Behind the Scenes – “Cast a Giant Shadow” (1966)

If recruiting John Wayne is essential to getting your new picture off the ground, it would help not to have fallen out with him big-style previously. After every studio in Hollywood had turned down Cast a Giant Shadow, writer-producer-director Melville Shavelson turned to the Duke. The only problem was the pair had hit trouble on football picture Trouble All the Way (1953) should take.  

In his capacity as producer of Trouble All the Way, Shavelson, also co-writing the screenplay, had given Wayne one version of the script while behind his back instructing director Michael Curtiz to shoot a different version with subsidiary characters that would change the film’s plotline. When Wayne found out, Shavelson was the loser. When you make an enemy of John Wayne, it takes a lot to win him back as a friend.

After that debacle, Shavelson had gone on to win some kudos and occasional commercial success as a triple hyphenate on pictures like Houseboat (1958), It Started in Naples (1960) and A New Kind of Love (1963) with top-ranked performers in the vein of Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, Clark Gable and Paul Newman. When Shavelson pitched to Wayne the story of Cast a Giant Shadow, about the birth of Israel and based on the bestselling biography of Mickey Marcus by Ted Berkmann, the star’s response was: “That’s the most American story I ever heard.” Wayne was hooked on the idea that America had helped Israel achieve its independence and that top American soldier Colonel Mickey Marcus had died in the process.

Senta Berger as the gun-toting Magda.

Wayne’s potential involvement came with a proviso – he had script approval. And while Shavelson owned the rights to the book, he didn’t have a screenplay. Nor, with his background as a writer being primarily concerned with comedy, did he consider himself best suited to the job.

He had, however, written a treatment. In his eyes, a treatment was not just about encapsulating the story, but about selling it to a studio. So his first few paragraphs included references to box office behemoths Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone and Bridge on the River Kwai – planting in the minds of potential backers the notion that this film was headed down the same route of substantial profit – and a reference to an “American of heroic proportions…with  the ability to love,” the latter being code for sex.

But in the end he wrote the screenplay as well. Wayne put his imprimatur on the picture in more ways than one. Part of the deal was that his production outfit Batjac become involved, with son Michael in line for a co-producer credit. Shavelson managed to snag Kirk Douglas for the starring role only by giving up part of his own salary to meet the star’s fee. Douglas and Wayne, with the credit ranking reversed, had starred together in In Harm’s Way (1965).

It was Douglas who insisted his character’s role be change from passive to active. Shavelson invented an American general for John Wayne and a female Israeli soldier (Senta Berger) for Douglas – in reality his character was a married man – to have an affair with. “I’m introducing a fictitious romance into the film with the full consent of Marcus’s widow,” Shavelson told Variety, though it’s doubtful that real-life wife Emma Marcus went along so merrily with this notion.

It wasn’t only Wayne who demanded script approval.  The Israeli government, with whom cooperation was essential to guarantee the use of troops and equipment, had made the same condition. The Israelis worried that the film would fall into the usual Hollywood trap and to that extent the government insisted that the picture not end up as a “an Errol Flynn Burma stunt” – a reference to Objective Burma (1945), originally banned in London for Americanizing the film.  The government spelled it out: “Col Marcus didn’t win our war, he just helped.” But the production was offered “further facilities than normal.” Two sound stages – the first in the country – were being built in Tel Aviv.

Shavelson was shown military locations that no other civilian had ever seen. When the Israelis did “approve” the script it was with the proviso that 31 changes were made including the deletion of the “sex-starved woman” (Senta Berger), although in reality Shavelson got away with his vision intact.

When the film went ahead it had a crew of 125 plus 800 Israeli soldiers, 1,000 extras and 34 featured players including Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra, and Angie Dickson. Only some of the film was made in Israel. The interiors for the Macy’s department store were built in Rome, along with the concentration camp sequence, one of the battles, and scenes set in Coney Island that were edited out from the final picture.  

The biggest problem was the supply of soldiers and equipment at a price the production could afford. Shavelson was being charged twice as much for the soldiers as the producers of Judith (1966). It took the intervention of the Israeli Prime Minister for sensible negotiation to get under way and for prices to drop to a tolerable level. Neither was it possible to film on the original battle sites in Israel since they were basically in a no man’s land, covered in barbed wire and littered with mines.

Principal photography began on May 18, 1965, in 115 degree heat – so hot the film buckled in the cameras – at the fortress of Iraq Suidan to recreate the Battle of Latrun. Shavelson had been denied permission to access the Latrun fortress itself which stood across the Jordanian border even though the engagement had been an Arab victory. To keep the sun off his face, Kirk Douglas decided to wear an Australian Army forage cap, and it did the job so successfully he kept it on for the entire movie.

On another location – this time when the temperature reached 126 degrees – a $40,000 Panavision camera exploded filming too close to a tank-muzzle firing, the jeeps got vapor lock, three soldiers were wounded by dummy bullets and the charging tanks vanished after the first take when their commander received new instructions from his army superiors.

Shavelson had met Sinatra some years before when he and scripting partner Jack Rose had helped write the Inaugural Gala organized by the singer in honor of President John F. Kennedy. Using that connection and the fact they shared the same agent, Sinatra, who had a pilot’s license, agreed to play a two-day role as a Piper Cub aviator dropping seltzer bottles on tanks. When filming began Shavelson discovered that what he had imagined was his own inspired invention turned out to be close to the actual truth.  To write the score, Elmer Bernstein visited Israel to conduct his own research.

He also discovered the real reason for Sinatra’s eagerness to be involved. His salary had been donated to set up the Frank Sinatra Arab-Israeli Youth Centre in Nazareth. Actually, there was another less noble reason for Sinatra signing up. He had begun an aviation business, Cal-Jet Airways, supplying planes to Hollywood, and clearly thought appearing as a pilot in a picture would help promote the new company.

However, when filming of his scenes began Sinatra proved unintelligible. He had taken the script at face value and thought he was playing a Texan and delivered his lines with a Texan accent. Eventually, Sinatra was persuaded to play it with his own normal voice. But Sinatra could only be filmed in the plane on the ground since his insurance didn’t cover him being in the air unless accompanied by a co-pilot.

By the time they came to film the immigrants’ landing scene the picture was already half a million dollars over budget. With the country enjoying full employment and nobody inclined to take time off to work in the blazing sun as an extra, the 800 extras were in reality all newly arrived immigrants – and therefore unemployed – from Hungary, Rumania, Poland, Russia and Czechoslovakia.

The only item that was lacking to complete the landing scene was a ship offshore, but the owners were asking too much money. Instead, the director came up with the idea of a “glass shot.”  An artist had painted in smoke billowing from the funnels, but it was blowing in the wrong direction from the wind. The solution – a double-exposure job in the lab – cost as much as hiring the ship.  

Once the production headed home, Shavelson discovered that virtually all the sound recordings made in Israel were unusable. Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas re-recorded their dialog in Hollywood, Yul Brynner and Senta Berger in London and dozens of Israeli students attending Los Angeles universities were called upon to replicate background Hebrew voices.  

For prestige purposes, the movie was launched at the end of March 1966 as a restricted roadshow, just three cinemas in New York – the DeMille in the Broadway area, the Fantasy Theater in Long Island and Cinema 46 in New Jersey. Douglas employed a helicopter to fly from venue to venue. The first wave of first run houses followed in Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Miami.

Most of the promotional activity centered on the true story of Mickey Marcus but in London, where the character was unknown, United Artists took the gimmick route, placing an advert in The Times newspaper calling for “giant men” standing over six foot seven inches tall. Expecting to find 25 such giants, they ended up with 100 attending the British premiere, the tallest seven foot three inches. In keeping with this gimmicky approach, tickets for the first performance were also a king-sized  twelve inches by nine inches.  

SOURCES:  Melville Shavelson, How To Make a Jewish Movie, W.H. Allen, 1971; “Wayne To Co-Produce, Star in Israeli War Pic,” Variety, May 27, 1964, 2; “We’ll Lift Part of Local Expenses, Israeli Offer to UA,” Variety, July 1, 1964, p3; “Kirk Douglas Set to Star in Cast a Giant Shadow,” Box Office, March 8, 1965 pW-2; “Batjac Productions Moves to Paramount Lot,” Box Office, March 29, 1965, pW-2; “Shavelson Aim on Mickey Marcus Film: Realism,” Variety, March 31, 1965, p25; “WB-Sinatra Film in October; Sinatra’s Aviation Firm,” Box Office, August 23, 1965, 6; “Elmer Bernstein to Israel for Film Music Research,” Box Office, October 18, 1965, pW-3; “Cast a Giant Shadow Set for 3 N.Y. Roadshow Dates,” Box Office, December 6, 1965, pE3; “Kirk Douglas To Helicopter to All 3 Shadow Openings,” Box Office, March 28, 1966, pE-7; “Cast a Giant Shadow set in 14 Key Centers, April 6-8,” Box Office, April 11, 1966, p6; “Small Ad Brings 100 Giant Men to London Opening of United Artists’ Cast a Giant Shadow,” Box Office, October 3, 1966, pA3.   

Gladiator (2000) *****

As well as being first in the queue to see The Gladiator on original release over two decades ago and enjoying countless viewings since on DVD and television, the chance to see a big-screen revival (as part of this week’s cinematic triple bill) was not to be missed. There’s always some worry in going back to see a movie you adored that time will have caught up with it or that the big screen will magnify flaws. Instead, this was a pure blast, one of the greatest epics of all time and definitely one of the most brilliant scores.

I always feel kind of sorry for people who’ve only see this kind of picture on a small screen – no matter how big your television it comes nowhere near the cinematic experience. I’m not even sure why it was showing on the big screen – the 20th anniversary has passed so maybe the draw was the upcoming British Father’s Day.

If you’re quick, you will be able to see it until June 17 at the Showcase cinema chain in the U.K. This is a new 4K print. It may run longer if it picks up sufficient demand.

Director Ridley Scott was in something of a career lull after the highs of Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991) and his previous historical adventures – The Duellists (1977) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) – had been box office duds, so this was a considerable big-budget gamble for Dreamworks and Universal.

Few historical epics begin with action. Directors tended to want to build up the various characters before any battle got under way. But apart from a few seconds of an idyllic pastoral setting establishing how much Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe) wants to get back to his Spanish farm, we are immediately, with foot-tapping music by Hans Zimmer, into one of the best battles ever filmed, not just for the tactical detail, and the sense of danger – an emissary is returned missing his head – but the ferocity of the action.

Backgrounding this is politics. Dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) distrusts his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and want to make Maximus the power in Rome. The reaction of Commodus is to smother his father and murder his rival. Maximus escapes but ends up a slave in a gladiator camp in North Africa and eventually returns to Rome plotting revenge.

Into the mix comes Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) who had romantic yearnings for Maximus in the distant past and various senators plotting to remove Commodus from office. The story basically shifts from dramatic action in the arena to outside intrigue with Maximus being seen as a man who could potentially unseat the emperor.

But Ridley Scott has such a fine eye for everything, genuine locations mix in brilliantly with CGI, the action sequences are astonishing, and emotions are kept at a peak. Even when the main narrative pauses here and there to allow philosophic and patriotic speeches they are so deftly written they often amount to the best pieces of dialogue in the picture.

Few movies have as many memorable lines. Sample: “what we do in life echoes in eternity;” “death smiles at us all, all we can do is smile back;” “people should know when they are conquered;” “father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, I will have my vengeance in this life or the next;” the “little bee” sequence;  and the lines that ended up as taglines on the advertising posters” a general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator, a gladiator who defied an emperor.”

While he could easily have let the action speak for itself and who would not have welcomed more battles with Roman foes or more combat in the arena – and many other movies with a character in a similar predicament have succumbed to that temptation – Scott ensures that the tensions between the characters are never lost. So Commodus is driven both by wishing to please his father and desiring an incestuous relationship with his sister. Lucilla is torn between protecting her son (Spencer Treat Clark), her growing attraction to Maximus and trying to keep her brother at bay while plotting against him. Maximus, who has no head for politics, finds himself involved in intrigue as a way of gaining revenge on Commodus.   

Nor does Scott get bogged down with too much exposition or the intricacies of character as has often been the downfall of epics. The story has been whittled down to essential conflict.

It’s hard to pick a winner from the various action scenes – the opening clash in the forests of Germania with snow beginning to fall; the first gladiatorial combat where Maximus takes control; a small band of gladiators fighting what seems a losing battle against chariots; Maximus being unexpectedly attacked by tigers in the arena; or his climactic fight with Commodus.

And there are substantial cameos for British stars – Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, David Hemmings – who have lost their box office luster but not their acting ability. Connie Nielsen was a revelation.

Russell Crowe became instant superstar with his majestic portrayal. His name had already been on the lips of Oscar voters, having been nominated the previous year for The Insider (1999), but he took the Best Actor Oscar here. Although the film was named Best Picture Ridley Scott lost out – unfairly I felt – in the Best Director category to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic. (How do the two films compare now, I wonder). Joaquin Phoenix and Hans Zimmer were also nominated and the movie also picked up nominations for cinematography and screenplay (David Franzoni, William Nicolson and John Logan.) All told it won five Oscars and seven nominations.

This was the climax to my cinematic triple bill this week and since it also included Nobody and The Father, it could well turn out to be one of the best days I have ever spent at the cinema.

CATCH-UP: I reviewed The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) a while back and if you compare both pictures you can clearly see how much Ridley Scott owes a debt to the previous film.  

There’s a company called Park Circus – http://www.parkcircus.com – which has the rights to show on the big screen virtually all the old movies made by Hollywood studios and it’s worth checking out whether this might be coming your way soon.

The Viking Queen (1967) ***

Politics, conspiracy, thwarted romance and historical inaccuracy take center stage in this Hammer romp that attempted to create another sex symbol to follow in the footsteps of Ursula Andress (She, 1965) and Raquel Welch (One Million Years B.C., 1966) in the shape of Finnish model Carita. Let’s put the dodgy historical elements to one side given Hollywood trampled over history all the time, but the title is a misnomer, the story owing more to British folk heroine Boadicea than anyone who came from longship land.

On his deathbed British tribal king (Wilfred Lawson), against the wishes of powerful Druid chieftain Maelgan (Donald Houston), signs a peace treaty with Roman governor general Justinius (Don Murray) against the wishes of his lieutenant Octavian (Andrew Keir). In different ways, the Druid and Octavian conspire to end the peace. Had new queen Salina (Carita), after falling in love with Justinius, been permitted to marry him that would have created a peaceful bond, but that is also prevented.

There’s a lot more sex and violence than you would have expected for the period, plenty scantily-clad slaves administering to the rich and the Romans, an extended brutal flogging sequence involving Salina, an offscreen rape, a cageful of Roman prisoners dropped into a burning pit, and when the British strap scythes onto the wheels of their chariots it’s a bloodbath. (Quite why the Romans never thought of importing their own chariots, given their popularity in the Colosseum, is never explained.) The chariots, whether in a race or battle, are the best thing about the picture, adding tremendous energy.

It takes quite a while for Salina to take up arms but when she does the film catches fire. She leads from the front, tearing through the Roman legions, and handy too with a sword. Ambushes appear the order of the day so any marching column or peaceful village soon ends up in a spot of bother.

There’s some of “what did the Romans ever do for us” with a snatch of Robin Hood thrown in – Justinius takes from the rich to give to the poor – plus religious fanaticism to stir the pot into a heady brew.  But mostly it’s hokum, if rather plot-heavy. Quite how the Oscar-nominated Don Murray (Advise and Consent, 1962) was talked into this is anybody’s guess. Carita, of course, would have believed she was on a surefire route to stardom but in fact this was her last picture. They two stars don’t really have that much to do and do it well enough. In supporting roles you will spot Patrick Troughton (a BBC Dr Who), Nicola Pagett making her movie debut and Adrienne Corri (Africa – Texas Style, 1967). Director Don Caffey (One Million Years B.C., 1966) is better at action than drama.

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.

British advertisement for the film about to go on general release after a spell in the more expensive West End. The “normal prices” slogan was very commonly found on movies as they headed towards the more normal kind of cinema. in addition, by the time it was rest go into wider release the critics had delivered their verdicts and these could be tagged onto any advertising.

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.

The relatively short-lived “Show Time” fan magazine was launched in Britain as Odeon’s answer to the highly successful “ABC Film Review.” Both magazines were only sold inside cinemas but it was common for cinemagoers to purchase copies without necessarily going into to see a picture. This magazine ceased publication by the end of the decade. This was the launch issue in Janaury 1964.

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.