LONDON — Actor Sir John Mills, the quintessential British officer in scores of films, died Saturday after an Oscar-winning career spanning more than 50 years that included roles in "Gandhi" and "Ryan's Daughter." He was 97.

Mills died at home in Denham, west of London, after a short illness, a statement from his trustees said.

Actor and director Richard Attenborough said Mills was hospitalized last month with a chest infection, from which he did not recover.

Mills' roles ranged from Pip in David Lean's "Great Expectations" to the village idiot in Lean's "Ryan's Daughter," for which he won his Academy Award as best supporting actor in 1971.

But he took his place in film history as soldier, sailor, airman and commanding officer, embodying the decency, humility and coolness under pressure so cherished in the British hero.

On Mills' 80th birthday in 1988, historian Jeffrey Richards called him "truly an English Everyman. His heroes have been on the whole not extraordinary men but ordinary men whose heroism derives from their levelheadedness, generosity of spirit and innate sense of what is right."

Prime Minister Tony Blair said Mills "made us proud to be British."

"Over many decades and countless films, he inspired us with his ability, warmth and spirit," Blair said.

Buckingham Palace said Queen Elizabeth II was sorry to hear of the actor's death.

Small, fair-haired, with a boyish face and very blue eyes, he was the son, the brother, the boy next door who went off to fight the Germans and only sometimes came back.

In "Forever England" he was the ordinary seaman who pins down a German battleship. In "Waterloo Road" he played an AWOL soldier. In Noel Coward's 1942 classic "In Which We Serve" he was a Cockney able seaman, and in Anthony Asquith's "The Way to the Stars," one of the most popular films of the war, he was a schoolmaster-turned-RAF pilot.

These performances were touching and restrained, and they made his name.

"There was no one comparable really," Attenborough told British Broadcasting Corp. "He gave such a variety of impeccable performances. . . . He will be hugely missed."

The two were friends and worked together on films including Attenborough's "Gandhi," in which Mills played the viceroy of India.

Age seemed hardly to touch him, and he carried on in military roles for decades, eventually becoming the commander, as in "Above Us the Waves" in 1955. He was trapped in a submarine in 1950's "Morning Departure," toiled through the desert in "Ice Cold In Alex" (1958), and in "Tunes of Glory" (1960) he was the commander of a Scottish regiment, tormented by a fellow officer.

In a recent survey of British film legends by Sky television, voters puts Mills in 8th place all-time among British male actors.

But Mills started his career as a hoofer, a song and dance man in old Fred Astaire roles, far from the trenches.

Born Lewis Ernest Watts, the son of a Suffolk schoolmaster, he started work at 17 as a grain merchant's clerk but longed for the stage.

His older sister Annette, part of a dancing duo at Ciro's, the London nightclub, encouraged his ambitions, and he moved to the capital and changed his name.

He was acting with at traveling troupe called The Quaints, in Singapore in 1929 when Noel Coward saw the show and suggested Mills look him up in London.

That led to parts in Coward's revues and eventually his war movies, where Mills swapped dancing shoes for uniform.

Mills' own military career in the Royal Engineers lasted little more than a year after the outbreak World War II, until he was declared unfit because of an ulcer.

Mills was married first to actress Aileen Raymond, then in 1941 to Mary Hayley Bell, an actress-turned-playwright.

Their son Jonathan is a screenwriter, and daughters Juliet and Hayley are actresses.

Mills is survived by his wife and their children. The funeral service will be held on April 27 in Denham.