The Marvel and DC Universe films may be ruling the box office right now, but more than half a century ago, The Four Just Men ruled British television, constantly criss-crossing the globe to right wrongs, and mete out justice to those who deserved it, without the benefit of superpowers or enormous wealth – just using their wits, and their skills, in the service of humanity.
As Wikipedia accurately notes, “The Four Just Men was a 1959 Sapphire Films production for ITC Entertainment. It ran for one season of 39 half-hour monochrome episodes. The series, loosely based on a series of novels by Edgar Wallace, presents the adventures of four men who first meet while fighting in Italy during the Second World War. The men later reassemble, and decide to fight for justice and against tyranny, using money set aside for the purpose by their late commanding officer.
They operate from different countries: Jeff Ryder (Richard Conte) is a professor of law at Columbia University in New York, Tim Collier (Dan Dailey) is an American reporter based in Paris, Ben Manfred (Jack Hawkins) is a crusading independent MP who works from London and Ricco Poccari (Vittorio De Sica) is an Italian hotelier based in Rome.
The series is unusual in having the four lead actors appear in turn other than in the first episode; one or occasionally two makes a brief appearance in each other’s episode, usually on the phone. Guest stars included Judi Dench, Alan Bates, Leonard Sachs, Patrick Troughton, Donald Pleasence, Richard Johnson, Ronald Howard, Basil Dignam, Roger Delgado, Charles Gray, and Frank Thornton.
At the time Four Just Men was the most ambitious film series yet made for British TV. It was produced by Sapphire Films at Walton Studios, and on location in Britain, France and Italy. None of its four stars had been cast as regulars in a TV series before. Filming on the 39 episodes, each 25 minutes long, began in January 1959, and lasted for five months, using up to seven units in the studio or on location, and producing two or three episodes simultaneously. [Future director] John Schlesinger was credited as exterior unit or second unit director on a number of episodes.”
This, of course, was back when a season of a television series amounted to something – 39 episodes, in fact. All the actors involved were certifiable stars at the time in their respective countries, particularly Jack Hawkins in England and the esteemed director/actor Vittorio De Sica in Italy, thus giving the series an international commercial appeal. But most central to the series’ success – and its recent release on Region 2 DVD – is the sense that someone was out there, watching out for the everyday person, who had no authority or influence.
Thus, in a way, not only do The Four Just Men prefigure the current craze for superheroes, offering hope in an uncertain world, but they also work their will through the actual channels of government and the law, without taking matters into their own hands, or using extra-terrestrial powers. This makes the series all the more relatable. From the opening title sequence – seen above – to the end of each episode, The Four Just Men act on the side of right against the forces of corruption and evil, winning on a human scale, rather than one of exaggerated influence.
As the series’ announcer intones at the start of each episode, “throughout time, there have been men to whom justice is more important than life itself. From these ranks come four men, prepared to fight valiantly on the side of justice wherever the need may be. Joined together in this cause, they are The Four Just Men.” It’s a nice dream- if only they were with us now.