Readers’ Choice – Behind the Scenes and Other Stuff Top 10

Regular readers will know that I don’t just write movie reviews but pick up on “Other Stuff” relating to the 1960s. This will take the form of articles about interesting aspects of the decade, book reviews and analyses of how particular movies were sold to the exhibitor via the studio’s Pressbooks / Campaign Manuals.

In addition, I have become especially interested in how works of fiction were adapted for the screen and these go out under the general heading of “Book into Film.” And, lastly, I have written a number of Behind The Scenes posts on the making of specific pictures.

So given I have been highlighting those movies that were the most highly regarded either by myself or my readers during the year, I thought it only fair to include some mention of the “Other Stuff.”

So these are my Top Ten posts of “Other Stuff”- as measured by reader response – during my inaugural year as a movie blogger. It’s worth pointing out that had the “Other Stuff” been included in the same chart as the Top 30 Readers’ pictures, five would have made the Top 20.

  1. “Box Office Poison 1960s Style” highlighted the stars whose attraction was beginning to fade.
  2. The Gladiators vs Spartacus was a two-volume book that I reviewed about the ill-fated production launched by Yul Brynner against the Kirk Douglas production of Spartacus (1960).
  3. Behind the Scenes of “Genghis Khan” (1965) related the battle to bring this Omar Sharif vehicle to the screen
  4. Behind the Scenes of The Night They Raided Minskys (1968) produced a surprising amount of interest given the film, directed by William Fredkin and starring Britt Ekland, was a notorious flop.
  5. The Pressbook for “The Dark of the Sun” / “The Mercenaries” (1968) identified the efforts of the MGM marketing wizards to sell the Rod Taylor-Jim Brown action picture to the wider public.
  6. Behind the Scenes of “The Guns of Navarone” (1961) was based on my own successful book The Making of The Guns of Navarone which had been reissued with additional text and illustrations to celebrate the film’s 60th anniversary.
  7. Behind the Scenes of “The Girl on a Motorcycle” tracked how director Jack Cardiff beat the censor and cajoled a decent performance from Marianne Faithful even though it was yanked form U.S. release.
  8. Book into Film – “The Venetian Affair” explained how screenwriter E. Jack Neumann took the bare bones of the Helen MacInnes thriller and turned it into an excellent vehicle for Robert Vaughn trying to escape his The Man from Uncle television persona.
  9. Selling “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) examined the media campaign run by MGM for the London launch of the David Lean blockbuster.
  10. Book into Film – “A Cold Wind in August” demonstrated how screenwriter John Hayes toned down the sexy novel by Burton Wohl to escape the wrath of the censor while turning it into a touching vehicle for Lola Albright.

The Movie That Never Was: The Long-Lost Screenplay of Abraham Polonsky’s “The Gladiators” *****

This is the second volume of The Gladiators vs Spartacus opus, published separately to the tome I reviewed on February 24, 2021. Reading Abraham Polonsky’s screenplay is like having a piece of history in your hands. And it is a fascinating read. Polonsky’s take on the Spartacus legend was quite different to that of Dalton Trumbo for Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 Spartacus. Based on works presenting alternative visions, Polonsky’s on the book by Arthur Koestler and Trumbo’s on the Howard Fast novel, suggested there would be differences.

The most initial significant departure is that Polonsky gives considerably less emphasis to Roman politics. It’s a classic three-act film, the first section revolt and escape, part two battle against pursuing Romans, the final segment betrayal and defeat. Rather than viewing the uprising as a glorious event, Polonsky concentrates (as does Koestler) on conflict among the escapees. Where the relationship between Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons follows a pure Hollywood arc, the female lead here, Lydia, is a more unusual character and for most of the time Spartacus fends her off. 

Top pic: Variety, June 24, 1959, p44; above Variety, February 12, 1958, p3. Ira Wolfert was a “front” for the blacklisted Polonsky.

And the revolt kicks in right away. Within 25 minutes (allowing one minute of screen time for every screenplay page), Spartacus spares the life of rival gladiator Crixus and together with their compatriots they rise up against their oppressors and escape to Vesuvius. Immediately, the differences between Spartacus and Crixus become apparent, the former wanting to press on, while Crixus wants to stop at an inn (“half-brothel, half resting place”), eat his fill, get drunk and have sex. To Spartacus, self-indulgence risks turning the men into a drunken horde, but to others (as expressed by the poet Fulvius) “this is freedom…the first thing a man wants back is his vices.”

But unexpected freedom brings a rebellion “without leaders, without plans, without hope” and the gladiators have attracted a rag-tag of other slaves. Crixus wants to discard these camp followers, head south, steal a ship and get home. Addressing the horde, Spartacus is brutal in his assessment, “I see a host of dead men” unless they submit to his authority and “swear by the gods never to surrender.” Crixus refuses and leads his Gauls away. With the Roman legions in pursuit, and blocking the one path up the mountain, Spartacus begins to train his horde. In a brilliant scene, the slave army, “faces and bodies blackened with charcoal,” descend on vine ropes on the outside of the crater in the darkness to surprise the Roman encampment.

When Crixus returns, he sees not a rabble but a proper army, Spartacus the undisputed commander. Spartacus plans to build a Sun City in alliance with the “old Greek cities conquered by Rome.” But such coalitions require compromise, forcing Spartacus to return to the Greeks slaves who have run away to join his army. “Every road has its detours,” says Spartacus. Naturally, his decision causes dissension, especially from Crixus. In order to win, Spartacus is willing to become a tyrant. (“It’s survival. It’s a detour. It’s a way around what we can’t go through.”)

Divisions within the army lead to a showdown. Crixus and Spartacus fight, at one point Crixus sparing his opponent’s life, to repay the debt from their skirmish  in the arena, and, reprieved, Spartacus kills him. But, eventually, Rome exerts its power, the slaves are betrayed, Spartacus refusing an opportunity to save himself, and in the final battle overwhelmed by superior forces, resulting in “eight thousand slaves on eight thousand crosses, all the way from Capua to Rome.” The screenplay ends in mythical fashion (i.e. true Hollywood). Spartacus’s body cannot be found. “They say the ground opened beneath him and swallowed him up. And some say he’ll be back.”  The final scene is of Spartacus’s infant son in the desert of Qumrum “empty, formidable, immense, the barrenness everywhere and yet here the spirit and first sign of modern man.”

Polonsky’s epic (two hours forty minutes by page count) is driven by conflict, not just against the pursuing Romans, but by different attitudes within the slave army as to the best way to achieve – and enjoy – freedom. The Crixus approach would be to loot every city. Spartacus adopts a policy of the end justifying the means. These “detours” were crucial to Koestler’s assessment of the true cost of revolution (taking the Russian revolution as his starting point). This is not a story of an impotent leader, driven to destruction by more powerful forces, but one where an individual, taking up the mantle of leadership, must make cruel decisions. This is the battle commander as politician. He faces a chorus of dissent from his own chief supporters – the poet Fulvius, the priest and scribe John, and his “wife” Lydia – who challenge his rulings, each with their own idea of how the revolt should fulfill its destiny. Spartacus himself is under little illusion, resisting attempts at deification, far more realistic than your standard Hollywood revolutionary. He does not believe in the gods or destiny and, ultimately, considers the revolt has little chance of success.

Polonsky, too, ignores the rules of the Hollywood romance. There is no meet-cute, Spartacus distrusts the willful and obsessive Lydia, possessor of mysterious powers, and, unlike the Hollywood standard attraction of opposites, there is no happy reconciliation. “I would never pick a wife who wanted to rule all men, the gods, and the world,” he tells her, “I would never choose a superstitious woman like you, with a tongue like a snake.” As for many a slave, the only freedom he enjoys, beyond a brief period unshackled, is the freedom not to die in servitude. From reading the screenplay, this is very much a movie I would have liked to see take its place on the big screen as an intelligent and challenging epic.

However, the actual screenplay only forms part of this 500-page-plus volume. Dr Fiona Radford provides extensive annotations and a critical commentary to the screenplay, drawing on both historical and literary sources and on Koestler’s book and Polonsky’s own notes. The commentary is worth reading in itself. Also included are draft scenes omitted from the revised script, lengthy excerpts from Polonsky’s Journal (which touches upon the screenplay and the blacklist) plus a survey of Roman gladiators in fiction and film from 1822 (Susanna Moodie’s Spartacus: A Roman Story) to 2020 and an examination of how Polonsky’s screenplay drew upon the source material, what he left out and what he invented. Henry Macadam and Duncan Cooper contributed the background essays. The combined volumes of The Gladiators vs Spartacus come to around 1,000 pages and a thousand more informative and highly readable pages would be hard to find. Dr Radford, by the way, along with Dr Peta Greenfield, runs a fascinating podcast-driven website “The Partial Historians” focusing on ancient Rome.

Note: I have not previously awarded marks to book reviews, in part since some are mine, modesty forbids, but if I ever there was a case for a five-star review, both these volumes fall into that category.

As with volume 1, The Gladiators vs. Spartacus Vol 2 is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Yul Brynner vs. Kirk Douglas: The Battle for ‘Spartacus’ *****

When I wrote my book some years back on the making of The Magnificent Seven (1960) I was aware that Yul Brynner had attempted to set up a project called The Gladiators in direct opposition to rival Kirk Douglas venture Spartacus. What I didn’t know until I came across this fascinating new book, telling the untold story of The Gladiators vs. Spartacus, Dueling Productions in Blacklist Hollywood by Henry MacAdam and Duncan Cooper, was just how close Brynner came to derailing the Douglas production. Indeed, at first it appeared Brynner’s The Gladiators, based on the novel by Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon, The Ghost in the Machine), was a cinch to be first past the post. After winning the Best Actor Oscar for The King and I (1956) and starring in box office behemoth The Ten Commandments (1956), Brynner was set to become a movie mogul after being handed a record $25 million – $230 million at today’s prices – from United Artists for 11 pictures. His first project was The Gladiators on a $5.5 million budget, Meanwhile, Douglas, rejected for the title role in the forthcoming Ben-Hur, his picture Paths of Glory (1957) producing dismal returns, struggled to find funding for Spartacus, based on the book by Howard Fast.   

Promotional ad in 1958 for Yul Brynner as Spartacus in ‘The Gladiators.’

There are instances of two studios embarking on similar projects at the same time – sci fi adventures Deep Impact and Armageddon appeared within months of each in 1998 but Warner Bros and Twentieth Century Fox decided to combine competing movies about a skyscraper on fire into The Towering Inferno (1974). Here, as much as efforts were made to combine the projects both actors were determined to continue the battle despite the potential competition. At another point, Brynner sought to recruit Douglas for The Magnificent Seven. The race to the screen went back and forth for a couple of years, Brynner unable to choose between the historical drama and the western, while Douglas had the luck to have as his agent  Lew Wassermann, in the process of buying up Universal who determined that Spartacus would be the ideal prestige vehicle to relaunch the studio.

What gives this volume special significance is that the films were being produced against the backdrop of the blacklist, the anti-Communist hysteria stirred by HUAC in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Screenplays for both films were the work of blacklisted writers, Abraham Polonsky on the Brynner side and Dalton Trumbo for Douglas. Polonsky was writer-director of Force of Evil (1948) as well as writer of another quintessential film noir Body and Soul (1947), for which he was Oscar-nominated, before his career was prematurely interrupted. Trumbo was held in even greater esteem, Oscar-nominated for Kitty Foyle (1941), and with A Guy Named Joe (1943) under his belt. While blacklisted, both wrote under “fronts”, Trumbo responsible for the Oscar-winning screenplays for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956), Polonsky successfully switching for a time to television. Both productions proceeded with the need to keep secret the real screenwriters, Ira Wolfert fronting for Polonsky, author Howard Fast unknowingly doing the same for Trumbo.

The parallel tales of two ambitious producers dueling for supremacy and of two blacklisted writers fighting for survival make a thrilling read. At any moment, either production could be killed by revelations about the screenwriters, while the planned films faced a succession of what seemed sometimes insurmountable obstacles. Both movies pursued, for example, the same three stars – Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov. Martin Ritt, initial  director for The Gladiators, dropped out while Anthony Mann, in the same position for Spartacus, was fired. Script problems dogged both pictures. Rivalry was conducted openly in the trade press while the productions clashed over the title. Even when Spartacus nudged ahead in the production process, the spiraling budget almost put paid to the endeavor, while The Gladiators hovered in the background, intent on capitalizing should, as appeared for a long time the most likely outcome, the Douglas film flop at the box office.

The third riveting element of this book is a scoop. The authors have located the original Polonsky screenplay for The Gladiators, believed lost for over 60 years, and so are able to contrast the different approaches to the subject of the Spartacus revolution. (In a separate volume, the entire screenplay has been published with annotations and critical commentary by Fiona Radford and background essays by MacAdam and Cooper). Koestler was a cult figure, far better known than Howard Fast, and has remained in the literary consciousness ever since his suicide in 1983. With The Gladiators failing to reach the screen, Polonsky remained under the Hollywood radar for several years before his career revived with the screenplay for Madigan (1968) and as writer-director of modern western Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) starring Robert Redford.  The revelation that Trumbo had written Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960) and the involvement of Polonsky in The Gladiators helped break the blacklist. Trumbo went on to enjoy a successful official comeback, biopic Trumbo (2105) depicting the tribulations he suffered as a blacklistee.

The book is available from Cambridge Scholars.

Behind the Scenes: Genghis Khan (1965)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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