Evil Ash checking in again.
As we delve into Part III of this ongoing series of films that never were, we turn our attention to a director who, while an iconic legend, had never been nominated for an Oscar, received only one Golden Globe nomination during his career, and had a relatively low output of production (compared to his peers) in terms of directorial features. Sergio Leone, the son of Italian cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone, started churning out scripts in his native Italy in the late 1950s.
He would get his big break at directing – much the same way that Stanley Kubrick got his break (see Spartacus) – by taking over an existing production that had already commenced filming when director Mario Bonnard fell ill. That production was The Last Days of Pompeii in 1959.
Leone’s first credited directorial feature was the forgettable yet enjoyable 1961 The Colossus of Rhodes. It was your typical sword and sandal epic of the day and Leone did his best on a relatively low budget. The film only made approximately $350,000 as per MGM’s records. The best part of the movie was the impressively built Colossus itself, and the fight to the death atop it, which brings to mind the climax to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, which was released two years earlier.
It would be Leone’s next directorial effort in 1964, that would begin what would be considered an “epic” 20-year run. A Fistful of Dollars would catapult Leone into stardom (star Clint Eastwood would have to wait a few more years) and would also initiate the rise of a unique sub-genre of movies; the “Spaghetti Western.” Most importantly though, it would start the lifelong partnership and friendship between Leone and legendary composer Ennio Morricone.
With A Fistful of Dollars grossing over $14,000,000 worldwide on a micro-budget of $200,000, all parties involved made a killing, and wanted to keep the “Dollars Trilogy” going; and they did. The script for the sequel was written in NINE days, and For A Few Dollars More was released in 1965 (1967 in US theaters). The movie, on a small budget of $600,000 was another smash hit, earning over $15,000,000 globally.
United Artists quickly bought the rights to the film, as well as the rights to make a third film. They hired previous screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, who soon convinced Leone (who had no plans to make a third film), to come back for one more shot at glory. That film would be the masterwork The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, released in Italy in 1966. All three of the Dollar Trilogy films would be released in the US in 1967, thus cementing Clint Eastwood as a newly minted star.
Of particular note, the heart-wrenching portrayal of the US Civil War in the third film, and its absolute pointlessness. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly would make $25,000,000 globally on a $1,000,000 budget, another smash hit.
Over the next 18 years, Leone would only helm three more movies, but two of them would be absolute masterpieces; 1968’s Once Upon A Time In The West and 1984’s Once Upon A Time In America. I can’t say enough about how stunning Henry Fonda’s performance is in Once Upon A Time In The West. While both of these movies are considered “classics” and were well-received critically upon release, neither movie did particularly well financially. In fact, Once Upon a Time In America got crushed at the box-office, grossing only $5,000,000 on a whopping $30,000,000 budget, almost bankrupting The Ladd Company, the films production company.
I think the main reason for its poor performance was the horrific editing job by The Ladd Company (without Leone’s supervision or cooperation), to trim the move from almost 4 hours to 139 minutes for the North American release. At times, this version of the movie is almost incoherent.
There were many projects that Leone had considered taking on during his illustrious career (The Godfather, The Phantom, Don Quixote and several others), and throughout the 1970’s he had continued to stay active producing, executive producing, and even acting as second-unit director on numerous films based out of Italy. He also directed the grossly overlooked Duck, You Sucker! released in 1971.
However, in the final years of his too-short life, there was one project that Leone was working on more aggressively than anything else, and was also the one that came closest to production. That film would have been called Leningrad: The 900 Days, based on Harrison Salisbury’s non-fiction work, The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad.
While Leone was completing production on Once Upon A Time In America, he had read Salisbury’s tome, which told the story of the siege sustained by Leningrad – the second largest Russian city during the Second World War – at the hands of the German army. While Leone did not have a full script in place, he had spent several years writing treatments and performing meticulous research on the brutality that the inhabitants of Leningrad had endured during this time. Leone had even obtained the approval of the Soviet Union’s leaders of the time (Gorbachev), to film inside of the Soviet Union. Not an easy thing to do. He also planned on teaming up again with his long time musical partner.
Below is a nice shot of the two masters, Ennio and Sergio, courtesy of Getty Images.
Leone’s intention was to reunite with Robert De Niro, who by the late 1980s was considered one of the 2-3 greatest actors of his generation, with a pedigree filmography too lengthy to list here. De Niro’s character would portray an American photographer (or cameraman), who becomes trapped in the City when the siege begins. Leone said about his planned film:
“From very specific elements documented in this book, I imagined a parallel story and invented other characters. Thus, in my film, the hero is not a journalist but a young cameraman who is supposed to be accompanied on his trip to Leningrad. Initially, the two men were only there for a few days, but very quickly, without really realizing what happens to them, they find themselves trapped in the besieged city by Hitler’s army. They will remain there until the end, until death.”
By 1989, Leone had raised almost $100,000,000 from various financiers. His plan was for an epic, Oscar-worthy World War II movie, with a love story built in. Leone had De Niro’s character falling in love with a Russian woman while keeping the relationship hidden from the Russian secret police. Tragically, he would be killed on the day that Leningrad is liberated. Leone had just returned from Moscow in early 1989, after scouting locations with his son Andrea, and holding a press conference in Moscow for the Russian media.
The Master had planned to commence production in 1990. According to Andrea:
“…during a press conference in Moscow the master described the film scene by scene, so he had every sequence worked out in his head…”
Two days before he was to have signed his contract and made it official, Sergio Leone died of a massive heart attack in 1989, at the age of 60. Leningrad: The 900 Days would have been shot in Russian and English, and would have largely been filmed within the Soviet Union. The first Soviet co-production. It was also rumored at the time to have been the most expensive film in history to go into the pre-production stage.
The movie would have been monumental on so many levels and would have also marked a new direction for the director.
While I wish there is more that I could tell you about this “what if” movie, I think I’ve given you enough details so that you can judge for yourself what this COULD have been. Think about it; perhaps the most expensive movie in history. Filmed behind the iron curtain and staring one of the most heralded actors on the planet. I’d like to think that a De Niro/Streep reunion could have been in the cards. I’d also like to think that Leone would have finally gotten that Oscar nomination he so richly deserved.
When asked by an interviewer whether his new project would be a metaphor for current US/Russian relations, Leone replied:
“If anything, it might be some kind of example, but not a metaphor. What I hope, as a result, is that Reagan and Gorbachev, after seeing the film, would be a little friendlier between themselves.”
I hope that you enjoyed Part III of this ongoing series of films that never were. Next week, we get surreal with Salvador Dali?
Sound of Outposters and let me know what you think!
Hugh “Evil Ash” Feinberg