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Five Movies That No One Will Ever Be Able to See

What are the best films that were never put to celluloid? We look back at the passion projects of famous directors that never got off the ground

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Storyboard panel for Nostromo by John Box, from a BFI Southbank exhibit.

Megan Gambino’s The Top 10 Books Lost to Time inspired me to think about the movies that we’ll never be able to see. Not movies that were actually “lost,” like the thousands of titles that have decomposed or otherwise disappeared over the years. Some estimate that 80 percent of all silent features are gone, for example. They include movies starring Laurel and Hardy (The Rogue Song), Greta Garbo (The Divine Woman), and Lon Chaney’s sought-after “vampire” film London After Midnight.

This posting instead is about movies that were never completed, or in some cases never filmed at all. Every filmmaker has a list of projects that just didn’t work out. Either they couldn’t find financing, or schedules were too complicated, or situations suddenly changed. William Wyler prepared How Green Was My Valley, but due to scheduling conflicts John Ford ended up directing it. Frank Capra had planned to make Roman Holiday, but eventually gave the project to Wyler. Steve Soderbergh was ready to direct Moneyball until Sony replaced him at the last moment with Bennett Miller.

Directors and other creative personnel invested a lot of time and money into the five films below. In some cases, the fact that they could not complete the films seriously affected their subsequent careers.

1. I, Claudius—After helping make Marlene Dietrich an international star in seven visually astonishing films, director Josef von Sternberg burned a lot of bridges at Paramount, made two minor films at Columbia, then fled Hollywood. In London he accepted an offer from producer Alexander Korda to film an adaptation of I, Claudius, a 1934 novel by Robert Graves about the first-century Roman emperor. The cast included Charles Laughton, one of the most respected actors of his time, and the imperiously beautiful Merle Oberon.

Korda was hoping to build on the success of his film The Private Lives of Henry VIII, while Sternberg, who had filmed Dietrich as Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress, relished the chance to explore the Roman court. But the production was troubled from the start. Sternberg couldn’t establish a working relationship with Laughton; in his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry he wrote: “when he was not in front of the camera he seemed no more abnormal than any other actor.” The director also infuriated the British crew with his autocratic methods.

The final straw came when Oberon had a serious car accident a month into shooting, bringing the production to a halt. (At the time, some suspected that her £80,000 insurance settlement helped offset shuttering the film. Oberon would go on to marry Korda in 1939.)

In 1965, director Bill Duncalf assembled the surviving footage—about 27 minutes—in the documentary The Epic That Never Was. Sternberg was a master at melding production design and cinematography to build atmosphere, and his I, Claudius would have been a stunning achievement.

2. It’s All True—Orson Welles was still a wunderkind when he left the United States for Brazil in 1942. Behind him: Citizen Kane, an unedited version of The Magnificent Ambersons, and the sophisticated pulp thriller Journey Into Fear. Asked by the Office of Inter-American Affairs to make pro-Brazil propaganda as part of the country’s “Good Neighbor” policy, Welles was greeted like a star when he arrived in Rio de Janiero with a $300,000 budget from RKO.

Orson Welles filming a Carnaval sequence for It’s All True

In a treatment to potential backers, Welles wrote, “This is a new sort of picture. It is neither a play, nor a novel in movie form–it is a magazine.” The director envisioned a four-part feature, later reduced to three. It would include My Friend Bonito, written and produced by documentarian Robert Flaherty and directed by Norman Foster, about the friendship between a Mexican youth and a bull. For The Story of Samba, Welles shot black-and-white and Technicolor footage of Rio’s Carnaval.

Welles read a Time article, “Four Men on a Raft,” about four fishermen who sailed 1650 miles in a “jangada,” little more than a raft, to protest poor working conditions. He decided to reenact the trip for the centerpiece of his film. Unfortunately, Manoel Olimpio Meira, the leader of the fishermen, drowned during filming.

The mood of the country turned against the director. He also lost the support of his studio when executives were replaced. Rumors have RKO dumping It’s All True footage into the Pacific. Welles later claimed the film had been cursed by voodoo. The surviving footage was assembled into the 1993 documentary It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles.

3. Napoleon—The famously obsessive Stanley Kubrick started and dropped many projects over his career. For years he tried to film Aryan Papers, an adaptation of Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies, giving up the project when Steven Spielberg started Schindler’s List. A short story from The Moment of Eclipse by Brian W. Aldiss became A.I., which Kubrick never started because he was waiting for better computer effects. It was eventually completed by Spielberg.

After the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick turned to Napoleon Bonaparte, a figure he had studied for decades. Jan Harlan, his brother-in-law and executive producer of his later films, says Kubrick was fascinated about how someone so intelligent could make such costly mistakes.

Kubrick and MGM announced Napoleon in a July 1968 press release. The director hired 20 Oxford graduates to summarize Napoleon biographies, and filled a file cabinet with index cards detailing the dictator’s life. “I must have gone through several hundred books on the subject,” he told journalist Joseph Gelmis. “You want the audience to get the feeling of what it was like to be with Napoleon.” His relationship with Josephine was “one of the great obsessional passions of all time…So this will not be a dusty historic pageant.”

Staff found locations in Romania, and procured the cooperation of armed forces there for extras. Thousands of uniforms were prepared. Kubrick experimented with special low-light lenses that would enable him to work with candlelight.

According to Harlan, shooting was ready to start when Waterloo, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon, was released. The failure of that film caused Kubrick’s backers to pull out. While the director continued to amass research on the subject, he could never find enough funding to restart the project. He did incorporate some of his findings into his adaptation of Barry Lyndon (1975). Alison Castle has edited a remarkable book from Taschen, Napoleon, that gives an indication of how much Kubrick put into the project.

Goethe from Stieler’s 1828 portrait

4. Elective Affinities—Playwright, scientist, philosopher, novelist, travel writer, artist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the towering figures of the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries. His Sorrows of Young Werther swept Europe, changing the culture’s concept of masculinity and inspiring a rash of suicides. (Napoleon carried a copy with him to Egypt.) Faust became the source of a half-dozen operas and symphonic works. Goethe inspired everyone from Nietzsche and Beethoven to Francis Ford Coppola.

Elective Affinities, Goethe’s third novel, was published in 1809. The title refers to how elements bond chemically; the plot describes how relationships change with the addition of a new person. A husband falls in love with an orphaned niece; his wife, with The Captain, her husband’s childhood friend. In chemical terms, AB + CD → AD + BC. Goethe implied that passion and free will were subject to the laws of chemistry, an idea that playwright Tom Stoppard developed further in Arcadia by bringing in chaos theory to the argument.

In 1979, few filmmakers were as respected as Francis Ford Coppola. He had won an Oscar for writing Patton, then directed three of the most accomplished films of his time: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation. While working on the calamitous epic Apocalypse Now, Coppola conceived of adapting Elective Affinities into a multi-part film that would combine Eastern and Western influences.

Coppola was not a dilettante about the East: along with George Lucas he was helping to produce Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Coppola studied Kabuki theater, intrigued by how the form abandoned realism for illusion in scenery, story, and actors. He pictured Elective Affinities as four episodes taking place over a ten-year period in both Japan and America, a series that would examine the couple and their lovers in detail.

Walking through the Ginza section of Tokyo, Coppola was reminded of Las Vegas, which became the setting for One from the Heart, “a little musical Valentine,” as he described it to an interviewer. The poor box-office performance of that film, coupled with the crippling debt he assumed for Apocalypse Now, scotched any chance of filming Elective Affinities.

5. Nostromo—David Lean, the director of such epic masterpieces as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, had his share of aborted projects. In the 1970s, after he completed Ryan’s Daughter, he and screenwriter Robert Bolt spent years on a two-part adaptation of Mutiny on the Bounty. When Bolt suffered a stroke, Lean eventually abandoned the project, which ended up being directed by Roger Donaldson as The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian.

Storyboard for Nostromo by John Box, from a BFI Southbank exhibit

Lean’s outstanding adaptation of A Passage to India won two Oscars. For his next project he chose Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, a 1904 novel that examined the corrupting influence of a silver mine in a fictional South American country. Director Steven Spielberg agreed to produce the film for Warner Bros. Lean worked with playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton, and later reunited with Bolt on a newer draft.

Conrad’s novel is filled with adventure on a massive scale, as well as penetrating psychological analyses of flawed characters. It’s also a gloomy, depressing story with a downbeat ending. I read a draft of the script when I was working at HBO in the 1980s, and it captured the scope and feel of the novel while adding Lean’s own jaundiced take on society. It was also a seriously ambitious project for an ill director in his 80s.

Delays followed delays as Spielberg, Hampton and Bolt all departed the project. Lean persisted despite the throat cancer that was killing him. He assembled a cast that included the European actor Georges Corraface as well as Isabella Rossellini and Marlon Brando. Screen tests were shot. Millions were spent constructing sets. Lean wanted to shoot with the Showscan Process, a high-speed, large-format, and very expensive stock. At the very least he insisted on 65mm. Cinematographer John Alcott came up with an ingenious solution for lighting a scene that takes place in a dark mine: make the silver appear phosphorescent.

What a film Nostromo would have been: bold, sweeping, magisterial, mysterious. Lean died six weeks before the start of shooting.

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