Year-End Round-Up Part Two: “Other Stuff” Top 20

Regular readers will know that this blog occasionally turns its attention to what comes under the generic title of “Other Stuff.” In the main and still covering movies I’ve reviewed this comprises behind the scenes looks at movies, examines pressbooks or marketing materials and analyses how books were shaped into films. I also focus from time to time on important issues that shaped Hollywood in the 1960s and write book reviews.

  1. Behind the ScenesThe Guns of Navarone (1961). The ultimate template for the men-on-a-mission war picture with an all-star cast and enough jeopardy to qualify for a movie of its own.
  2. Book ReviewThe Gladiators vs Spartacus Vol 1. Stupendous research by Henry MacAdam and Duncan Cooper explains how close Yul Brynner’s version of the Spartacus legend came to beating the Kirk Douglas movie into production.  
  3. Behind the ScenesThe Satan Bug (1965). The problems facing director John Sturges in adapting the Alistair MacLean pandemic classic for the big screen.
  4. Box Office Poison – 1960s Style. Actors and actresses who had been big box office draws at the start of the decade were floundering by its end. This examines which stars while pulling down big salaries were not pulling their weight.
  5. Behind the ScenesThe Girl on a Motorcycle (1968). Cult classic starring Marianne Faithful and Alain Delon had a rocky road to release, especially in the U.S. where the censor was not happy.
  6. The Bond They Couldn’t SellDr No (1962). Despite the movie’s later success and the colossal global box office of the series, American cinema owners were very reluctant to spend money renting what was perceived as just another British film.
  7. When Alistair MacLean Quit: Part One. Rankled by his treatment by his publishers, the bestselling author gave up his bestselling career. And not once, but twice (see When Alistair Quit: Part Two).
  8. Book ReviewDreams of Flight: The Great Escape (1963) in American Film and Culture. Dana Polan’s definitive book on the making of the POW classic starring Steve McQueen.
  9. Behind the ScenesGenghis Khan (1965). A venture into epic European filmmaking with an all-star cast led by Omar Sharif.
  10. Bronson Unwanted. By the end of the 1970s Charles Bronson was one of the biggest stars in the world, but at the end of the 1960s, although highly appreciated in France, his movies could not get a box office break elsewhere.
  11. PressbookDark of the Sun (1968). How MGM sold the action picture starring Rod Taylor and Jim Brown. Fashion anyone?
  12. Selling Doctor Zhivago (1965). MGM’s efforts to create huge audience awareness of the David Lean epic prior to its British launch.
  13. Behind the ScenesThe Night They Raided Minskys / The Night They Invented Striptease (1968). The convoluted background to the attempts by neophyte director William Friedkin to make a movie celebrating America’s vaudeville past.
  14. Advance Buzz. How Hollywood began to take on board the need for publicity long before the opening of a picture.
  15. Behind the ScenesTopaz (1969). Detailing the problems facing Alfred Hitchcock in turning the Leon Uris bestseller into an espionage classic featuring a non-star cast.
  16. Book ReviewThe Gladiators vs Spartacus Vol 2.  Abraham Polonsky’s longlost screenplay about Spartacus is brought to light.
  17. The Miracle of Mirisch. The Mirisch Bros were the top independent producers in the 1960s – the first of the mini-majors – and while releasing classics like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape were also responsible for a pile of turkeys.
  18. Book into FilmDr No (1962). How the filmmakers adapted the Ian Fleming original to create the James Bond template.
  19. Behind the ScenesCast a Giant Shadow (1965). Producer Melville Shavelson wrote a book about his experiences and this and other material relating the arduous task of bringing the Kirk Douglas-starrer to the screen are related here.
  20. Book into FilmA Cold Wind in August (1961). The novel was a lot sexier than the film, since publishing did not face the same restrictions as Hollywood, and this examines how far the movie went to retain the spirit of the book.

When Alistair MacLean Quit: Part Two

After the publication of Ice Station Zebra in 1963, Alistair MacLean’s adoring public had to wait three years for its successor – When Eight Bells Toll. As he done before, the author just quit. But unlike the previous disappearing act, when he continued to produce books under the pseudonym of Ian Stuart, this time nothing came down the prolific pipeline. The goose had laid its last golden egg.

After a five-year tax exile in Switzerland, MacLean had returned to Britain in 1962, setting up home first in Farnham, Surrey, followed by a brief hiatus in Ireland before settling down in a Georgian mansion with a two-acre estate in Haslemere, Surrey.

Film tie-in paperback of what might have been Alistair MacLean’s final book.

But as he delivered the manuscript of Ice Station Zebra to publisher Ian Chapman of Collins, he dropped a bombshell. He had made more than enough money. He was fed up with the high-and-mighty attitude of his editors. He was depressed by the sales of Fear Is The Key, which had been a writing breakthrough for him. He had written his last book. Now he was going to become a hotelier and to that end had bought the famous Jamaica Inn plus Bank House at Worcester and the Bean Bridge Hotel in Somerset.

The 400-year-old inn, immortalized by the Daphne Du Maurier book and Alfred Hitchcock film, was a solid going concern, takings from accommodation and food augmented by income from three bars and a souvenir shop. MacLean was a hands-on manager and felt immediately more at home dealing with real people than sitting in a lonely room pounding out his fiction. He had come to the conclusion that writing novels was “not a moral way of earning money.”

In dreaming the dream, he was especially particular, having inspected over 100 hotels before plumping for Jamaica Inn. He had the idea that hotel-keeping was in his blood. His younger brother Gillespie was a hotelier and since he could not afford a hotel of his own Alistair had bought him one near Fort William. Gillespie, however, was less than enthusiastic about the notion of operating three hotels far apart, and doubted his brother’s skills. Alistair showed little aptitude for running a business. He failed to understand the importance of stock-taking and before he could get to grips with the basics had already invested in a beer-making operation.

In despair he turned to his older brother Ian who was a high-flyer at Shell. Sensibly, Ian did not give up the day job but trying to keep an eye on a failing enterprise proved impossible. Alistair lacked people-management skills and was a poor judge of character. It was no surprise the hotels failed to flourish.

That Alistair MacLean returned to writing at all was the result of a leap of faith by producer Elliot Kastner who had parlayed $1,000 for the rights to Ross MacDonald novel The Moving Target and another $5,000 for a screenplay by William Goldman into a $3.3 million private eye picture Harper (1966) starring Paul Newman, along the way netting a cool half a million bucks for himself. In Britain to make Kaleidoscope (1966) with Warren Beatty, Kastner opened a production office at Pinewood. Aware that MacLean had no books to sell, his entire portfolio already snapped up and since his retirement nothing in the locker, he went down another route. He suggested MacLean write an original screenplay, offering $100,000 plus a share of the profits and the book rights.

Apart from the money they brought in, MacLean had not been too happy with Hollywood’s treatment of his novels. Richard Widmark had substantially altered The Secret Ways (1961), Carl Foreman had not only added characters to the film version of The Guns of Navarone (1961) but appeared to have appropriated the entire work and applied a possessive pronoun to the main title credits as if he had dreamed up the whole thing instead of just, as producer, putting the package together. The Satan Bug (1965), too, had been considerably changed and judging from the number of screenwriters hired for Ice Station Zebra, which had not gone before the cameras at this point, it was more than likely the producers had moved away from the Chayefsky treatment which MacLean had approved.

At least at the start, Kastner seemed trustworthy and his enthusiasm was flattering. After convincing the author that he had an ear for cinematic dialogue, and that his plots were ideal, Kastner handed MacLean some sample screenplays. Although MacLean was interested he told the producer he was too busy to commit right away. Assuming this was a reference to the hotels, Kastner was surprised to learn that, unbeknownst to Ian Chapman, MacLean had already renounced his retirement and was working on When Eight Bells Toll. A deal for Where Eagles Dare was struck on January 15, 1967. Eight weeks later MacLean delivered the screenplay.

Four years after apparently giving up writing forever, he had stumbled into a new career. And it wasn’t just Kastner queuing up to buy his work. Since “you can sell a picture just on the basis of his name,” Alistair MacLean remained a major attraction for filmmakers. By 1969 all 14 of his novels (up to Puppet on a Chain) had been bought for the movies, Ransohoff picking up the rights the previous year to The Golden Rendezvous, published in 1962, lining up MacLean for screenwriting duties.  Another seven original screenplays, with book deals pending, had also been purchased by producers including two sequels to When Eight Bells Toll, a pirate tale Swashbuckler and a western Deakin (renamed Breakheart Pass).

He never quit again.

SOURCES: Jack Webster, Alistair MacLean (Chapmans, London, 1992 paperback) p118-132; “New York Sound Track,” Variety, My 8, 1968, p30; “Film Slump No Problem for Alistair MacLean,” Variety, p35.

Book Review – Dreams of Flight: “The Great Escape” in American Film and Culture

In the history of rousing action cinema few movies are as revered or have produced such a collective cinematic response as John Sturges’ World War 2 POW picture The Great Escape (1963) starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough and a host of upcoming stars including The Magnificent Seven alumni James Coburn and Charles Bronson,  

Dana Polan’s rich assessment of the film’s making coupled with a superb analysis of the film itself, script, style, themes and directorial bravura is filled with informative nuggets. Eschewing the standard star bio approach, Polan goes much deeper to detail how earlier adaptations for American television and Australian radio (made by novelist Morris West’s company and with Rod Taylor as a German guard) affected the film, how it fitted into the British POW tradition (The Colditz Story etc) and the influence of an American offshoot like Stalag 17.

You might already be familiar with the work of Dana Polan since he has written books on Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos and Jane Campion and another half-dozen books besides. This is an excellent addition to his impressive portfolio.

Paul Brickhill, author of The Great Escape (and other war classics The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky) had been an inmate at Stalag Luft III so drew on personal experience – including that of tunnel digger – and sketches made at the time of the tunnels to turn out, as co-writer, a precursor Escape to Danger. It was either interviews relating to this or a magazine article or condensation that alerted neophyte director Sturges in 1945/1946 to a potential film. The book, published in 1950, sold a million copies in paperback in the UK alone and was a huge global success. And for independent producers Mirisch, for whom Sturges later made The Magnificent Seven, buying the rights was integral to the director’s pact with that company in 1957 and indeed The Great Escape was mooted as his debut picture for them. When finally greenlit, it was intended to be shot in the U.S. with only 10 per cent taking place in Europe. That it went the other way was due to an unusual set of circumstances.

In his analysis of the picture, Polan makes other interesting connections, first of all to the caper picture where each character has a specific task to contribute to the overall effort. Unusually for a heroic film, he points out that courage is continually undercut, each uplifting moment leading to defeat, the film itself having an essentially downbeat ending, the only true victory found in defiance. And in some respects The Great Escape created a bridge between the gung-ho war films of the 1950s and the more cynical approach to war envisioned in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.

Being British, it had never occurred to me how important the baseball glove was to American culture, the glove representing for many a “certain brand of American problem-solving in the face of adversity” although far more universally accepted would be the premise of the motorcycle escape representing the triumph of the spirit even as it results in a more down to earth resolution.

Tracing Sturges’ stylistic development back to post-WW2 B-movies made for Columbia explains the importance of the trademark parabolic shot in driving action forward. Yet for all his stylistic bravura, Sturges was very grounded when it came to the work required to make pictures, for example here adopting coloured index cards to shuffle around pieces of action to best effect.

The script went through various hands – William Roberts and Walter Newman, both integral to The Magnificent Seven, but was finally credited to crime writer W.R. Burnett (who had worked with Sturges on Sergeants 3, 1962) and James Clavell (who adapted The Satan Bug, 1965), himself a POW in a Japanese camp with British writer Ivan Moffat (Giant, 1956) coming in at the last minute as script doctor. A breakdown of the various scripts attributes the Hilts’ cooler baseball bouncing to Moffat who also wrote the scene that changed Hilts from loner to participant.

In a terrific appendix you can discover exactly the problems facing the real escapees and who came up with the book title (clue – not the author) four years after the idea originally surfaced. There’s a fascinating coda about the film’s impact on Hollywood and general culture and Polan takes time out to reflect on the experience of various fans on their virgin encounter with the picture. The movie was a big hit and so well received that when critic Bosley Crowther wrote a negative review the “New York Times” postbag was filled with complaints. Written with tremendous authority and great style, this is one book you would want to find in your Xmas stocking.

Dreams of Flight: The Great Escape in American Film and Culture by Dana Polan is published by University of California Press at $24.95 / £20 in both paperback & ebook.  ISBN 9780520379305. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520379305/dreams-of-flight

When Alistair MacLean Quit – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

Scrolling down the credits for The Satan Bug (1965) you might have been surprised to discover that the film was based not on a book by Alistair MacLean but by one Ian Stuart. Yes, this turned out to be a pseudonym but you might be asking yourself why on earth did a world-famous thriller writer need to employ a pseudonym.

Pseudonyms were generally used for two reasons, and most often in genre fiction. Firstly, they were utilized by authors who were far from world-famous and needed to churn out four or five books a year to make a living. In those days only the likes of Agatha Christie or Simenon could get away with producing three or four books annually without the public getting fed up with their output. Long before the likes of the prolific Danielle Steel or James Patterson showed publishers that the public would devour anything they produced, it was considered ruinous to your career to be seen to be turning out more than one book a year.

Salvatore Lombino wrote under the pseudonyms of Ed McBain (the 87th Precinct series), Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle etc), Richard Marsten, and Hunt Collins. Most famous under his own name, British author John Creasey (The Toff series) had 27 pseudonyms including J.J. Marric (the Gideon books) and Anthony Morton (The Baron series) as well as a number of different names for his westerns and romances.  A famous author wanting to dip a toe into a new genre was the other common reason a pseudonym came into play, the outstanding recent example being J.K. Rowling who turned to crime under the name of Robert Galbraith.

Alistair MacLean fell into neither of these categories. An unexpected success, the Scottish schoolteacher hit the jackpot with his debut HMS Ulysses in 1955, a straightforward war novel, and two years later bestseller The Guns of Navarone which was turned into a movie. He followed up with another four thrillers in four years under his own name, the last being Fear Is the Key (1961).

The reissued 1969 hardback while retaining the Ian Stuart name on the cover
links the book to Alistair Maclean in the inside flap.

By this point, MacLean, a somewhat touchy individual, had become exceedingly annoyed at the treatment his manuscripts received at the hands of his publisher Collins. In particular, he was often taken to task by editors for making simple errors like confusing “of” with “off.” But more importantly, editors treated his books as if they should be met with a rejection slip – in fact it was strongly suggested that the author set aside his third book South by Java Head in favor of something else – rather than slung out to an adoring public. As his biographer Jack Webster put it, he felt “very much like a pupil under severe pressure from a master.” It would have been humiliating for an English teacher to be told off for his use of English. The editors also complained there were too many incidents which made the books hard to read rather than enrapturing the reader.

While no doubt every author gets picked up for momentary lapses or for elements of the story that need reconsideration, it was clear to MacLean that his publishers were taking a very snobbish attitude to his output rather than falling over themselves to have in their possession such a cash cow. MacLean also felt that his books only sold so well because his name was attached. Every book was “by the author of HMS Ulysses” or, after the fantastic success of the movie, “by the author of The Guns of Navarone.” He was beginning to feel more of a unwelcome commodity than a cherished asset. And he had already made so much money from his millions of books sales and additional revenues from film studios -£30,000 for HMS Ulysses for example – that he did not need to listen to his publishers.

In fact, matters had come to a head with Fear Is the Key (1961), his least successful book. Clearly this provided his enemies in the publishing house with the opportunity to gloat and to attempt to force him to listen to their superior wisdom and toe their line But for MacLean Fear Is the Key was an experiment, a deliberate change of writing style. “What I’m trying to do is develop a technique of completely impersonal story-telling in the first person”  – in essence the reader would see action unfold as if through the eye of a camera. His publishers, who appeared to view sales as the only measure of a book’s success, felt otherwise. After one too many clashes with the Collins hierarchy, he took himself off to renowned agent Curtis Brown who welcomed him with open arms and none of the niggling that marked his dealings with the publishers. While Collins would remain his British publisher, Curtis Brown took on the task of invigorating foreign rights.

Having snared what they expected was a golden goose, you can imagine Curtis Brown’s astonishment on being told that the first book they were to sell under this new deal would not bear the name of Alistair MacLean. It would be by an unknown author – Ian Stuart. The Dark Crusader (retitled The Black Shrike for U.S. readers) was set in Australia and concerned a hunt for missing scientists. Never mind previous antipathy between author and publisher, Collins hated this book, complaining about over-complicated plot, boring characters, and improbable action. It was “a thoroughly bad book.” MacLean was incensed: “If the book is as bad as you say and you obviously lack faith in it, can you genuinely imagine that I believe you will honestly and sincerely get behind it in promotion, publishing and selling?”

Desperate to retain the author and hoping that this experiment would be short-lived, especially if sales showed a marked downturn from the MacLean books, Collins agreed to publish it. Naturally, the only way to ensure that it reached any kind of sales peak rather than vanish into the chasms of oblivion that faced most new authors, Collins gave the book “by a new author” a heavy publicity campaign. The poorer sales did not dampen MacLean’s ardour for his pseudonym and he went to produce The Satan Bug by Ian Stuart, his faith in his decision justified when a Hollywood director of the caliber of John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960), clearly seeing far greater potential in the novel than the publishers, snapped it up for production.

The rule breaker – the back cover of the 1962 U.S. paperback gives the game away and clearly, judging by the quote from King Features, the true author’s identity must have been in the public domain.

Myth has it that both The Dark Crusader and The Satan Bug played by the rules laid down by the author. But that did not turn out to be the case. The paperback edition of The Satan Bug published by Popular Library in 1962 on the back cover reveals the true author. In any case in due course the book was reissued under the MacLean moniker and is a far better example of the cinematic style the author was attempting to achieve than The Dark Crusader and became the template for his later books.

But, as it turned out, this was not the first time that Alistair MacLean would go on strike.

Catch Up: movies made from Alistair MacLean novels featuring in the Blog are The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Secret Ways (1961) and The Satan Bug (1965).

SOURCESAlistair MacLean by Jack Webster (Chapmans Publishing, 1962, paperback edition), pages 73, 89-90, 94-96, 112-117.  

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