His father wanted him to work in the Foreign Service. He was educated at Marlborough College (he hated it) and also attended Bonn University in Germany for three years and came back speaking the language perfectly. (Later he could speak eight languages). He loved athletics, dancing, politics and gained two medical degrees. His love of sport led him to becoming a net minder for the London Lions in the British Ice Hockey Association. Working as a journalist for Reuters he then emigrated to Canada to teach, before joining the International Brigade in a spell of fighting against General Franco (where he grew his beard) in the Spanish Civil War.
Justice joined up at the outbreak of World War II and served in the Royal Navy reaching the rank of officer, but after being invalided out the service in 1943 his performing talents became noticed by director Harry Watt, who gave him some small parts in films at Ealing. A year later he made his first film, ‘Fiddlers Three’ a comedy about time-travellers in Rome. He played the part of a centurion.
One of his earliest films was his only ‘clean-shaven’ performance as Petty Officer Oats, alongside John Mills in ‘Scott of the Antarctic.’ But it had been Peter Ustinov, as a young film director, that had helped this unknown actor (with very little training) gain a two year Rank contract by casting him in the role of ‘thrash happy’ Dr Grimstone, alongside Anthony Newly in ‘Vice Versa’. He was later to play one of his best loved roles as the doctor in the Ealing Comedy ‘Whisky Galore’, where according to the script he had input in the dialogue and casting locations.
This larger than life, snuff taking, charismatic character, soon began to appear in a steady flow of films as a major supporting player, with many roles set in historical times:
The Black Rose (1950)
David and Bathsheba (1951)
Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951)
Les Miserables (1952)
The Story of Robin Hood (1952)
Rob Roy (1953)
The Sword and the Rose (1953)
Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
Moby Dick (1956)
Ken Annakin recalled working with James Robertson Justice during the making of ‘The Story of Robin Hood’ . Justice he said could, with careful direction always be relied upon to ‘add verisimilitude’ (as he used to say) to any larger than life character. For three weeks he and Richard Todd rehearsed the famous quarter-staff fight scene on a wooden bridge built over the studio tank at Denham Studios. They rehearsed with Rupert Evans the most expert sword master and ‘period’ fight arranger in England at the time.
After a lot of lively exchanges of blows, Richard Todd was knocked into the water as scripted and Justice jumped in after him. Without a break they continued to parry and thrust, as choreographed, until Richard trod on a nail which penetrated his thin deer skin boot.
“Shit!” he yelled, and losing his balance, swiped James a mighty blow across the head.
Justice cried out “Foul, not fair!” and disappeared under the water only to reappear, spluttering “varlet!” still in character. “Have you no respect for the pate of a philosopher! If you’ve damaged the old brain box, Edinburgh University is going to lose its most distinguished Rector!”
It was true, Justice had just received a phone call in his dressing room, offering him the honour-something unheard of in the acting profession.
Ken Annakin made a number of films with James Robertson Justice and often looked forward to lunchtime breaks from filming, when the big man would tell stories of his exploits. Including the time he fled Arabia on a camel after penetrating a sheik’s harem and dropping his rifle in front of Hitler when the Germans marched into the Rhine.
It was during the 1950 General Election that he unsuccessfully fought a constituency for the Labour Party and became co-founder of the Severn Wildfowl Trust, ( now known as The National Birds Of Prey Centre) with his close friend Peter Scott, only son of Arctic explorer, Robert Falcon Scott.
With the money earned from his movie success, Justice bought ‘The Bungalow’ on the Dornoch Firth, on the east coast of Scotland. Here he could enjoy his passion for nature, fly fishing, ornithology, hunting and particularly the ancient art of falconry. ‘Jimmie’ kept a live falcon in his dressing room at Pinewood!
He later taught ‘plants, beasts and royal falconry’ to a young Prince Charles.
Back home after his successful stint in Hollywood , Justice was to play a role that he will be forever remembered, the bombastic surgeon, Sir Lancelot Spratt. It was said that he basically played himself! The film, ‘Doctor in the House’, broke all box office records for a British film and made Dirk Bogarde a top Rank Organisation star in 1954. Five more 'Doctor’ films followed over the next sixteen years.
This type cast Justice and all his later roles would be in the ‘mould’ of Sir Lancelot, such as the character Lord Scrumptious in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’.
As the British film industry started to fade in the 1970’s, so did Justice’s health. After a series of strokes he died on 2nd July 1975 at King’s Somborne in Hampshire. He was bankrupt. A very sad end to a wonderfully, multi talented man. His ashes were interred at the ‘Bungalow’ in Spinningdale, at Dornoch Firth, in Scotland. But he left behind a legacy of over 85 movies.
A memorial service for him was later held at Winchester Cathedral.
They don’t make ‘em like that anymore!
© Clement of the Glen