Terence Marsh, 1931–2018
The designer who made movies look real
Terence Marsh had to pull off monumental feats to give some of Hollywood’s most memorable epics their look and feel. The production designer transformed a parcel of land outside Madrid into Moscow for 1965’s Doctor Zhivago. “A developer wanted to build a group of houses,” Marsh recalled. “He had put the roads in, but hadn’t yet got around to building the homes. We did a deal.” His crews laid some 10,000 cobblestones to= re-create the grimy streets of Charles Dickens’ London for the 1968 musical Oliver! For the 1977 World War II drama A Bridge Too Far, Marsh constructed hundreds of troop-carrying gliders. When there weren’t enough Sherman tanks for the movie, Marsh’s teams built more by dressing up a fleet of Volkswagens. On film, they were indistinguishable from the real thing. “If you can see what I’ve done,” Marsh once said, “I haven’t done it well enough.”
Marsh was born in London to a newspaper typesetter father and a mother who worked as a stand-in for movie actresses. He inherited her “unwavering enthusiasm for the silver screen,” said The Times (U.K.). After studying architecture at college, he trained as a draftsman at Pinewood film studios outside London. His big break came when he was hired as an assistant art director on 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia. Marsh’s main task: to build the Red Sea port of Aqaba for a critical battle scene. In film after film, Marsh transported viewers “to a place that existed only in the imaginations of screenwriters and directors,” said the Los Angeles Times. He won art direction Oscars for Doctor Zhivago and Oliver! and would work on films as different as Basic Instinct and the Star Wars parody Spaceballs.
His work could be too convincing for his own good, said The Guardian (U.K.). The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1995—but not one for production design. Director Frank Darabont speculated that the 200-cell prison block Marsh built in an abandoned Westinghouse plant was so realistic, Academy members thought the movie had been shot in a real lockup. Marsh retired in 2001 after finishing work on the action comedy Rush Hour 2, saying that the movie business had become unrecognizable from when he started. “They wrote the script as we went along,” he said. “Which was not good for the art department.” ■