Behind the Scenes: “The 7th Dawn” (1964)

Originally intended to pair Audrey Hepburn with William Holden and entitled variously Wherever Loves Takes Me, Ten Days to Penang, The Durian Tree (title of the source novel), Year of the Dragon, The Third Road, and Ten Days to Kuala Lampur, the picture eventually released as The 7th Dawn marked the entrance of British director Lewis Gilbert (HMS Defiant/Damn the Defiant, 1962) into the Hollywood big-time courtesy of producer Charles K. Feldman (Casino Royale, 1967). Gilbert had already been assured of a step-up from the budgetary confines of Britain to something more substantial after being signed in 1962 to direct Susan Hayward in Summer Flight, but that had fallen through.

William Holden was always interested in making movies outside the United States, in part down to a sense of adventure, in part to avoid paying taxes. He hadn’t worked in the States since 1958. “I’ve got a reputation for going to various part of the world to take advantage of background. There’s always new stories,” he said, adding, “I have to do things that satisfy me.” Actually, he could afford not to work. He had pocketed by far the biggest-ever Hollywood payout – over $3 million from his share of the profits from Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and his current fee was in excess of $750,000.

Gilbert agreed to take the assignment on the basis of a script by Karl Tunberg (Ben-Hur, 1959) who had adapted the novel by Michael Keon. But what appeared relatively straightforward was soon anything but as the British director became enmeshed in clashes over production, the script and the casting. While Gilbert was tussling with the problems of working on location, where he was expecting the imminent arrival of a film crew, he was summoned to Hollywood and told that two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht (Circus World, 1964) had rewritten the script.

Feldman was known for playing fast and loose with scripts, much to the surprise of director Edward Dmytryk and the frustration of star Laurence Harvey when new writers were  brought in for Walk on the Wild side (1962), earning the producer a reputation for interference.  On reading the new script Gilbert recalled, “The basic plot was similar, but apart from that it wasn’t like the old script at all. Bill Holden’s part kept shrinking while the part of the mixed race girl kept getting bigger.” This may have been a ruse to attract Audrey Hepburn. Although Holden and Hepburn were due to be paired in June 1962 on Paris When It Sizzles in a part more in keeping with her screen persona, that film was delayed (not released till 1964) leaving both free for the Malaysian picture. Despite Feldman’s assurances,  Gilbert later questioned whether Hepburn had ever been committed.

Gilbert hated the new script so much that he threatened to quit, only placated when Feldman promised he could work with Hecht on a revised version of the new script. But Hecht insisted on working closer to his home near New York. Their flight from Los Angeles to New York was delayed because of engine trouble, but by the time passengers were instructed to leave the plane, Hecht, who was addicted to sleeping pills, was fast asleep and could only be removed by ambulance. Facing a three-day deadline, Gilbert discovered that Hecht refused to work in the New York hotel assigned them by Feldman so they were decanted to the writer’s home in upstate New York. That scarcely improved the script, described by Gilbert as a “cockamamie affair.” However, that would not have unduly worried the producer who was of the opinion that performers with box office clout “can make successes of weak properties.”

Six months before release “The 7th Dawn2 was still being promoted as “Ten Days to Penang.” Incidentally, “The Dubious Patriots” was released as “Secret Invasion” (1964),
although its original title did not go to waste, used as an alternative to the
Charles Bronson-Tony Curtis “You Can’t Win ‘Em All” (1970).

The script in whatever version offered a key role for a Eurasian woman. Initially Gilbert and director of photography Freddie Young planned to scour the Shaw Brothers portfolio of budding stars to fill the role, and if not finding what they wanted in Malaysia aimed to head for Hong Kong and “seek her among the actresses there” according to Holden. However, once the compromise script was approved, Feldman proposed his real-life mistress Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) for the part.

That was the first difference of opinion between director and producer, not to mention star and producer, and an education for Gilbert on just how little power he wielded when it came to confronting Feldman. William Holden objected strenuously to the involvement of Capucine, his opposition based on his experience of working with her on flop The Lion (1962). It may have counted against the actress that the duo had engaged in an affair on the African set. Holden may have wanted to treat the affair as one of those things that happened on location – and ended once the film is completed. “Whatever you do, Lewis,” Holden advised the director, “you must resist having her in the picture. I’ve just made a movie with her…and she was not very good. I think, really, the picture suffered for it and so if I make my next movie with her I’m going to look pretty stupid.”

Expecting Holden to back him up, Gilbert was surprised when the actor shied away from any confrontation with the producer, only learning later that Holden was somewhat in awe of Feldman, who had given him his big break in Golden Boy (1939) and, in his capacity as agent – the first to demand a $750,000 fee plus hefty percentage for his client – helped oversee his career. Although her three-year contract with Columbia had begun in 1961, Capucine had only made one film for the studio, Walk on the Wild Side (1962), more likely to turn up in pictures for Twentieth Century Fox, United Artists or independents. Feldman claimed Capucine was “in greater demand for roles after being starred in Walk on the Wild Side.” His position as star-maker-supreme was strengthened when he merged his agency with Ashley-Steiner and bought the rights to Mary McCarthy bestseller The Group, which boasted great parts for four women. Probably Gilbert did not quite realize what he was taking on when he raised his and Holden’s objections to  Capucine. Feldman responded, “We’re not making the film for Bill, we’re making it for the world.”

Gilbert was also having problems with Karl Tunberg who was also functioning as a co-producer “and therefore my producer,” according to the director. “As I’ve often done the job myself I haven’t worked with many producers but I can safely say this one was hopeless.” As a result of Tunberg’s “inertia” the production manager Bill Kirkby resigned, and Gilbert ended taking on the role of producer as well.    

Holden’s career, while not yet in the box office trough that would envelop him later in the decade, was enjoying an unexpected movie hiatus, his planned starring role in The Americanization of Emily, to be directed by William Wyler, having fallen through. Paris When It Sizzles was on the shelf for an interminably long time given the supposed box office pulling power of the stars. Made in 1962, it was not released until 1964, by which time Hepburn was back on top thanks to Charade (1963) and My Fair Lady (1964). By the time The 7th Dawn hit theaters, Holden had four box office flops on the trot.

Jack Hawkins was originally intended to play the Governor and for the role of his daughter Candace, who makes a play for Holden, Gilbert suggested Susannah York who had worked on his Loss of Innocence (1961), and who was beginning to attract attention in Hollywood. By the time the crew got to Malaya, where the film was to be shot, there was one notable absentee – the wardrobe mistress. Gilbert’s wife Hylda supplied York with a beautiful sarong purchased from a girl she spotted passing on a bike. Shooting was delayed due to a strike by Asian extras on the first day. They claimed discrimination because white extras were being paid more. Around 1,000 extras were required to play peasants and the security forces.

Although it was known Holden had an alcohol problem, prior to filming he had undergone aversion therapy in Switzerland and consequently remained dry throughout the filming. Gilbert admired the actor’s approach: “Bill Holden was a delight. He was an old time star.” If you asked him to crawl across a room, and climb up onto a chair, he would do it. “Whatever the director says, you do it. That’s how film actors were trained in his day and that was certainly his training.”

Capucine was the opposite. “Because she was untrained and didn’t understand what you were saying anyway, there was little you could do with her.” When the actress complained to her lover that she was being ignored on set, Gilbert had to take the producer aside and explain her deficiencies. “She doesn’t know about working with other actors. When I’m doing a scene where Susannah’s talking to her, I’m not just working with Susannah. I’m working with her too because I will be filming her reactions, how she listens to Susannah, that sort of thing. When I get back to the cutting room I can put all that together and even improve her performance.” (That said, I felt Capucine gave the best performance of her career.)

Unlike many top productions of the era, the film was not given an exclusive run at a New York city center cinema, but went straight into a Showcase (wide) release in 300 theaters simultaneously with its opening at the Astor and Trans-Lux East arthouses in the Big Apple.

William Holden, unable to stay off the wagon, succumbed to his affliction, hitting his head while on a bender alone in a cabin and dying at the age of 63 from his injury. Capucine was 62 when she committed suicide in 1990.

SOURCES: Lewis Gilbert, All My Flashbacks, (Reynolds & Hearn, 2010) p213-231, p234-235; Matthew Field, “Gilbert Goes to War,” Cinema Retro, Vol 6, issue 18, p46; “Capucine Option Renewed,” Box Office, November 27, 1961, NC2; “Mary Magdalene to Star Capucine,” Box Office, January 29, 1962, p13;  “Feldman Sees Wild Side as New Break-Through,” Box Office, February 5, 1961, p14; “Actor Harvey no Fan of Feldman,” Variety, May 9, 1962, p5; “Ransohoff Signs William Holden,” Box Office, May 28, 1962, p15; “Lewis Gilbert to Direct Summer Flight for UA,” Box Office, June 11, 1962, pE8; “William Holden Plans Continue Produce Pix in Overseas Spots,” Variety, November 20, 1963, p2; “Bill Holden Party Primes Malaya Pic,” Variety, December 19, 1962, 4; “Chatter,” Variety, April 10, 1963, p69; “West Side in Malaya,” Variety, April 17, 1963, p21; “Liz’s Cleo 10% Mebbe Soon; But Holden Coin Tops,” Variety, May 15, 1963, p1; “Holden Follows Wyler Leaving Emily,” Box Office, October 7, 1963, pW2;  “Feldman Acquires Rights to Mary McCarthy Novel,” Box Office, December 16, 1963, pE11;  “New UA Title,” Variety, December 23, 1963, p6; Advertisement, Variety, January 8, 1964, p51; “300 July Dates for Dawn,” Box Office, June 1, 1964, p8; Advertisement, “UA’s Blockbuster for Summer Release,” Variety, June 17, 1964, p12-13; “UA Opens 7th Dawn as Showcase Presentation,” Box Office, August 31, 1964, pE2.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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