The Burden of Dreams: Five Films that Barely (If Ever) Got Made

Several weeks ago, Flicker Alley released a documentary called Henri Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, which chronicled the attempt to make the titular film by the titular director. Clouzot was famous for his thrillers in the 50’s (Le Corbeau, The Wages of Fear, Les Diaboliques), and with his newest venture attempted to make his masterpiece. Unfortunately, until now, what he was working on never saw the light of day, because Clouzot suffered from an unlimited budget, a strict deadline, an insurmountable vision, and in the end, the loss of his lead actor and a heart attack. But Clouzot is not alone; rather, he is surrounded by cinematic greats when it comes to lost, or nearly lost, projects that almost killed them.  Hee are several of his companions in the desolate locale of brilliant failure.

1. Inferno (1964) by Henri-Georges Clouzot
The film he was trying to make was, according to him, an attempt to put on film a visual manifestation of the anxiety that kept him awake at night, and that personal hell has been communicated in the new documentary. His protagonist, played by Serge Reggiani, is tormented by a jealousy of Shakespearean proportions, as he hallucinates (in color, the rest of the film is in black & white) all of the things his sexy wife does with the locals. As I mentioned above, Reggiani left the production, but Clouzot continued to film, chaotically filming those hallucinations, almost out of a (sado)masochistic urge to torture the character. The visuals in these scenes are so arresting, that while all we can see now is the ghost of what once was, that ghost reveals a film that could very well have been at the top of various film lists for the 60’s.

2. Don Quixote (1955-1969) by Orson Welles
Orson Welles left several unfinished projects, but Don Quixote looms above all of them, if not for how close it was to completion, then for how badly it was eviscerated when Jesus Franco attempted to reconstruct it. Surprisingly, given how frequently he tops various film lists, Orson Welles was seldom able to get the money he needed to make his films. Don Quixote‘s production took so long since financing disappeared every couple of months, completely shutting it down.  It was going to be set in contemporary times, but with Quixote and Sancho Panza made entirely faithful to Cervantes work, creating characters that were timeless, yet anachronistic. It could have been among the best of his works, as Welles took well to these tragic heroes who carried their own images of magnificence (Chimes at Midnight, Macbeth, Citizen Kane). But unfortunately, the version completed in 1992 by the aforementioned Franco, has become the reason posthumous films don’t often get made.

3. Napoleon (1970) by Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick had one film in mind when he became a filmmaker, and that was an epic bio-pic of the famous French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Finally, after the success of Dr. Strangelove and the epic reach of 2001, Kubrick felt ready, and hired an Oxford specialist to aid in his research. More research was done for Kubrick’s Napoleon than has ever been done on the historic figure, and more has gone down the drain due to some producer’s whim. Just before production began (costumes had been made, locations scouted, documents prepared and a script had been written), Kubrick awoke to find that his funding had been cut, and he needed to make a different film entirely. After A Clockwork Orange, many felt that an audience would not be receptive to his Napoleon picture, so Kubrick did the smart thing and made Barry Lyndon, one of his finest films, which recycled much of his work on the dream project.

These books are all that remain of Kubrick’s research

4. Apocalypse Now (1979) by Francis Ford Coppola
I have always been an advocate for Coppola’s original cut (not the Redux), precisely because it almost failed. Problems notoriously beset the production of this film, Coppola’s Vietnam epic, ranging from heart attacks to bad weather, and the loss of millions of dollars. All of this has been told in the excellent documentary Hearts of Darkness by George Hickenlooper. But what resulted from this messy heap of mistakes and bad luck was a film that captured the madness and depravity of Vietnam (or as Coppola himself said, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”).

5. Fitzcarraldo (1982) by Werner Herzog
This film stands in stark contrast to the others, as not only did it get completed, Herzog finished it after changing his cast midway through, lifting a boat over a mountain, and a massive amount of pure unadulterated will. Originally, the film was going to star Mick Jagger, but because production took so long, he had to get back on tour, and the entire movie up to that point had to be re-shot. Reluctantly, Herzog hired his nemesis (or his “best fiend”) Klaus Kinski in the titular role, and had to deal with their shoddy relationship in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest. In order to finish a scene, Herzog even went so far as to hold a loaded gun to Kinski’s head. All of this is recounted in Burden of Dreams by Les Blank, and it demonstrates the lengths to which Herzog had to go to even get the film completed. About a man who attempts to lift a boat over a mountain and do the impossible (which Herzog ultimately had to do as well), one can sense the immense triumph at the climax, primarily because it was Herzog’s triumph, too. Completing this film was probably the most difficult thing any filmmaker has ever done.

What other films can you think of that barely got made? What films almost killed their creators?

-Ben Creech

2 responses to “The Burden of Dreams: Five Films that Barely (If Ever) Got Made

  1. I know The Fountain by Arronofsky was killed during it’s first production run and was morphed into the wonderfully painted graphic novel to keep the idea alive.

    • The Filmsmith

      Really good mention. They had already built these massive sets and when Brad Pitt pulled out of the picture just before shooting was to begin, they literally burned Aronofsky’s dream to the ground.

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