and as a natural coward was probably more likely to be cut down by a combination of friendly and unfriendly fire, weeping copiously and crying out for my mother).
posted by Grangousier at 4:47 PM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wonderful post - I still swoon over the dear chap.
posted by fish tick at 4:48 PM on September 17, 2009


Hi Maudlin! When I was a kid, my mother thought the "humor section" in the bookmobile was an acceptible section for me to be getting books. That's how I ended up reading a huge number of books by Ogden Nash, Bob Hope and Jack Douglas. I'm not quite sure how that shaped my subsequent development. However, I was entranced by David Niven's books (which I believe he wrote by himself); he seemed so thoughtful, even if he did make up a few things.
posted by acrasis at 4:53 PM on September 17, 2009


What a great post. I love David Niven, and I love learning about what all those suave British guys, like Mr. Niven and Noel Coward, were creeping around doing secretly during the war.
posted by OolooKitty at 4:54 PM on September 17, 2009


I've always been curious about his war. One step closer.

Slight derail - Alec Guinness enlisted in the Royal Navy and eventually took command of landing craft, serving in the Med. He was somewhat slighted for being an actor among Real Men, but on one occasion at least got his own back when he was on time and the others late (fog, if I recall correctly), and he was able to note sternly that in the West End at least they at knew what it was to be punctual.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:24 PM on September 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.

Compare and contrast with loud-mouthed pro-war draft-dodgers such as John Wayne. Niven was a real man. Wayne liked to pretend to be one.
posted by rodgerd at 7:43 PM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


(Also, I love Churchill to Niven: Churchill singled him out from the crowd and stated, "Young man, you did a fine thing to give up your film career to fight for your country. Mark you, had you not done so − it would have been despicable.")
posted by rodgerd at 7:55 PM on September 17, 2009


Bring on the Empty Horses ghost written? Perish the thought.
posted by ovvl at 8:19 PM on September 17, 2009


Compare and contrast with loud-mouthed pro-war draft-dodgers such as John Wayne.

I don't believe John Wayne was a draft-dodger.
posted by Snyder at 10:20 PM on September 17, 2009


rodgerd I found Churchill's comment actually rather boorish, and if I'm certain that if I had been Niven, with a father dead in Gallipolli, of all places, my answer wouldn't have been printable.
posted by Skeptic at 11:04 PM on September 17, 2009


Count me in as another who read Niven's autobiographies (probably before I ever saw any of his movies). My dad is a movie buff, and I went over his book collection with a fine toothed comb at an early age.

Niven was funny, bright, and smart. His wonderful films are almost tangential to me, since I discovered him first as a writer, but I love them all the same.
posted by padraigin at 11:28 PM on September 17, 2009


They were not ghostwritten. That was all Niven.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 12:21 AM on September 18, 2009


Some of the bee stings about life are found by scratching around in history.

@rogerd
"Niven was a real man. Wayne liked to pretend to be one."

Easy there, pilgrim.
posted by Twang at 12:57 AM on September 18, 2009


As a McNiven, I love this tidbit from IMDB:

Once wrote that as a child, he felt superior to others. He attributed this to the fact that when reciting the Lord's Prayer in church, he thought for several years that the correct phrasing was, "Our Father, who art a Niven . . . "
posted by smcniven at 1:50 AM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't believe John Wayne was a draft-dodger.
Selective Service Records indicate he did not attempt to prevent his reclassification as 1-A (draft eligible), but apparently Republic Pictures intervened directly, requesting his further deferment.[27] In May, 1944, Wayne was reclassified as 1-A (draft eligible), but the studio obtained another 2-A deferment (for "support of national health, safety, or interest").[27] He remained 2-A until the war's end. Thus, John Wayne did not illegally "dodge" the draft, but he never took direct positive action toward enlistment.
Source

He was about as enthusiastic as Cheney was in going to Vietnam. Cheney, in fact, came up with a better excuse.
posted by rodgerd at 2:40 AM on September 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Marvelous post Skeptic. Thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 4:04 AM on September 18, 2009


resistance... failing...

I don't believe John Wayne was a draft-dodger.

He was too, you boys.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:34 AM on September 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


I read his books when I was very young - around 9 or so and I remember being entranced by his stories and wit. I think I'll see if I can find them on Amazon for another read.
posted by TorontoSandy at 6:58 AM on September 18, 2009


Peter Ustinov: He's the goddamn batman.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:41 AM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I read The Moon's A Balloon when I was a youngster and always knew there was a lot left unsaid. From what I've read afterwards it appears that Niven attended STS-21 at Arisaig in Inverness-shire during/after his Commando training (around 1940-41?) where he underwent the Silent Killing training course devised by William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes. The composer Humphrey Searle also attended the same school shortly afterwards. Niven's signature is still on show at the Lochailort hotel he stayed at during this training period.

"A" Squadron of the GHQ Liaison Regiment served with SRS elements and some individuals, such as Len Owens MM, also dropped in with Jedburgh units prior to D-Day. "A" Squadron were active in Greece around 1941, with the SAS in North Africa prior to 1943, as part of the Combined Operations Group (COG) as well as Northern Europe (France, Belgium and Holland) in 1944-45.

Certainly with his film-making in 1941-2 and later in 1943-44 he would not likely have been in Greece. Based on the training he received and when, it's a possibility that he saw action in North Africa. It is certain that he was present at least in some degree on the Western Front although there is no information as to his service specifically.
posted by longbaugh at 9:27 AM on September 18, 2009


Excellent post and comments, thanks.

Like others here, I read his books as a teenager, having seen some of his work - he had always seemed appealing to me. Sheridan Morley did a biography of Niven called The Other Side of the Moon which gave a little more insight into Niven's war years, though not much, and I think was thought of as a bit of a hatchet-job if memory serves, but it didn't seem that way to me. Again, from memory, I think it was because Morley pointed out some of Niven's embellishments rather than for any scandal revelatoins.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 11:27 AM on September 18, 2009


I very fondly remember David Niven from the TV show The Rogues, in which he, Charles Boyer, and Gig Young played a trio of sophisticated con men. I'm totally shocked that wiki says the show only lasted for one season - my whole idea of male sophistication came from that show (along James Bond removing his wet suit to reveal a tuxedo in Goldfinger, of course).
posted by jasper411 at 2:44 PM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thus, John Wayne did not illegally "dodge" the draft, but he never took direct positive action toward enlistment.

Still, according to WIlliam Manchester is his wonderful Goodbye Darkness, the boys in the field booed roundly when Wayne did the USO tours of the south pacific.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:59 PM on September 18, 2009


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