10 November 2015

Koestler's Near-miss in Hollywood

When I wrote and published my biography of Arthur Koestler, I was completely unaware that Koestler’s work had so narrowly failed to make it to the screen in Hollywood. I knew that soon after Koestler’s one and only visit to Hollywood in 1948, a small studio called Pioneer Pictures had briefly considered making a movie of Darkness at Noon, but gave up when Koestler refused to let them to update the time of the action. There were also aborted discussions about the possibility of filming two later novels, Arrival and Departure and Thieves in the Night, but the novel that came closest to being produced was a much earlier work, The Gladiators, written in German between 1935-1938 and published in English in 1939.

I owe this information to Professor Henry MacAdam, a lifelong admirer of Koestler, who contacted me about this not long after my book appeared, and I am happy to report that MacAdam now plans to write an entire book on the subject. After considerable research on this forgotten matter, MacAdam has established that “a serious and sustained attempt” to film Koestler’s fictionalized account of the Spartacus Revolt in 73-71 BC was made by the United Artists company after Koestler sold them the movie rights in 1957. The producer was to be Paul Radin, the talented writer and director, Abraham Polonsky, was to write the script, Martin Ritt would direct, and Yul Brynner agreed to star as Spartacus.

It was an excellent line-up. Polonsky, of Russian extraction, was a disillusioned ex-communist like Koestler himself and perfectly understood Koestler’s theme and ideas, while the Russian-born Yul Brynner, fresh off his spectacular success as the king in both the stage musical and the movie of The King and I, was similarly attuned to the subject matter.The project was aborted, however, for a number of reasons. First, there were difficulties obtaining full film rights, thus delaying the start of production, and second was the rapid completion and signal success of a rival production by Universal-International Studios on the same subject, based on Howard Fast’s novel, Spartacus, which came out in 1960, with Kirk Douglas in the leading role.

Professor MacAdam has managed to unearth Polonsky’s “lost” script and is planning to publish it in a book on the subject, together with a full commentary on its relationship to the novel, a brief sketch of Polonsky’s career in the context of Hollywood’s blacklist (1947-1968), and an account of the making and success of the rival production starring Kirk Douglas. His book will also include a substantial number of unpublished letters to and from Koestler, his literary agent A.D. Peters, and members of The Gladiators’ film production team.

Here for example, is a sample comment by Yul Brynner to Radin and Ritt on Kirk Douglas, the moving spirit behind the rival production: “I want you to remember and keep in mind that from the very start Kirk has been asking to make a deal with us, and my suspicion is that he is not too sure of what the hell he is doing and he knows he has a much better offer making a co-production with us then attempting such a difficult job by himself at Universal.”

Unfortunately, Kirk Douglas won the battle, but the story of how that came about throws an interesting light on how Hollywood deals with literature and is an entertaining tale in its own right. Meanwhile I’d like to pass on the author’s plea for anyone who has knowledge of the unmade movie of The Gladiators to get in touch with him, since there are still some angles to be explored. His email address is: hmacadam@devry.edu.