Orson Welles' jungle book, Bilbo on mushrooms: the great unmade movies

For every glittering Hollywood project that hits cinemas, there’s a whole lot more that don’t make it. Here are five of the most fascinating films you’ll never see

It has been a big year for lost movies, with the completion and release of both Orson Welles’ long-shelved experimental drama The Other Side of the Wind and Terry Gilliam’s decades-in-the-making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. But what of those major movies that never even made it past the script stage?

1. Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness

In 1939 Orson Welles was America’s golden boy, fresh from a rabble-rousing stage production of Julius Caesar and his radio sensation The War of the Worlds. Hollywood beckoned and Welles jumped right in, bashing out a dense 174-page adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for RKO Pictures. The film would be faithful to Conrad’s tale of a riverboat captain, Charles Marlow, tasked with tracking down a rogue ivory hunter deep in the African jungle – and the lead role would be played by Orson himself.

But the project was problematic, and not just because of its jungle setting, major set pieces and estimated budget of more than $1m. Welles’ big idea was to shoot the entire film in first-person, from Marlow’s point of view, his face glimpsed only in mirrors and water. He also intended to film entirely in long takes, an audacious strategy that would have left little room for compromise and even less for error.

RKO’s adverse reaction was predictable, and Heart of Darkness was shelved in favour of Orson’s second-best idea, an original story called Citizen Kane. The loss is saddening, but it’s not a stretch to assume that such a radical first pitch might have left RKO more open to the comparatively straightforward but still game-changing narrative and technical innovations of its follow-up.

2. John Boorman’s Lord of the Rings

In 1970, The Lord of the Rings was everywhere, its eco-friendly escapism dovetailing neatly with the communal mindset of the post-Woodstock era. A film was inevitable, and rights-holder United Artists turned to John Boorman, a British director with a passion for Arthurian fantasy and – more importantly – a moderate hit under his belt in Point Blank. Joining forces with the young screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg, Boorman turned out a script that covers all three books, runs to 178 pages and is, without question, one of the weirdest documents in existence.

Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan in Lord of the Rings.
No kabuki … Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Photograph: Pierre Vinet/AP

It’s hard to pick a favourite scene. Is it the one where the wizard Gandalf beats Gimli viciously with his staff in an effort to help the dwarf recover his ancestral memories? Or the one where Frodo is invited into Galadriel’s bed, much to the grumbling dissatisfaction of Boromir and Aragorn, both of whom planned to seduce her? Perhaps it’s the 11-page expositional kabuki play in which a small dog representing fate pursues a ball representing the ring, while Sauron (described as “a combination of Mick Jagger and Punch”) looks on.

There are undoubted highlights – the hobbits’ journey out of the Shire is a mushroom-fuelled voyage climaxing in a tornado of whirling petals, an idea Boorman would revisit in Excalibur. But it’s hard to imagine the finished film being anything other than a freaky – if fascinating – failure.

3. Michael Powell’s The Wizard of Earthsea

This was a real missed opportunity – the finest American fantasy author of her generation teaming up with the finest British director of any generation to adapt a masterpiece of children’s literature. It’s hard to imagine a better director for Ursula K Le Guin’s complex, swirling Earthsea books than Powell – he’d tackled epic fantasy in The Thief of Bagdad and A Matter of Life and Death, and his feel for landscape, as evidenced in A Canterbury Tale and Gone to Earth, was utterly singular.

The pair wrote a screenplay together in the late 1970s. The film would have fused the first two books in the Earthsea trilogy, following boy wizard Ged. But put aside any thoughts of Hogwarts and Harry Potter – Le Guin’s world is much more weird and elusive than JK Rowling’s, and Powell’s direction would only have deepened the mystery.

Work on the script continued until the early 80s, with funding provided by Francis Ford Coppola’s production company American Zoetrope. But following the financial disaster of Coppola’s One from the Heart, the project was shelved. Powell died in 1990, and the definitive Earthsea adaptation has yet to be made.

4. Vincent Ward’s Alien 3

His star may have waned in recent years, but anyone who has seen New Zealand-born photographer and film-maker Vincent Ward’s bracingly weird debut The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey – imagine an 80s time-travel romp directed by Andrei Tarkovsky – can appreciate how much promise he started out with. His talent was quickly recognised by producers Walter Hill and David Giler, who were looking for a bold approach for their third Alien movie, something as different from the warlike Aliens as that film was from its stark predecessor.

Inspired by medieval religious art, Ward envisioned a wooden planet drifting in space, a man-made satellite carved like a Gothic cathedral and cocooned in an artificial atmosphere, where technophobic monks study and pray in isolation. Into this hermetic world come Ripley and the alien, with chaotic results – monks die in droves, wheat fields are set ablaze and the wooden planet is burned to a cinder.

Amazingly, Ward and his co-writer John Fasano’s concepts were approved, and construction actually began at Pinewood on sets for the wooden planet. But the script continued to be controversial, and the plug was pulled by 20th Century Fox before shooting could start. Ward resigned, and the wooden planet idea was junked in favour of a gloomy space prison.

5. Nick Cave’s Gladiator 2

Dead in the water … Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
Dead in the water … Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Yes, that Nick Cave. When Ridley Scott’s Roman epic hauled in almost $500m at the box office, talk of a sequel was inevitable. The only minor hiccup was that – spoiler alert – the hero had died at the end of the first movie.

Scott wasn’t sold on a sequel, so it was left to star Russell Crowe to keep the dream alive. In a bold if bizarre move he turned to singer-songwriter-author and all-round wild man Cave, who leapt at the chance. The resulting screenplay opens in the afterlife, a bleak purgatorial netherworld where Maximus is recruited to kill a god, his reward being the opportunity to reunite with his wife and son in the fields of Elysium. But things go awry when he is returned to the mortal plane and ends up throwing his lot in with a group of persecuted Christians, whereupon the action switches to the Colosseum, now flooded for a staged naval battle.

Cave submitted the script to Crowe, and according to the singer was met with a frank four-word response: “Don’t like it, mate.” And from a guy who gave Noah the big thumbs up, that’s a damning response indeed.

A final note: Despite thorough research, we were unable to unearth any major incomplete projects directed by women. This may be down to the film industry’s dire gender imbalance, or it could simply be that they’re better at seeing things through to the finish.


Tom Huddleston

The GuardianTramp

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