People have always asked “what if?”
What if I’d gone to prom with Alice instead of Sarah? What if Portugal had entered WWII on the side of the Allies? Speculation about what might have been is one of the traits that defines humanity. And damn, are there ever fertile grounds for speculation in the world of cinema. With films falling through all the time, or languishing in development hell, screenplays rewritten beyond recognition, cast members dropping out or getting fired or dying, there is a rich filmography of movies that never got made.
Let’s explore some of the (potentially, hypothetically) best films that never were.
Title: The Alien (c. 1967)
What it was supposed to be: In the late 1960s, Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, godfather of India’s parallel cinema (the neorealistic, anti-Bollywood that flourished in Bengal), was going to do something that a number of misguided filmmakers continue to attempt: He was going to cross over to Hollywood. He even had a screenplay for a surefire hit: a science-fiction film called The Alien, which would depict a spaceship landing in a small village in Bengal, and show the friendship between its adorable alien occupant and a local boy. In the adult roles, Marlon Brando and Peter Sellers would be in the background, doing their thing. The film’s success would set a precedent for Indian-American co-productions.
Why it didn’t happen: Imagine Ray’s surprise when, shortly before the film was supposed to go into production, he found that his American agent in Hollywood had given himself a co-writer credit on the screenplay, and taken the screenwriter’s fee attached to it (despite having virtually no involvement in writing it). And then Brando dropped out of the project and Ray, disillusioned, went back to Calcutta to direct Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), his beloved comic fantasy.
There were occasional murmurs in Hollywood about reviving the project throughout the ‘70s, but as far as Ray was concerned, it was dead. Imagine Ray’s surprise (again) when, in 1982, Steven Spielberg came out with his beloved E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, about the friendship between an adorable alien and some kids. Ray claimed the parallels between the films couldn’t be coincidental and that his screenplay, which had been mimeographed and distributed throughout Hollywood, must have fallen into the hands of the E.T. production team. Spielberg has always denied everything (and this is not the last we’ll see of him on this list), and for his trouble, Ray was given a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1992.
What to see instead: E.T., of course, if you can still enjoy it knowing that it was likely ripped off by Hollywood bigwigs from an independent filmmaker in a developing country. Or, if you want to see something more faithful to Ray’s vision, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.
Title: Untitled Martin Scorsese Wounded Knee Project (c. 1976)
What it was supposed to be: A film about the Wounded Knee Massacre, starring Marlon Brando, directed by Martin Scorsese. It’s the context that promised great things. In 1973, Marlon Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in The Godfather. Brando didn’t attend the ceremony, but he sent American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. She took the stage, declined the Oscar, and gave a speech condemning Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans onscreen. It was one of the most satisfying “fuck yous” in the history of the Awards, and it was just one of Brando’s many gestures in support of radical Native American activism. He would later go on to contribute to AIM’s legal defense fund, and was associated with imprisoned AIM member Leonard Peltier. So it would have been fascinating to see Brando partner with Scorsese in his prime to create a film about one of America’s most appalling atrocities against its Native population.
Why it didn’t happen: Like many films that never were, this seems to have been a classic example of a movie that didn’t get much past the “wouldn’t it be cool?” phase. The Wounded Knee project was under discussion in the mid-'70s, and Scorsese found himself busy with other projects (like Taxi Driver, for instance). Meanwhile, Brando’s increasingly erratic career choices (and performances) of the period can’t have helped matters much.
What to see instead: If you want to see a solid, respectful film about the suppression of the Plains Indians in the 1800s — one without caricature or white savior narratives — your best bet would probably be Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, HBO’s 2007 adaptation of Dee Brown’s epochal narrative history of the same name.
Title: Berserker (c. 2011?)
What it was supposed to be: In the mid-aughts, Mel Gibson had a vision for the future of cinema: gory atrocities made in languages that are rarely seen on film. He started with The Passion of the Christ (2004) in Aramaic, continued with Apocalypto (2006) in Mayan, and would have concluded this trilogy in about 2011 with Berserker, a Viking bloodbath, in the Old Norse language, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Now, whether or not this sounds cool to you is going to depend on your reaction to the first two films in the trilogy, but if Gibson’s visionary violence appealed to you, then surely Berserker would have been the apotheosis of his career as a director.
Why it didn’t happen: It may seem hard to believe looking at it from 2016, but there was once a time when Mel Gibson was so beloved that he had to have a series of reputation-destroying scandals before people finally said, “Dude, that’s not cool.”
First there was the homophobia and the more-Catholic-than-the-Pope Catholic conservatism, about which Gibson had never made any secret, but apparently in the '80s and '90s this was considered acceptable.
Then The Passion of the Christ came out, with its focus on the Jewish role in the torture and crucifixion of Jesus (evidently more interesting to Gibson than, say, the Sermon on the Mount). People started calling him an anti-Semite, an allegation confirmed in 2006 when he ranted about the Jews during a drunk-driving arrest.
But even this wasn’t too much, because Apocalypto came out later that year, and was a big hit. It was only in 2010, when Gibson struck his girlfriend while shouting the most racist shit imaginable, that all of these things compounded to make Gibson no longer acceptable, thereby causing Berserker to fall through (along with the rest of Gibson’s career).
What to see instead: Well, you could wait for Berserker to get made, which Gibson has insisted for years is still going to happen (albeit probably without DiCaprio), or you can sate your lust for Viking violence with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009), which has all the blood (and guts) that Gibson would have brought to the table, only with Mads Mikkelsen in the lead, and without the anti-Semitism.
The Unmade Films of Stanley Kubrick
Let’s shift our focus now to Stanley Kubrick, a genius filmmaker so ambitious that he failed to make about as many movies as he actually made. We will start with several movies that never went beyond the “wouldn’t it be cool?” phase mentioned above.
Title: The Lord of the Rings (c. 1968)
What we missed: The Lord of the Rings, starring the fucking Beatles, who by 1967 were still contractually obligated to make one more movie (after A Hard Day’s Night and Help!). Kubrick’s LotR never went beyond discussions but, tantalizingly, the Beatles knew who they wanted to play: Paul would be Frodo, Ringo would be Sam, John would be Gollum, and George would be Gandalf. It probably would have been a campy clusterfuck (the Beatles were terrible actors), but that’s one of the things that makes unmade films so appealing: They never have to prove themselves.
What to see instead: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is still cool, right?
Title: Blue Movie (c. 1970?)
What we missed: Around 1970, there was a flurry of really explicit filmmaking in the West, brought on by a combination of the end of Hollywood’s Hayes Code, the fact that an “X” rating wasn’t yet exclusively associated with porn, and the general '60s zeitgeist. And so Kubrick bandied about the vague idea for a sex film, tentatively called Blue Movie, based on this premise: real A-list actors engaging in graphic, non-simulated sex. Kubrick instead made A Clockwork Orange, which was graphic enough that it contributed to a general reaction against the kind of explicit filmmaking that it embodied.
What to see instead: Kubrick never fully abandoned his idea for a sex movie, and traces of it can be found in his final film, the ever-perplexing Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which would have been much more explicit had Kubrick not died during post-production, thus allowing Harvey Weinstein to add digital G-strings to the orgy scenes and thereby avoid an NC-17 rating. You can also see, just a few years later, the dismal “real sex” movies that have made the subject passé: The Brown Bunny, 9 Songs, etc.
Title: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (c. THE FUTURE!)
What we missed: A.I., a film about an android boy who wants to be reunited with his human mother, did eventually get made, but not in the way Kubrick had envisioned. He wanted to put off production until such time as an actual android could play the lead role. Then he died, and Steven Spielberg, less patient than Kubrick, made the movie with the kid from The Sixth Sense.
What to see instead: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001, non-android version).
And now, two Kubrick movies that he poured his heart into, and which almost went into production:
Title: Napoleon (1970s and 1980s)
What it was supposed to be: According to Kubrick, it was going to be the best damn film ever made, period. It was going to tell the epic story of Napoleon Bonaparte, from Corsica to Italy to Russia to Waterloo to St. Helena, with the rich period detail of Barry Lyndon (1975) and the vivid, methodical intensity that characterizes so much of Kubrick’s oeuvre. But the problem with telling people that you’re going to direct the best damn movie ever made, period, is that it puts a lot of pressure on you. And if you’re Kubrick in the '70s, and your perfectionism is already becoming pathological, causing your output to slow to a trickle, that’s added pressure that you don’t need and can’t handle.
And so, despite years of research, scripts, and treatments (including one from Anthony Burgess, who turned it into a novel after Kubrick rejected it), location scouting, and assurances that no, seriously, I’m going to do this, Napoleon never happened. Of all the great unmade films, it is probably the greatest… or not, who knows, we’ll never see it.
What to watch instead: ... or will we? It’s Spielberg to the rescue (again), as a Spielberg-produced miniseries adaptation based on Kubrick’s screenplay is allegedly in the works. Also, if you can find it, you would be well advised to watch Abel Gance’s silent epic Napoleon (1927), which is the best Napoleon biopic that actually got made.
Title: Aryan Papers (c. 1995)
What it was supposed to be: Given the frequency with which Spielberg pops up in relation to Kubrick’s work, it’s worth mentioning that Kubrick probably didn’t have the highest opinion of Spielberg. When portions of The Shining were being shot next to the lot where Spielberg was shooting the snake pit sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kubrick’s daughter traveled back and forth between the sets, providing her father with updates on what she believed was the appalling mistreatment of the snakes, prompting Kubrick to opine: “Steve’s a jerk.”
While Kubrick’s take on Spielberg seems to have mellowed over the years, his last great un-film, Aryan Papers, would become inextricably bound up with Schindler’s List. Kubrick had for years been trying to make a Holocaust film, first approaching Yiddish writer I. B. Singer in the '70s, and later novelist Louis Begley, a Jew born in Poland who survived the Holocaust with forged papers identifying him as Catholic. Kubrick made Begley a modest request: Write me an adaptation of your semi-autobiographical Holocaust novel Wartime Lies, revolving around a fully fleshed-out individual, surviving with “Aryan papers,” who nonetheless embodies the entire fate of the European Jews. Begley said, “Okay.” And they were just about to start casting in the early '90s.
Why it didn’t get made: Then Schindler’s List came out in 1994, and while Kubrick had some objections to it — he famously said: “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed, Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t”— he felt that any film he made on the subject would inevitably be overshadowed by Spielberg’s film. Also, after years of grappling with the material, Kubrick was understandably becoming depressed by it, and the idea of spending years making a film of it (because that’s how long it took Kubrick to make films in the last phase of his career) was understandably daunting. In 1995, he dropped the project.
What to see instead: Well, Schindler’s List, for one. The recent Hungarian film Son of Saul, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year, presents a visceral, relentless look at death camp life in which Kubrick’s influence can be felt (one is especially reminded of the hellish violence in Full Metal Jacket). And then one comes inevitably to Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah (1985), which, for all its attendant controversies, remains one of the profoundest treatments of this darkest of subjects.