Behind the Scenes: “How The West Was Won” (1962)

These days fact-based magazine articles commonly spark movies – The Fast and the Furious (2001) was inspired by a piece in Vibe, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) started life in Esquire – but it was rare in the 1960s (see Note below).

However, a series of seven lengthy historical articles in the multi-million-selling Life magazine in 1959 about the Wild West, extensively illustrated with material from the time, captured the attention of the nation. Bing Crosby acquired the rights, not as a potential movie, but for a double album recorded in July 1959 on a new label Project Records set up specifically for the purpose – two months after the series ended – and a proposed television special.

When the latter proved too expensive, the rights were sold to MGM which then linked up in a four-film pact with Cinerama to create the first dramatic picture in that format, the three-screen concept that had taken the public by storm in 1952 with This Is Cinerama. Since then, Cinerama had focused exclusively on travelogs and coined $115 million in grosses from just 47 theaters, including $9 million in seven years at the Hollywood theater in Los Angeles. Eight years in its sole London location had yielded $9.4 million gross from a quartet of pictures, Cinerama Holiday (1955) leading the way with (including reissue) a 120-week run, followed by 101 weeks of Seven Wonders of the World (1956), 86 for This Is Cinerama and 80 weeks for South Seas Adventure  (1958).

Box office was supplemented with rentals of the projection equipment. But the novelty had worn off, lack of product denting consumer and industry interest, many of the theaters set up for  the project returning the equipment, so that by the time of this venture there were only 15 U.S. theaters still showing Cinerama. The company went from surviving primarily on equipment royalties to becoming a producer-distributor-exhibitor. Ambitiously, the company believed it could generate $5,000 a week profit for each theater, and, assuming growth to 60 houses, that could bring in $15 million a year.

Crosby initially remained involved – crooning songs to connect various episodes – but that idea was soon abandoned. Director Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, 1960), claimed he came up with the movie’s structure. “The original concept was mine,” he said, “The first step in the winning of the West was the opening of the canal, then came the covered wagon, next the Civil War which opened up Missouri and the mid-West then the railroads, and finally the West was won when the Law conquered it instead of the outlaw gangs; which was the theme I worked out for the picture.

“So I conceived the whole idea and then got writers to work on the five episodes. Each episode was about a song originally. Then I travelled all over the country to find locations.”

For once this was a genuine all-star cast headed up by actors with more than a passing acquaintance with the western: John Wayne (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962), Oscar-winner Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), James Stewart (Winchester ’73, 1950), Richard Widmark (The Alamo, 1960) and Henry Fonda (Fort Apache, 1948) with Spencer Tracy (Broken Lance, 1954) as narrator plus George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) in his first western.

The two strongest female roles were given to actresses playing against type, Carroll Baker (Baby Doll, 1956), who normally essayed sexpots, as a homely pioneer and Debbie Reynolds (The Tender Trap, 1955), more at home in musicals and comedies, as her tough sister. The impressive supporting cast included Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach, Walter Brennan, Robert Preston, Carolyn Jones and Karl Malden.

Glenn Ford and Burt Lancaster were unavailable.  Frank Sinatra entered initial negotiations but ultimately turned it down. Gary Cooper, also initially considered, died before the film got underway.

Initially under the title of The Winning of the West screenwriter James R. Webb (The Big Country, 1958) was entrusted with knocking the unwieldy non-fiction story into a coherent fictional narrative. In effect, it was an original screenplay at a time when Hollywood was turning its back on bestsellers, “the pre-sold theory less compelling.” His first draft accommodated various montages covering the journey from the Pilgrim Fathers to the building of the Erie Canal and the Civil War and it was only in subsequent drafts that the tale of Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) emerged with surprising focus on female pioneers.

Webb’s initial ending had involved a father-son conflict, presumably a fall-out between the Rawlings played by James Stewart and George Peppard, but that was rejected in order not to finish on a “note of bitterness” out of keeping with the spirit of the movie. Although he did not receive a credit, John Gay (The Happy Thieves, 1961) also contributed to the screenplay.

Given the film’s episodic structure it is amazing how well the various sequences fit together and the narrative thrust maintained. The story covers a 50-year stretch beginning in 1839 with the river sequence bringing together James Stewart and Carroll Baker. After Stewart is bushwhacked by river pirates, he marries Baker and they set up a homestead. The next section pairs singer Debbie Reynolds with gambler Gregory Peck whose wagon train is attacked by Indians on the way to San Francisco. Later, Stewart and son George Peppard enlist in the Civil War (featuring John Wayne as an unkempt General Sherman).

Stewart dies at the Battle of Shiloh. Peppard joins the cavalry and later as a marshal in Arizona meets Reynolds and prevents a robbery that results in a spectacular train wreck. It took a superb piece of screenwriting to pull the elements together, ensure the characters had just cause to meet and to create solid pace with a high drama and action quotient.

The undertaking was too much for one director. Initially, it was expected five would be required but this was truncated to three – John Ford (The Searchers, 1956), Henry Hathaway  and George Marshall (The Sheepman, 1958) although Hathaway carried the biggest share of the burden and Richard Thorpe (Ivanhoe, 1952) handled some transitional historical sequences. 

The directors broke new ground, technically. The Cinerama camera was actually three cameras in one, each set at a 48 degree to the next and when projected provided a 146-degree angle view. Each panel had its own vanishing point so the camera could, uniquely, see down both sides of a building.

But there were drawbacks. The cumbersome cameras required peculiar skills to achieve common shots. Directors lay on top of the camera to judge what a close-up looked like. Sets were built to take account of the way dimensions appeared through the lens, camera remaining static to prevent distortion. When projected, the picture was twice the size of 65mm and before the invention of the single-camera lens led to vertical lines running down the screen. Trees were built into compositions to hide these lines.

“You couldn’t move the camera much,” recalled Hathaway, “or the picture would distort. You have to shove everything right up to the camera. Actors worked two- and three-feet away from the camera. The opening dolly down the street to the wharf was the first time it had ever been done.

He added, “Over 50 per cent of the stuff on the train was made on the stage (i.e. a studio set) and 60 per cent of the stuff coming down the rapids. I never took a principal up north to the river, the principals never worked off the stage. We never photographed the scenes with transparencies in three cameras with Cinerama – we photographed them with one camera in 70mm and then split the negative.

“I wouldn’t shoot close-ups in Cinerama – I shot the close-ups in 70(mm) and then separated the negative because in Cinerama it distorted their arms. When (George) Stevens shot The Greatest Story Ever Told he used only 70mm and split it all. So from then on they never used the three cameras again. Now they’re actually shooting it in 35(mm).”

Rui Nogueira, “Henry Hathaway Interview,” Focus on Film, No 7, 1971, p19.

After a year spent in pre-production, an eight-month schedule due to start on May 28, 1961, and a completion date of  Xmas 1961, MGM anticipated a 1962 launch, Independence Day pencilled in for the world premiere. The original $7 million budget mushroomed to $12 million and then to £14.4 million, $1 million of that ascribed to adverse weather conditions, hardly surprising given the extent of the location work. A total of $2.2 million went on the 10 stars and 13 co-stars, virtually talent on the cheap given the salaries many could command, transport cost $1 million and the same again in props including an 1840 vintage Erie canal boat.

Rain and overcast skies added $145,000 to the cost of shooting the rapids sequence in Oregon and another $218,000 was required when early snowfall scuppered one location and required traveling 1,000 miles distant. Nearly 13,000 extras were involved as well as 875 horses, 1,200 buffalo, 50 oxen and 160 mules. Thousands of period props were dispersed among the 77 sets. Over 2,000 pairs of period shoes and 1500 pairs of moccasins were fashioned as well as 107 wagons, many designed to break on cue.

Virtually 90 per cent  of the picture was shot on location to satisfy Cinerama customers accustomed to seeing new vistas and to bring alive the illustrations from the original Life magazine articles. Backdrops included Ohio River Valley, Monument Valley, Cave-in-Rock State Park, Colorado Rockies, Black Hills of Dakota, Custer State Park and Mackenzie River in Oregon.

The picture, including narration, took over a year to make. Cinerama sensation was achieved by shooting the rapids, runaway locomotive, buffalo stampede, Indian attack, Civil War battle and cattle drive. Motion was central to Cinerama so journeys were undertaken by raft, wagon, pony express, railroad and boat, anything that could get up a head of steam.

Initially, too, the production team had been adamant – “rigid plans for running time will be met” – that the movie would clock in at 150-155 minutes (final running time was 165 minutes) and there was some doubt, at least initially, on the value of going down the roadshow route in the United States. Roadshow was definitely set for Europe, a 15-minute intermission being included in those prints, for a continent where both roadshow and westerns were more popular than in the States.

Big screen westerns in particular in Europe had not been affected by the advent of the small-screen variety. Some films received substantial boosts abroad. “The Magnificent Seven and Cimarron (both 1960) took giants steps forward once they made the transatlantic crossing.” British distributors also reported “striking” success with The Last Sunset (1961) and One-Eyed Jacks (1962) which had toiled to make a similar impression in the U.S.

In the end the decision was made to hold back the release in the U.S. in favor of another Cinerama project The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, which had begun shooting later and ultimately cost $6 million, double its original budget. Rather than bunch up the release of both pictures, MGM opted to kick off its Cinerama U.S. launch with Grimm in 1962 and shifted How the West Was Won to the following year. MGM adopted the anticipation approach, holding the world premiere in London on November 1, 1962, and unleashing the picture in roadshow in Europe.

A record advance of $500,000 was banked for the London showing at the 1,155-seat Casino Cinerama (prices $1.20-$2.15) on roadshow separate performance release. Before the advertising campaign even began in October, a full month prior to the world premiere, over 62,000 reservations had been made via group bookings. Critics were enamored and audiences riveted. The cinema made “unusually large profits” and after two years had grossed $2.25 million from 1722 showings.

Dmitri Tiomkin (The Alamo, 1960) was hired to compose the music, but an eye condition prevented his participation though he later sued for $2.63 million after claiming he was fired before the assignment began. Alfred Newman (Nevada Smith, 1966) wrote the thundering score but uniquely for the time MGM shared the publishing rights with Bing Crosby. In the U.S. Bantam printed half a million copies of a paperback tie-in, sales of the soundtrack were huge and there was a massive rush to become involved by retailers and museums with educational establishments an easy target. 

Audience response was overwhelming, a million customers in the first month, two million by the first 10 weeks at just 36 houses, some of which had only been showing it for half that time. But it failed to hit ambitious targets – predictions that it would regularly run for three years in some situations “based on the star roster and the fact the pic offers more natural U.S. vistas than anything yet done on the screen” proving wildly over-optimistic. Still, it had enjoyed 80 roadshow engagements including eight months at the Cinerama in New York and grossed $2.3 million in 92 weeks in L.A, $1.14 million after 88 weeks in Minneapolis and $1.5 million after one week fewer in Denver.

By 1965, as it began a general release 35mm roll-out with 3,000 bookings already taken, it had already passed the $9 million mark in rentals including a limited number of showcase breaks the previous year.

Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, it won for screenplay, sound and editing. The movie became MGM’s biggest hit after Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur. In my recent book The Magnificent ‘60s, The 100 Most Popular Films of a Revolutionary Decade I placed it twelfth on the chart of the decade’s top box office films.

It provided a popularity fillip for most of the big stars involved, none more so than James Stewart who, prior to shooting, had been on the verge of retirement. Box office appeal diminishing, work on his next picture Take Her, She’s Mine postponed by the Actor’s Strike, after the death of his father he had “quietly begun to make plans to get out of his Fox contract, retire, and move his family out of Beverly Hills.” He had spent $500,000 on a 1,100-acre ranch and was already well set to quit acting having accumulated a large real estate portfolio in addition to oil well investments.

NOTE: Robert J. Landry (“Magazines a Prime Screen Source,” Variety, May 30, 1962, 11) pointed to Cosmopolitan as the original publication vehicle for To Catch a Thief (1955) by David Dodge in 1951 and Fannie Hurst’s Back Street (1932), serialized over six months from September 1930.  Frank Rooney’s The Cyclist’s Raid – later filmed as The Wild One (1953) – first appeared in Harpers magazine. Movies as varied as Edna Ferber’s Ice Palace (1960) and The Executioners by John D. MacDonald, later filmed as Cape Fear (1962), were initially published in Ladies Home Journal. The Saturday Evening Post published Alan Le May’s The Avenging Texan, renamed The Searchers (1956), and Donald Hamilton’s Ambush at Blanco Canyon, renamed The Big Country (1958) as well as Christopher Landon’s Escape in the Desert which was picturized under the more imaginative Ice Cold in Alex (1958). 

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, The Magnificent ‘60s, The 100 Most Popular Films of a Revolutionary Decade (McFarland, 2022) p168-170; Marc Eliot, James Stewart A Biography (Aurum Press, paperback, 2007) p350-351; Rui Nogueira, “Henry Hathaway Interview,” Focus on Film, No 7, 1971, p19; Sir Christopher Frayling, How the West Was Won, Cinema Retro, Vol 8, Issue 22, p25-29; Greg Kimble, “How the West Was Won – in Cinerama,” in70mm.com, October 1983;  “Reisini Envisions Cinerama Leaving Travelog for Fiction Pix,” Variety, December 14, 1960, p17; “Metro in 4-Film Deal with Cinerama,” Variety, March 1, 1961, p22; “Cinerama Action Awaits Plot Tales,” Variety, March 8, 1961, p10; “Fat Bankroll for How West Was Won,” Variety, May 24, 1961, p3; “Return to Original Scripts,” Variety, June 28, 1961, p5;“MGM-Cinerama Set 3-Hour Limit For West Was Won,Variety, August 23, 1961, p7; “Hoss Operas in O’Seas Gallop,” Variety, August 23, 1961, p7; “Coin Potential As To Cinerama,” Variety, September 20, 1961, p15; “Changing Economics on Cinerama,” Variety, October 11, 1961, p13; “Bantam’s 22 Paperback Tie-Ups in Hollywood,” Variety, October 25, 1961, p22; “How West Was Won for July 4 Premiere,” Box Office, December 11, 1961, p14; “Crosby Enterprises Holds West Cinerama Songs,” Variety, January 24, 1962, p1; “Grimm First in U.S. for Cinerama but Abroad West Gets Priority,” Variety, April 4, 1962, p13; “Cinerama Fiscalities,” Variety, April 11, 1962, p3; “Cinerama Story Pair Burst Budgets,” Variety, May 16, 1962, p3; “Tiomkin’s $2,630,000 Suit Vs MGM et al,” Variety, June 27, 1962, p39; “Hathaway a Pioneer,” Variety, July 25, 1962, p12; “Bernard Smith Clarifies Fiscal Facts,” Variety, August 8, 1962, p3; Review, Variety, November 7, 1962, p6; “London Critics Rave Over West,” Variety, November 7, 1962, p19; “Brilliant World Premiere in London for West,” Box Office, November 12, 1962, p12; “West in Cinerama the Big Ace,” Variety, November 14, 1962, p16; Feature Reviews, Box Office, November 26, 1962; Bosley Crowther, “Western Cliches; How West Was Won Opens in New York,” New York Times, March 28, 1963; “Big Book Aid for West,Box Office, April 1, 1963, pA3; “West Was Won Seen By 2,000,000 in 10 Weeks,” Box Office, June 3, 1963, p15;  “How West Was Won for 19 Showcase Theaters,” Box Office, June 15, 1964, pE1; “West End,” Variety, November 11, 1964, p27; “How West Was Won Ends Roadshowing,” December 9, 1964, p16; “3,000 Bookings Expected for How the West Was Won,” Box Office, May 3, 1965.

How the West Was Won (1962) ***** – Seen at the Cinerama

I’ve got Alfred Newman’s toe-tapping theme music in my head. In fact, every time I think of this music I get an earworm full of it. Not that I’m complaining. The score – almost a greatest hits of spiritual and traditional songs – is one of the best things about it. But then you’re struggling to find anything that isn’t good about it. But, for some reason, this western never seems to be given its due among the very best westerns.

Not only is it a rip-roaring picture featuring the all-star cast to end all-star casts it’s a very satisfying drama to boot and it follows an arc that goes from enterprise to consequence, pretty much the definition of all exploration.

Given it covers virtually a half-century – from 1839 to 1889 – and could easily have been a sprawling mess dotted by cameos, it is astonishingly clever in knowing when to drop characters and when to take them up again, and there’s very little of the maudlin. For every pioneer there’s a predator or hustler whether river pirates, gamblers or outlaws and even a country as big as the United States can’t get any peace with itself, the Civil War coming plumb in the middle of the narrative.

Some enterprising character has built the Erie Canal, making it much easier for families to head west by river. Mountain man fur trader Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) on meeting prospective pioneers the Prescotts has a hankering after the young Eve (Carroll Baker) but as a self-confessed sinner and valuing his freedom has no intention of settling down. But he is bushwhacked by river pirates headed by Jeb Hawkins (Walter Brennan) and left for dead, but after saving the Prescotts from the gang changes his mind about settling down and sets up a homesteading with Eve.

We have already been introduced to Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) who has attracted the attention of huckster Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) and they meet again in St Louis where she is a music hall turn and widow. Her physical attraction pales in comparison with the fact she has inherited a gold mine. He follows her, unwelcome, in a wagon train which survives attack by Cheyenne, but still she resists him, not falling for him until a third meeting on a riverboat.

Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) wants to follow his father to fight in the Civil War. Linus dies there, but there’s no great drama about it, he’s just another casualty, and the death is in the passing. In probably the only section that feels squeezed in, following the Battle of Shiloh a disillusioned Zeb saves General Sherman (John Wayne) and Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) from an assassin.

Returning home to find Eve dead, Zeb hands over his share of the farm to his brother and heads west to join the U.S. Cavalry at a time when the Army is required to keep the peace with Native Americans enraged by railroad expansion. Zeb links up with buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), who appeared at the beginning as a friend of his father.

Eve, a widow again, meets up in Arizona with family man and lawman Zeb who uncovers a plot by outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) to hijack a train. Zeb turns rancher once again, looking after her farm.

But the drama is peppered throughout by the kind of vivid action required of the Cinerama format, all such sections filmed from the audience point-of-view. So the Prescotts are caught in thundering rapids, there’s a wagon train attack and buffalo stampede, and a speeding train heading to spectacular wreck. There’s plenty other conflict and not so many winsome moments.

Interestingly, in the first half it’s the women who drive the narrative, Eve taming Linus, Lilith constantly fending off Cleve. And there’s no shortage of exposing the weaknesses and greed of the explorers, the railroad barons and buffalo hunters and outlaws, and few of the characters are aloof from some version of that greed, whether it be to own land or a gold mine or even in an incipient version of the rampaging buffalo hunters to pick off enough to make a healthy living.

And here’s the kicker. Virtually all the all-star cast play against type. John Wayne (Circus World, 1964) reveals tremendous insecurity, Gregory Peck (Mirage, 1965) is an unscrupulous though charming renegade, the otherwise sassy Debbie Reynolds (My Six Loves, 1963) is as dumb as they come to fall for him, and for all the glimpses of the aw-shucks persona James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965) plays a much meaner hard-drinking hard-whoring version of his mean cowboy. Carroll Baker (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is an innocent not her usual temptress while George Peppard (The Blue Max, 1966) who usually depends on charm gets no opportunity to use it. .

Also worth mentioning: Henry Fonda (Madigan, 1968), Lee J. Cobb (Coogan’s Bluff, 1968), Carolyn Jones (Morticia in The Addams Family, 1964-1966), Eli Wallach (The Moon-Spinners, 1964), Richard Widmark (Madigan), Karl Malden (Nevada Smith, 1966) and Robert Preston (The Music Man, 1962).  

Though John Ford (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) had a hand in directing the picture, it was a small one (the short Civil War episode), and virtually all the credit belongs to Henry Hathaway (Circus World) who helmed three of the five sections with George Marshall (The Sheepman, 1958) taking up the slack for the railroad section.

And though you might balk at the idea of trying to cover such a lengthy period, there’s no doubting the skill of screenwriter James R. Webb (Alfred the Great, 1969) to mesh together so many strands, bring so many characters alive and write such good dialog. Bear in mind this was based on a series of non-fiction articles in Life magazine, not a novel, so events not characters had been to the forefront. Webb populated this with interesting people and built an excellent structure.

I’m still tapping my toe as I write this and I was tapping my toe big-style to be able to see this courtesy of the Bradford Widescreen Weekend on the giant Cinerama screen with an old print where the vertical lines occasionally showed up. Superlatives are superfluous.

Behind the Scenes: “Circus World / The Magnificent Showman” (1964)

For John Wayne it was the best of deals and the worst of deals. He had signed a six-picture seven-year contract with Paramount. On the plus side the studio paid the entire amount  upfront, wiping out the accumulated debts from the debacle of The Alamo (1960). On the debit side, he received only $500,000 per picture, well below his standard price of $750,000. In fact, Paramount could recoup some of its expense by hiring him out at his previous going rate.

Wayne was coming off hits McLintock (1963), Hatari! (1962) and How the West Was Won (1962) but other movies The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Donovan’s Reef (1963) – the first in the multi-picture deal – had punctured a hole in his supposed box office supremacy. But for maverick producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961), getting his hands on a star of the magnitude of Wayne was a coup. Originally entitled Those Were the Days, the title switched to the more appealing Circus World.

Bronston was a new-style producer. Apart from a $2.5 million injection by Paramount he  financed his pictures by country-by-country advances, and backed by DuPont, hardly the first big company to be seduced by the prospect of becoming a big Hollywood player. Distributors who advanced money in this fashion made hay if the film hit the bull’s eye, but if it flopped they didn’t get their money back. And a flop made it more difficult for an independent producer to raise the dough for his next picture. So Wayne’s involvement was viewed as a guarantee.

Nicholas Ray (King of Kings, 1961) was initially hired to direct followed by Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946), also made a Bronston partner, who tried to sabotage the script, planning only to shoot the sections he had rewritten. Bernard Gordon (55 Days at Peking, 1963) was credited with the original idea, but when Wayne came on board he brought with him James Edward Grant (The Commancheros, 1961).

Grant was only tempted by the promise of a three-picture deal. The tussle ended with Capra evicted at a cost of $150,000 and Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, 1960) at the helm. Hathaway instigated a week of rewrites with Ben Hecht (Spellbound, 1945) before settling down to more serious work with Grant.

Initial casting envisaged Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) in the role of Wayne’s partner and would-be lover of Cardinale, but he took the job without reading the script and on realizing it was little more than male romantic lead he bowed out. David Niven (55 Days at Peking, 1963) was initially signed as Wayne’s old buddy Cap but he, too, quit over the script. (Wayne and Taylor got on very well and should have teamed up for The War Wagon, 1967, until Kirk Douglas muscled his way in, later doing so for The Train Robbers, 1973. )

Their replacements John Smith (who had made his debut in Wayne picture The High and the Mighty, 1954) and the veteran Lloyd Nolan were hardly in the same box office league, but shaved cash off the budget.

A bigger concern than hiring a supporting cast was the circus. Bronston recruited famed European outfit Althoff Circus, whose 400 performers ensured the ringside element was authentic. For further realism Bronston added Bob Dover from Ringling Bros. There was no need for specialist horses, Bronston already having 125 trained from The Fall of the Roman Empire to pull circus wagons and for bareback riders.

The entire circus had to be transported by rail on 51 freight cars through the Brenner Pass to Germany and via Switzerland and France to Spain, halting at the Spanish border to unload the whole shebang onto a different train because the gauges didn’t match.

For the picture’s most spectacular scene, the capsizing of the ship transporting the circus, Bronston bought the 250ft long S.S. Cabo Huertas which was heading for the breaker’s yard. Repainted, decorated with circus posters and renamed S.S. Circus Maximus it was all set for a sinking overseen by special effects expert Alex Weldon (El Cid, 1961).

Three hundred tons of water were pumped into the half of the hold furthest away from the dock. The additional weight of 600 extras was enough to flip the ship on its side. Four 50-ton steam winches with steel cables kept the ship upright until it was time for action.

Female extras who were going to end up in the drink were fitted with corsets made of cork while the men wore cork belts hidden under their costumes. The Spanish Coast Guard cleared the harbor of debris and a local fleet of boats, just out of camera view, stood by for rescue. Seven divers patrolled the harbor bottom in case the cork failed to keep actors and extras afloat. Three sets of costumes were created for each participant so they would be kept dry as long as necessary.

Hathaway completed the scene without a single injury. He called it “the greatest job of its kind I have ever been involved in.” Bronston, who was as much a detail man as Cecil B. DeMille, ensured the band played instruments from the period

The picture went in front of the camera in September 1963 with Wayne due to end his commitment on December 18. But severe flooding in Spain knocked the movie off schedule and it went way over budget, running on until March 1964, the finishing touches added in London, the budget hitting $9 million.

Rita Hayworth, who hadn’t made a picture in two years, proved a handful, usually late on set, committing the cardinal sin of not learning her lines and, probably as worse, being rude to everyone

At  just 135 minutes long, Circus World  wasn’t originally envisaged as a roadshow until Cinerama put an estimated $2.5 million into the project, which defrayed the costs. By the time that partnership was announced, it was too late to shoot it in the Cinerama process. The 35mm Super Technirama footage was blown up to 70mm for showing in 60 U.S. theaters boasting the iconic Cinerama curved screens. Everything in Cinerama at that point was roadshow. And they had two more projects lined up with Bronston, Vittorio De Sica’s Paris 1900 and Jack Cardiff’s Brave New World, neither of which were made. Bronston also had another two movies in preparation with Paramount: The Nightrunners of Bengal to be directed by Richard Fleischer and Suez, neither made either.

Roadshow suited Paramount which had not used that method of premium release since The Ten Commandments (1956). In 1963 it had set up a roadshow department to handle the forthcoming Becket (1964) and The Fall of the Roman Empire, which were proper roadshow length of, respectively, nearly 150 minutes and over three hours. But, initially, Circus World did not fall into the roadshow category as far as Paramount was concerned. Only the arrival of Cinerama as an investor made it imperative.

To avoid a title clash with the ultra-successful It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), British distributor Rank changed the title to The Magnificent Showman. That alteration did little to improve its box office, opening at London’s Coliseum for a “NSG” (not-so-good in Variety parlance) $11,200, not much more than The Fall of the Roman Empire in its 17th week, How the West Was Won (90th week) and Cleopatra (51st). Nonetheless it ran there for seven months, followed by a mass general release in the U.K. with a record number of prints. In the U.S., on the eve of general release in April 1965, Paramount considered a title change to Wild Across the World and a switch of marketing emphasis to John Wayne and action.

Audiences didn’t bite, certainly not enough to recoup the budget, and far from enough to prevent Bronston’s operation sliding into liquidation.

SOURCES:  Scott Eyman, John Wayne, The Life and Legend (Simon & Schuster, 2014) p379-385; Mel Martin, The Magnificent Showman (Bear Manor Media, 2007), p153-168; Sheldon Hall, Introduction to Circus World, Bradford Widescreen Festival, 2022; “Rank To distribute New Bronston Pic,” Variety, September 26, 1962, p15; “Althoff Circus Logistics for Bronston’s Film,” Variety, September 25, 1963, p4;“New Roadshow Dept at Paramount,” Variety, November 13, 1963, p3; “Bronston and Paramount in 4-Picture Deal,” Box Office, December 9, 1963, p7; “Circus World Filming in London,” Box Office, February 17, 1964, p14; “Bronston’s Circus Goes Cinerama,” Variety, February 19, 1964, p4; “Bronston-Cinerama Unite on 2 Films,” Box Office, February 24, 1964, p5; “Special Mass Release for Showman,” Kine Weekly, May 28, 1964, p3; “Paramount Retains Circus World Title,” February 24, 1965, p3.

Circus World / The Magnificent Showman (1963) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Bookended by disaster – a ship turning turtle, fire raging in the big tent – and kept aloft by giddy circus turns this long-ignored movie in the John Wayne canon is ripe for reassessment. In more down-to-earth mold, with no villains to rein in, no gun-toting required, this calls upon something more basic from the actor, the dramatic skill required to make the audience fix on a strong character within a spectacular screen event.

Presented in stunning Super Technirama, the swansong of maverick producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961), and mistakenly viewed as little more than a travelog or a compendium of circus acts, this dwells instead on transition and loss as Matt Masters (John Wayne) struggles to allow adopted daughter Toni (Claudia Cardinale) to grow up and to come to terms with the part he played in the romantic calamity – father a high-wire suicide, acrobatic mother Lili (Rita Hayworth) fleeing to Europe – that left her parentless.  

It’s no coincidence that sending his three-ring circus cum Wild West Show on a lucrative tour of Europe in the early part of the 20th century provides an opportunity to hunt for Lili, the love of his life. But the circus ship capsizes in Barcelona, leaving Masters penniless, forced to  work for a rival European promoter until he can scrape together enough dough to start again. Masters uses the opportunity of traveling through European capitals to scout new acts, including clown Aldo (Richard Conte), a lion-tamer turned tiger-tamer Emile (Hans Dante), and ballerina Katharyna (Giovana) who performs on the high wire while Toni wants to chance her arm against Matt’s objections as an acrobat and flex her romantic muscles in romantic dalliance with Matt’s new partner Steve (John Smith).

The subplots add dramatic heft, the lion-tamer is frightened of tigers, Aldo has vengeance in mind, so in between the scintillating circus acts the storyline is compressed around the drink- and guilt-sodden Lili and conflict on several fronts with Toni while old retainer Cap (Lloyd Nolan) is on hand to pep up or challenge Matt.

You wouldn’t be allowed to make this kind of film these days so it’s worth glorying in the glory days of the circus – dancing horses, lions, tigers, elephants, acrobats and genuinely hilarious clown sequences. It being a three-ring circus there’s always something going on, plus the Wild West element which comprises a stagecoach being attacked.

John Wayne is as befuddled as ever in romance, restricting his trademark double take to astonishment at Tony’s transition to womanhood. There’s an occasional reversal but mostly  it’s a battle against the odds, potential triumph leavened by gritty loss.

A modern producer would have switched the disasters – it didn’t really matter how Matt got into a fix. But the capsizing, appearing so early the effect is stunning, is brilliantly handled, not just the rescue of people and animals but Matt in lion-taming mode and ending with a clever coda. In every photograph Lili’s face has been scratched out but in among the saturated notes of Matt’s vital cash box is a picture of her.

Some critics have suggested John Wayne (In Harm’s Way, 1965), recovering from his own financial debacle caused by over-investment in The Alamo (1960), took the role for financial expediency. But I can see the attraction, as I’m sure the actor did. This is a far more rounded character than anything since The Searchers (1956) and he can’t even find redemption from a six-shooter. He’s more protective than aggressive, paternal instinct triggering character reaction, and it’s more of a James Stewart type of role, coming back from adversity, and nothing straightforward about a man whose love affair caused marital disaster.

Critics have also taken pot-shots at Claudia Cardinale (The Pink Panther, 1963) as if she was not already an accomplished actress (a favorite of Visconti, for example) in a compelling role and competing on even terms with a star of John Wayne’s charisma without being able to fall back on the old saw of the romantic interest. Although playing a character nearly a decade younger, Cardinale  brings an earthy feistiness to a character with a bucket of decisions to make, turning on its head her relationship with Matt and going through the dramatic hoops with Lili.

Rita Hayworth (The Happy Thieves, 1961) has shucked off the glamor, a worn-down relic of her former self, turning to drink and religion in equal measure in vain hope of finding peace. Veteran Lloyd Nolan (The Double Man, 1967) and Richard Conte (Assault on a Queen, 1966) hold their own, but John Smith (Waco, 1966) does not. Look out for former British star Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965).  

Henry Hathaway (5 Card Stud, 1968) does a terrific job marshalling all the elements, containing the core family drama within the wider action-oriented structure. While there’s never a dull moment, in among all the spectacular scenes are some exhibiting a particularly sensitive directorial touch such as when Matt discovers Lili’s hotel room and reflects on his own misdemeanors.

There were almost as many writers as circus performers – James Edward Grant (The Commancheros, 1961), Ben Hecht (Spellbound, 1945), Julian Zimet (A Place for Lovers, 1968), Bernard Gordon (55 Days at Peking, 1963), Nicholas Ray (The Savage Innocents, 1960) and Philip Yordan (El Cid).

Come at it from the fun perspective and you won’t go wrong. John Wayne completists will adore it.

I was lucky enough to see this is full glorious widescreen at the cinema where it was the Closing Film at this year’s  Widescreen Weekend in Bradford. What a way to end a show!

Widescreen Weekend 2022

We are so conditioned to watching old movies on tiny screens it comes as something of a primal shock to see them in all their original glory. Most festivals lean towards the arthouse end of the cinema business so it’s all the more delightful to find an event that without apology concentrates on the mainstream. Widescreen Weekend takes place at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England, and mostly in its Pictureville Cinema, the only venue in the country equipped to show Cinerama pictures in the original three-strip version which requires three projectors.

Wagons race to escape attack in “How the West Was Won.”

And while most other film festivals attract general movie lovers, this one appears to appeal in large part to those who have had something to do with the movie-making business or its technical side. Speakers might include, for example, Cinerama restoration specialist Dave Strohmaier or Kevin Brownlow, editor turned director, and among the audience you might find people like Keith Stevens from Australia, a former operations executive with Village Roadshow there, but who started out as a projectionist and regaled me with tales of projecting The Sound of Music (1965) in its original roadshow run.

There’s a limited number of movies that were made, mostly in the 1960s, either in Cinerama or 70mm, so the event has expanded to take in the earlier Cinemascope and the other versions of widescreen technology on which Hollywood depended as the marketing hook to bring back audiences from the all-encompassing maw of television in the 1950s. Later films whose directors understood the cinematic impact of 70mm are also added to the mix.

You are transported back to a time when screens were just enormous – this one is 51ft wide – and were curtained, and those curtains would not open (to the sides) until in typical roadshow fashion, a lengthy musical Overture, highlighting aspects of the movie’s music, had run its course. There is something quite sumptuous about sitting in a movie theatre staring at huge red curtains and waiting for the house lights to dim and the music to begin.

Christopher Frayling and Kevin Brownlow getting ready to introduce “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Roughly half-way through the movie itself, the curtains would close for an intermission, and before the picture restarted there would be more music, what was termed the Entr’Acte. Some DVDS of roadshows contain both Overture and Entr’Acte but there is a lightyear of difference between hearing them in your lounge and being exposed to them in a picture house built to bring out their best sound.

This is a homage not just to old movies but the old way of seeing a movie.

In previous years the programs have included Ice Station Zebra (1968), West Side Story (1961), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the David Lean trilogy of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970),a pair from William Wyler that could not have been more diverse – Ben-Hur (1959) and Funny Girl (1968) – This Is Cinerama (1952), Carol Reed’s  The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), John Frankenheimer’s split-screen Formula One epic Grand Prix (1966) and of course the mother of all roadshows The Sound of Music (1965). Throw in a healthy helping of 1950s Cinemascope features and more contemporary pictures which embraced 70mm and you have the makings of an always satisfying weekend.

A thoughtful John Wayne next to Claudia Cardinale in “Circus World.”

So one of the highlights is to see old favorites. This year we were treated to the three-strip version of How the West Was Won (1962), your feet tapping immediately at the sound of the driving Alfred Newman score, and a restored The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), the first two movies made in the Cinerama process that had dramatic purpose and were not mere travelogs.

But there was also an opportunity to watch old movies that have never been screened in their original version since their initial release, such as Circus World / The Magnificent Showman (1964) shown in Super Technirama 70. Also on the program was Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning Oliver! (1968), Bob Fosse debut Sweet Charity (1969), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983), Natalie Wood’s last picture and one that experiments with screen size. Extending the program into non-70mm widescreen there was a screening of Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) and A Star Is Born (1954). Every screening was introduced by an expert and there were occasional surprise guests like Kevin Brownlow, the editor of The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The event takes place in October every year and I’m already looking forward to the next. Kathryn Penny, who has organized the event these past few years, is moving onto a post in academia, and she will be sorely missed.  

Behind the Scenes: “In Harm’s Way” (1965)

In October 1962 Otto Preminger bought the rights to Harm’s Way, a thumping big bestseller by Ronald Basset with a host of characters and sub-plots which serve, like Advise and Consent by Allen Drury, to analyse an American institution, in this case the Navy, pre- and post-Pearl Harbor. In some respects, it was an odd choice, Preminger better known for pictures that filleted such august institutions, The Cardinal (1964) exposed the inner workings of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, it rubbed shoulders quite happily with Exodus (1960), a tale of battle against the odds.

Preminger’s aim was to blunt the current onslaught of movie pessimism with a picture that ended on an optimistic note. He observed: “We are attacked, we are unprepared in every way, and manage by sheer guts, character and resourcefulness to start to work out of it.” He concluded that such action “should remind us and perhaps other people that there is never any reason to give up or to give in to anything that is not right or dignified.”

Celebrated Saul Bass poster.

“One of the reasons I made In Harm’s Way,” explained the director, “is that it is a big step away from most of the films I have made so far. I try not to repeat myself too much…not to make pictures in just one category…I was very fascinated by the characters and the story..,(which) shows that people will act even if they are unprepared and don’t want war.”

Wendell Mayes (Advise and Consent, 1962) started on the screenplay right away, taking it so far as embarking on a rewrite with the director in London. But the  project was unexpectedly shelved for a couple of years. In the meantime Preminger assigned a different writer, Richard Jessup. But when the concept received the director’s full attention once again Mayes was at the wheel and with a different approach. “I had a fresher point of view and did many things that were not in the book at all. I think we improved it for that reason, since we had quite forgotten the novel.”

But collaboration with Preminger was exacting. “We sat together and and worked over almost every line,” explained the director. “I always work very closely with the writer on the screenplay…There is one man, the independent producer-director, who from very beginning takes the whole responsibility and has complete autonomy. I feel responsible for the script: I engaged the writer and I worked with him. Like I direct actors, I feel a director also directs the script.”

In particular, into sharper focus came the son, Jeremiah (played in the film by Brandon de Wilde) of Rockwell Torrey (John Wayne). In the book he had been a passing, insignificant character, who quickly befriended his father. “He had no feelings about the fact that his father had left his mother, and we changed that in the script,” said Mayes. This provided not just a source of dramatic tension but a more mature role for Wayne, who had to express regret for the estrangement, all his fault. (Although the idea of a son enlisting against the mother’s wishes reflect a similar situation in Rio Grande, 1950).

Wayne was Preminger’s first choice. “Because it has passive elements, a strong actor like Wayne is ideally cast,” said the director. Despite being sent an incomplete script, the star signed up – for $500,000. “I don’t look for stars and I don’t avoid them,” he said. The leading roles in Bunny Lake Missing (1965) and The Cardinal (1964) went to relative unknowns. “I would not ask John Wayne to play, say, a coward because his image is not the image of a coward, or have him play a Greek philosopher…He at least fulfilled all my expectations more than I could possibly hope for. Kirk Douglas, too, came to my mind almost immediately.”

The movie should have ended up at Columbia which had funded the director’s last two movies and would back Bunny Lake. But Preminger had just struck a deal for seven pictures with Paramount and in January 1964 that agreement was announced with the re-titled In Harm’s Way (a phrase associated with John Paul Jones). 

Mayes completed the new draft two months later with the rest of the cast now assembled, including Preminger contract players Tom Tryon (The Cardinal) and Jill Haworth (Exodus) who replaced original choice Carol Lynley (Bunny Lake). Keir Dullea turned down the part of Jeremiah. Advise and Consent’s Henry Fonda came on board as the overall Navy commander  at the expense of Chill Wills who was fired after shooting had begun.

One uncredited recruitment was Hugh O’Brian (Africa, Texas Style, 1967) who undertook the part of Liz Eddington’s lover. “He played a role as a favor without compensation,” recalled Preminger. “He did not want billing and only asked that I give some money to a charity. I needed somebody who was a secure actor and right for the part because I used a complete beginner (Barbara Bouchet) for the girl he plays opposite. And if I used some other young actor with her, people would have felt that this couple would disappear almost immediately at the beginning of the film. It was important to me to establish this young couple as an important episode at the beginning of the film and he helped that.”

The director spent three days scouting locations in Hawaii but decided to shoot in black-and-white because “ a picture like this has much more impact and you can create more of the feeling, the illusion of reality, than when you shoot it in color.” False guns mounts were attached to more recent ships since the older relevant vessels were no longer available.

Wayne with co-star Patricia Neal.

Shooting started on June 23. The biggest issue was transportation, drivers getting lost reaching locations for the night-for-night sequences. Preminger struggled to meet his shooting schedule and the movie was soon over budget thanks to long hours, Sunday working and extra local staff. Even so, the Hawaii shoot came in 17 days ahead of schedule. Five days were assigned for shooting at sea. Larger than usual miniatures – some as much as 55ft long – were shot over a month on a lake in Mexico and in the Gulf of Mexico, the battle of Leyte Gulf costing an estimated $1 million. “I needed the real horizon,” said Preminger.

Some scenes were proving impossible to capture first time out. A second unit had two attempts filming a car going over a cliff, a marine landing was spoiled by water on the lens, and technical problems prevented Preminger achieving a “mystic-hour shot” of a plane taking off.  Part of the director’s problem was his insistence on rehearsal. “I could make every picture in ten days if I slough it. Some actors just need more time and more rehearsal.”

Despite observers expecting – perhaps hoping – for volatile confrontation between the director and star, the pair enjoyed a cordial relationship based on mutual respect. Of Wayne, Preminger commented that he was “the most cooperative actor, willing to rehearse, willing to do anything as long as anybody. I was surprised really how disciplined a professional Wayne is and he liked this particular part very much.”

From Wayne’s perspective, “He had my respect and I had his respect. He is terribly hard on the crew and he’s terribly hard on people that he thinks are sloughing. But this is a thing that I can understand because I’ve been there (directing The Alamo) and I know that if a fellow comes on and he’s careless and he hasn’t thought at all about his…I come ready and that he appreciated that. I was usually there ahead of him on the set and he couldn’t believe that. So we had a really nice relationship.”

It was surprising Wayne remained on such an even keel since he was beginning to suffer from the cancer that would eventually kill him. “He looked ill,” Tryon remembered, “He was coughing badly, I mean, really awful. It was painful to see, so God knows what it was like for him. He’d begin coughing in the middle of a scene and Preminger would have to stop filming.” Although he refused to consult a doctor during filming, he agreed to a check-up once shooting of his role was complete, three weeks earlier than scheduled. He may indeed have owed his life to Preminger’s speedy shooting.

Kirk Douglas had a bone to pick with Preminger after the director stole the glory of being the first director to publicly announce, on Exodus, that he had employed a blacklisted writer, pre-empting Douglas who had done the same for Spartacus (1960). Although Douglas didn’t rank Preminger as a director he enjoyed a good relationship with him except for one minor confrontation.

Douglas got on well with Wayne: “There was a mutual respect…We got along quite well…He was a strange fellow. I’ll never forget the talk we had about my playing in Lust for Life (1956). Although emotionally we were not close and politically we were antipodal he asked me to work with him several times.” (Not entirely true – Douglas would have been the driving force for their collaboration on Cast a Giant Shadow in 1966 and he fell out spectacularly with Wayne on The War Wagon in 1967).

But others suffered from Preminger’s notorious temper, Tom Tryon in particular. The bullying became so bad Kirk Douglas once walked off the set. Douglas advised Tryon to fight back but Tryon could not pluck up the courage. Chill Wills who endured Preminger at his “absolute worst” did stand up to him and was fired. Patrick O’Neal turned on actors who refused to fight their corner. “Stand up to him once and find out he’s a human being,” was his advice.

Myth has it that Paula Prentiss’s role was truncated after she fell foul of the director but rumour was baseless. In fact, Prentiss was another of the director’s defenders, claiming he was “absolutely wonderful to work with. For a scene to work, tension needs to be put into a scene. There have to be genuine efforts to make the scene work. And Preminger understood this and was able to get much conflict and tension into the scenes.” And he was not all tough talk. She recalls him as particularly gentle guiding her through the scene where she asks her husband to make her pregnant. 

Although surpassing the original $5 million budget, it was not by much, an extra $436,000. The Production Code had objected to the phrase “screw the captain,” a line Preminger refused to remove and despite further protest from the censor, who threatened to withhold the precious official approval,the director got his way. Preminger had shot the scene where Barbara Bouchet was dancing topless from the rear but the still photographs were sensational enough for publication in Playboy in its May 1965 issue. 

The decision to shoot in black-and-white probably accounted for the picture’s relatively poor box office. Its length and the all-star cast should have qualified it for roadshow. (It was roadhsow for all of one day at two prestigious new York first houses; the next day it went continuous, but you could advance book a seat for an extra 50 cents). It was a sign of how quickly audience perceptions had changed that only three years previously the black-and-white The Longest Day had appeared as a roadshow and proved a resounding hit.

As a result of Wayne’s illness The Sons of Katie Elder was postponed. Preminger moved onto a smaller project, Bunny Lake Is Missing and Douglas reverted to top billing for The Heroes of Telemark (1965). Tom Tryon never worked for Preminger again and after top-billing in The Glory Guys (1965) faded from Hollywood view, re-emerging as the bestselling author of The Other. Paula Prentiss shifted sideways into television with He and She (1967-1968) and Jill Haworth made very few films after this, of which most were horror.

SOURCES:  Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double, The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber and Faber, 2008), p317-329; Scott Eyman, John Wayne, The Life and Legend, (Simon & Schuster, 2015) p385-387; Maurice Zolotow, Shooting Star, A Biography of John Wayne (Simon & Schuster, 1974) p361-362; Michael Munn, John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth (Robson Books, 2003) p254-255; Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son (Simon & Schuster, 2012), p387-381; Ian Cameron, Mark Shivas, Paul Mayersberg, “Interview with Otto Preminger,” Movie 13 (Summer 1965), p15-16; Patrick McGilligan, Backstory 3, p266; Otto Preminger, “Keeping Out of Harm’s Way,” Films and Filming, June 1965, p6;  Newsweek, April 20, 1964; New York Herald Tribune, October 17, 1965, p55. 

In Harm’s Way (1965) *****

Preminger at a peak, the more I watch this picture, not just the more impressed I become but the more I want to watch it again – three times, as it happens, for this review. A tale of heroism populated by morally wounded heroes, the undertone of critique for the Naval establishment dealt with in brilliant narrative fashion, terrific pacing, one of John Wayne’s very best performances, Kirk Douglas not far behind, great action scenes, and one of the few movies to fulfil this director’s original intent.

You can, of course, argue that it’s the height of political PR. Just as the Americans managed with The Alamo and the British with Dunkirk, the aim was to turn defeat into victory, so this moves beyond the humiliation of Pearl Harbor to the victories beyond. But in some sense Pearl Harbor is just the prologue to a stiffer examination of men at war, rather than sailors taken to task over the complacency that left them so open to cataclysmic attack.

And while there’s a number of sub-plots, these are more expertly handled than I can recall in many another lengthy big-budget picture, no endless cutting between major and minor characters, but the minor characters only entering the frame when they have a dramatic part to play.

Captain “Rock” Rockwell (John Wayne) falls foul of his superiors for basically being in command of a ship sunk by a torpedo. On a technical point, he’s stripped of command, and reduced to a desk job, a casualty of the peace-time hierarchy determined to find someone to blame, only returning to active duty – and promoted to Admiral – when more war-oriented figures are put in charge.

The desk job gives him time to romance feisty nurse Lt. Maggie Haines (Patricia Haines) who has the cojones to take charge of the budding relationship. She happens to share an apartment with another nurse, the much younger Ensign Annalee Dorne (Jill Dorne) who is dating entitled Ensign Jeremiah Torrey (Brandon de Wilde), Rock’s estranged son.

Jeremiah works for slimy glory-hunter Commander Neal Owynn (Patrick O’Neal), a former U.S. Congressman using his political skills to worm his way into the office of by-the-book Vice Admiral Brodick (Dana Andrews). Rock shares his apartment with Commander Egan Powell (Burgess Meredith), a thrice-married playboy, high up in Navy intelligence.

Rock’s second-in-command is Commander – junior to a captain in case you don’t understand the U.S. Navy ranking system – Paul Eddington, a hothead whose mourning for dead wife Liz (Barbara Bouchet) results in him also being reduced to a desk job and exiled to the Pacific. On the fringes of the story are Lt. Commander “Mac” MacConnell (Tom Tryon) and pregnant wife Beverley (Paula Prentiss).

How all these characters enmesh is the consequence of a quite brilliant screenplay by Wendell Hayes (Advise and Consent, 1962). Rockwell and Eddington both seek redemption, the former to prove his Naval worth and regain the affection of his son, the latter to absolve himself for his terrible actions.

You can always tell the hero in war films because they are so rarely a physical casualty of war, all the others are killed and wounded but hardly ever the hero, so it takes something for the Hollywood Hero of the Century to play a character who is wounded not once but twice, and for the early part of the picture walks around with his arm in his sling (not quite an echo of the way he holds his arm in The Searchers, but evoking the same internal conflict).

The only supposed out-and-out hero is MacConnell, but his inaction at the beginning of the movie fails to prevent the death of Eddington’s wife. And his heroism largely takes place off-screen and it’s worth noting that Rock doesn’t raise a rifle or pistol in anger (or even get into a punch-up as was the actor’s wont in other films). Being in charge he’s removed from the core action even if suffering the consequences of battle. In a marvellous touch of irony, Rockwell is the most passive hero to hit the screen. It’s an incredibly bold and self-confident director who would even think of luring audiences into an action picture starring the Hero of the Century and then denying him a single moment of screen glory.

Much has been written about the cinematic arc John Ford took in the beginning and ending of The Searchers, the symbolic opening and closing of doors, but since Preminger is long out of critical favor nobody’s has bothered to notice how much of this film concerns cinematic echo.

To take the most obvious example, the first witnesses of the airborne Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor are illicit pair Liz Eddington and her paramour (Hugh O’Brian) and towards the end it’s her husband Paul, by this point guilty of horrendous behaviour, who leads the airborne fightback against the enemy.

A beach – where Liz and escort make love – is how the director initially pushes the audience towards sympathising with the drunken Eddington. A beach is where we later learn to despise him, as he brutally rapes Ensign Dorne. And it doesn’t take much to work out that his wife’s exuberant wildness explains Eddington’s initial attraction to her, not realising that psychologically it provides him with an excuse for his own darker wildness, initially restricted to self-destruction but when it truly emerges it’s to the detriment of an innocent.

And that’s before we get on to Rockwell as the messenger of death, delivering the bad news to wives, and then being on the receiving end after his son dies in battle. And finally, the political peace-time high-ups get their come-uppance in actual war.

It’s insulting – as some have suggested – that the performance of John Wayne (The Hellfighters, 1968) is the result of undiagnosed cancer when in fact this is a finely nuanced role of a high-ranking figure living out in his life in regret, at times quite shamefaced about abandoning his son at a very early age. Preminger cracked down on Wayne’s habit of splitting his lines in two, so those typical pauses we have come to expect are in large part gone, and it helps the movie’s pacing. For most of the movie the character is saddled with consequence. That passivity that the director saw as essential to the role is virtually present all the time.

Preminger wrings a different performance, too, from Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968), equally laden with regret, but not enough to prevent him lashing out and the actor is accorded two quite stunning scenes, the first as he broods in silence over his wife, but for the second, prior to raping Ensign Dorne, the stone-cold look on his face suggests a serial killer held at bay for too long and now about to explode.

Burgess Meredith (Hurry Sundown, 1967) is another brought to directorial heel, his more common scene-stealing and vowel-stretching also eliminated, but in exchange given a larger-than-life character on which to expend screen energy. The entire cast is good-to-excellent and it’s jam-packed: Patricia Neal (Hud, 1962), Tom Tryon (The Cardinal, 1964), Paula Prentiss (Man’s Favorite Sport, 1963), Brandon De Wilde (Shane, 1953), Jill Haworth (Exodus, 1960), Dana Andrews (The Satan Bug, 1965), Franchot Tone (Advise and Consent, 1962), Patrick O’Neal (Stiletto, 1969), George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967), Henry Fonda (Battle of the Bulge, 1965), Barbara Bouchet (Danger Route, 1967) and Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady, 1964) Many of the supporting cast were also playing against type – Prentiss as the young wife falling to pieces, Andrews and O’Neal as slippery political types, Holloway  a guerrilla, and perhaps most interesting off Neal, not the typical woman left behind when the man goes off to war but, in her role as nurse, entering harm’s way herself.

And despite criticism of the miniatures used in sea scenes while that might have been obvious on the big screen you don’t notice it on the small screen. The action  scenes are very well-done for the time, and quite unusual in that by and large it’s the Americans who appear shell-shocked not the enemy.

Cramming this much narrative into the overall arch of Pearl Harbor and retaliation against the Japanese, while bringing so many different characters to the fore with clear dramatic purpose is an amazing achievement, screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Advise and Consent) doing the heavy lifting in this department.

But Preminger the director is very much to the fore, in his composition and use of the camera for long tracking shots (a particular favorite of mine) such as at the beginning. A riveting watch full of splendid acting. Shooting it in black-and-white might have at one time appeared to date the picture but instead it has rendered it ageless. Five stars without a doubt.

Hellfighters (1969) ****

I’m sticking my neck out on this one – under-rated would be an understatement – and primarily because it’s the Duke’s most intriguing film of the decade and possibly ever. For a start we have John Wayne The Quitter (the hell you say!). Then he ducks out of the picture for a full quarter of an hour (he does what?). Fast forward a couple of years and this would have led the disaster cycle pack – a little tinkering with the structure and you would have all four principals fighting fires in South America in the middle of a revolution (beat that, The Towering Inferno.) But most enthralling of all this is a family drama masquerading as an action picture.

And it led me to thinking if True Grit (1969) had not landed on Wayne’s doorstep whether he would have continued down the dramatic rather than the action road for the tail end of his career. He had just collected his first million-dollar fee so in box office terms he was untouchable. And just for the record, the action scenes, especially given the absence of CGI, are terrific. Sure, the oil’s a little bit too thin to pass for real oil, but it does gets sloshed over all concerned, including the Duke, by the bucketload.

And it might be a shade on the episodic side, Chance Buckman (John Wayne) and compadres racing from one hellish event to another, but it’s wrapped around a tight dramatic core, Chance vs independent daughter Tish (Katharine Ross), Chance vs one-time sidekick and now Tish’s husband Greg (Jim Hutton), Chance vs. Tish’s mother Madelyn (Vera Miles) and Chance vs. all the dimwits on the board of the company he quit his own operation to join.

Chance is based on the real-life Red Adair, an oilman who had invented the extremely scientific but extremely dangerous method of putting out oil-well fires. When a gazillion gallons of oil spurting unchecked out of the ground catch fire you’ve got a helluva problem on your hands. A gazillion gallons of water ain’t going to cut it. The only solution is to cut off the oxygen supply long enough to cap the well. Red Adair’s technique: blast the oxygen out of the way. He’d attach drums filled with massive amounts of nitro-glycerine, roll them into the blaze on the end of cranes, hide behind nothing more resilient than hazard suits and shields made of corrugated iron, and detonate them. The resulting explosion did the trick.

The picture opens with this stunt, although after being accidentally injured, Chance is hospitalized, bringing estranged daughter and ex-wife into the dramatic frame. After a pretty frosty meet-cute,  Tish and Greg hit it off and get married, forcing Tish to confront the fear that drove Chance and Madelyn apart, that, like the wife of a Formula One driver, she never knows if her husband will come back. This bothers the feisty Tish a lot less than the weary Madelyn. And she even ignores all protocol and rushes to her husband’s side, regardless of the danger.

Meanwhile, Chance decides not only has he had enough of dicing with danger but he can leave his company in the safe hands of Greg. His life now on a more mundane keel, Madelyn is attracted back. But of course it wouldn’t do for Chance to live out retirement with nothing more testy than board meetings so he comes back into the fray during a rebellion in Venezula and both women have to confront their true feelings.

The action, considering the lack of CGI, or the kind of budget available to The Towering Inferno, is first-class. This is the ideal movie reversal. Instead of running away from a fire, these characters race towards it. There are some hair-raising moments. At one blowout, gas is leaking from the ground, poisoning everyone in sight, Greg is trapped underwater. And should complacency sneak in, fire, being on the unpredictable side, is prone to sudden explosion.

John Wayne (The Undefeated, 1969) has always excelled at restrained emotion and here he gets both barrels. Having got rid of the over-protective wife he’s now saddled with a daughter he’s desperate to protect from the hell he put his wife through. He’s faultless here, given considerably more acting scope than normal and not, as in McLintock (1963), just able to tan a woman’s backside, presenting a more contemporary male, perhaps as puzzled by female behavior as any of his cowboys, but taking a more modern approach to resolving his feelings.

Katharine Ross (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) has her best role, not a mere appendage as in her other films of this period, but driving forward the action through her independence. Jim Hutton (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966) is growing on me. I’ve reversed my view of him as a lightweight. Vera Miles (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) does a pretty good job of playing older – she was not yet 40 – and essays a complicated character, more rounded than was often the case with the female lead in Wayne pictures. Veterans Jay C. Flippen (Firecreek, 1968) and Bruce Cabot (The Undefeated) head the support.

The perennially underrated Andrew V McLaglen (The Undefeated) does a pretty good job with the action, as you might expect, but is also savvy enough to let the dramatic scenes flow. Clair Huffaker (Rio Conchos, 1964) penned the screenplay.

Guilty pleasure personified, you might say, but I’d retort that this is a damn fine picture erroneously ignored – rating only two paragraphs in Scott Eyman’s  650-page biography of John Wayne for example – possibly because it appeared in between the critically-reviled The Green Berets (1968) and the critically-acclaimed True Grit.

What Was On – London’s West End – Week Ending October 11th 1969

A total of 23 cinemas – comprising 22,000 seats – made up the roster for London’s West End, the most important cinemagoing location in the United Kingdom. All films had their British (occasional European or World) premiere here. Eleven cinemas could accommodate over 1,000 patrons, the biggest being the Odeon Leicester Square with 1,994 seats. At the other end of the scale and just round the corner from that Odeon was the Cinecenta, a multiplex of four tiny screens, highly unusual in Britain where the doubling and tripling of cinemas was in its infancy.

Although the roadshow was beginning to die the death in the United States, it remained very big business in London. the longest-running film was The Lion in Winter (1968) still taking £4,803 at the 600-seat Odeon Haymarket in its 40th week, equivalent to $11,046 (taking inflation into account that would amount to a colossal $83,248 at today’s prices). So you can see the advantage of letting films run and run in one location rather than shifting them out as soon as possible onto the circuits. Although roadshow tickets were more expensive than continuous performance, there were substantially fewer showings, a roadshow might be screened 15 times a week compared to 35-40 in continuous.

Top film of the week was aerial spectacular roadshow The Battle of Britain (1969) with an all star cast which took in £17,104 ($39,339) in its third week at the 1,654-seat Dominion. Setting a house record in its debut, Midnight Cowboy (1969), going down the continuous performance route at the 1,004-seat London Pavilion, knocked up £11,577 ($26,627).  Third, with £8,255 ($18,986) was Oscar-winning musical Oliver! (1968) in its 38th week at the 1,407-seat Leicester Square Theatre.

Sam Peckinpah’s controversially violent The Wild Bunch (1969), blown up to 70mm, came fourth at the 1,568-seat Warner Theatre with £8,091 in its seventh week. The sophomore outing at the Odeon Leicester Square of John Wayne and Rock Hudson in The Undefeated (1969) rammed home £6,094. Holding down sixth spot was the 70mm Cinerama disaster epic Krakatoa-East of Java (1968) with £5,091 in its tenth week at the 1,121-seat Astoria.

The Lion in Winter placed seventh. Eighth was a surprise package, Easy Rider (1969), racking up an extraordinary £4,493 in the tiny 272-seat classic Piccadilly. Omar Sharif as revolutionary Che! (1969) was next, first week at the 1,159-seat Carlton bringing in £4,475. Rounding out the top ten was The Fixer with £4,460 in its second week at the 1,366-seat Empire. The last three movies were all in continuous performance.

Reissues were surprisingly popular. Gone with the Wind (1939), also showing in 70mm, was in its 12th week – after a long run at the Empire – at the 1,360-seat Odeon Marble Arch while The Jolson Story (1946) starring Larry Parks played separate performances at the 1,394 Metropole in an eight-week run.

Also making their debuts were Cannes Award Winner Z (1969) at the 546-seat Curzon, The Royal Hunt of the Sun at the 713-seat Odeon St. Martin’s Lane, documentary Footprints on the Moon – Apollo 11 at the 570-seat Rialto, and in move-over The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the 550-seat Studio One.

Other long-runners were: Barbra Streisand giving an Oscar-winning performance in musical Funny Girl (1968) in its 38th week at the 760-seat Columbia; Where Eagles Dare (1968), also in 70mm, in its 30th week at the 412-seat Ritz, after a long run at the Empire; Ice Station Zebra (1968), filmed in 70mm Cinerama, in its 28th week at the 1,127-seat Casino Cinerama; Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968) also in its 28th week at the 648-seat Prince Charles; and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) in its 26th week at the 972-seat paramount.

Other films still showing include The Graduate (1967) in week fourteen at the 154-seat Cinecenta 4 and Goodbye, Columbus (1969)  in week five at the 820-seat Plaza.  

In those days the length of run a film racked up in the West End impacted on when it would go into general release. So if a film ran for six months in the West End, it could delay its circuit release for that length of time.

Movies were judged as much by length of run as box office. Except in the case of specialize product, a film achieving “legs” was seen as indicative of its future performance. There was  subtle marketing going on here – West End films were advertised every day in the London evening newspapers so if a film ran for six months that was six months of daily exposure of that picture for the rest of the city’s inhabitants who, unable to afford West End prices, were desperate for it to appear at their local cinema.

SOURCE: “Box Office Business,” Kine Weekly, October 11, 1969, p8.

It Started in Naples (1960) ***

By this point in her career Sophia Loren was adopted by Hollywood primarily as a means of rejuvenating the romantic screen careers of much older male stars. John Wayne was over two decades her senior in Legend of the Lost (1957), Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck nearly two decades older in The Pride and the Passion (1957, and Cary Grant a full three decades in Houseboat (1958). But where Grant was sprightly enough and with superb comic timing and Loren had the charm to make Houseboat work, the May-December notion lost much of its appeal when translated to her Italian homeland and an aging Clark Gable.

While engaging enough, the tale mostly relies on a stereotypical stuffy American’s encounters with a stereotypical down-to-earth Italian although Loren adds considerable zap with her singing-and-dancing numbers. Lawyer Michael Hamilton (Clark Gable), in Italy to settle his deceased brother’s affairs, discovers the dead man has left behind eight-year-old boy Nando (Marietto) being looked after in haphazard fashion and in impoverished circumstances in Capri by his aunt Lucia (Sophia Loren), a nightclub singer.  Determined to give the boy a proper American education, Hamilton engages in a tug-of-war with Lucia.

In truth, Lucia lacks maternal instincts, allowing the boy to stay up till one o’clock in the morning handing out nightclub flyers and not even knowing where the local school is. Hamilton is in turns appalled and attracted to Lucia, in some part pretending romantic interest to come to an out-of-court settlement. To complicate matters, Hamilton is due to get married back home.

At times it is more travelog than romantic comedy, with streets packed for fiestas and cafes full well into the night, a speedboat ride round the glorious bay, another expedition under the majestic caves, a cable car trip up the cliffs to view spectacular scenery, and the local population enjoying their version of la dolce vita. But the piece de resistance is Lucia’s performance in the nightclub, ravishing figure accompanied by more than passable voice as she knocks out “Tu vuo fa L’Americano” (which you might remember from the jazz club scene in The Talented Mr Ripley, 1999). She has a zest that her suitor cannot match but which is of course immensely appealing.

Lucia is torn between giving the boy a better start in life, already insisting for example that he speak English, and holding on to him while street urchin Nando is intent on acting as matchmaker.  Most of the humor is somewhat heavy-handed except for a few exceptional lines – complaining that he cannot sleep for the noise outside, Hamilton asks a waiter how these people ever sleep only to receive the immortal reply: “together.”

Gable lacks the double-take that served Cary Grant so well and instead of looking perplexed and captivated mostly looks grumpy. But this is still Gable and the camera still loves him even if he has added a few pounds. He was by now a bigger global star than in the Hollywood Golden Era thanks in part to regular reissues of Gone with the Wind (1939) but mostly to a wider range of roles and he was earning far more than at MGM, in the John Wayne/William Holden league of remuneration. Loren was the leading Italian female star, well ahead in Hollywood eyes of competitors Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida, and had the skill, despite whatever age difference was foisted upon her, of making believable any unlikely romance. Here, zest and cunning see her through. Vittorio De Sica (The Angel Wore Red, 1960) has a scene-stealing role as an Italian lawyer with an eye for the ladies.

Director Melville Shavelson (Cast a Giant Shadow,1966)  thought he had cracked the problems of the older man-younger girl romance having shepherded Houseboat to box office glory . While this picture doesn’t come unstuck it is nowhere near Houseboat. This turned out to be Gable’s penultimate film, not quite the fitting reminder of a glorious career, and he died shortly after its release. While Loren trod water with this picture she was closing in on a career breakthrough with her Oscar-winning Two Women (1960).

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