Time has been very kind to this underrated handsomely-mounted hugely enjoyable historical romp about victimised Christians in ancient Rome. Virtually a last hurrah for 1950s redhead Rhonda Fleming (Gunfight at the OK Corral, 1957), known as The Queen of Technicolor and here gifted lines like “the whip will do him good.” Fernando Rey (The French Connection, 1971) is thrown into a pit of ravenous hounds. Singer and serial lothario Serge Gainsbourg, immortalised by late Sixties bedroom anthem “Je t’aime,” plays a sadistic villain.
Despite the occasional over-the-top religious references – a character called Sebastian (Ettore Mane) is pinioned to a tree by arrows because the overseer (“don’t aim for the heart”) wants to prolong his agony, a prisoner facing death is baptised in a convenient flood – the piety is largely kept under wraps because these Christians refuse to turn the traditional cheek and inflict considerable damage on their masters. A voice that sounds like the Voice of God is revealed as an ordinary mortal. And there are nods to modern politics, the powers behind the throne.
Cool Hand Luke couldn’t have come up with better plans for escape, filling a cell with water from the sewer till inmates, except the aforementioned late convert, float to the hatch in the ceiling. A sojourn along a river is enough to put the pack of chasing hounds off the scent. Pursuers are trapped in the catacombs by the simple device of bringing down the roof.
After wealthy patrician Claudius (Gino Cervi) saves the life of escaped slave Vibio (Lang Jeffries) his arrogant daughter Claudia (Rhonda Fleming), introduced driving a chariot along packed streets with little regard for public safety, finds every excuse to humiliate him.
The plot is triggered when Claudia’s cousin/niece (the English translation is unclear) Agnese (Wandisa Guida) is followed by spy Corvino (Serge Gainsbourg) to a Christian hideout. Claudia becomes implicated when Agnese seeks refuge and for a good while she’s on the run, eventually committing her first act of unselfishness after falling for Vibio. But, to save her family, Claudia denounces the Christianity she has begun to accept, only to become involved in the finale in the arena where Christians are killed one by one, not by the waiting lions, but by spear.
It’s mostly heady and bloody action, the driving narrative only pausing now and then to make a religious point. The Emperor, like any leader in Game of Thrones, is afflicted with illness which makes his face burst out in spots. There’s some excellent use of music. In one sequence the hunters with a soundtrack of barking dogs are contrasted with a peaceful scene of the Christians not realising their pursuers are so close until the barking infuses their scene.
Star of the show is undoubtedly Rhonda Fleming. A huge post-war marquee idol, she starred opposite the likes of Bing Crosby (A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur, 1949), Glenn Ford (The Redhead and the Cowboy, 1951), Dana Andrews (While the City Sleeps, 1956) and Burt Lancaster (Gunfight at the OK Corral). But she was equally well-known as the top-billed star of adventures like The Golden Hawk (1952), Serpent of the Nile (1953) and Those Redheads from Seattle (1953). It was once said of her by a cinematographer that her beauty was so flawless she was stunning from any angle.
Quite why roles had dried up so much that she headed across the Atlantic to Italy for this is anybody’s guess. It certainly failed to revive her career, possibly because the religious aspects would have been more grating for audiences of the period whereas now they are less dominant.
Oddly enough, it was virtually a last hurrah also for veteran Italian director Nunzio Malasomma (The White Devil, 1947) who didn’t make another picture – his last – for seven years. But he handles the whole venture with aplomb, interspersing humor with action, moving along at a terrific pace, and making the most of a dream cast. In his debut Lang Jefferies (Don’t Knock the Twist, 1962) shows some acting talent among the flash of muscle. But it’s Rhonda Fleming’s picture.
Note: dubbing into English has changed some names. In the Italian version Claudia is named Fabiola – it’s a remake of the earlier Fabiola (1949) starring Michele Morgan – and her father Fabio, so stand by for confusion on imdb.
Certainly a cut above the sword-and-sandals epics flourishing at the time. I’d add that it’s an ideal matinee feature except I watched it late at night and it was just as entertaining. Highly recommended as an easy watch or just to see Rhonda Fleming at her best. The rating might err a little on the high side but every now and then we are allowed our guilty pleasures.
Under-rated comedy, set in 1928 Italy, had me chuckling all the way through. An episodic structure sees Arabella (Virna Lisi) duping an Italian hotel manager, British general and an Italian Duke (all played by Terry-Thomas) out of their cash in order to pay off the mounting tax debts of her grandmother Princess Ilaria (Margaret Rutherford) while trying to avoid the attentions of the mysterious Giorgio (James Fox).
Her scams are quite ingenious, beginning with arranging for a public urinal to be erected outside a five-star hotel and, pretending to be the lover of Benito Mussolini, convincing the manager that, for a price, she could arrange its removal. There’s nothing particularly original about faking a breakdown to attract the attention of the general, a royal flunkey, but the blackmail trap she sets is elaborate.
But just as you think you know here this is going, it sprints off in another direction altogether, Arabella being the mark, and it’s one twist after another. She is rooked by Giorgio with whom she falls in love. The Duke, whom she sees as easy meat, instead uses her. Her grandmother’s ploy to burn down her mansion and claim the insurance money is foiled by a cat.
All sorts of sly observations come into play. The hotel manager and his pals siphon off a large chunk of the cash they have taken from the safe to pay her off. The general, operating incognito, has his cover blown by a piece of music. The Duke turns the tables on his domineering wife and his son has an exceptionally clever ploy to keep mama sweet while enjoying his sexual independence. And it appears that every time Arabella gives in to entreaty, she is exploited. In other words, show weakness, give a loser an inch and they’ll take you for all you’ve got.
There’s no desperate reason for it to be set in the 1920s and, beyond the Charleston and costumes, it makes little attempt to evoke the era except perhaps to make the point that the world was not full of submissive women. And you might find inappropriate the trope about using a sexy woman to turn a gay man straight. It’s a sex comedy in the Italian style where just about anything goes and the act, rarely consummated, instead involves humiliation.
But Virna Lisi (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) certainly commands the screen, carrying the show, fashionably stylish rather than overtly sexual, a born comedienne. Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife), while initially appearing under his trademark persona, completes a transition for the Duke, almost another twist if you like, audiences expecting a similar duffer to his previous parts. Lisi and Terry-Thomas clearly have rapport, almost a synergy, not the charisma of a screen couple, as in romantic pairing, but work very well with each other.
Margaret Rutherford (Murder Ahoy!, 1964) and James Fox (The Chase, 1966) let the side down with such insipid portrayals you wonder why they signed up. It’s almost as if they couldn’t be bothered working on their characterisations. Cigar smoking and general ditziness is as far as Rutherford, in her final role, goes. Fox just looks fey and the one flaw in the narrative is why Arabella could look at him twice. As the Duke’s son, duping his mother, a pre-gaunt Giancarlo Giannini (The Sisters, 1969) is very entertaining.
To enjoy this you have to suspend your ideas about comedy based on the British and Hollywood tradition. It aims for farce, no attempt to make larger comment on life.
Mauro Bolognini (He and She, 1969) hangs this together in a decent enough fashion, confident enough of his material to lead the audience into a bait-and-switch. In his debut Giorgio Alorio (Burn!/Queimada, 1969) and Adriano Baracco (Danger: Diabolik, 1968) wrote the screenplay with British playwright Alan Hackney (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) spicing up the English dialog. Ennio Morricone provided the score.
It could as easily have been Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments, 1956) in the director’s chair. And Yul Brynner (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) and Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim, 1962) as the stars.
The Barabbas tale had already been plundered before Swedish novelist Par Lagerkvist published his relatively short bestseller – only 144 pages – in 1950. An earlier novel of the same name by Emery Bekessy hit American bookstalls at the height of the mid-1940s religious cycle kicked off by Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St Mary’s (1945). DeMille – whose portfolio included Biblical epics The Ten Commandments (1923), King of Kings (1927) and The Sign of the Cross (1932) – was in competition with British producer Alexander Korda to buy the rights.
While that production never entered production, just to confuse matters a British film, Now Barabbas, based on a successful West End play and with no Biblical element, was released in 1949.
Swedish director Alf Sjoberg (Miss Julie, 1951), twice winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, turned the Lagerkvist book into a black-and-white film in 1953, the first Swedish picture to be dubbed into English.
A bigger-budgeted version, piggybacking on the success of Ben-Hur (1959), was the brainchild of Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis who had pacted with Hollywood studio Columbia on a four-picture slate worth $17 million, the bulk of which, $10 million, was to be spent on Barabbas “with a cast of thousands headed by some of the biggest names in motion pictures.”
“Hollywood on the Tiber” was producing movies at a record rate – topping 200 a year – and De Laurentiis, who had shot to fame with Bitter Rice (1949) starring future wife Silvana Mangano and Fellini’s La Strada (1954) was intent on gaining a foothold in America beyond the arthouse market. Producing King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956) for Paramount had not done the trick and the Columbia slate was a last-ditch attempt to break into the Hollywood game.
Hollywood had originally invested in Europe to take advantage of tax breaks or to access monies frozen by countries after the Second World War, but by the 1960s the continent had become more attractive as a cheaper production alternative. While Britain had been a substantial recipient of Hollywood largesse, Italy was fast catching up as the chosen locale for pictures as varied as Cleopatra (1963), The Pigeon That Took Rome (1962) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
Director Richard Fleischer’s career was at a curious impasse. The son of world-famous animator Max Flesicher, creator of the Popeye cartoons, Richard had won critical acclaim for low-budget thriller The Narrow Margin (1951), followed up with a pair of stupendous action hits, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) and The Vikings (1958), both starring Kirk Douglas, and a daring examination of the world’s first “thrill killing” Compulsion (1959) with Orson Welles.
But he was at loggerheads with Twentieth Century Fox, to whom he was contractually tied, having turned down North to Alaska (1960) with John Wayne. As a result, he was relegated to lesser projects, Crack in the Mirror (1960), again with Orson, and The Big Gamble (1961), a picture with virtually no stars unless you count the questionable marquee value of Juliette Greco and Irishman Stephen Boyd trying to capitalize on his success in Ben-Hur (1959).
He had been on Dino De Laurentiis’ radar before, approached to helm War and Peace, circumstances dictating otherwise, and a $10 million project, a 70mm roadshow, presented an ideal opportunity to resuscitate his moribund career. As Fleischer put it, “Even if I had loved Darryl (F. Zanuck, the legendary Fox producer of The Big Gamble), I would gladly have jilted him for this assignment.”
Despite the promise of the budget, the reality was off-putting. The De Laurentiis studio was housed in a “dreary industrial slum” and consisted of a two-storey wooden building housing the offices and “three decaying stages.” However, there was little downbeat about De Laurentiis, “an impeccably tailored bundle of raw energy,” according to Fleischer, “the impact of meeting him for the first time is something akin to sticking your finger into an electric light socket.”
The Italian producer possessed a quality that was appreciated in Hollywood, especially among old-school mavens. He was a showman. He could drum up publicity at the drop of a hat. His first publicity coup was hiring French star Jeanne Moreau, at the time considered one of the few foreign actresses who need not rely on buxom figure, as the female lead. Her arrival in Rome for pre-production prerequisites such as costume and make-up testing induced a flurry of front pages. A mob of about 30 reporters almost prevented any testing. “Even though the tests were purely mechanical, she became the character in the script the moment the camera turned,” observed Fleischer.
Unfortunately, De Laurentiis had no intention of hiring her, not when he had wife Silvana Mangano at home. The press reaction to Moreau might have suggested he was backing the wrong horse, despite Mangano’s own marquee appeal, but he appeared delighted to have achieved a publicity coup, no matter that he had manipulated and duped a great actress and the director.
De Laurentiis pursued Yul Brynner for the titular role, a suggestion with which the director was in accord. This was the real thing, attempted recruitment not just a publicity gag. Until Charlton Heston muscled in with Ben-Hur, Brynner was the go-to actor for historical epics, The Ten Commandments (1956) making him an instant star, a position solidified with an Oscar for The King and I (1956) and commanding a $750,000 payday, on a par with john Wayne and William Holden.
Brynner was initially disinclined to play the role but after a day in discussion with Fleischer they shook hands on a deal only to have it torpedoed by De Laurentiis.
Scriptwriters Christopher Fry, famed English playwright but novice screenwriter, Nigel Balchin (The Man Who Never Was, 1956) and Diego Fabbri (The Corsican Brothers, 1961) were recruited with De Laurentiis reporting that they were “currently at work after having studied the material at length.” Later added to the roster was Italian Nobel prize-winning poet Salvatore Quasimodo. Not trusting the producer to stick to the text, Lagerkvist assigned his son as overseer, a tactic that singularly failed to work.
Still lacking a male lead, De Laurentiis announced the movie would start shooting on January 7, 1961, with French pair Jeanne Moreau and Simone Signoret (Room at the Top, 1958) in the top female roles, neither of whom were ultimately involved.
Despite two Oscars as Best Supporting Actor, Anthony Quinn (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) had failed to reach the top echelons of Hollywood stardom, stuck in the rut of male lead to top-billed female or starring in lower-budgeted pictures. To rectify the situation, he had embarked on a project intended to provide a prestigious showcase for his acting skills. He had signed up to play opposite Laurence Olivier in the Broadway production of Jean Anouilh’s acclaimed play Becket.
He had to be prised away from the Broadway run by De Laurentiis who forked out $37,500 in compensation and guaranteed the actor time off halfway through the shoot to fulfil a commitment to Lawrence of Arabia (1962). In fact, Becket, while attracting good notices, was a Broadway flop, the production only going into the black as a result of the De Laurentiis pay-off.
The all-star cast never materialized. But there was prestige aplenty, three members of the cast Oscar winners, another trio nominees. Vittorio Gassman (Ghosts of Rome, 1961) was at best a rising star, marquee value restricted to Italy. Jack Palance (Shane, 1953), was better known in Italy than the U.S., having spent the previous five years in Italy and now attempting a Hollywood comeback as a director. He was signed to play the notorious gladiator intent on killing Barabbas in combat. Ernest Borgnine (The Vikings) was still clinging on to vestiges of stardom after unexpectedly winning the Best Actor Oscar for Marty (1955). His wife Katy Jurado (High Noon, 1952) remained a starlet. Despite a bout of Oscar nominations in the supporting actor category Arthur Kennedy (Elmer Gantry) and never-nominated Harry Andrews (Solomon and Sheba, 1959) were no more than character actors.
It would have been impossible to make Barabbas on the tiny studio De Laurentiis owned so, encouraged by tax breaks, he invested in hundreds of acres of cheap land to build a new state-of-the art studio. But when Fleischer first saw it, it was nothing but a barren wasteland. Even so it was in these empty fields that production designer Mario Chiari would construct the ancient world.
Over several hours, simply by pointing his finger in vague directions, the pair came up with over 100 buildings, and the sets for Jerusalem and the Praetorium. The movie already had its arena – the 2,000-year-old structure in Verona – which would double for the Rome Colosseum. The complicated gladiatorial spectacle was the first sequence to be shot, with a world-record 9,115 costumed extras, arriving on a fleet on 75 buses from nearby towns. The only obstacle to rolling the cameras: Anthony Quinn’s specially designed gladiator sandals had been left behind in Rome. A temporary pair were mocked up so the first shot could be completed before lunch.
On the second day of shooting occurred a Hollywood fairy story. Looking for good characters to focus on in the crowd “one face truly stood out, that of an eighteen-year-old girl of stunning beauty.” The daughter of an officer at a U.S. military base in Vicenza, her name was Sharon Tate. Shortly afterwards, she moved in with Jack Palance, and not too long after that she was on the Hollywood glory trail prior to her premature death.
Another mishap threatened to spoil the scene where Quinn and Gassman, playing prisoners in the sulphur mine, were going to be chained together. The location was the top of Mount Etna in Sicily. On hand were 500 extras dressed as Roman slaves. It was a Sunday since that was the only day the roads would be clear enough to transport so many people and all the equipment up the two-hour drive from Catania up the twisty route.
The weather was terrible, the sky so black, the volcanic cinder ground a perfect match, with barely enough light to get an exposure. The only section of the scene unrehearsed was the riveting of the chains. And that required charcoal. But someone had forgotten the charcoal. A race down the mountain to bring back the charcoal took till the afternoon. But just as the charcoal arrived there was a break in the clouds and a spot of perfect light. It lasted just long enough for the shot to be taken.
The solar eclipse was no special effect. It was actually taking place on February 15, 1961, and Fleischer had cameras in place to record the phenomenon, the only genuinely ethereal scene in a movie that was more concerned with realism. The burning of Rome was also filmed “in camera,” the sets consumed in one take in one night.
While there were other occasional production errors, Fleischer found the Italian crew as professional as he required. And as accommodating. One day he was informed the crew had to go on strike for one hour. But after consultation with the director, the crew was happy to strike during the lunch break.
Even with a schedule rearranged to include Quinn’s time away filming Lawrence of Arabia (1962), shooting went smoothly with no overages or budget-blowing.
The production faced other threats. The 1953 version, already conveniently dubbed, was being reissued. There was a television production called Give Us, Barabbas, and a new play was launched off-Broadway by Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, all of which could have stolen the limelight.
The movie followed an unusual distribution pattern. Launched in Italy at the tail end of 1961 to big box office it was another six months before it made a mark in London. In June 1962 it was the opening presentation for a new cinema, the Odeon Haymarket in London’s West End, a 600-seat underground emporium set up to take advantage of the demand for hard-ticket roadshow venues. The premises had not operated as a cinema since 1939 when it had been known for a short period as the Gaumont. It was only the second cinema built in London since the Second World War, the other being the Columbia in Shaftesbury Ave which had opened in 1959. In separate-performance advance-booking format, and tickets priced at $1.05-$2.80, Barabbas would remain at the Odeon for over six months.
It didn’t reach the United States – at the DeMille in New York – until October and even then was beaten to the North American punch by the 2,318-seat Odeon Carlton in Toronto, the largest cinema to enter the roadshow arena. And although available as a 70mm roadshow, in most locations it was more likely to be presented in 35mm minus the separate performances that were the hallmark of the prestigious hard-ticket presentation.
Columbia created some enterprising marketing concepts for the U.S. launch, including a touring exhibit by six well-known painters who had all used the film as the basis of artworks. A 41-foot high float including a 10-foot high revolving figure of Barabbas had been seen by 1.2 million people when paraded through Los Angeles. A special 190-page “making of” book was published in hardback. Six months after launch, the film was promoted as a “Special Lenten Presentation” in local cinemas with prices increased by 25 cents.
Although a huge success in native Italy and generally well-received at the international box office, Barabbas came up short in the U.S., rentals barely hitting $3 million, earning a lowly 35th place in the annual chart.
SOURCES: Richard Fleischer, Just Tell Me When To Cry, A Memoir (Carroll & Graf, 1993) p217-226; “Another Religious Picture May Be Barabbas Novel,” Variety, December 4, 1946, p4; “Now Barabbas Was A Robber,” Variety, June 1, 1949, p1; “First Swedish Picture Dubbed Into English,” Variety, June 23, 1954, p4; “Swedish Barabbas,” Variety, June 1, 1960, p4; “Lagerkvist, Nobel Winner, Assigns Son To Rome As Watchman on Barabbas,” Variety, December 14, 1960, p17; advert, Variety, January 4, 1961, p71; “Barabbas Budget over $10,000,000,” Variety, February 15, 1961, p3; “Dino De Laurentiis No 1 Indie Producer?,” Variety, February 15, 1961, p24; “Figure $17,500 for Off-Broadway Barabbas,” Variety, February 15, 1961, p71; advert, Variety, April 26, 1961, p71; “Becket Got 37½G On Quinn’s Exit,” Variety, May 3, 1961, p83; “Becket Folds As 40G Sleeper; Had Seemed Prestige-Only Flop,” Variety, May 31, 1961, p59; “Quinn Back To Work in Barabbas,” Variety, October 11, 1961, p17; “No Time To Fiddle in Rome,” Variety, November 15, 1961, p1; “To Write Barabbas Dialog,” Box Office, November 27, 1961, pW6; “Canada Coin,” Variety, March 21, 1962, p40; “Barabbas Exhibits Start Key City Tour,” Box Office, March 26, 1962, pE8; “Barabbas London Event: New York Date Oct 10,” Box Office, June 11, 1962, p14; “Barabbas Premiere Set For Oct 4 in Toronto,” Box Office, July 23, 1962, pE8; “Hard Cover Book to Ballyhoo Barabbas,” Box Office, July 30, 1962, p10; “Palance Back, Try Directing,” Variety, October 17, 1963, p3; “Big Barabbas Float,” Box Office, January 4, 1963, pA1; advert, Variety, January 23, 1963, p27; “Barabbas at Eight,” Box Office, February 18, 1963, pK2; “Lenten Angle for Barabbas Date,” Variety, March 13, 1963, p17; “Top Rental Features of 1963,” Variety, June 8, 1964, p37.
Seems you couldn’t make a moive about defeat in the 1960s, you had to find something in the story that sounded victorious. Although the Allied landings at Anzio in January 1944 eventually led to the liberation of Rome, the whole operation was a mess. So instead of concentrating on outnumbered American and British troops being pounded to pieces on the beaches, director Edward Dmytryk (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) opts for the men-on-a-mission angle.
Somewhat bizarre is the insertion of war correspondent Ennis (Robert Mitchum) into the story. Sure, because he’s not going to get busted for insubordination, he can challenge and/or lambast fictional commanding officers General Carson (Robert Ryan) and Major General Lasky (Arthur Kennedy) but it seems odd that he goes around spreading anti-war sentiment when the people escorting him are in serious danger of ebing killed. On the plus side are three sequences depicting the brutal reality of war in a way that no other picture of the period dared.
After landing unopposed Laskey decides not to risk moving forward, leaving his troops open to being trapped by advancing Germans even though Ennis, after commandeering a jeep, managed to reach Rome with encountering any opposition.
A Ranger battalion is sent to scout the surrounding countryside and the movie chooses to concentrate on a small platoon unit within that, headed by Sgt Stimmler (Earl Holliman) and including the fun-loving Corporal Rabinoff (Peter Falk), the kind of guy who spends the night before the landing entertaining three sex workers in the back of stolen ambulance who are of course desperate to learn the words to “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.”
After the Rangers are cut to pieces at the Battle of Cisterna, the unit escapes through a minefield, discovers a massive German construction site, holes up in house with three Italian women, is pinned down by snipers in a field of shell-holes and finally makes it back.
American tropps being slaughtered at Cisterna is a helluva note as the movie switches tack from exposing leadership folly to just getting the platoon out of this mess. Pursued by a flame-throwing Panzer, they pick their way through a minefield using the quite clever device of lobbing onto it large chunks of stone and then walking across on the stones as if crossing a dangerous river.
Wanting to find out more about the mysterious construction work results in Ennis causing the death of one of the gang. When they hide out in the Italian house, eventually killing off investigating Germans, the naïve Ennis wants to take the women with them.
Trapped by snipers in open country, they are being picked off one by one with only clever tricks and sacrifice offering a way out. One of the notions is to throw a fake grenade the snipers’ way. The instant reaction to any soldier to an incoming grenade is to get the hell out of the way, turning themselves into a turkey shoot. But the only other way to entice the snipers to reveal themselves is for the soldiers to take turns in presenting themselves as targets.
One of the ongoing themes of the picture is Ennis refusing to bear arms, and although the trailer shows him blasting away with a machine gun that only occurs at this climax when he seizes the weapon from a dead German. Ennis is an odd character for a war picture. None of the soldiers can believe anyone would not just volunteer to participate in a bloody war but carry nothing to defend themselves with. It’s a bit tiresome to hear him being reminded that he doesn’t have to be here, and to turn down the offer or a rifle or a grenade.
And for a non-combatant he’s not exactly uninvolved in strategic matters. A couple of times, as if he’s the most entitled grunt you ever came across, he virtually assumes command, barking orders that the others obey. Admittedly, it’s his cleverness that gets them through the minefield, but it’s his stupidity that gets others killed and to have him pontificating at the end that men go to war “because they like it” is incredibly facile, although in keeping with the anti-Vietnam sentiments of the time (1968, that is, not 1944).
Rabinoff, the only other character about whom we learn anything, is unfortunately on the preposterous side.
While the movie is far from dire, and as I said, very realistic when in portraying war actuality, it’s not the picture I guess audiences expected. While the scene-stealing of Peter Falk (Penelope, 1966) gets in the way, Robert Mitchum (5 Card Stud, 1968) proves an interesting character, although he is also laden down by having to spout a bunch of dumb lines. Arthur Kennedy (Fantastic Voyage, 1966) is the pick, especially at the end facing up to the ignominy of being relieved of command.
This kind of movie is potentially a breakout for the supporting cast. But here, with the exception of Falk, the script lets them down, nobody given the kind of distinctive characterisation that elevated The Dirty Dozen (1967), for example, above the norm. Apart from Earl Holliman (The Power, 1968) and Italian Giancarlo Giannini (The Sisters, 1969) this was not a career-making movie. You can spot Mark Damon (Dead Men Don’t Count, 1968), Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange, 1971), Anthony Steel (The Story of O, 1975), Rene Santoni (Guns of the Magnificent Seven, 1969), Wolfgang Preiss (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) and Robert Ryan (Battle of the Bulge, 1965).
Edward Dmytryk (Mirage, 1965) does a reasonable job with the materials to hand, and the minefield and sniper scenes are first class. Italian veteran Duilio Coletti (Under Ten Flags, 1960) directed the Italian version though I’ve no idea what that was, or if it differed in any way from the Dmytryk cut. Coletti also had a hand in fashioning the screenplay along with H.A.L. Craig (Fraulein Doktor, 1969), Frank De Felitta (Audrey Rose, 1977) and Giuseppe Mangione (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968).
Inconvenient truth never bothered Hollywood scriptwriters when it came to history and here the prospect of solving the “Great Hannibal Mystery” proved irresistible. For in 218 B.C. this invader from Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) had crossed the Alps, battered the Roman army into submission and had Rome at his mercy. But one of the greatest generals of all time did not attack Rome. Why? Love was the answer, according to the filmmakers, following the Romeo and Juliet template.
I have to admit I didn’t have that on my mind. I was seduced by the poster, the involvement of cult director Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat, 1934), the prospect of an action-packed adventure with marauding elephants and the fact that although familiar with the name Hannibal I had no idea who he was and why he crossed the Alps when surely it would have easier to take a ship from Tunisia to Italy. But I guess star Victor Mature (Samson and Delilah, 1949) was also duped into thinking that if an American nobody like Steve Reeves (Hercules, 1958) could make it big in Italy then so could surely the original Hollywood Mr. Muscles. Mixing the new-look sword-and-sandals genre with the old-style historical epic appeared a potential winner. But I should have guessed that the lean running time of 103 minutes meant an “epic” was out of the question.
The picture does take a good while to warm up although the movie begins with a sense of the epic, otherwise how to explain the 15 minutes before Hannibal hoves into view, the preceding period of invaders crossing the Alps short of dramatic incident beyond a couple of men falling to their deaths and the elephants becoming a bit restive. Endless lines of soldiers, in this case stretching into the snowbound horizon, almost becomes a motif, too much valuable time wasted on too many marches.
Hannibal turns out to be a clever commander, wanting to conquer Rome more by fear than battle, reckoning that if the Italians believed he possessed an unstoppable force they would rush to the negotiating table rather than engage in open battle and risk the destruction of their cities. He sends the captured niece Sylvia (Rita Gam) of Senator Fabius (Gabriele Ferzetti) back to her uncle with frightening tales. This doesn’t fool Fabius who views the woman as a traitor and realizes the pitfalls of surrender. Hannibal and Sylvia getting it together causes discord not just in Rome but in the Carthaginian camp, the delay in attacking the city put down to their romantic dalliance.
The initial battle scenes come up short, presented primarily in montage, little snippets of fighting here and there, rather than opposing forces facing each other, no sign either of elephants striking terror into the hearts of their opponents. But the later battle more than recompenses. One of the greatest assets of historical and war pictures is the detail given over to strategy. And if filmed properly, you can see plans executed. Hannibal demonstrates his genius by drawing the main Roman phalanxes into a trap, attacking them from both sides and forcing them back towards a river from which there is no escape. Superbly filmed, it’s a bloody conflict (for movies of the period), arms hacked off, faces and bodies weeping with blood. There’s a tragic end to the romance.
I should point out, having done my own digging, but there was a sounder reason than love for Hannibal not advancing on Rome. Simply put, he lacked the machinery to do it. The only way to conquer a city was by siege and to achieve that you needed siege machines which Hannibal lacked. But no matter how much he later tried to draw the Roman armies into the open, he was denied that opportunity by the wily Fabius who, instead, waged a war of attrition.
Hannibal was, in fact, an irritant to Rome for a decade, so this tale is heavily truncated. Although the tale of the strong man brought to his knees by passion is a Hollywood trope – look no further than Samson and Delilah – the lovers fail to strike the necessary sparks, in part because initially Hannibal views Sylvia merely as a tool to achieve a political end and in part because their time together is too limited. This is no grand passion in the vein of Doctor Zhivago (1965).
And that’s a shame because despite (or perhaps because of) his muscles, Victor Mature was no slouch in the romantic sweepstakes, having dallied in the past with the like of Janet Leigh (Safari, 1956), Susan Hayward (Demetrius and the Gladiators, 1954) and Jane Russell (Las Vegas Story, 1952). Here, Mature is better as a leader than a lover. The svelte Rita Gam (The Thief, 1952) – first wife of director Sidney Lumet – was the opposite of the more voluptuous Italian screen queens of the Sophia Loren/Gina Lollobrigida variety and her career had not really taken off, only eight films prior to Hannibal and only two in the next decade. Paradoxically, she is better battling her uncle and accepting her fate than a woman in the grip of passion.
Gabriele Ferzetti (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) makes the most of a complex character. Look out for Rik Battaglia (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) as Hannibal’s brother and, as Fabius’s son, Terence Hill (God Forgives…I Don’t, 1967) and in a smaller role his future sidekick Bud Spencer.
Directorial credit was split between Ulmer and Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia (Amazons of Rome, 1961) with Mortimer Braus (The Son of Dr Jekyll, 1951), Sandro Continenza (The Inglorious Bastards, 1978) and Ottavia Poggi (Queen of the Nile, 1961) involved in the screenplay.
A million-and-a-half dollars potentially went down the drain when, thanks to the Russian invasion two months into production, producer David L. Wolper had to shift location shooting of World War Two picture The Bridge at Remagen from Czechoslovakia to Italy and Germany. Actors and crew woke up on August 21, 1968, to find their hotel surrounded by Russian tanks. Only quick action saw 80 personnel ferried in a taxi convoy through the only remaining open checkpoint to the airport, their departure coinciding with the arrival of the Russian paratroopers.
This had not been the first international incident for the movie, based on the destruction of the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine at Remagen in Germany. Previously, Wolper had been accused of being a C.I.A. spy and reports were circulating that armaments were being brought in to support Czech leader Dubcek while rumours flew of “busloads of American troops…arriving in Prague disguised as tourists and film technicians.” Matters were so bad that the Czech army placed under lock and key the film’s entire TNT and dynamite inventory amounting to over 6,000 sticks of the former and 800lb of the latter.
Small wonder the Russians were alarmed because the production had arrived with a massive cache of weaponry – an inventory over 1,000 pieces strong – including eight Sherman tanks and over 130 Browning and Thompson machine guns, MI rifles and carbines and Colt pistols as well as 300 dummy rifles. Luckily, most of the film’s battle scenes action had been completed when production was interrupted but that still meant a month of interiors and exteriors.
Wolper was something of a Johnny-come-lately to the Remagen scene. Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, 1954), who had fought at Remagen, and his brother Stuart were first into the frame, planning in 1958 to film for Warner Brothers Ken Hechler’s 1957 bestseller on the battle, as a follow-up to their first production, Wind Across the Everglades (1958). Stanley Kubrick was being lined up to direct. When WB bowed out the Schulberg Brothers moved it first to Columbia and then United Artists. When that gamble failed to come off, United Artists assigned Phil Karlson (The Secret Ways, 1961) as director but that also hit the buffers. Although Wolper started work developing a treatment in 1965 – Irvin Kershner in his mind as director – he had Ihe had to deal with another contender in Flaum and Grinberg Productions which in 1966 announced this as their debut production.
Wolper had come to movies on the back of documentaries. Using his Metromedia outfit as an umbrella, he had struck a six-picture deal with United Artists. The first movie had been the documentary Four Days in November (1964). But the next was intended to be a “plotted dramatic film based on fact with a big star cast” known at the time as The Remagen Bridge. From the outset this was seen as a “harsh recreation of actual slogging combat with some four letter words and not a glorification of war but underlining its hellishness.”
In the event, this was overtaken on the Wolper schedule by another war movie The Devil’s Brigade (1968). Further pictures planned were Europe U.S.A. (a.k.a. If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium, 1968) and All the Conquerors (never made). Wolper had also in 1965 purchased the source material for The Green Beret, that proved to be a war movie too far and the project ended up with Warner Brothers and John Wayne.
After Roger Hirson delivered a story treatment for Wolper in 1965, the screenplay of The Bridge at Remagen went through the hands of Richard Yates, paid $25,000, the uncredited Ted Strauss (a Wolper executive with writing credits on documentaries) and Sam Watson who stiffened the treatment, with input from Wolper determined to “reinforce the image of Michaels (Segal) as one of the walking dead.”
While veteran William Roberts (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) finalized many of the film’s elements, Wolper also turned to Ray Rigby (Operation Crossbow, 1965) to “deepen the characters and create scenes with more punch” and Rod Serling (another $25,000). But Hirson could lay claim to setting up the movie’s dynamic. “This is the story of two men and a bridge,” he wrote. Initially, the American was called Earl Ammerman then Floyd Love before hitting on Michaels and finally Hartman, although that first name went from Curt to Vic to Phil. The German originally Hans Heller transitioned to Major Krueger, based on the real-life Hans Scheller.
Early drafts contained references to German secret weapons, a chaplain, a group of Polish sex workers and a brief glimpse of the woman (Anna Gael) at the end. Anthony Hopkins, then unknown, and Robert Vaughn were considered for the role of Major Krueger. Vaughn could read German and had an Oscar nomination and was a leading television star. George Segal faced no competition for his starring role, having already been in uniform for King Rat (1965). But Alex Cord (Stagecoach, 1966) declined a supporting role and Robert Blake (Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here, 1969) was considered
Filming on the original Rhine bridge was no longer possible given it had fallen ten days after the battle. Depending on which report you read, finding a replacement took around three years or 18 months or maybe just six months and involved a global search. One usable bridge was found in Washington State but with bare hillsides rather than town and mountain. John Frankenheimer on The Fixer (1968) had set a precedent for filming behind the Iron Curtain by using Budapest in Hungary to represent Russia.
Not far from Prague in what was then known as Czechoslovakia the production unit alighted on the Davle road bridge, and struck a deal in October 1967. It was almost a perfect match for Ludendorff once towers had been added at either end, the bridge itself raised by 14ft and been augmented for authenticity by wooden and steel girders. To complete the transformation an 80ft tunnel was blasted out of the surrounding mountains. And a false church, another key scene, was built on a hill.
For $20,000 Wolper also bought a village called Most which the government had marked for demolition, allowing him to blow up designated buildings in a three-square block, providing the location for a key sequence in which the town was devastated by tank bombardment. (As I mentioned in my review, the collapse of these buildings looked incredibly real, and no wonder given they were not plaster-and-lathe imitations but genuine stone.)
Prague’s Barrandov Studios supplied 188 crew, up to 5,000 extras, interiors and transport. As part of the deal Czech labs would carry out the processing but not the synching or mixing. The decision to shoot in Czechoslovakia was primarily financial. Wolper reckoning shooting there could be done for $3.5 million, saving the production an estimated $2 million-$2.5 million if filmed in Hollywood. For the Czechs The Bridge at Remagen was a “test situation.” Should the country’s movie industry prove amenable to Hollywood it could result in an influx of hard currency and a stampede of U.S. productions. Already The Reckoning was heading for Bratislava.
Ironically, the success of a Communist-ruled country like Czechoslavakia in embracing Hollywood business lay in its acceptance of capitalism. It was ironic that what Wolper demanded of his Czech counterparts would have been impossible to achieve in a democratic country. “No western society could suspect traffic from a public thorough fare for three months to benefit a private enterprise.” Motorists were forced to use a temporary ferry and river traffic was held whenever required.
Englishman John Guillermin, a World War Two veteran, was hired on the basis of World War One picture The Blue Max (1966). That he had completed A New Face in Hell (1968) by the time shooting began was a bonus. Vaughn credited Guillemin with the film’s success. “I think he did a lot of research to make it more than just another war movie.”
George Segal concurred, “That was a movie constructed by John Guillermin and cinematographer Stanley Cortez. They shot a war and Guillermin made sense out of it – the angles were so dramatic….It was an epic… (P.J./A New Face in Hell) was a tough-as-nails movie at that time and I knew that’s what Remagen needed…Developing the war-weary character of Hartman was a little bit of me and a little bit of working it out with Guillermin…He brought so much texture to it that you fed off him and his attitudes and the way he conducted himself… Very focused, very concentrated, Guillermin was very economical in his shooting…He was a great influence on me in that film because I was the one who had to take charge and he demonstrated to me how to take charge.”
There was another side to Guillermin that almost caused him to be fired. “He was kind of a martinet,” explained Vaughn, “but I got along very well with him.” Added Segal, “I know sometimes he was implacable and I know that Wolper had problems with him.” That was putting it mildly. “The first day of shooting,” recalled Bo Hopkins, “John Guillermin hollered so loud his veins stuck out.” But when Guillermin attempted to bar Wolper from the set for a complicated battle scene, the producer promptly fired him. “When he realized I was serious,” Wolper recollected, “he apologized so I rescinded his firing. But I wasn’t kidding. Without that apology, he would have been gone. I had learned early that, as a producer, you have to be tough and you have to be tough right away.”
That it was truly a war out there can be judged from the armoury. The rolling stock came courtesy of the Austrian army by way of a sale from the U.S. in 1947. These included eight M-24 Chaffee tanks, three M-3 half-tracks, three M-8 armoured cars, eight 2½ ton trucks and six jeeps. The German actors and extras were armed with 250 Mauser rifles, 28 M-P machine guns, 14 P-38 pistols, 14 Lugers and eight Bren machine guns on top of four 88mm anti-aircraft guns, eight troop carriers and a dozen assorted armoured vehicles. In total the picture drummed up 150,000 rounds of ammunition, and in addition to the TNT and dynamite consignment mentioned above over three tons of smoke-producing powder.
The German and American stories were filmed separately, with little crossover between the two units. Remagen battle tank veteran Col Cecil E. Roberts, retired, oversaw the training of extras as U.S. and German soldiers. Hal Needham took charge of the stunts.
Part of the Czech Hollywood education was understanding the hospitality needs of the stars. Usually for a long shoot abroad, principals would be lodged in private houses, but here the 35 most important personnel were pup up in hotels. To the Czech way of thinking “deluxe hostelry was inappropriate” was actors who would be playing tough soldiers so the worst of the modern hotels, The International, was where many ended up.
The mollycoddled Hollywood contingent, wherever accommodated, found service uniformly slow, water supplies liable to vanish at short notice, no water at all one day, and drycleaning facilities that took two days. The normal contingent of wives had little confidence in the Czechs reaching the necessary standards. Janice Rule (Mrs Ben Gazzara) lasted three weeks before skipping off to Paris. Mrs Segal and her child remained in Switzerland for the duration. Although the three top stars dined each night Segal drank little on the grounds that “it interferes with my suffering.”
The stars were suddenly newsworthy when they became the first refugees from Czechoslovakia. Robert Vaughn and most of the world had expected a different outcome when Alexander Dubcek took over, a basic form of democracy heralded as the “Czech Spring.” Recalled the actor, “By the time we started filming (on June 6, 1968) it was a joyous time to be in Prague…the smiles (the public) wore and their exuberant anything-is-now-possible mood exemplified the socialism with a human face then making headlines the world over.” Ben Gazzara commented: “They were closing down the borders. If one of our people hadn’t called the U.S. Embassy we would have gone to the wrong border checkpoint, one already closed by the Russians.” Gazzara smuggled out a local waitress. The taxi convoy was met at the border by a fleet of buses organized by Wolper.
Stuck with an incomplete movie, and having to come to terms with the volume of equipment equipment left behind, Wolper took three weeks to reorganize. Most of the action sequences had been completed, but the vast arsenal borrowed from Austria would require substantial compensation if not returned. In addition, also lost were 40 reels of unprocessed colour negative worth $250,000 and crucial plates for rear projection work. In the end, the Russians were not willing to go to war with a Hollywood studio and returned 5,200 items of materiel, arms, costumes and film as well as 47 heavy-duty military vehicles straight to Vienna. .
Wolper found two locations to replicate the lost Dalve bridge – a crossing near Hamburg employed to represent the underside of the historic bridge for a key scene and at Castel Gandolfo close to Rome in Italy he built a half-scale replica. The addition of a small part of the bridge and a tunnel allowed the director to complete a number of vital sequences including when Hartman runs under enemy fire.
A second unit under the direction of William Kronick was permitted to return to Czechoslovakia to film 12,000 feet of “critical shots that couldn’t be duplicated.” These comprised long shots of the Germans trying to blow up the bridge and the eventual crossing of the bridge by 600 American soldiers – played by Czech Army personnel in the relevant uniform – and tanks and half-tracks. This was done, however, under the watchful eye of 500 armed Russian troops. Wolper had to pony up an extra $1 million for reconstructing sets originally used in Prague, for building the new bridge in Italy, for transport and for an extraq five weeks in salary.
“We defy anyone to identify what was shot near Prague and what was shot near Hamburg or outside Rome,” boasted Wolper (although in fact such mismatches provoked negative comment). He was especially proud of the scene of George Segal running across the bridge which was begun in Czechoslovakia nine weeks before it was completed at Castel Gandolfo on the reconstructed bridge. “You cannot tell the difference,” he said. Considering the unexpected interruption, he could be justifiably smug that the movie completed shooting in just 93 days.
Wolper had no illusions about the movie business and did not believe in the notion that any studio or producer possessed a magic touch, much though that was a line given out by any filmmaker enjoying a bout of success. “Audiences are very selective nowadays,” he said. “The moviegoer has an antenna that goes up if they like a film. If the antenna doesn’t go up nothing will drag him in.”
Wolper decide to launch the picture with an old-fashioned “local” world premiere. Ever since Cecil B. DeMille premiered The Buccaneer (1938) in New Orleans, this had turned into a major marketing device, with movies having first showings in a variety of small towns and cities all over America linked to a location shoot or birthplace of a star. The idea had long been out of fashion but since the original author was now a respected West Virginia Congressman, the movie premiered at the Keith-Albee cinema in Huntingdon, the mayor declaring a “Remagen Week” and tanks rolling through the streets as part of a publicity blitz.
By the time The Bridge at Remagen appeared, Wolper was a big-time indie producer, having splashed out $500,000 pre-publication on John Updike’s Couples to be directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (never made). Also on his agenda were: The Confessions of Nat Turner to star James Earl Jones with first Norman Jewison at the helm then Sidney Lumet, an original screenplay by Mort Fine (The Pawnbroker, 1964) called The Blessed McGill, The Great Cowboy Race from a screenplay by Abe Ginnes, Three Women (renamed I Love My Wife, 1970) and King, Queen Knave (1972) based on the Nabokov novel.
It’s axiomatic of the vagaries of Hollywood for even the most successful producers that two of these films never saw the light of day. Wolper stopped making movies after 1972, concentrating on television mini-series and documentaries for over two decades before returning to Hollywood in triumph with L.A. Confidential (1997).
SOURCES: Steven Jay Rubin, The Making of The Bridge at Remagen, Cinema Retro, Vol 12, Issue 33, pages 26-37 and Vol 12, Issue 34, pages 18-25; “Schulberg Next for WB Rhine Crossing Saga,” Variety, August 13, 1958, p7; “Schulberg Freres Will Roll Book by Congressman,” Variety, June 3, 1959, p7; “Rolling in Germany,” Variety, November 16, 1960, p5; “Phil Karlson Will Direct Mirisch Film in Europe,” Box Office, Jul 26, 1961, pW4; “Remagen Bridge As Plotted Film for UA,” Variety, March 3, 1965, p17; “Wolper Purchases Rights to GreenBeret,” Box Office, July 5, 1965, pW2”; “Flaum and Grinberg Form Production Firm,” Box Office, May 30, 1966, pW1; “Wolper Forms New Company To Produce Features, “ Box Office, February 27, 1967, p5; “Borrow Span, Blow Up Town,” Variety, November 8, 1967, p7; “UA Signs Wolper for Couples Release,” Box Office, February 26, 1968, p5; “Representative Hechler Is Adviser on Bridge at Remagen,” Box Office, April 22, 1968, p8; “Czechs Learn Fast What Yanks location Wants,” Variety, July 3, 1968, p31; “E Germans: Remagen a C.I.A. Front,” Variety, August 14, 1968, p14; “Czechs Want Western Production,” Variety, August 21, 1968, p16 – astonishingly this story ran on the day the Czechs ended any chance of Western movie investment when the Russians invaded the country; “Remagen Crew Safe, Will Finish at Hamburg Studio Site,” Variety, August 28, 1968, p3; “Remagen Weapons List,” Variety, August 14, 1968, p14; “Actors Cross Borders in Nick of Time,” Box Office, September 2, 1968, p12, “Wolper Retreat From Prague Costs Him Vast Arsenal for Remagen,” Variety, September 25, 1968, p32; “Remagen, 2nd Unit Shoots with USSR Troops Watching,” Variety, November 6, 1968, p2; “Despite Reds Czech Invasion, Wolper Winds His Remagen,” Variety, November 27, 1968, p28; Advertisement, Variety, January 15, 1969, p33; Advertisement. “Bridge at Remagen, The Incredible Log of the Motion Picture that Became An International Incident,” Variety, May 7, 1969, p132-133. “Audiences Still Puzzle for Producer David Wolper,” Box Office, July 14, 1969, pWC2; “Photograph,” Box Office, August 18, 1968, pB2.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.