Genghis Khan (1965) ****

Hollywood was never reined in by the strictures of history, much preferring fiction to fact for dramatic effect, and that’s largely the case here, although the titular hero’s real life remains shrouded in myth.

If you do catch this surprisingly good feature, make sure it’s not one of the many pan-and-scan atrocities on the market. I watched this in the proper Panavision ratio which meant it occupied only one-third of my television screen, but in that format it’s terrific. It’s a bit of an anomaly for a decade that churned out high-class historical epics like El Cid (1961) because this clocks in about a hour short of other films in the genre and there’s no star actor or director to speak of and no Yakima Canutt to handle the second unit action scenes.

Omar Sharif’s marquee value at this point was so low that if you check out any of the original posters you’ll note that his name hardly rates a mention and he also comes at the very end of the opening screen credits. Although this is post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it’s pre-Doctor Zhivago (1965), suggesting nobody had a clue how to market his talents.

Director Henry Levin was a journeyman, fifty films under his belt, best known for not a great deal except for, following this, the second and third in the Matt Helm spy series. Given this film was critically ignored on release and since, and a flop to boot, it definitely falls into the “Worth a Look” category. Although there are few stand-out scenes of the artistic variety such as pepper Lawrence of Arabia or El Cid, this is still well put together and Levin shows an aptitude for the widescreen.

The narrative breaks down into three parts – the first section describing Sharif’s enslavement by nemesis Stephen Boyd (the picture’s star according to poster and screen credits) before banding together rival tribes in revolt, the second part a long trek to China, and the third encompassing a final battle and hand-to-hand combat with Boyd. For a two-hour picture it has tremendous sweep, not just the scenery and the battle scenes, but political intrigue, romance, a rape scene and even clever comedy. Sharif is excellent as a leader who believes his glory is predestined, but who has very modern ideas about the role of women.

The best section, oddly enough, is set in China where Sharif engages in a duel of wits with Robert Morley’s distinctively contradictory emperor, but that’s not to detract from the film’s other qualities, the action brilliantly handled, especially the chaos of battle, the romance touching, and the dialogue intelligent and often epigrammatic. Unlike James Mason who makes a calamitous attempt at a Chinese accent, Morley, costume apart, looks as if he has just walked out of an English country house, but his plummy tones belie a very believable character. Telly Savalas and Woody Strode have decent parts as Sharif’s sidekicks, the former unexpectedly bearing the brunt of the film’s comedy. French actress Francoise Dorleac is effective as Sharif’s wife.

Hitchcock stole one of his most famous ideas from Genghis Khan. About the only scene in Torn Curtain (1966) to receive universal praise was a killing carried out to a soundtrack of nothing more than the grunts of assailant and victim. But, here, where the score by Yugoslavian composer Dusan Radic was extensively employed, the rape scene is silent and just as stunning. If the only prints widely available are of the pan-and-scan variety I’m not surprised the film has been for so long overlooked, but if you can get hold of one in the preferred format you will be in for a surprise.      

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.

Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) ****

There could not be a more contemporary picture. As an examination of the problems of assimilating different cultures it is hard to beat. As an assessment of the difficulties of the transition of power it is faultless.

In Gladiator Ridley Scott, taking a few liberties with the known facts, re-imagined the circumstances discussed here of the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the ascension to power of his son Commodus. Along the way, Scott stole a few of Anthony Mann’s visual ideas, snow falling on the battlefield, for example, and at the end the phalanx of guards, shields up, blocking in Commodus and the dethroned military chieftain (Stephen Boyd here, Russell Crowe in Gladiator) for their gladiatorial climax.

The title does not refer to an invasion of Rome by vast armies of barbarians but the internal corruption which signals the end of the empire. Audiences, taught Latin and Roman history as a matter of course at school around the time the film was released, would be more familiar with the subject matter, but hardly prepared for the spectacle.

Every extra in the known world must have been employed for several scenes, cities bursting with inhabitants, armies sprawling over vast tracts of land. One standout is the extraordinary chariot clash between the two protagonists, not in the confines of an amphitheatre a la Ben Hur, but on wild terrain, along narrow cliff roads, wheels tipping over the edge, down ravines and forest. The other is the soundless gladiatorial fight, not a whisper of music until there is a victor.

And there should be mention of the torture of James Mason, very well done. There is political intrigue, quite a clever way of poisoning an enemy, and plenty argument over the issue of accommodating different cultures, traditional punishment versus the novel notion of extending the hand of friendship and granting automatic citizenship.

Loyalty is also tested – is treason a form of loyalty? And how much does loyalty depend solely on payment? Proof is given of how integrating cultures can work, an idea that seems alien to Romans accustomed to beating subjects into submission. In some respects the drama takes second place to the discussion.

Christopher Plummer is the deranged Commodus who embraces and disdains in turn his friend Livius (Stephen Boyd). Sophia Loren, as Commodus’ sister (no incestuous suggestions here), is in love with Boyd and though married off to Armenian king Omar Sharif she manages to spend little time with her husband.

If approached as a political film rather than a traditional epic it has a lot to offer. If you want just battles and thwarted romance then a lot less. The mixture of both strikes a good balance. While there are arguments that it is too long, it could actually do with another twenty minutes or so to iron out narrative inconsistencies.  

Behind the Scenes: Genghis Khan (1965)

Genghis Khan began life in the early 1960s as the main plank of a reboot for American International, the low-budget production company best known for churning out B-features in the horror, motorcycle and generally exploitation vein.

Greenlit in 1962 with a $4.5 million budget it was intended to be a Xmas 1963 release. American International planned to partner with British company Anglo-Amalgamated. As late as 1964 it was still seen as a launchpad for the mini-major’s leap into the bigger leagues with a starring role for company protégé Susan Hart (Ride the Wild Surf, 1964) but when production stumbled it was picked up by independent American producer Irving Allen who used Britain as a production base.

Allen had set up Warwick Films in conjunction with Albert Broccoli making films like Hell Below Zero (1954) with Alan Ladd and Fire Down Below (1957) with Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum. When Broccoli moved into the James Bond business, Allen ventured out on his own with Viking adventure The Long Ships (1964) starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier. Although European co-productions had been all the rage for some time, this was an unusual venture in that a large chunk of the funding came from Yugoslavian operation Avala.

For Genghis Khan, Allen drew on Avala again, plus $1.5 million from German company CCC and $2.5 million from Columbia Pictures. Avala was a mainstream coproduction outfit with a couple of dozen projects in the works including The Fabulous Adventures of Marco Polo with Horst Buchholz and Omar Sharif, western Buffalo Bill – Hero of the West with Gordon Scott and Uncle Tom’s Cabin headlining Herbert Lom after James Mason pulled out. The final budget topped out at $5 million, small potatoes for an ambitious historical epic, less than half the sums allocated  El Cid (1961) or Spartacus (1961) for example.

Yul  Brynner had been approached for the leading role but his $400,000 fee ruled him out given the total spend on the principals was around that sum. Reportedly, Stephen Boyd earned $250,000, but Sharif was on a pittance. Exteriors were shot in Yugoslavia and interiors in Berlin. It was made in Panavision on the 2.35:1 widescreen format and although lensed with 35mm cameras was blown up to 70mm for roadshow release in Germany and Australia. The world premiere was scheduled, unusually, for Germany, for the new Royal Palast in Berlin but when that was not ready in time shifted to  the Cinerama Grindel cinema in Hamburg at the end of April, 1965.

It opened in simultaneous roadshow in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Munich and Stuttgart. It proved a strong draw in Germany, pulling in $1 million in rentals, a quarter of the total European business, and one-sixth of the global total. After a dual premiere in Dallas and Houston in June, it rolled out in general release in America.

There was some controversial publicity after Playboy magazine ran a photographic spread of Telly Savalas in a bath with some topless women, a scene edited out of the picture. A couple of five-minute featurettes – Instant People focusing on actors being made up for their roles and The Director Is a General featuring Henry Levin marshalling the battle scenes – went out on local television.

It opened in Los Angeles the same week as newcomers What’s New, Pussycat, roadshow The Great Race, war picture Operation Crossbow and comedy The Art of Love starring James Garner. Response was muted, and total rentals hardly exceeded $2.25 million, leaving it in 60th position in the annual U.S. box office race. The extent of Columbia’s disappointment could be measured by the speed with which it was sold to television, appearing on CBS the year after launch.  

Sources: “Genghis Khan Invasion of Big Budget Market by American International,” Variety, Jul 18, 1962, 4; “American Int’n’l Setting 3-Film Deal with Anglo-Amalg.,” Variety, Aug 1, 1962, 13; “10 Years Ago Nicholson and Arkoff…,” Variety, Jul 22, 1964, 7; “American International’s Susan Hart, Bobbi Shaw First on Exclusive,” Variety, Aug 5, 1964, 24; “Genghis at $4,250,000 a New German High,” Variety, Oct 14, 1964, 3; “Upcoming Product of American Int’n’l,” Variety, Oct 14, 1964, 6; “World Preem for Khan in Berlin,” Variety, Apr 28, 1965, 24; “Khan May Launch New Berlin House,” Variety, May 17, 1965, 31; “Yugoslavia’s Stake in Yank Films, Avala Owns 51% of Genghis Khan,” Variety, Jun 16, 1965,3 ; “Playboy: Code’s Last Stand,” Variety, Oct 27, 1965, 7; “Big Rental Pictures of 1965,” Variety, Jan 5, 1966, 6.