Summer Movies

The Best Movies Never Made

Orson Welles as Christ, Paul McCartney as Frodo, Al Pacino as Noriega, and seven other near-misses.

See all of Slate’s Summer Movie coverage

Late last year, a lavish and limited-edition volume was published to honor a masterpiece that never was and never will be: Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon. At 2,974 pages and 23.8 pounds, it is the closest fans will get to the biographical epic Kubrick longed to make after 2001: A Space Odyssey. In his years of research, Kubrick reportedly read almost 500 books about Napoleon, extensively scouted locations, and gathered 17,000 slides of Napoleonic imagery. Taschen’s package of 10 books features ample evidence of Kubrick’s dedication, including scouting photographs, costume studies, transcripts of interviews Kubrick conducted with experts, and even his final draft. The director had assured his financial backers that it would be “the best movie ever made”; the volume’s subtitle is The Greatest Movie Never Made.

Not every unmade movie can get its own monument ($700, now sold out). Cinematic history is rife with grand ideas that never managed to get off the ground. Herewith, a guide to 10 wildly ambitious—or just wildly misguided—movie projects that were doomed by financial difficulties, casting issues, their very premise, or, commonly enough, all three.

Life of Christ
Orson Welles’ cache of unmade or unfinished projects is famously tantalizing and the subject of another 2009 book, Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects. These projects include Don Quixote (which he intended to set in modern-day Spain), The Other Side of the Wind (about an aging director and the last movie he makes) *, and the story of Christ (set as a Western). His Christ screenplay featured dialogue taken entirely from the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In the early 1940s, Welles tried to gather support from American religious leaders, with some success, and even scouted locations in Mexico with the great cinematographer Gregg Toland. The dissonant element here, in an otherwise intriguing project, is Welles’ plan to cast himself as Christ. As scholar Marguerite Rippy has noted, “The Wellesian larger-than-life character is both human and deeply flawed,” and Christ was neither flawed nor completely human. Welles’ booming voice also seems at odds with the gentle, soft-spoken Christ our culture has propounded. Studio support wasn’t forthcoming, in any case, and Welles’ efforts to film the Christ story in the 1950s in Egypt were also unsuccessful.

Adam and Eve
In 1947, after two profitable films about priests ( Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s), Leo McCarey, a devout Roman Catholic, wanted to go back to the very beginning. He commissioned Sinclair Lewis to write a script about the Garden of Eden, set in Biblical times. The script was apparently less than perfect, but, years after the project was shelved, McCarey thought the problem lay in the casting. “The more you delve into it, the harder it is to find Adam,” McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich. “Eve is much easier. … Why is that? I have brought the subject up at parties and the reaction varies completely.” Jimmy Stewart and Ingrid Bergman were contenders at one point, but Stewart balked at wearing nothing but a fig leaf—because Bergman outweighed him. “The more I thought of it, however, he was right,” McCarey said. “He’s too thin.”

Lord of the Rings—starring the Beatles
It’s widely known that the road to filming Lord of the Rings—first published in 1954—was nearly as long and torturous as Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom. Early on, Tolkien stated a preference for the “vulgarization” of an animated version over the “sillification” of a dramatization. According to Roy Carr’s The Beatles at the Movies, talks were once in the works for a Beatle-zation—with John Lennon wanting to play Gollum, Paul McCartney Frodo, George Harrison Gandalf, and Ringo Starr Sam. Collaborating with director John Boorman, screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg thought the Beatles should play the four hobbits (and agreed with McCartney that he would be the ideal Frodo). It’s difficult, but entertaining, to imagine the Fab Four subsuming their personas to Tolkien’s storytelling, but United Artists decided not to move ahead on the project, with the Beatles or without them.

Genesis 1948
In 1970, Otto Preminger bought the screen rights to Dan Kurzman’s 800-plus-page nonfiction chronicleof “The First Arab-Israeli War,” intending a follow-up to his 1960 epic, Exodus. At a press conference, he said, “We’ll show both the conflict on the battlefield and in the political arenas in Washington, Moscow, the United Nations, and the Mid-East.” He expressed the hope that the film “will offend neither Arabs nor Jews” without acknowledging that Exodus had certainly offended Arabs. Israeli parents, meanwhile, had reason to be wary of Preminger’s planned location shoot. While filming Exodus, he labored over one scene in which a dozen very young Israelis were to cry on cue as Arabs attacked their homes. When they wouldn’t cooperate with tears, Preminger instructed an assistant to lead the children’s mothers over a hill and out of sight. ”You see, your mothers have been taken away,” Preminger informed them. ”You are never going to see them again—never!” The children obediently burst into tears. But instead of Genesis 1948, he made a domestic-discord movie, Such Good Friends.

I Shot Down the Red Baron, I Think?
At 86, Cliff Robertson has had a long and varied career, playing everyone from John F. Kennedy in PT 109 to Uncle Ben Parker in Spider-Manand Spider-Man 2,exposing a major Hollywood scandal (documented in David McClintock’s Indecent Exposure), and getting blacklisted for four years for his trouble. Less known is that after winning his Oscar for Charly, Robertson, an aviation enthusiast, set out to write, direct, and star in a film featuring World War I fighter planes after he was given access to a collection of convincing replicas. He came up with a spoof in which he would play a fighter pilot going against the Red Baron, to be portrayed as a flaming homosexual dressed in pink. This sort of spoofery wasn’t hilarious then and hasn’t aged well. Financing disappeared after aerial footage was shot in Ireland, and the film was never completed.

Tucker the Musical
Like Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola has considered and abandoned directing a feast of film projects, ranging from On the Road (which will start filming under Walter Salles’ direction this August) to a 10-hour 3-D version of Goethe’s Elective Affinities (which he briefly considered in 1979). The musicals Coppola has made have been ill received, so there seems little reason to lament the musical biopic he planned to make about auto-industry maverick Preston Tucker. For the lead, he unaccountably focused on Marlon Brando, whose only previous cinematic singing role had come two decades earlier and had not been notably tuneful. The project at one point evolved into a larger-scale musical, to be scored by Leonard Bernstein, featuring Tucker and other American inventors, before turning into Coppola’s agreeable 1988 nonmusical Tucker: The Man and His Dream.

In 1990, Oliver Stone was eager to tackle the deposed Panamanian dictator: ”Noriega would make a great movie. Graham Greene could have created him. … If Shakespeare were alive, he’d try him. I love Central America as a canvas.” Four years later, with Al Pacino set to star, Stone acknowledged budget and script problems. Noriega has “some negative characteristics” and “is not easily understood,” Stone said, adding “I know him. I spent three hours with him in prison.” In a disappointing burst of modesty, Stone admitted: “The real story is probably too complicated [for a movie]. If [Special Prosecutor] Lawrence Walsh couldn’t solve Iran-Contra, how could Oliver Stone?” We were spared another entry in Stone’s anti-pantheon; Lawrence Wright’s script was turned instead into a well-regarded Showtime movie, Noriega: God’s Favorite.

The Northmen
Certainly John Milius would have captured the violence of the Vikings in this movie, which he had written and planned to shoot in early 1994. The budget was a big one, with Mel Gibson offered $12 million to star. But Milius, the auteur behind Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawnas well as the author of such immortal lines as “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” apparently didn’t think the Vikings were violent enough. He invented Gibson’s character to ramp up the mayhem: “He’s an English monk taken by the invaders who winds up joining their ranks,” he told Variety. “The guy out-Vikings these guys.” The film never got off the ground, but Gibson’s interest in tough, old-school Scandinavians hasn’t waned—he’s now planning to direct a Viking epic with Leonardo DiCaprio. William Monahan ( The Departed) is the screenwriter. “We’re going hammer and tongs on the script right now,” Gibson told the Los Angeles Times in March. (Old Norse, anyone?) Meanwhile, Valhalla Rising, starring Mads Mikkelsen, opens this summer, and John Milius is gearing up to shoot a biopic of Genghis Khan, starring—but of course—Mickey Rourke.

Half Way House
After the triumph of Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck found plenty of further success in acting, producing, and, in Affleck’s case, directing, but they have yet to film another Damon-Affleck script. Just months after GWH’s release, they already had a project set up with Castle Rock. Affleck described Half Way House as an ensemble piece set in a home for the mentally impaired. The pair was going to play workers in the facility, at least initially. “Damon now tells Affleck he wants to play one of the retarded residents,” Variety’s Army Archerd wrote in March 1998. “We’ve got 150 pages,” Damon told Entertainment Weekly that year, “and about five are good.” Whether he was being falsely modest or not, the film has been quietly dropped from both men’s list of future projects.

With a ridiculous premise (summed up as “Alien on a train”) and a title like ISOBAR (with its unfortunate echoes of Ishtar), what else could possibly go wrong? The word itself, which means both “a line on a weather map connecting points of equal atmospheric pressure” and “any of two or more kinds of atoms having the same atomic mass but different atomic numbers,” doesn’t seem catchy or plot-related, but producer Joel Silver loved the sound of it. Screenwriter Jim Uhls ( Fight Club) turned it into an acronym for the even-more-unwieldy “Intercontinental Subterranean Oscillo-magnetic Ballistic Aerodynamic Railway.” Sylvester Stallone and Kim Basinger were set to star, but the 1995 bankruptcy of the independent production company Carolco ended production right before sets were to be built. However, don’t give up hope yet: Dean Devlin may yet put this train back on its tracks.

Correction, June 30, 2010: The article originally misidentified the film’s title as The Other Side of the World. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)