David Puttnam rose from a working-class background into the advertising business as a photographer's agent during London's Swinging 60s. After a few false starts in film, Puttnam hit his stride as a producer in two collaborations with director Alan Parker: "Bugsy Malone" (1976) and the Oscar-winning hit "Midnight Express" (1978). Puttnam would publicly regret the latter film's exploitative affect on audiences, and this unlikely "mea culpa" launched him as a responsible renegade willing to collide with stars or bankers. His eye for directors with panache gave several promising talents their debuts or breakthroughs, including Ridley Scott ("The Duellists" 1977), Roland Joffe ("The Killing Fields" 1984) and Bill Forsyth ("Local Hero" 1983). Puttnam's star never shone brighter than after his production of Hugh Hudson's "Chariots of Fire" (1981) won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
In 1986, the Coca-Cola Co. hired Puttnam as chief of production for its Columbia Pictures division. Puttnam's reputation was for modestly budgeted productions which achieved critical acclaim and moderate box-office receipts, while dealing with socially and politically sensitive subjects. With an impressive network to support his ambitions in Hollywood, Puttnam created enormous expectations. He promised to keep costs down with leaner, lower-budgeted fare that would also serve an international rather than simply American audience. He gave European filmmakers such as Emir Kusturica, Jiri Menzel, Doris Dorrie and Bernardo Bertolucci the opportunity to exercise artistic approaches to filmmaking under the aegis of a product-oriented system.
Simultaneously, Puttnam demonstrated an aggressive candor. He announced that if someone wrote him a check for the $150 million that "Rambo" would bring in at the box office, he still would not make that film. He would claim that remarks disparaging Bill Murray (star of the studio's smash hit "Ghostbusters," 1984) were misunderstood, yet his statements were never designed to court talent agents, longtime Columbia producers such as Ray Stark (who is said to have been a prime mover in the "Dump Puttnam" movement) or the public itself, whose taste he disdained. This Savonarola with an English accent was eventually deemed tiresome; even those who had hopes of succeeding through him were angered at a style that spelled doom. When Puttnam left Columbia with a $3 million golden parachute, he left behind colleagues made vulnerable by his arrogance. Whether a more politic Puttnam could have succeeded is a moot point. His productions were neither marketed nor distributed with care by his successors at Columbia, who had to restore peace.
Puttnam returned to England to resume film- and speech-making. "We in the arts and those who employ us have to regain a true sense of collective responsibility," he said in 1988. "I try to make films about morally accountable individuals, trying to hold true to their beliefs. ... What I find offensive in films like "Rambo" is the illusion of an individual facing a complex world with nothing but his own brute force--and prevailing, as though all we have to do for the triumph of moral virtue is to summon up the violent animal impulse that may well exist deep within all of us."