The Greatest Movie Never Made

Forty Days at Musa Dagh was a strong contender by the end of the 1960s for The Greatest Movie Never Made. By then an eye-watering one million bucks had been spent without a foot of film being shot.

I came across it while writing my book about “The Making of The Guns of Navarone.” That  film’s producer Carl Foreman was slated in the early 1960s to write what I soon discovered was a legendary lost project. It was subsequently fated to become the most high-profile casualty of MGM’s financial problems at the end of that decade.

Forty Days of Musa Dagh was based on the debut novel written in German by Prague-born poet Franz Werfel (who later wrote The Song of Bernadette filmed in 1942). It concerned the infamous Armenian genocide carried out by the Turks in World War One.

The novel had such advance buzz that news of its imminent publication in Germany in 1933 quickly crossed the Atlantic. After studio representatives read the book in the original German, MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg bought the rights in 1934, prior to its American publication, for $35,000 (equivalent to $650,000 now).

Thalberg promised “one of the most staggering  production undertakings of all motion picture history.” With Clark Gable and William Powell heading the cast (there would be 63 roles) and director William Wellman (Call of the Wild, 1935) assigned a million-dollar budget, an enormous amount for the time, and with screenwriter Talbot Jennings (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935) on board, Thalberg was intent on delivering a prestige product. In publicity material, MGM boasted: “What a picture it will make.” 

The novel was a huge success with 170,000 copies sold in hardback even though, priced at $3, it was 50 cents or a dollar more expensive than other bestsellers. It was simultaneously snapped up by the Book of the Month Club and the Catholic Book club and only kept off the top of the bestseller lists by James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.

However, publication was shrouded in controversy. It was banned in Germany shortly after publication. In America, publisher Viking and the author faced a $200,000 libel lawsuit brought by Harutian Nokhudian and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1936 – where it was dismissed. But that was only the beginning of its troubles.

Thalberg had not counted on opposition from Turkey. Or if such a possibility had been considered, it had been dismissed since that country was not a profitable outlet for Hollywood product. However, Turkey had very strong trading relationships and threatened to instigate a ban on all MGM releases in these European countries as well as the entire Muslim world, an action which if successful would put a huge hole in the studio’s foreign receipts.

For the first time studios “had begun to pay attention to foreign repercussions” after Paramount had been forced to withdraw from Spain and many other markets the final Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaboration The Devil Is A Woman  (1935) when that movie ruffled the feathers of foreign powers. Unwilling to go ahead with a picture that might cost them heavily at the foreign box office, Thalberg shelved the movie (along with two others).

The idea remained dormant for 15 years until revived by independent producer Walter Wanger (Joan of Arc, 1948) who had originally competed with MGM for the rights and had Paramount waiting in the wings to provide backing should the Thalberg deal fall through. But even a seasoned a producer such as Wanger had no more success in placing it on the launch pad and it struggled along in development hell for another decade until, out of the blue, in 1961 MGM hooked writer-director Carl Foreman.

This was a considerable surprise because Foreman had an exclusive and lucrative deal with Columbia (they split profits on his films down the middle) but as he was coming off that studio’s most successful picture of all time The Guns of Navarone (1961) with a high-octane cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn the studio cut him some slack.

Foreman did not come cheap. In addition to his $27,500 fee for writing the script, Foreman was entitled to 2.5 per cent of the gross after MGM had taken in twice the negative cost. After an arduous four-year slog delivering The Guns of Navarone, Foreman described his new venture as “a bit of a rest” which seemed an odd choice of phrase given that MGM was under pressure to greenlight the picture in 1962. 

It was firmly in MGM’s production sights for most of the 1960s. In 1963 it was seen as one of the studio’s biggest upcoming projects along with Doctor Zhivago, the adaptation of James Michener’s Caravans and musical Say It with Music. By the following year it had been allocated a $7.5 million budget – the same as Zhivago – and was on course to be made in Greece in the spring of that year.

By 1965 it landed in the lap of Oscar-nominated British director Guy Green who had nurtured the $1.2 million A Patch of Blue (1965) starring Sidney Poitier into a substantial hit. Although the budget had by now dropped to $5 million it had attracted Omar Sharif, one of four big stars set. There was a new script by Scottish Oscar-winner Neil Paterson (Room at the Top, 1959) and best of all there was a top-flight producer in Pandro S. Berman (Father of the Bride, 1950)  with over two decades experience at MGM. Filming, however, though still in Greece, had been pushed back to 1966.

Although Guy Green appeared to have the most solid lock on the project, other names associated with the movie included producer Carlo Ponti (Doctor Zhivago, 1965) and directors William Wyler (Ben Hur, 1959),  Henri Verneuil  (The 25th Hour, 1967) and Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, 1954), the last two both born in the former Ottoman Empire now known as Turkey.

It was listed as being on the MGM production schedules for every year till the end of the decade with names like Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston bandied about until it joined a massive bonfire of other expensive projects. By the end of the decade it had racked up over a million dollars in producer and screenwriter fees. According to Variety it was “the most off-again on-again major literary property in the history of American motion picture.”

But it was not alone in being dumped by a studio. Towards the end of the 1960s Hollywood was awash with abandoned projects. The rights to Broadway musical Coco had cost $2.25 million. Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate had a $12 million budget before the plug was pulled. A record $600,000 had been spent on acquiring the rights to William Styron bestseller The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Other high-priced acquisitions lumped in production limbo included The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) author John Le Carre’s A Small Town in Germany, Armageddon by Leon Uris of Exodus (1960) fame, Bullet Park by John Cheever who had written The Swimmer (1968), Caravans despite the success of the author’s Hawaii (1966) and The Inheritors by Harold Robbins who had churned out The Carpetbaggers (1964).

Hit plays were no more successful in reaching the starting grid – Arthur Miller’s After the Fall had George Cukor lined up to direct and Faye Dunaway as star and a total of $350,000 had been spent on Tom Stoppard’s  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  

And there, surely, Forty Days of Musa Dagh should have been laid to rest. Of all these expensive projects, only Caravans would eventually see the light of day. But against all odds, interest in Forty Days of Musa Dagh remained high. Fresh from success with Where Eagles Dare (1968) producing team Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin took a stab at the project, setting their sights on a new script and a 1970 start date. But the duo could not turn the idea into reality. And once again it sank to the bottom of the pile.

Armenian businessman and sometime producer John Kurkjian (The Tears of Happiness, 1974) picked up the rights through his vehicle High Investment and wooed MGM. And in 1976 the project was revived by the studio as a co-production with James B. Harris (Paths of Glory, 1957) overseeing production based on a new script by South African playwright Ronald Harwood (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1970). This was viewed as “the last attempt to revive it” and for a time it appeared as if the project would at last see the light of day. But MGM’s optimism barely lasted the year and, concluding the movie was too rich for its blood, dropped out.

Kurkjian continued to try to interest other studios and was confident. With a new script by Clarke Reynolds (Shalako, 1968), he was convinced he could get the movie off the ground with the backing of the Yugoslavian government were the film to shoot there. United Artists announced the movie would be on its release slate for 1977-1978. But that, too, proved a false dawn.

Redemption came from the most unlikely of sources –  American B-picture production outfit Cannon which had been taken over in 1979 for just $500,000 by Israeli writer-director Menahem Golem and his cousin Yoram Globus. Although this pair specialized in low-budget action pictures such as Death Wish sequels and martial arts efforts like Enter the Ninja (1981), they had artistic pretensions, borne out by The Magician of Lublin (1979) directed by Golan and starring Alan Arkin. That same year, a new version of Forty Days of Musa Dagh took shape, part-funded by High Investment and the West Berlin Senate. Charles Bronson was lined up as star. The budget was set at $10 million.

In the end, there was no Bronson and no $10 million budget, but the movie did get made in 1982 for $4 million by Transcontinental Picture Industries with the less stellar cast of Indian star Kabir Bedi (Sandokan mini-series, 1976), American television actress Ronnie Carol and character actor Guy Stockwell  (Beau Geste, 1966). It was directed by Israeli Sarky Mouradian (Tears of Happiness). It did not reach the United States for another five years. And it was no epic, coming in at a trim 94 minutes. Nor was it a huge box office success. And it’s pretty impossible to find on DVD.

Footnote: The Promise (2016) covered the same ground. Directed by Terry George, it starred Chistian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon. It was funded by Kirk Kerkorian.

SOURCES: “Double Pan for Reich,” Variety, Feb 27, 1934, 58; “Literati: Best Sellers,” Variety, Jan 1, 1935, 58; “Wellman’s Chore,” Variety, Apr 10, 1935, 2; Advertisement, MGM, Variety, Jun 12, 1935, 25-28; “Foreign Rights Bugaboo,” Variety, Nov 27, 1935, 2; “Thalberg’s Eight; Four at $1,000,000,” Variety, Dec 25, 1935, 4; “H’Wood Foreign Jams,” Variety, Mar 25, 1936, 3; “MGM Scraps Witch of Timbuctoo and Musa Dagh,” Variety Mar 25, 1936, 3; “Film Industry Watching Blockade as B.O. Cue on Provocative Themes,” Variety, Jun 22, 1938, 1; “Carl Foreman to Metro on Loan,” Variety, Feb 1, 1961, 3;  “Columbia Waives Rights to Foreman for 40 Days,” Variety, Feb 8, 1961, 59; “Foreman’s Commitment: Doing 40 Days for MGM, Strength for Columbia,” Variety, Jul 5, 1961, 11; “Positive Side of Negatives,” Variety, May 30, 1962, 5; “Berman, 22-Year Man, Stays on MGM Lot,” Variety, Aug 1, 1962, 3; “Upcoming MG Slate May Number 30 Pix,” Variety, Jan 1, 1964, 16; “1965-1967 Will Be Roadshow Years” Variety, Sep 16, 1964, 4; “Pictures: Omar Sharif,” Variety, Dec 9, 1964, 21; “Guy Green Next Helms Musa Dagh,” Variety, Apr 14, 1965, 20; “Musa Dagh Nearer,” Variety, Jul 7, 1965, 9; “MGM Keeps Pledge of 26 Prods,” Variety, Aug 10, 1965, 5; “MGM’s (Hopefully) Final Loan,” Variety, Sep 14, 1966, 3; “3 Ponti Films on Metro O’Seas Slate,” Variety, Apr 19, 1967, 65; “Forty Days (and 34 Years) of Musa Dagh,” Variety, Apr 16, 1969, 19; “Acceptable Script As Invisible Cost Before Production,” Variety, Jul 14, 1971, 3; “Big Investment in Story Values Which Have Not Yet Been Filmed,” Variety, May 9, 1973, 28; “Werfel, After 40 years,” Variety, Jul 28, 1976, 6; “United Artists Looks Ahead; 13 from Metro Inventory,” Variety, Sep 22, 1976, 3; “Shepherd, As MGM Producer, Details Plans, Dropped Films, ” Variety, Dec 15, 1976,3; “Golan-Globus to Film 40 Days of Musa Dagh,” Variety, Feb 14, 1979, 27; “TPI Carves Out Sales Niche,” Variety, Oct 26, 1983, 69; “Film Review,” Variety, Nov 25, 1987, 19; “Cannon Completed Versus Unmade Films,” Variety, Oct 5, 1988, 52.

Khartoum (1966) ****

You don’t have to look far for contemporary parallels in this absorbing drama.

A charismatic and clever military strategist the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier) inspires a holy war in the Middle East. Ruling global power Britain wants to avoid  “policing the world” and instead of sending in the army despatches in an unofficial capacity its hero of the day, the equally charismatic “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston).

He is the do-gooder as man-of-action having quelled an uprising in China and destroyed the slave trade in Sudan, of which Khartoum is the capital. Offered £6,000 by local interests to become Governor of Sudan, he takes £2,000, “that’s all I need.”

But where a similar kind of hero, Lawrence of Arabia, was politically naive, Gordon is politically adept and much of the joy of this picture is seeing him out-maneuver British prime minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson – compare this performance to his bumbling bore in The Wrong Box out the same year). Gordon’s ostensible task is to evacuate Egyptians from Khartoum. If he succeeds, Britain saves face, if he fails he takes the rap. Directed by British stalwart Basil Dearden (The Blue Lamp, 1950; Victim, 1961), the pictures cleaves closer to drama than spectacle.

I remember being quite bored by all the talk when I saw this as a twelve-year-old, but this time round found it completely absorbing, a battle of wits between Gordon and the Mahdi on the one hand and between Gordon and Gladstone on the othor. The action, when it comes, is riveting without the aplomb of Lawrence of Arabia, but audience interest is focused on the main characters.

Richard Johnson, removed from his Bulldog Drummond persona (Some Girls Do), is excellent as Gordon’s aide or, as he acknowledges, “Gladstone’s spy.”

This is a Cinerama picture (cue spectacular widescreen scenery) without the distracting Cinerama effects (a race downhill, a runaway train), a bold political drama poorly received at a time when Cinerama meant spectacular effects and much more action. Definitely worth a second – or first – look.    

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Khartoum-DVD-Charlton-Heston/dp/B000089AUD/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2WXSB64ZF7PIT&dchild=1&keywords=khartoum+dvd&qid=1592640053&sprefix=khartoum%2Caps%2C147&sr=8-1