Even by Hollywood’s notorious standards, independent producer Samuel Bronston went from boom to bust in record time – three years flat. But by the time he left he had fuelled the roadshow boom, infuriated Hollywood by raising the bar for actor salaries ($1 million for Sophia Loren) and delighted the industry by opening up Spain as a cheap production center. He wasn’t the first indie to make a big splash in the business, David O. Selznick, Edward Small and coming up fast Joseph E. Levine were all significant players.
Whereas most indies raised finance from conventional sources, Bronston, born in what these days is known as Moldova, found investment from an unusual source. In probably the grandest Hollywood wheeze of all time, he became an oil broker. He sold DuPont oil to Spain. But since that country would not pay in American currency, he parlayed the pesetas into moviemaking. Like any industrialist convinced society had not recognized his efforts, Pierre DuPont III reckoned that dining at the Hollywood high table – guests including John Wayne, Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston – might provide sufficient recompense. Bronston used pesetas reaped from commodity broking to make movies and repaid DuPont from the revenue the movies accrued on the international market.
While their first venture John Paul Jones (1959) was a flop it opened up Spain as a potential source of low-cost production at a time when studios, most on the verge of collapse, were desperate to cut expenditure.
Previously, Bronston had enjoyed a low-key Hollywood career, producer, credited or otherwise, on City without Men (1943), Jack London (1943) and A Walk in the Sun (1945) before disappearing off the movie map. But that short career was not without incident, and somewhat marred by the financial repercussions for which he would be later better known. He was sued by the backers of A Walk in the Sun – Hollywood outsiders Walter E. Heller & Co and Ideal Factoring Co. who had ponied up $1 million of the $1.25 million budget. And by a former partner who also claimed he had not been paid.
He resurfaced following a spectacular gambit, gaining access to the Vatican to make a documentary. Using a perceived Papal connection as some kind of approval he spun that into international distribution for his first roadshow King of Kings (1961), a good earner around the world, $24 million gross worldwide on an $8 million budget, and a reissue banker when Easter came round. Spain stood in for the Holy Land and although production began, possibly for publicity reasons, in April 1960, Bronston had begun pre-production two years earlier on developing costumes and sets.
Like Cecil B. DeMille, Bronston exhibited a mania for historical detail. He could bring in experts, make use of local craftspeople, and thousands of extras were available at a fraction of the cost of their Hollywood counterparts, not to mention the Spanish Army at his beck and call. But the set was riven with intrigue, screenwriter Philip Yordan pulling more weight with Bronston than director Nicholas Ray. Bronston soon had a production team established at his mini-studio.
El Cid (1961) was a natural to establish cordial relationships with his national hosts, the character a legend in the country, many events depicted taking place in locations which still existed. But wooing Charlton Heston, at that time the biggest star in the world following the unbelievable success of Ben-Hur (1959), to make this his follow-up to the Biblical epic was a spectacular coup. The fact that he paid more – a reputed $1 million – to secure the services of Sophia Loren proved he could attract the biggest stars and, not as helpful, pay way over the odds.
Costing less than King of Kings and making far more, with superb direction by Anthony Mann and acting by the principals, it was both critically well-received and a massive hit at the international box office, running in roadshow for months. Perhaps more importantly, Bronston’s success attracted the attention of a major Hollywood studio, Paramount, which agreed to partner him in future endeavors and perceived him as the natural successor to Cecil B. DeMille.
Heston returned for 55 Days at Peking, one of the cycle of “siege” pictures – The Alamo (1960), Zulu (1964), Khartoum (1965) fall into the same category – popular if only among filmmakers during the decade. There was a lot more to the picture than art direction but it was not as well-received as the Bronston’s first pair of the decade, and the fact it went through three directors, Nicholas Ray retiring through ill health replaced by Guy Green (A Matter of Innocence, 1967) and finally Andrew Marton who had directed the chariot sequence in Ben-Hur, contributing to the notion of an organization in chaos.
With a $17 million budget, a $5 million U.S. gross ensured there was little profit to be had once the movie had completed the international round. However, luckily for Bronston, roadshows tended to be more popular abroad and could often play far longer in their initial bookings than would occur in the U.S.
When Heston turned down The Fall of the Roman Empire that should have proved a portent. Megalomania or extravagance or an inability to keep a budget in check fuelled the wild overspending on The Fall of the Roman Empire, a title that should have provided a roadshow par excellence, with action and drama of the kind that had driven Ben-Hur. But with a final tab of $24 million it would have required to be the biggest picture of all time just to break even.
By this time, Bronston’s financial mismanagement was catching up with him. Although Paramount kept the faith, signing up for Circus World (1964) and pictures beyond, and with a new partner, Cinerama, ploughing money into the John Wayne three-ringer, Pierre DuPont III had had enough and pulled the plug. Bronston’s debts were in the region of $5 million – $8 million. Subsequent investigation into Bronston’s operation revealed unparalleled levels of waste, unscrupulous hangers-on and the inability to rein back on spending.
Perhaps as critical was that he was churning out roadshow pictures at too fast a rate for control to prove possible. Of course, the unprofitable pictures all went into considerable later profit from sale to television – U.S. networks bid $1 million for El Cid alone in 1966 – syndication, VHS, DVD and streaming, as any star-packed big-budget pictures from that era did. And they have all been reassessed as having greater critical worth than was appreciated at the time.
Bronston consistently argued that he was on the verge of a comeback. He had other irons in the fire – The Nightrunners of Bengal to be directed by Richard Fleischer, Suez helmed by Jack Cardiff, Brave New World with David Niven, The French Revolution, Paris 1900 and Isabella of Spain later linked with Glenda Jackson and John Philip law.
Bronston did work again, credited or otherwise, on Savage Pampas (1965) starring Robert Taylor, Dr Coppelius (1966), Brigham (1977) – reuniting him with writer Yordan – The Mysterious House of Doctor C (1979) which reworked Dr Coppelius and Fort Saganne (1984) with Gerard Depardieu.
His former studios which had gone unsold at auction with a price tag of $1.8 million were bought by the Spanish government and renamed the Luis Bunuel Studios and at one point were scheduled to come out of mothballs for the filming of Rustler’s Rhapsody (1985) starring Tom Berenger.
While Bronston certainly turned Spain into a production powerhouse, he will be perhaps better remembered for his financial finesse. He had a million-dollar guarantee from DuPont but he used it over and over again with different banks without anyone actually stopping to check whether it was already being held as collateral for another movie. In any other world apart form movie-making this would be held up as scandalous behavior, but only in Hollywood would this be applauded as a master showman at work.
SOURCES: SOURCES: Mel Martin, The Magnificent Showman (Bear Manor Media, 2007); “Bronston in 63G Suit,” Variety, February 12, 1947, p9; “Underwriters Reclaim Bronston’s Walk in Sun,” Variety, August 10, 1949, p7; “Sam Bronston’s Film Shot Inside Vatican,” Variety, March 22, 1950, p1; “Bronston’s Brave New World,” Variety, September 4, 1963, p4; “Bronston and Paramount in 4-Picture Deal,” Box Office, December 9, 1963, p7; “Bronston-Cinerama Unite on 2 Films,” Box Office, February 24, 1964, p5; “Bronston’s Comeback Plan,” Variety, June 10, 1964, p3;“Du Pont-Bronston In Accord,” Variety, August 4, 1965, p3; “Bronston Readying Isabela,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p3.