John Barnes
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John Barnes' Autobiography

see also his filmography, and the astounding story of the 
controversy surrounding his Macbeth film

John Barnes saving the sole of Marcel Marceau prior to the
filming of 'The Art of Silence' (1975)

Note from AFA director Geoff Alexander: Some time before John Barnes passed away, he asked me to write his obituary.  I told him he'd probably last longer than I would, but he didn't. I honored his request, posthumously. That obit is printed here as his biography, retitled John Barnes: a Celebration of his Life and Films.  Below it, you'll find an autobiography that he penned for this website in 1997.  Also, please visit his filmography, and the fascinating story of the controversy over his Macbeth series of films. View Barnes' films The Baltimore Plan, Equality Under the Law: The Lost Generation of Prince Edward County, The Living City, Look to the Land, Michelangelo, People Along the Mississippi, The Portable Phonograph, Shaw vs. Shakespeare, and Story Into Film: Clark's 'The Portable Phonograph'

- Geoff Alexander

John Barnes: a Celebration of his Life and Films

Filmmaker John Wadsworth Barnes, an Academy Award nominee whose robust body of work changed the face of educational film in the United States, died in New York on Tuesday, June 27, 2000 at the age of 80.  

Barnes, who directed, produced, or wrote over 100 films, was best known for the intellectually challenging themes in his humanities films, as well his insistence on interracial casting in an era in which educational film companies eschewed integrated casts and curricula in order to boost sales in southern states. Barnes wrote, filmed, and co-produced director Gordon Weisenborn’s People Along the Mississippi for Encyclopaedia Britannica Films in 1951, which, in its portrayal of the interaction between two boys --- one African American, the other white --- as they face the challenges of racial prejudice, may have been the first educational film to claim an integrated cast. 

Willing to fight to have his films shown in southern schools, Barnes fought institutional censorship by appearing before the state school board in Georgia to successfully argue the historic veracity of the peer relationship between Sir Francis Drake and his black first mate, thus paving the way for educational film companies to expand the making and distribution of integrated thematic material.  

Born in Belford, New Jersey, on March 25, 1920, Barnes attended the University of Chicago, where he edited the school’s literary magazine.  To pay a printing bill, Barnes, at the age of 24, began writing for the local CBS radio affiliate, producing a critically-acclaimed series of radio dramas hosted by Ken Nordine.  He soon started experimenting with a Bolex film camera and war surplus film, and received funding in the late 1940s from the Chicago Anti-Defamation League to produce a film --- his first of approximately 112 --- on interracial refugee camps (To Live Together). 

In 1953, he was nominated for an Oscar for The Living City, a documentary on urban issues.  His work in educational film was recognized by the New York Times, whose Howard Thompson wrote: “Almost single-handedly, (Barnes) has lifted the classroom drama for older students to a fresh, stimulating plane”.  Barnes made a landmark series of films on classical western civilization and Shakespearean themes from 1959 through 1971, hosted by noted scholars John Canaday, Clifton Fadiman, Maynard Mack, Gilbert Highet, Mortimer Adler, and Bernard Knox, and featuring actors such as Richard Kiley, Peter Donat, Judi Dench, Frances Sternhagen, Donald Moffat, and Douglas Campbell.  In 1975, Barnes made a classic series of fourteen films with pantomime artist Marcel Marceau.  He collaborated with poet Archibald MacLeish and composer Ezra Laderman on two films, Magic Prison: the Poetry of Emily Dickinson, and Keats: His Life and Death

His magnum opus was considered to be the three-part Shaw vs. Shakespeare series, written and directed by Barnes, with Donald Moffat in the role of George Bernard Shaw, alternately elevating and denigrating Shakespeare’s characterizations, as compared with Shaw’s own.   

Social themes were never absent from Barnes’ work: he made several films in Encyclopaedia Britannica’s ‘Bill of Rights’ series including a sensitive portrayal of Clarence Earl Gideon, whom Barnes describes in the film as "ex-convict, wanderer, a former gambler, the devoted father of three children, and a man with a deep sense of his legal rights," whose Supreme Court case reaffirmed a defendant’s right to counsel.   Perhaps Barnes’ most powerful film was his last, made in 1977, an adaptation of Walter van Tilberg Clark’s The Portable Phonograph, in which four survivors of the apocalypse attempt, through memories triggered by a 78 rpm recording of Debussy’s Nocturne, to recover their pasts.  

For the remainder of his career, Barnes concentrated on writing plays, several of which were produced in the U.S. and Canada. 

Barnes was considered iconoclastic by his peers during the more than twenty years he contributed films to Encyclopaedia Britannica, and distanced himself from the politics of the organization by living and working in England, Spain, Italy, and Greece, away from company headquarters in Chicago.  Although championed by Senator William Benton, president of EB, Barnes faced continual battles from other executives, who were concerned that his content was too intellectual for high school students and teachers.  

He summed up his philosophy on film by stating:  “I have an idea -- a faith, I suppose it really is -- that some of my films -- or a single film, or even a single sequence in a film or a shot in a film -- will light up a young mind somewhere: light it up so that nothing -- unsympathetic teachers, lack of a decent place to live, or lack of love -- can ever plunge it into darkness." 

Barnes received numerous film awards, and retrospectives of his work were held in 1966 at the Instituto Mexicano Norteaméricano de Relationes Culturales in Mexico City, and in 1998 at ciné16 in San Jose, California.  He is survived by his wife, violinist Jeanne Weinstein, daughter Judith, an opera singer and sculptor in Brooklyn, two sons, actor/director Ezra Barnes of Brooklyn, and astrophysicist Joshua Barnes of Honolulu, and two grandchildren.

The following autobiography was written by John Barnes in 1997:

Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, I left the University of Chicago without taking a degree. My first choice of profession: the theater, but for various reasons (mostly a compelling need to make a living) drifted into radio, film, and later television. Thus began a number of incomparable years of working and living (together with my wife and an ever-growing family) in England, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Canada and America as a film-maker (writer, director, producer, sometimes editor and cameraman) of documentary, theatrical, non-theatrical, and art films -- perhaps a hundred or more with such titles as The Living City, The Odyssey, Spirit of the Renaissance, John Keats, The Portable Phonograph, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Magic Prison, Chartres Cathedral, Marcel Marceau's Art of Silence, Shaw versus Shakespeare, The Cherry Orchard, and so on.

AWARDS picked up along the way: Academy Award Nomination; Venice, Edinburgh Film Festivals, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Atlanta, and American Film Festivals; Golden Eagle; Freedom Foundation; NVPA; others; some several times. At some point, the awards ceased altogether. Reason? I was told (off the record) that Britannica execs were angry at all festivals, considering them unfair and stopped entering them. The underlying reason, I was told, was that my films were the only EB productions which got awards. Whether any of this was true, I can't say; might have been, might not have been.

REVIEW QUOTABLES (Howard Thompson, New York Times): "The Living City, brilliantly-made" by "the gifted John Barnes"

. . . "superior craftsmanship" . . . "the brilliant young director-producer" . . . "Hollywood take note" . . . "fresh and stimulating" . . . "the remarkably ingenious John Barnes . . . "a stunning ambitious art-film" by "the amazing director-producer John Barnes" . . . etc.

FAMILY cleaved to all the years: Joshua, now an astrophysicist at the University of Hawaii; Judith, now a singer and sculptor; Ezra, now an actor and artistic director; and of course my wife, Jeanne Weinstein, ever a violinist.

The above, as may be imagined, took up some time, but now (since I am more or less financially secure, if such a state is possible) I have returned to my first love: the theater.


CHICAGO (1952/4): Wrote, directed, and edited The Living City, nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary.

ROME, lived and worked various periods 1955/75: adapted, directed and produced The Odyssey, filmed at Cinecità; also at Cinecità, The Greek Myths, with location work in Greece and Mallorca. On location in Italy: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Spirit of the Renaissance, others productions.

LONDON, lived and worked various periods 1954/80: adapted, produced, and co-directed with Douglas Campbell Macbeth and Great Expectations, with William Squire, Michael Gwynn, John Stride, Judi Dench, Mark Dignam, Rosalie Crutchley. Produced, directed and edited -- and co-wrote with Archibald MacLeish -- John Keats, starring John Stride with Mark Dignam. Adapted and directed The Portable Phonograph, Van Tilburg Clark's short story about the aftermath of a nuclear war, with Michael Gwynn, Philip Locke, and William Squire; Candide, with David Yelland, Mark Dignam, Philip Locke, William Squire. The Romantics, with Tim Piggot-Smith and William Squire. Other productions.

NEW YORK (various periods 1960/present): Produced and directed Marcel Marceau's Art of Silence, 13 TV films featuring Marceau. Producer, director, and co-writer with Archibald MacLeish, of Magic Prison, a film about Emily Dickinson starring Frances Sternhagen and Michael Higgins. Wrote and directed Shaw versus Shakespeare, with Richard Kiley as Caesar and Donald Moffat as GBS. Adapted, directed and produced The Cherry Orchard with Maureen Stapleton, John Colicos, Donald Moffat and Frances Sternhagen. Many other productions.


Writer of the book for the musical, The Beautiful Dream of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, developed in l983 at The National Music Theater, Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. 'Kidnapped', based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Directed by Douglas Campbell at the Young Peoples Theatre in Toronto (l988), with Douglas's Benedict as Alan Breck; Colonial Theatre, Westerly, Rhode Island, with my son Ezra as Alan Breck (1993).

Writer, Huck Finn, a play in two acts based on Mark Twain's novel; at the Will Geer Theater, Topanga, California, July, l990.

Barnes' final project consisted of Kembles of the Garden, a play in two acts, that had a staged reading at Cornelia Street Cafe, New York, 1996.


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