Behind the Scenes: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969)

“Tedium in tumbleweed,” was the verdict of Time’s magazine’s critic. That was hardly the intention of Sergio Leone, Dario Argento (then just a critic) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Before the Revolution, 1964) after they met just before Xmas 1966 in a projection booth for a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and decided to try and write the quintessential western. This was a strange notion given that a) Leone had already revolutionized the western and b) on the completion of the last of the “Dollars” trilogy, had avowed to give up westerns and in consequence turned down Hang ‘Em High (1968).

When their six-month collaboration only produced 80 pages of script, Leone turned to Sergio Donati who finished it off in 25 days, adding such essential elements as the fly tormenting Jack Elam at the railway station, turning Morton into a cripple and giving him the motif of the ocean, and many others. Donati claimed, “The best thing I did was give a meaning to the story…This railroad which unites one ocean to the other is the end of the frontier, the end of adventure.” The completed screenplay drew on such influences as Johnny Guitar (1954), John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), George Stevens’ Shane (1953) and a dozen pictures besides.

With a budget of $5 million, equally shared between Euro-International – flush from being the Italian distributor of German sex education film and box office smash Helga (1967) –  and Paramount at the height of its European investment cycle, it would be the most expensive movie made in Italy since Dino de Laurentiis greenlit The Bible (1966). Twelve times as expensive as Leone’s debut western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – the set of Flagstone alone cost more than that film’s entire budget –  it would be shot at Cinecitta in Rome as well as on location in Almeria, Spain, and the iconic Monument Valley.

“Creative geography” had been utilized to find a connection between the famed Western landmark and the new town of Sweetwater. Prior to filming, Leone had undertaken a guided tour of Monument Valley and returned able to pinpoint exactly where Ford had made use of the location in the ten westerns he had shot there. Leone was the highest-remunerated, picking up $750,000 and 10 per cent of the profits with Claudia Cardinale on $500,000, but the others nowhere near such salaries.

It was Bertolucci who had persuaded the director to give Jill (Claudia Cardinale) the pivotal role. In Leone’s previous films, women were side-lined. But now Jill would run the gamut of all the roles typically allocated to different women in westerns from the reformed whore, submissive woman, object of lust and chattel to the spitfire and woman who took charge. More, she represented, “the promise of the West.” She was central to the plot and sole survivor at the end after Harmonica (Charles Bronson) departed with Frank (Henry Fonda), Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) all dead.

When Leone wooed her for the role, he acted out the entire film in her presence, using the music to give her an insight into her character. “While I listened,” she recalled, “I understood every moment of the film shot by shot.” During filming of her scenes, Leone replayed her theme music. “This helped me concentrate, remove myself from the world.”

Although Leone and Clint Eastwood had fallen out during the shooting of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the actor agreed to meet to discuss the role of Harmonica, but in the end Eastwood rejected the part, perhaps because the monosyllabic character was too close to The Man With No Name. Other names in the frame were James Coburn (The Magnificent Seven), Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963), Rock Hudson and Warren Beatty (Kaleidoscope, 1966). The last actor Paramount was interested in was Charles Bronson who was regarded as nothing more than a steady supporting actor. Leone’s insistence was because the actor had a “face made of marble.” He would not be required to act much, just represent an immoveable object, capable of expressing the sadder side of his character through his harmonica.  

Henry Fonda was Leone’s first choice for the “ignoble assassin” but the actor prove hard to recruit, the director thwarted first of all by the star’s agent, then put off by the original script and only persuaded by old friend Eli Wallach that this might represent opportunity. However, when the actor came prepared he came prepared for the wrong picture, sporting the moustache traditionally worn by the villain, and, worse, concealing the baby blue eyes which the director coveted with dark lenses.

Although accepting the exceptional stage talents of Jason Robards whose only foray into the genre at that point had been box office flop A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), Donati believed he had the kind of presence that did not “translate to the big screen,” especially lacking the kind of eyes the director required for close-up. Leone disagreed, believing he was tailor-made for the role of Cheyenne. The first interview was not a success, the alcoholic actor arriving drunk. Only warnings of financial consequence ensured the star remained sober during filming.

Shooting was scheduled for April-June 1968. The first scene on the agenda was the love scene between Cardinale and Robards, which accounted for two days shooting. Paramount’s eager marketing team promoted these as the first sex scenes the director had filmed, ignoring the fact that sequences showing Eastwood in bed with a woman had been shot for For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, although they had not made it into the final cut. It took four days to film the shoot-out at Cattle Corner, three hours alone devoted to capturing the drip of water onto Woody Strode’s head and hat. Composer Ennio Morricone had already written a theme to cover the period of the gunmen waiting, but instead opted for the exaggerated sounds such as chalk scraping on a blackboard and the insistent fly. A jar of flies were kept for this purpose but in the end only one sufficed.

Although length became an issue outside of Italy and Parisian fist-run cinemas, Paramount was already planning for a 150-minute picture. In the end the 168-minute Italian cut was shaved by 24 minutes for the U.S. release, outside of a roadshow the longest western sent into general release, and therefore a risky prospect. The idea that Paramount got cold feet over the American release does not stand up. It was part of a major promotion on a huge sign above Times Square that promoted four of the studio’s upcoming offerings – the others being Goodbye, Columbus, True Grit and Those Dangerous Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies.  It was launched in New York on Memorial Day (not as big a box office day then as now but still a major U.S. holiday) in first run cinemas two weeks ahead of the rest of the country.  

In fact, its first week’s box office there ranked it the western of the year so far, beating The Stalking Moon, 100 Rifles and Support Your Local Sheriff. The New York figures were actually the best results for a western for the entire year with the exception Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and True Grit, outgrossing the likes of the more critically-successful The Wild Bunch and more marketing-friendly Mackenna’s Gold. However, its initial New York audience appreciation was rarely not matched elsewhere, Boston being one exception.  Some cinemas found it difficult to market, the Berlin Drive-In in Hartford, for example, tying-in with country-and-western music on a local radio station. While some smaller cinemas called for another 30 minutes in cuts, others proclaimed “this is what the public wants.” Once upon a Time in the West  finished tenth for the year among westerns and a disappointing 47th overall in Variety’s annual rentals chart.

While it also flopped in Britain and, given the budget, proved a disappointment in Italy, not on a par with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it posted 14.8 million admissions in France, making it the seventh-best performing picture of all time. By 1984 it ranked eleventh on the all-time German rental champs list, above Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. In Switzerland in 1987 it came eighth on the all-time chart, easily the oldest title on the list. It was a video “blockbuster” in German homevideo setting a new sales record in 1984.

However, for such a commercial and critical failure, reassessment in the U.S. was not long in coming. In 1973, the Beverly Canon in Los Angeles launched its new “Classics At Midnight” programme with Once Upon a Time in the West, Harold and Maude and Repulsion. The prospect of the first showing in the U.S. of the full-length version captured all the headlines at the 1980 New York Film Festival. There were occasional revivals: in Toronto at Easter 1973 and Washington and New York among others in 1984, and Washington in 1985.  

It was named the best western ever made by British newspaper The Guardian newspaper and film magazine Empire. In the Sight and Sound once-in-a-decade Critics Poll in 2012 it placed third in the western category behind The Searchers and Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). With the results of a new poll out this year I wonder if it will ascend to the top spot.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, The Gunslingers of ’69: Western Movies’ Greatest Year (McFarland, 2019); Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death (Faber and Faber, 2000); Christopher Frayling: Once Upon a Time in Italy (Thames & Hudson, 2005); Christopher Frayling, Once upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece (Reel Art Press, 2019); “Huge Sign on Times Square Plugs Paramount Product,” Box Office, May 5, 1969, pA2; “West Tie Up With WEXT,” Box Office, June 16, 1969, pNE2;  “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, July 14, 1969, pA4; “The Big Rental Films of 1969,” Variety, January 7, 1970, p15; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, July 6, 1970, pA3; “Beverly Canon To Offer Midnight Classics,” Box Office, April 13, 1973, pW1; “Scorsese Speaks on Saving Prints,” Variety, October 8, 1980, p6;  “CIC Video Preps Low-Ticket Bow for Raiders,” Variety, March 21, 1984, p47; “All-Time German Rental Champs,” Variety, March 7, 1984, p336; “With Plenty of Film Buffs, NYC Is Reissue Heaven,” Variety, December 12, 1984, p74; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, October 1, 1985, p43-44; “All-Time Swiss Top Ten,” Variety, October 21, 1987, p498.

Behind the Scenes: “The Biggest Bundle of Them All” (1968)

Films that reach the screen two years after filming was completed are generally stinkers. Ken Annakin caper movie The Biggest Bundle of Them All wrapped production in summer 1966 and was not released until January 1968. But the reason was not the usual.

The cause of the unseemly delay was a temper tantrum by Oscar-winning uber-producer Sam Spiegel (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962) who had been working on a similar project about incompetent amateurs kidnapping a gangster kingpin – The Happening (1967) starring Anthony Quinn (previously reviewed in the Blog). After bringing a charge of blatant plagiarism, Spiegel was mollified by being permitted to bring his movie out first, with an inbuilt eight-month gap  between both releases, the deal sweetened by a 15% cut of The Biggest Bundle’s profits and the right to vet the script.

Despite success with Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and Battle of the Bulge (1965) British director Annakin was at a career impasse. The Fifth Coin written by Francis Ford Coppola and starring George Segal failed to get off the ground. He turned down western Texas Across the River (1966) at a time when Catherine Deneuve and Shirley Maclaine were slotted in for the female roles and was fired from The Perils of Pauline (1967). The Italian Caper as it was then known, recalled Annakin, “did not seem a world-shattering movie but I found the caper fascinating and the cast irresistible.” 

Let them eat cheesecake.

It marked the movie debut for producer Josef Shaftel of The Untouchables television fame and for screenwriter Rod Amateau (The Wilby Conspiracy, 1975), also then a television regular although the final script was attributed to another neophyte Sy Salkowitz. The film made the most of Italian locations, Naples and Rome, as well as the South of France and Provence. Annakin caught pneumonia just as shooting was to commence. Shaftel took over for five days only for his material to prove unusable.

Both veteran actors proved easy to direct. “Robinson was like putty in my hands, completely trusting.” And while Vittorio De Sica was every bit as amenable he was inclined to fall asleep on the set as the result of entertaining his mistress the night before. Di Sica was also a compulsive gambler and at one point lost half his salary in a casino.

Raquel Welch, in only her second picture after One Million Years B.C. (1966) – which contained minimal dialogue – was initially a handful. Primarily, this was due to inexperience and her desire to present herself in as alluring a fashion as possible, with impeccable hairstyles and make-up. After she had kept the crew waiting once too often Annakin threatened to eliminate her close-ups unless she respected the shooting schedule.

“On the whole I was quite pleased with the results because she really applied herself and so long as one broke up the scenes into a couple of lines at a time she became able to handle them quite adequately…I was getting along excellently with Raquel – even to the extent of trying to find another picture with her,” Annakin noted in his autobiography. Since this was written three decades after the movie was made, it would have given him ample time to get rid of any latent hostility to the actress. This reaction, it has to be said, is contrary to much of what has been written about Welch’s behavior on the picture. At the time of filming he reported that “she has a marvelous flair for comedy.”

But it appeared that Annakin was the only one who spotted her star potential. “The rest of the cast, especially Bob (Robert Wagner), regarded her as a pin-up girl on the make…none of them thought she was particularly sexy at this time.”

Otherwise, the only other trouble came from Godfrey Cambridge who “had a chip on his shoulder” and from Robert Wagner’s insistence on wearing false eyelashes. Problems arose over the cinematographer’s determination to employ powerful lights even at the height of a Mediterranean  summer and a massive dust storm interrupted filming of the final scenes.  Annakin also benefitted from the locations and using his experience was able to shift 35 pages of script from interiors to outdoors, completely altering the look of the picture. This made the $2 million movie “look like it cost three or four million,” according to Annakin. 

At this point Welch, best known for having been sued by her publicist, was in the process of turning herself into a star in demand. In 1966 Welch was something of a Hollywood secret. She had three pictures in the bank, was working on a fourth and had signed up for a fifth before any of her movies had been released. On the other hand, she was fast becoming one of the most famous faces (and bodies) in the world, on the cover of of hundreds of magazines in Europe, many for the fourth or fifth time.

Having set up a company, Curtwel, managed by husband Patrick Curtis, she would earn $15,570 a week on loan to MGM for a second film Italian movie Shoot, Loud…Louder, I Don’t Understand (1966), considerably more than through her contract with Twentieth Century Fox. A year later she collected £100,000 for two weeks on portmanteau picture The Oldest Profession (1967).

Curtwel was also moving into the production arena, in 1965 attempting to set up No Place for the Dead and the following year optioning the musical comedy The Opposite Sides of the Fence and taking a quarter share in the mooted The Devil’s Discord to star Peter Cushing and Edd Byrnes under the direction of Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General, 1968). None of these ventures materialzed.

As well as having to contend with audience disinterest in the clumsy crook scenario as witnessed by the flop of The Happening, the enforced time gap allowed a second picture featuring bungling criminals called Too Many Crooks (1967) to reach cinemas prior to The Biggest Bundle. However, by January 1968, Welch was a much bigger name on movie marquees, having appeared on 400 international magazine covers and selected by U.S. exhibitors for the International Star of the Year Award while The Biggest Bundle had been preceded by another seven pictures including hits One Million Years B.C. and Fantastic Voyage (1966).

SOURCES: Ken Annakin, So You Wanna Be a Director, (Tomahawk Press, Sheffield 2001), pages 187-194; “Raquel Welch and Manager Form Curtwel Co,” Box Office, May 3, 1965, pW3; “Raquel Welch, Pat Curtis Form Curtwel Prods,” Box Office, October 5, 1965, pSE6; “Toutmasters Sue for 5% of Raquel Welch,” Variety, October 6, 1965, p14; “Raquel Welch in Rome,” Box Office, April 25, 1966, page SE1; “MGM’s Bundle Wrapping at Nice, Orders On Set in 3 Languages,” Variety, July 6, 1966, p7; “8 Pix for 2 Unseen Actresses,” Variety, August 17, 1966, p5; “Businesswoman Side of Raquel Welch,” Variety, November 2, 1966, p20; “Oldest Profession Gets New Locale in West Berlin, Raquel Welch’s 100G Job,” Variety, January 18, 1967, p24; “Columbia-Spiegel Holds 25% Share of MGM’s Bundle,” Variety, December 6, 1967, p3.

The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968) ***

Bunch of incompetent crooks kidnap an impoverished Mafia boss who pays his ransom by setting up a major heist. By a stroke of casting alchemy this brings together Cesare (Vittorio De Sica), the epitome of old world Italian charm, knock-out gangster’s moll and scene-stealer-in-chief Juliana (Raquel Welch) replete with scanty knock-out outfits, and criminal mastermind Professor Samuels (Edward G. Robinson). In order to acquire the funds necessary to steal $5 million of platinum ingots from a train – that plan involving a tank and an WW2 bomber – the crew, initially headed by American Harry (Robert Wagner), need to carry out smaller jobs.

Problem is, none of them are any good, not even Cesare, who has lost his flair and botches an attempt to rob an old flame of her jewels. This is a twist on Topkapi (1964) which employed effective amateurs. This bunch can’t even carry out a simple theft from a restaurant. The heist itself is pretty spectacular and innovative. And the movie is quirky, with a darker edge. While there are few belly laughs, the light tone is enough to carry the gentle humor, mostly inspired by the misplaced team, amateurs for various reasons, not necessarily outright lawbreaking, on the run. These include London Cockney mechanic Davey (Davy Kaye), chef Antonio (Francesco Mule) distracted by hunger at every turn, cowardly violinist Benny (Godfrey Cambridge) and Joe (Mickey Knox) with a helluva brood to feed.

The story does a good bit of meandering, as does the camera, much of its focus on the voluptuous charms of Juliana, but the hurt pride of Cesare and the grandiose machinations of the professor keep it on course. The Italian settings, incorporating grand villas and ruins, do no harm either. The heist is terrific and there is a final twist you may or may not see coming. The interplay of characters works best when it involves Juliana, who attempts to twist Cesare around her little finger, that tactic mutual it has to be said, and who keeps the professor on his toes by dancing with him in a disco, and it soon becomes apparent that she has the upper hand over lover-boy Harry.

You could be forgiven for thinking the title refers to Raquel Welch – a cinematic infant at this stage with only One Million Years B.C (1966) in her portfolio – especially when her cleavage and looks receive such prominence, but the caper is classy and different. As well as being obvious she is both sinuous and seductive and clearly has a mind of her own, possibly the most criminally intent of the entire outfit, with weapons the others lack. By this point, she had invented the pop-out bikini, pictures of which had flooded Europe, making her the pin-up par excellence, but those who came to simply gawp quickly realized there was talent behind the body. Although of course there would be those who didn’t care.

De Sica constantly plays around with the idea of being a defunct godfather and Robinson is the antithesis of the gangster roles on which his fame relied. Robert Wagner is less effective, miscast and out of place in such august acting company and losing out to Welch in every scene.

This was a considerable change of pace for British director Ken Annakin after Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and Battle of the Bulge (1965) and he brings to this the comedy of the former coupled with the narrative complications of the latter, wrapping everything up in an easy inviting style that makes the most of his stars and the locations. Screenwriter Sy Salkowitz was a television veteran (Perry Mason, The Untouchables et al) , this marking his first venture into the big screen.     

Not in the Topkapi class – very little is – but a pleasant diversion nonetheless and for avid Raquel Welch fans, setting aside her outfits, a chance to see her develop more of a screen persona than was permitted in her debut One Million Years B.C.

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) ****

Thought-provoking drama with a surprisingly contemporary slant set against the grandeur of the Vatican amid geo-political turmoil. At a time of global crisis, dissident Russian archbishop Lakotov (Anthony Quinn) is unexpectedly freed from a labour camp by the Russian premier (Laurence Olivier). Arriving at the Vatican, he is promoted to cardinal by the dying Pope (John Gielgud) before becoming an unexpected contender for Papal office.

The spectacular wealth of the Catholic Church is contrasted with the spectacular poverty of China, on the brink of starvation due to trade sanctions by the United States, nuclear war a potential outcome. The political ideology of Marxism is compared to the equally strict Christian doctrine, of which Lakotov’s friend Father Telemond (Oskar Werner) has fallen foul. There is a sub-plot so mild it scarcely justifies the term concerning television reporter George Faber (David Janssen) torn between wife Ruth (Barbara Jefford) and younger lover Chiara (Rosemary Dexter).

Lakotov is drawn into the Russian-Chinese-American conflict and the battle for the philosophical heart of the Christian faith while bringing personal succour to the lovelorn and performing the only modern miracle easily within his power, which could place the Church in jeopardy, while condemned to the solitariness of his position.

The political and philosophical problems addressed by the picture, which was set 20 years in the future, are just as relevant now. The film’s premise, of course, while intriguing, defies logic and although the climax has a touch of the Hollywood about it nonetheless it follows an argument which has split the Church from time immemorial.

You would not have considered this an obvious candidate for the big-budget 70mm widescreen roadshow treatment, but MGM, after the Church not surprisingly refused access to the Vatican, spent millions of dollars on fabulous sets, including the Sistine Chapel. The roadshow version of the picture, complete with introductory musical overture and an entr’acte at the intermission, is leisurely and absorbing, held together by a stunning – and vastly under-rated – performance by Anthony Quinn (The Lost Command, 1966) who has abandoned his usual bombastic screen persona in pursuit of genuine humility and yet faces his moments when he questions his own faith.

Ruth has a pivotal role in bringing Lakotov down to earth but George has the thankless task, setting aside the quandaries of his love life, of talking the audience through the sacred ceremonies unfolding sumptuously on screen as the cardinals bury one Pope and elect another.

You wouldn’t think, either, that Hollywood could find room in such a big-budget picture for philosophical discussion but questions not only of the existence of God but whether he has abandoned Earth are given considerable scope, as are discussions about Marxism and practical solutions to eternal problems. None of these arguments are particularly new but are given a fair hearing. There is a hint of the Inquisition about the “trial” Telemond faces. Oskar Werner (Interlude, 1968) carries off a difficult role.

David Janssen (Warning Shot, 1967) is mere window dressing and Rosemary Dexter (House of Cards, 1968) mostly decorative but Barbara Jefford (Ulysses, 1967) is good as the wounded wife. Laurence Olivier (Khartoum, 1966) is the pick of the sterling supporting cast which included John Gielgud (Becket, 1964), Burt Kwouk (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966), Vittorio de Sica (It Happened in Naples, 1960), Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968), Frank Finlay (A Study in Terror, 1965), Niall McGinnis (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967). In a small role was Isa Miranda, the “Italian Marlene Dietrich,” who had made her name in Max Ophuls Everybody’s Woman (1934) and enjoyed Hollywood success in films like Hotel Imperial (1939) opposite Ray Milland.

Michael Anderson (Operation Crossbow, 1965) directed with some panache from a script by veteran John Patrick (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960) and Scottish novelist James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, 1960) based on the Morris West bestseller.

I found the whole enterprise totally engrossing, partly because I did not know what to expect, partly through Anderson’s faultless direction, partly it has to be said by the glorious backdrop of the Vatican and the intricacy of the various rites, but mostly from the revelatory Quinn performance. And even if the plot is hardly taut, not in the James Bond clock-ticking class, it still all holds together very well. From the fact that it was a big flop at the time both with the public and the critics, I had expected a stinker and was very pleasantly surprised.

Three (1969) **

More interesting for the stars involved – in particular Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling as well as an ex-fighter pilot, an Australian pop star and a model – than the film itself, which presents a European arthouse take on youngsters freewheeling around Europe looking for their share of the free love purportedly available everywhere.

There’s not really any story, mostly it’s scenery, and whatever tension there is rarely rises to the point of drama. However, it is refreshing to see a picture not steeped in angst that reflects the normality of life rather than superficially-imposed heightened confrontation. On a tour of Italy, American college buddies Taylor (Sam Waterston), the shy gawky one, and Bert (Robie Porter), the better-looking confident one, take up with British girl Marty (Charlotte Rampling). The guys make a pact not to compete for the girl’s attentions, but that idea doesn’t last long. The title suggests she might end up with one – or both. In trying to sell the film, the marketeers felt obliged to make that idea more implicit.

The guys make plays for other girls they meet but seem to find little genuine action and in that sense it is more true to life than other films of the period which suggested sex was there for the asking. But none of the characters are particularly interesting and while that is also more realistic it diminishes enjoyment. The highlight is a naked Taylor attempting to save a girl from drowning in the sea, but in keeping with the film’s tone he is beaten to it by a boat.

There’s not much sign here of the intense dramatic style Oscar nominee Sam Waterston would later bring to the movies. This was his third film after small parts in The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean (1966) and Dick Van Dyke vehicle Fitzwilly (1967) and he wouldn’t hit his stride until The Great Gatsby (1974).

Perhaps the oddest movie fate befell Charlotte Rampling, also a later Oscar nominee. How else to explain that she followed up this picture with Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and preceded it with Roger Corman’s Target: Harry (1969). With a career that at this point appeared to follow no particular pattern, after making an impact in Georgy Girl (1966) as a libidinous flatmate, she took a small role in The Long Duel (1967) before reaching leading lady status opposite Franco Nero in Italian thriller Sequestro di Persona (1968). Her languid screen persona was turned on its head with The Night Porter (1974).

Who was Robie Porter you might very well ask? And why did he only make two pictures, the other being The Carey Treatment (1972)? He was an Australian pop star, specializing in instrumentals on a steel guitar, with a series of hits including two at number one. He chanced his arm in Britain, without repeating that success, then moved to the U.S. and landed parts in television series Daniel Boone and Mannix. After Three, he returned to the music business, as part-owner of record label Sparmac and producing for the band Daddy Cool.

Other names in Three, in bit parts only, none making any discernible impact in the picture, included model Edina Ronay (daughter of celebrated food critic Egon Ronay) who had appeared in A Study in Terror (1965) and Prehistoric Women (1967). Equally as celebrated, if for other reasons, was Gillian Hills, best known as one of the girls cavorting naked with photographer David Hemmings in Blow Up (1966) and as the titular Beat Girl (1960)

Writer-director James Salter was a genuine Hollywood curiosity. He hit a peak of cinematic activity in 1969, with two other screenplays filmed – Downhill Racer (1969) and The Appointment (1969). This is pretty much a companion piece to Downhill Racer (1969) which has a bunch of professional skiers on a similar scenic tour and often sitting around with not much to do although that film builds in confrontation and a more standard love affair.

Generally considered a “writer’s writer” – i.e. adored by his peers more than the public – his first novel The Hunters (1958), based on his Air Force experiences, was turned into a movie starring Robert Mitchum. He dabbled in documentary film-making, whose impact can be seen in his feature films, but was better known for a short erotic novel A Sport and a Pastime set in Europe. None of his 1969 trio were hits, he ended up in Hollywood limbo, and he didn’t reappear on the movie credits list until Richard Pearce’s sci-fi Threshold (1981) starring Donald Sutherland.   

It’s not a stinker, but it’s not much of anything else either.

House of Cards (1968) ***

American boxer Reno Davis (George Peppard) stumbles on an international conspiracy when hired by rich widow Anne de Villemont (Inger Stevens) in Paris to look after her eight-year-old son Paul (Barnaby Shaw). All roads eventually lead to Rome and a showdown with arch-conspirator Leschenahut (Orson Welles) in this thriller which throws in a couple of measures of Gaslight (1944) and, more obviously, North by Northwest (1959) to the extent of Anne being an icy blonde of the Eva Marie Saint persuasion and the couple, on the run, sharing a compartment on a train.

The boy’s previous tutor has been murdered. After months in a sanatorium, Anne, paranoid about her son being kidnapped, is in virtual house arrest in the family mansion, watched over by arrogant psychiatrist Dr Morillon (Keith Michell) who has diagnosed her as unstable, neurotic and a danger to the boy.

After an assassin on a bridge on the River Seine takes potshots at Reno and Paul, Reno is framed for murder but escaping from the police returns to the mansion to find it empty, the furniture covered in dust sheets. I half-expected Reno to be told that the job was all in his imagination and that Anne did not exist, but instead finds out that mother and son have been taken to a castle in Dijon, in reality a fortress with a platoon of armed guards. Only Paul has been already been transported to Italy. So it’s attempted rescue, imprisonment, escape, fistfights, chase, clever moves and countermoves, twists and double twists as Reno and the still icy Anne head for Rome.

In among the mayhem are a few humorous moments, a play on the Trevi fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, a monk mistaken for a killer, a bored girl only too happy to be taken hostage, an over-familiar American who gives away valuable secrets because he mistakes Reno for a co-conspirator, Dr Morillon making the error of treating Reno as a servant. And characters involved in assisting escape extract a high price, one seeking financial reward, another that her husband be killed in the process. There is also a flirtatious but spiky maid Jeanne-Marie (Perette Pradier) and a couple of excellent reversals.

Reno is somewhat innovative in the weaponry department, the hook of a fishing rod, for example, while the son is rather handy with a pistol. But given the opposition are armed with machine guns, knives and swords that seems only fair.

George Peppard continues the excellent run of acting form that started in Tobruk (1967) and P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968), developing his own niche, dropping the innate arrogance of The Blue Max (1965) and Operation Crossbow (1965), no chip on the shoulder. Here he is a good bit more attractive as a screen presence, a nice line with the ladies, more than able to take care of himself, a sprinkling of wit, completely at ease. Inger Stevens comes off well though her psychological problems and concerns for her son get in the way of any burgeoning romance with Peppard. But she has quite a range of emotions to get through, from wondering if she is mad, to dealing with the controlling family, and letting go of her son enough to allow the boy to bond with Reno, and despite her vast wealth down-to-earth enough to see a toothbrush as an essential when on the run.

Orson Welles (Is Paris Burning?, 1966), as ever, looms large over everything, with dialogue so good you always have the impression he improvised on the spot. Keith Michell, a couple of years away from international fame in BBC mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), does a very good turn as the psychiatrist.

John Guillermin, who directed Peppard in The Blue Max and P.J., has a lot to do to keep the various balls in the air, especially keeping track of a multiplicity of characters. The screenwriting team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch (Hud, 1963) pulled this one together from the novel by Stanley Ellin. Francis Lai’s memorable score is worth a mention, with distinctive themes for various parts of the story.

Eva Renzi (Funeral in Berlin, 1966) was originally down for the part of Anne and Italian actress Rosemary Dexter (Romeo and Juliet, 1964) has a small part.

Catch-up: The Blog previously reviewed George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffanys (1961),The Blue Max (1965), Operation Crossbow (1966), Tobruk (1967), P.J (1968) and Pendulum (1969); John Guillermin directed The Blue Max (1965) and P.J; Orson Welles was seen in Is Paris Burning? (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).

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.  

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