“What I resent is people who say, “Film is old, who cares about film, now we’ve got digital.” Well, that’s fine. You can go shoot your movie on digital, that’s great. But there are other people who want to use a different medium. The problem is when you get rid of film you can’t choose that anymore. It’s not that digital objectively sucks, although it’s not my taste. Fine, you wanna shoot digital, that’s great! But the thing… I read somewhere, I think it was Mike Leigh who criticized what Tarantino was saying about film was “bollocks” or something, and I felt that what Mike Leigh said was bollocks. Because he’s basically saying that what the artist wants to use doesn’t matter. And how can that be the case? Would he walk up to a painter and say, “That tube of cadmium red light, you can’t use that anymore, and if you wanna use cadmium red light, bollocks!” [HTN laughs] You know what I’m saying? Well fuck that guy! Whaddya mean “bollocks?” I found that pretty awful, I have to say. I mean, maybe I didn’t read it in context, maybe he was meaning something else. Then I read something else, I think it was Mike Leigh but I’m not sure who it was now, but he was saying also in connection to Tarantino’s comments like, “Oh, now there are all these amazing movies on video.” I don’t know what the fuck he’s watching because maybe there are all these incredible films I’m missing that are on YouTube, but everything I see on YouTube sucks. [HTN laughs] So this digital revolution, which was supposed to bring all this “amazing” new cinema. Guess what? You watch Virgin Spring, which was made, what, 50 years ago, and that’s better than any YouTube video I’ve seen recently. So I don’t know what he thinks technology has brought to us.”
BP: Was Dr. Broadway the first time you became involved with a film production unit?
AM: Well I had made a lot of film tests for David Selznick.
I made all the tests for Gone With the Wind, Young in Heart, Tom Sawyer and so on, and I was able to cut them as well. When I went to the Coast, I had some knowledge of method and technique.
Then I watched Preston Sturges work on Sullivan's Travels. He let me go through the entire production, watching him direct - and I directed a little. I'd stage a scene and he'd tell me how lousy it was. Then I watched the editing and I was able gradually to build up knowledge. Preston insisted I make a film as soon as possible. He said a lot of guys stall, and hesitate and falter, and
you may never become a director. And I think he was right. They'll say 'What have you done?'… He said it's better to have done something bad than to have done nothing, and this was very sound advice. This was his advice; so the first picture, good or bad, that came along, I decided to do. And this was Dr. Broadway.
I think it had some good things in it. I remember very warmly the cameraman, an oldtimer name of Sparkuhl, who had done many films for UFA and Lubitsch, and he was a great help. Nobody else cared a damn about the picture. They said: 'Don't build sets; don't do anything. You have to get finished in 18 days and, if you don't, the cameras are taken from you and OUT.'
BP: You never worked with Theodor Sparkuhl again, did you?
AM: No. I'm sorry to say I didn't. He's dead now of course, but he was really a very fine cameraman and was￼
￼￼￼doing nothing at that time so the studio let me have him. He didn't care how many hours I spent at night with him, discussing how to shoot the scene next morning. This was Macdonald Carey's first film too, and you see the problem of a young director? They give you every obstacle in the book. They say: 'Give him fifteen days, give him no actors at all, only people who've never been in front of a camera before; God help him, and let's see what happens.' And that's the way you generally start.
I'll never forget one experience - I was in the middle of shooting a scene out on the backlot of Paramount. This was the first sequence in the picture and I was supposed to have three days out there. And about the middle of the very first day, one of Paramount's head production guys came out and said, 'You're through here by tonight. Cecil B. DeMille wants to come out. You got to clear the set.'
So that's how it was, thrown around, pushed around by Mr. Sol Siegel, whom I do not respect. Anyhow, he since became a big executive and maybe I became a fair director.
BP: Of your early films we've only been able to see Great Flamarion and Railroaded. Are any of the others of any particular interest?
AM: No. I don't think so. I think it's just lucky that they got made. They cost nothing so there were no losses. They were made as second features, but in terms of skill and ability I don't think they have much. In terms of experience, I learned a lot. People can't learn the easy way.
CW: Do you feel you had any greater freedom on these smaller budget films, did they leave you alone more?
AM: It wasn't a question of leaving me alone - they just said 'get through with it' 'hurry up, don't go over budget'. This was the freedom. If someone said 'Now Mr. Mann, I...' that would take up too much time, and we had no time.
CW: What was the atmosphere at Republic when you were there?
AM: I wouldn't want to say any of my happiest days were spent there, I would say they were fairly grim! Grim, grim days. But I did have quite a fascinating experience there with Erich von Stroheim with Great Flamarion.￼￼￼￼￼￼
￼Von Stroheim, to say the least, was difficult. He was a personality, not really an actor. He looked well on film. But he was a great director. I'll never forget one thing he said: 'Tony, do you want to be a great director? Photograph the whole of Great Flamarion through my monocle!' I said: 'That's a helluvan idea, but I only have $50,000 and fourteen days.' I said: 'It might be a fascinating idea, but I'll let you do it.'
I'll tell you one funny story about him. He had no hair, and always used to put pommade on his bald pate to make it shine. He was very dapper, and always wore gold capes. This is the sort of guy the great Flamarion was and he fitted it well. So there was a very simple scene which should have taken me five minutes to shoot - because of Mr. von Stroheim it took five hours. All it was - he had murdered Dan Dureya and he had a rendezvous with a girl in a park, and all he had to do was sit down for a moment and say: 'Where are you going to be? Give me your phone number and I will get in touch with you in a month when the police are no longer watching.' That's all it was. We had no money:
couldn't do it outside or even inside. We didn't even have a park, so we decided to do it in a fog. We filled the studio with fog and had a bench and a light, and it looked like a park. And he was supposed to go through this scene. Well, he was always a man who liked gadgets - he liked gold watches, pens and pencils and so on, and he asked me if he could use them. This was all part of the man, so I said: 'Sure go ahead. The camera is here, stationary position; the girl is in the foreground; we see you coming out of the fog; you ask for her address; then look at her for a moment; and then leave.'
Should have taken two minutes!
Well, the fog was covering the stage. He came down through it, sat down, said: 'Darling, where are you going to be?' She said suchandsuch - and then he started to search around for his pen and notebook, fumbling through his pockets. I yelled: 'Cut - what's happening?' and he said: 'I'm looking for my pen.' Well he came down again, through the fog; sat down; went into the line again; pulled out the pen - then he took the cap off; put it on the other end, and then started searching for his address book. So I yelled: 'Cut' again and he said: 'Well, I'm looking for my address book' I said: 'Forgodsake, it's in your pocket; it doesn't￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼
￼￼￼have to take so long. We haven't got so much time in the film just for this little scene. You know where your pen is; you know where your address book is; take 'em out and just write the address down.'
Third time. He came down out of the fog; went through the routine with the girl; took out his pen; took out the gold book, and then he started to fumble with that because he couldn't open it. So I cut again. By this time, the fog had vanished, and it took another hour to fill up our bare stage with fog again. Down he came; sat down at the bench; asked the question; pulled out the pen; pulled out the book; started to write in it - then he stopped - I said: 'What's the matter Erich?' And he said: 'There's no ink in the pen.'And these are the kind of machinations I had to go through with him for every scene. He drove me mad. He was a genius. I'm not a genius: I'm a worker. Geniuses sometimes end up very unhappy, without a penny. That's what happened to Erich and Preston Sturges, too.
Railroaded was made in ten days. T-Men was the first big one. I worked on the script from scratch, and it was the first film on which I was able to do this. The others were given to me. One takes anything and tries to make some sort of mark.
T-Men was originally only an idea, and I was able to work with William Eirie from the Treasury Department. He brought all the files, so that we could devise and create a story with John Higgins that at least had some potency and value. This is what I really call my first film. I was responsible for its story, for its structure, its characters and for actually making it. This was my first real break towards being able to make films the way I wanted.
BP: This was also the first film that gave John Alton any kind of big break, wasn't it?
AM: Well, it was certainly one of his first big ones. John started working with me on that one. He was a very talented and imaginative cameraman. He could get all sorts of effects with very limited budgets. And this is what we were working on. And actually we shot this one all outdoors, in the shops, and so on: like they do now, and everybody says is a new move. But T-Men was twenty years ago.
BP: In a TV interview here in England on 'Violence in Art,' you said that people first started to take notice of your films when you injected a lot of violence into them - is this T-Men again?
AM: Critics are violent people anyway. They like to praise you to the skies or tear you, cut you from ear to ear. Violence is always pictorially shocking. You can achieve fantastic effects of violence just by implication and design. And it is one of the good parts of our medium - it tends to shock and tends to excite the imagination and to rouse feelings in the audience that they've seen something and experienced something.
BP: Something I always remember from Reign of Terror, is the man jumping on to a coach and having a pistol going off in his face, which is also done in a couple of other films Cameron Menzies worked on - I was wondering who thought this trick up? You have the shot of his powder-burned face which is quite shocking.
AM: Well I can't remember really, but Mr. Cameron Menzies is probably one of the really great men of the film industry. I think him the most creative designer, the most creative art director I ever worked with.
BP: You first ran into him on the Selznick films?
AM: Yes, he also did Sam Wood's films and then Selznick's. We made Reign of Terror for about $750,000 which is practically nothing. It was shot in twenty to twenty-five days, and it was only through his ability that we were able to achieve any style, feeling or period. For instance, we were faced with the problem of recreating the commune, which was supposed to be packed with thousands and thousands of people. And the money we had could only get us 100 people for one day. So Menzies devised a scheme whereby for that day we put all these people on a platform like at a football or baseball field, but straight up so it would be square. And we sat the 100 people, crowded into this
small space, put the camera so they would just fill the frame, and John Alton lit it with some shafts of light at different angles, so we'd have light and shadow, and so some of the people would be seen and some would be shadowed. And then for a day, I shot all the reactions to all the speeches of Robespierre and Danton and so forth.
￼￼￼￼￼￼Then, we took it, and multiplied it twenty times, projecting it on a rear-projecting machine so that we no longer had 100 people; we had 2,000. It was on a rear projector, and all we had in the foreground was a big, big door, with the guards standing on duty. As the door opened Robespierre walked in, and the people rose, the 2,000 people against this background. And then for all the speeches, we just went into big close up of Robespierre against this background of people who were screaming and yelling. We were able to achieve this tremendous effect with only 100 people. And this was conceived completely by Cameron Menzies, who was a great, creative designer, a man who could do
Gone With the Wind which was completely realistic, but a man who also had the imagination to take something which was essentially very small.
BP: Did he also do Raw Deal with you?
AM: No. Alton did but not Menzies.
BP: You did the three independent productions - T-Men, Raw Deal and Reign of Terror and then what - did Metro take over the whole unit, you, Alton, John Higgins and Charles McGraw?
AM: Yes. Metro said: 'Make whatever picture you want.' John and I had thought of doing Border Incident, because the guys there were also involved with the Federal agents and T Men. Through the research we had made with T-Men we found the fantastic story of the Border Incident boys. We made it on location, but it was really not Metro's cup of tea. When it came out, they were flabbergasted. It wasn't anything they thought
a motion picture should be!
BP: Who thought of the scene where the guy escapes from the agents by driving the motor cycle along the furrow of a ploughed field?
AM: That was me. I was down there in the lettuce fields and it looked like a wonderful way to do it.
CW: How was Winchester 73 conceived. It's very formal. Did it take its structure from the novel?
AM: Well it did come from a novel, one of Stuart Lake's, I think, and it had the formality as the gun was used as a calling card for many of the characters. Every one of the characters wanted it; it was a prize. Thus you were￼￼￼￼￼￼
￼able to meet a great many more characters, because it changed hands so much. Therefore, it gave it a unity: the gun itself almost becoming a character. The gun became the thing that brought everyone together; and the thing that finally killed what it was in pursuit of.
BP:The Furies for me is your first really outstanding film, the first I remember really vividly.
AM: That was made for Hal Wallis and Paramount and I actually think it was the first Western I did. Of all the men I've ever worked with, Wallis is the best producer. He knows about film making, and has his own opinions. If he doesn't agree with you, you have a helluva fight, but at least he knows what he's trying for, and in this sense he's very good. He's an expert film maker.
We had Walter Huston on it. He was a man who adored his profession. He was everything that one hopes an actor will be. He actually did the roping of the bulls, rode his horse, and he was sixty-odd.
CW: What about Thunder Bay and Strategic Air Command?
AM:Thunder Bay was made in the Florida bayous and the Gulf of Mexico. Its story was weak and we never were really able to lick it. I think it was a little too commercial and it fell down on its basic plot. Some of the things we showed were effective and beautiful I think, but I don't think it was a very good script. Borden worked on it, John Michael Hayes worked on it who was a good writer and has developed into a very good one. There were too many writers, and it became too fabricated. They wanted a picture with Jimmy Stewart and we concocted one. Strategic Air Command was an entirely different kind of thing, because that was to promote the Air Force and the idea of SAC which in itself had its own restrictions, just being a military subject. Therefore, the co-operation of the Air Force was vital, and we were held within the bounds of what they wanted. The story itself was restricted and the whole concept of its shooting was confined to what they would
let me show, which is perfectly all right. I went into it purely as a service to the Air Force, and as Jimmy Stewart was of the Force, we accepted this handicap and just tried to make an exciting film, not out of the characters which were papier-mâché, but out of the B36 and B47 - we tried to dramatize them as our two great characters.
￼￼￼￼CW:Men in War had 'Show me the foot soldier and I'll show you the story of all war' as its theme.
AM: That's right - I just had an idea. I wanted to tell a story of the detail of war. The detail of war is what all the soldiers went through: that they had sand in their boots; that their gun jammed; that they took off their helmets at the wrong time; that they had to walk through forests of mines; or walk through bombardments. I was interested only in the foot soldier. Nobody knows why they have to take such and such a hill. They just are told to take it. So I lived with the guys, and I wanted to tell the story through tiny personal incidents.
I used simple people - and did it all in twenty-four days. Actually, we had two units working side by side. I think it did come off.
BP: How do you feel about the Tin Star? I believe George Seaton was originally scheduled to direct it.
AM: I don't remember if George was ever going to work on it. It's a fair film. Again, there was too much supervision. I really believe that in order to create a good film one has to do it completely on one's own. The picture may not be a success even then, but it stands a greater chance if you leave the artistic endeavour to the director. God's Little Acre on the other hand was a different sort of challenge. Everyone said it wasn't possible to make a film from this Caldwell book - and if you read it, it's about the kookiest book you've ever seen. It was a challenge to try and find the spirit behind the book and behind these miserable characters. It became another experiment and was entirely another kind of picture, I rehearsed with the actors, for the first time, for about three weeks before we started shooting, so that they would all know the characters and would all know each other and become a family, react properly. This became more of a group sort of thing, more theatre than I usually do.
CW: This was all done out in Georgia?
AM: No - they threw us out of Georgia because they didn't want us to make the film, but I found in a place called Stockton, California, all the vine-covered factories, the old, old buildings and houses that were Augustus, Georgia, so I was able to duplicate the Old South there.
CW: Do you think your early days as an actor influenced your attitude to films - you were talking about films springing from their characters. Now suppose you had been an editor first and not an actor, do you think your attitudes would be different?
AM: No, I don't think being an editor gives you the same background at all. Because editing is just using film; you're just taking film, putting it together and doing what the director wants. I think acting and having lived in the theatre is a much greater education in learning how to make films, learning how to delve into character and learning how to understand the actor's problem and understand the staging problem and understanding the writer's problem. Now I know there have been several directors who have come from editing - Wise, Robson and so forth - but I still don't think being an editor alone gives the full knowledge ￼￼and the full meaning of what it is to create a character on film, and to make it live on film.
CW: Do you have any ideas formulated about the Western?
AM: Well, I think the reason why it's the most popular arid long-lasting genre is that it gives you more freedom of action, in landscape, in passion. It's a primitive form. It's not governed by rule; you can do anything with it. It has the essential pictorial qualities; has the guts of any character you want; the violence of anything you need; the sweep of anything you feel; the joy of sheer exercise, of outdoorness. It is legend - and legend makes the very best cinema. It excites the imagination more - it's something audiences love. They don't have to say: 'Oh I know about that'; they just need to feel it and be with it, because legend is a concept of characters greater than life. It releases you from inhibitions, rules. Because - how does an Indian act? How does he ride over the plains? How does a man come into a bar and shoot somebody? This doesn't happen any more. It isn't going on now, but it is a spirit, a kind of freedom of action and movement which instils itself into the minds of the audience. They say: 'Oh, I wish I were in that time - isn't it fantastic what they accomplished in those days, what their dreams were, what their actions were?'
There are of course many other types of movie to be made. There are the new schools of motion pictures being made, but they limit you - for instance, Joe Losey's very good. The Servant is very effective, very well done - for its subject, extraordinarily well done - and it broke new ground and many new barriers in terms of morals and so on; but it left you small and mean and petty; it didn't release you from anything; it drove home the oppression and weight of its theme rather than bursting you out of it. And this is what the Western does - it releases you, you can ride on the plains; you can capture the windswept skies; you can release your audiences and take them out to places which they never would have dreamt of.
And, more important - it releases the characters. They can be more primitive; they can be more Greek, like Oedipus Rex or Antigone, you see, because you are dealing again in a sweeping legend. This is what I love ￼in picture making, and really what I stand for. Because El Cid is really a Spanish Western, and it's legend again. Roman Empire is even more than that. I spent a great deal of time in the snow-country, shot a whole funeral in the snow, and it's all tremendously pictorial. But it's bound by history and certain rules, because certain things have to happen. It wasn't completely a legend though it has a legendary quality.
BP: As you mentioned Oedipus, there's this element which starts with Furies: this business of the father-killer. It's in Winchester 73, Man of the West, Man from Laramie and Borden Chase uses it in Backlash. This is a thread that runs through the fifties' Westerns - tough, grim subjects. Can you tell us why this should be?
AM: Well - it's also in Roman Empire. There he tries to kill his father's image, because this image is greater than his own. This is the story underneath the Oedipus drama. I don't know of any great man who ever had a great son. This must have been a terrible thing for the son - to live with the image of his father, for although this is a love-image, it can also be a hate-image. This theme is recurrent, because it is a very strong one and, consequently, I like it - it reaches to heights and depths beyond more mundane stories.
BP: It seems that through the fifties you, John Sturges and Delmer Daves have a sort of unity of thought - set-ups, ideas, actors, cameramen crop up in each of your films - was there any kind of community where you all got together and talked over ideas and so on?
AM: No - actually I know them both. But we haven't spent any time together, even in a discussion of ideas. No, they are similar, but they came out very unconsciously.
CW: Back to your Westerns - from the very pure Bend of
the River, they seem to get tougher, more cynical until
in Cimarron the Hero, Glenn Ford, disappears and the film concentrates on Maria Schell. This is a little bit
like the death of the West. If you had had your way, would you have concentrated more on the Ford character?
AM: Well, actually that whole picture was a mistake. Originally I had a wonderful idea for it, and the Metro executives agreed with me. After I had been shooting￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼
￼￼￼for twelve days, they decided to take the whole company indoors, so it became an economic disaster and a fiasco and the whole project was destroyed.
I wanted to show a huge plain out in the West with nothing on it, and how a group of men and women gathered at a line, and tore out across this plain and set up their stakes as claim for the land. And how a town, a city and finally a metropolis grew, all on this one piece of land. It would have been, I think, a tremendous experience for the world to see. This is how America was built. But the executives panicked. We had a couple of storms - which I shot in anyway - but they thought we'd have floods and so on, so they dragged us in and everything had to be duplicated on the set. The story had to be changed, because we couldn't do the things we wanted to. So I don't consider it a film. I just consider it a disaster.
CW: How can you have Glenn Ford die the most ignoble death of all - dying offscreen?
AM: Well, it wasn't shot that way, I promise you - there was a huge oil sequence and oil wells were blowing up and he was saving people and being very heroic. Why they ever changed it I'll never know - this was Mr. Sol Siegel, he did it behind my back, I didn't ever see it. If I'd screamed they wouldn't have bothered anyway; so I just let them destroy it at will.
CW: Do you think going out and shooting on location, doing it all physically, is the only way you can work?
AM: Yes, I think it's the only way to work anyway with films.
I find by going out on location - like on Heroes of Telemark - that having gone up there and seen the ice lakes and the snow and so on, I can do things that I
would not have done otherwise. I thought about it all, and utilized the very things that are indigenous to a country. Locations give you all sorts of ideas, if you look for them.
BP: In Bend of the River, Man from Laramie and El Cid again, you have scenes staged on the snowline — was this just another way of getting more interesting shots?
AM: No, no - it shows a battling of the elements which I think is always good. You push actors and the whole company into something that is tough - if it really is tough, it can show itself on the screen much better. Certainly snow and so on is very pictorial, and you can produce all sorts of effects by it - horses breathing, the actors breathing, the difficulty of the terrain, the actual struggle one has to put forth in just doing the physical things, like climbing a mountain, say. It all adds a reality that is difficult to achieve in a studio. Things become so much more phoney indoors.
The studio isn't on your neck, nobody can control you, so you are at least able to do what you want to do - and this is wonderful, because it does give you a much greater freedom of movement and expression. They don't dare come up and see you because it would be too much hardship for them. In that sense, the more you can be left alone, the better you can make a picture.
CW: The Winchester 73 climax is staged in the rocks, and turns up at least twice more in your films - is this adding to the drama, the idea of the elements again?
AM: Well, again there, I went out hunting for locations and, in looking over the terrain, this area excited me, because I saw all these rocks and caverns, holes and whatnot. I thought it would make a wonderful battleground between the two guys. You couldn't have a battle between two experts out in the open - they could both shoot each other like that (snaps fingers). So you have to make it almost impossible for either of them to shoot the other, so that their expertness is doubly in use - now they also have to flush each other out, by manoeuvring and cunning.
CW: You mentioned that you were able to achieve a sense of period here. Now, obviously, this is important for this kind of subject, and, in thrillers, period is inherent, because they are contemporary. But it's interesting that in your Westerns, again, one senses a period; they are set in time - towns change and grow up - although it is never any explicit time. Why is this so?
AM: Well, of course, you always do try to get a feel of the period, if only because it enhances the characters and enhances the picture - in fact period can work for you. The very nature of the period can be the thing that gives you the key to the very things that you do and use to make it different. The huge six-foot blades I use in El Cid were of that period. So these weapons became great things for me to use. They hadn't been used before; I don't know why - maybe because once you start swinging you can't stop, and the actors have to be very careful and need to be rehearsed like in a ballet. But because you are using such a weapon, it becomes much more honest in terms of that period.
CW: Suppose somebody came to you with a script - what would be the factors to make you want or not want to do it?
AM: Well, first of all it would depend on its theme and its content. I would have to be interested in its subject matter. Now, of course, as I feel I don't have to make them, I want as much freedom as I can have and as much time to work on the script with the writers as I can. I want as much freedom of creativity as possible - it's not that I want it because I feel I'm the only guy that can do it, but because it's the only way to work. Every time I've had 'supervision' the film has suffered. Therefore, no longer do I want it; no longer would I tolerate it; no longer would I accept it. But one has to learn the hard way.
CW: On which of your films did you have the greatest freedom?
AM: Well, let's see - I had a great deal of freedom with Men in War and God's Little Acre, Winchester 73 and Bend of the River. I would say I had no freedom with Cimarron and less freedom (because Metro started to impose its will) with films like Devil's Doorway and Tall Target. The first one I had more freedom with was Border Incident, because they didn't even know what kind of animal I was.
CW: Was Fritz Lang in any way involved with Winchester 73?
AM: Absolutely not! At one time Fritz Lang was interested in a project written by Stuart Lake which was an historical compilation of the story of the Winchester rifle. This was at Universal, and two or three years afterwards he had not one foot of film shot, not one idea. In fact I threw everything out that he had even remotely thought about. It wasn't the kind of film I wanted to make anyway.
CW: So there's nothing of Lang's in it at all?
AM: No. Nothing. I absolutely, positively guarantee it.
CW: Right. Well, we were going through your films in order and I think we had got as far as Serenade.
AM: … Oh, that's a wild and Hollywoodien story. My agents, MCA, were handling Mario Lanza, and they introduced me to him. I got to know him and I really liked the guy, even though everyone was kicking him down, saying he'd never make another film. And I guess it was really more out of a stupid sentimentality, but I felt sorry for the guy. And I got to know him, got to know his children, and wife and family. The more I got to know him, the better I liked him. I knew it was going to be a terrible, terrible problem, because he was a compulsive eater and a compulsive drinker, but he was a marvellous, warm-hearted guy and I don't think all the horrible things they said about him were true. He really was a man who was pushed into something that he should never have been pushed into. Because, you know, he had two chances, two great chances at nineteen or twenty, when he was in the Army. One was that Toscanini came to see him and said: 'Look, boy, you work with me for two years and you'll be a great Othello.' The other was that Louis B. Mayer came to him and said: 'I can make you a star overnight.' Well, he made a bad choice, the wrong choice. He'd be alive today, if he'd gone with Toscanini. But anyhow, I got to know him well, and everybody said: 'Oh, Tony, don't make a film with him.' It was probably sentiment, but I decided I would. Terrible things happened, it was all very, very difficult, and the fact that I was able to finish it was a miracle. That's the only miracle about it, because the film's not good. I thought he did a couple of scenes quite well: his singing of Othello was very beautiful. After all, he has to sing something like twelve arias, or more. You know, it was one of those things for which I should never have approached, but I'm glad I did it in a way. At least it got him a couple more pictures before he died.
But we tried very hard to make something of it pictorially and went to some magnificent places in Mexico. And we did a big firework scene when the whole town comes out, and Indians come from all over Mexico and swarm into the town. There were some fascinating pictorial things like that. But its story was weak. How can you tell a story anyway when you're singing arias all the time.
CW: Did you have any worries about similar, musical aspects of Glenn Miller Story?
AM: No, that was an entirely different thing. The reason
I became interested in it was that I wanted to dramatize a sound. And it's the story of finding a new sound. Jimmy Stewart is a great professional. Our great thing was to try and pictorialize all Miller's great songs. To tell the story of a man who is hunting something new and finally finds it, and who, during the war years, became one of the great heroes. We tried to make the narrative a little different too. When he proposes to June Allyson, it's very humorous, because she has curlers in, and so forth. At the end when he's dead, instead of very sentimental music, we played 'Little Brown Jug,' so that it gave it a different feeling from just sentimentality.
Of course the film was fraught with sentimentality. But we had those revolving lights, went to Denver and did all sorts of things to get the ballrooms right, and all the things that were part and parcel of an era, the band era, of Glenn and Tommy Dorsey and all the others. It was certainly the most successful of this type of movie.
CW: I wonder if you regretted leaving Universal?
AM: No I didn't regret it. I never regret leaving anywhere. But I was never under contract to them; I just worked picture to picture. In those days people used to say: 'If you've got a contract you're safe.' Well, there's no such thing as being safe: particularly in this business. That's the time when you're unsafe, when you're safe. You think you can lean back, rest, say: 'I'm OK, I've got a job.' But the next film you do, if it's a flop nobody's going to hire you again anyway. So you gamble on your life every time you make a film, and that's the excitement. So I don't regret leaving, though I had a lot of fun there and I think I saved them, because I made them a lot of very successful pictures and, up to that time, they were in bad shape.
CW:Last Frontier is a fascinating picture and has Victor Mature playing exactly what he is…
AM: … an animal, yeah. Well, the French think this is the great film, remarkable and so forth. Now I had a terrible time with Victor; he was very ill in Mexico. But it was a terrific idea, helluvan idea, the story of a savage who wants to earn a uniform and who finds out all the bad things about a uniform along with the good, and struggles, and finally wins it. But I had a terrible time with it. But Anne Bancroft was in it, and Bob Preston, and James Whitmore. Bill Mellor did the camerawork. It had a very interesting theme: that was fascinating to develop. It was an historical fact that we took from, with the actual battle in the dust when all the Indians come down into the valley and the dust filled the valley and you couldn't see any bluecoats. The dust was so fine in Mexico, you just had to walk and the air was permeated with it. We finally had to wear gas masks to keep our lungs free.
CW: Did you choose that one?
AM: Yes, I not only chose it, I worked very closely with the writer. I worked with Philip Yordan on that. I worked with Philip on two or three pictures: God's Little Acre, Men in War. I've hired him and he's hired me; we've done about five pictures.
CW: So you took the film to Columbia?
AM: No. By the way, the title Last Frontier was a Howard
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Fast story, a wonderful story on the Indian that John Ford tried to use in Cheyenne Autumn and didn't do correctly. But I had made Man from Laramie and Harry Cohn said: 'You've got to make another Western for me.' So I said: 'Let me read some properties; let me see what's around.' And this story that we titled Last Frontier kind of appealed to me.
Harry thought the idea was good so we went ahead. So it was hunting for something and then finding the particular idea which I liked. Again everybody said; 'You're mad to use Victor,' but he was the rightest person I knew. And he loved it.
CW: You presumably prefer to work with a film 'actor' like James Stewart, for instance, as opposed to the film 'personality' like Mature?
AM: Well, Stewart is a man who's devoted his whole life to acting and who's quite brilliant in what he does. He's very skilful and, once you start going with him, he's marvellous to work with, because he's always there; he's always anxious; he wants to be great; and this is not true of the other gentleman in question.
CW: Stewart's great moments of wild and desperate emotion in your films - being dragged through the fire in Laramie; shot to pieces and thrown in the river in Far Country; the blind anger in the saloon fight in Winchester '73 - is this deep passion completely natural to him or do you have to dig for it?
AM: Natural to him? Within himself he has something much more burning and exciting than when you meet him personally. And he'll say: 'Look, Tony, if you want me to be pulled through the fire, then I'll do it. If you want me to fight under the horses' hooves, I'll do it.' This is the kind of guy he is; he likes to have to do these things. And a lot of actors don't. Mature can't get near a horse. It's a curse when they don't learn; when they're not adept at the art of riding, fencing, swimming and the other things that are necessary, which they must learn, if they don't know.
CW: How do you mould an actor to fit your requirements. How do you get Stewart to do it the first time, or Mature, or Cooper?
AM: Well, Jimmy Stewart was in a summer company I had at the Red Barn theatre in Locust Valley when he'd ￼just come out of college, so I had known him and had directed him in a couple of plays. He had seen The Furies and had asked for me, actually, and that's how the relationship got going again. I didn't like the property;
I didn't like Winchester at all. This was Lang's version. I was working at Metro and everybody was pressuring me to make the film and I said: 'I'd like to make the film, if you let me rewrite it completely. I want a new writer, new everything; I don't want the property the way it is.' Finally, after a lot of haranguing, they agreed that I could do that and I brought in Borden Chase and we started from scratch on the script and it developed day by day. This is how all films are made, at least as far as I'm concerned.
But about actors. Naturally you have to utilize their greatest abilities and qualities, and you strengthen them if you can. You push them against something that's maybe foreign to them, but which, therefore, becomes more exciting, because you still have the same guy, but now you have him doing something that's more against his nature, so already you have a conflict of character against personality. This is good. So you have two dimensions to start with. Now, if you take him outdoors and put him into locations, you have three dimensions, because now you have all the elements fighting him. Then you pit him against some very violent pieces of action and you have a fourth dimension. Thus you build the character and situation.
CW: As you made so many films with Stewart, can it be assumed that he is your archetypal 'hero'?
AM: Well no, because each film is an entirely different entity. I'd love to use him again, but I haven't had a script. I couldn't use him in El Cid; I couldn't use him in God's Little Acre, Roman Empire; couldn't have used him in lots of films. It has nothing to do with him; it's just the films are entirely out of his element.
CW: But regarding the Westerns…
AM: Well, with the Westerns, he had a great quality. Cooper certainly did, too. He is magnificent walking down a street with a Winchester rifle cradled in his arm, and so is Jimmy firing the Winchester. He studied hard at it, you know? He worked so hard his knuckles were raw with practising, so that he could be right. And we had an expert from the Winchester Arms Company who ￼￼taught him how to really uniquely use the gun. These are the things that give it a sense of tremendous reality.
CW: With Man of the West, presumably you started from scratch again?
AM: Well, that was written by Reginald Rose, who did 12 Angry Men. And he was a little more difficult, because they had bought his script and they wanted to stick with it, and I didn't really want to.
CW: Was it originally a TV play?
AM: No it wasn't. It was an original screenplay. And I had to try and break it from its rigidity, which was mostly talk. I would have changed the girl completely, if I'd only driven hard enough. But I wasn't able to convince the guys who were producing. I eventually convinced Cooper, but by then it was too late.
CW: What would she have been?
AM: She'd have been his wife. It would have been much more moving. The other girl was stupid, and I hated it, and wanted to change it, and they wouldn't let me. Just imagine if the wife had to do what she has to do. Then it becomes much more poignant; then he would fight to the death.
CW: And give greater power to the scene when he strips Jack Lord.
AM: Sure, if it had been his wife he was getting even for, it would have been terrifying! It would have been a great film. It was almost, but it could have had that difference. There was this evil, and a man trying to destroy his own evil. And this is why, if it had been the wife, it would have been much greater. But it was a man who looked at his past and said: 'I must at all cost destroy what I have been.' He tries to run away from it; he gets away, but now it comes back. He is confronted again with his own evil. He knows he was that kind of a person - could he withstand it? Or would he degenerate
back into it?
CW: Not only the characters, but that ugly shack on the miserable plain, the ghost town and everything, are manifestations of the hate, evil, waste, and so on. How do you arrive at this 'pictorialization' when you embark on the actual work? How do you arrive at these tangible evocations of the mood and theme?
AM: Well, you do many things. You dramatize it by the juxtaposition of characters, putting them into situations that can drive them into that kind of a place. You know, you look for these places; you look for these things. Take Man From Lamarie. Out in the middle of a plain, a man is grabbed and his two arms are held and the gunmen are going to shoot his hand off. Well, it could have been done in many places, but, in the middle of this plain, it was frightening, because there was this beautiful expanse of country with all this evil going on in it. It's the juxtaposition of the very nature of the land, the very mountains, the very rivers, the very dust. All these you use to heighten the drama.
CW: You were saying about Telemark that you'd gone on location and found things and knew what was there, and implied that you might change things in the script to fit or at least enhance or clarify…
AM: Sure, there are many things that you come across - for instance, in the back of my mind, I had always thought for Roman Empire, I would love to do the death of Marcus Aurelius in the snow. One morning I woke up and it was really snowing. So I called everybody early and I got them up there and I said: 'I know it's￼￼￼￼￼￼
￼￼￼freezing to death here, but we'll put you in warm tents and we're going to do this sequence all in the snow.' It was marvellous! Because it had a silence about it, a kind of majesty it wouldn't have had if it had been done on a sunny day or any other kind of a day.
CW: I really thought that was a marvellous film. You've revealed the madness of the world, the decline of the spirit…
AM: Of course! (He pounds the table vehemently). That's all I wanted to dramatize. Now I guarantee you there is not one person that had read Gibbon. I guarantee you! From Bosley Crowther on down or up. And for them to start to say: 'This isn't Gibbon' - well this is a lot of crap! Because all we were trying to do was dramatize how an empire fell. Incest, buying an army, destroying the will of the people to speak through the senate, all these things, I can name 'em all, were in the film. And these were the seeds that led us to say at the end: 'This is the beginning'; we didn't say: 'This was the fall.' And they pounced on that and said that that was pompous for me to have said — well, it would've been pompous of me, if I hadn't said it. But you can't argue with these bums. They think they know it all. They said things weren't true. Well, it was historically exactly true. From the material that we got, Faustina had been playing around with all sorts of guys and, even though Marcus
Aurelius loved her and built temples to her to protect her name, it was known throughout Rome that she had been having affairs with gladiators and so forth. So everybody starts to criticize us, because this isn't in the encyclopaedia. But this is all they do; they go to their source material, which is the encyclopaedia: no further.
CW: So how do you relate these facts to the process of making a narrative?
AM: Well, for instance, there was actually a man named Pertinax. And I didn't want to make the history so close that it would impair the film - you see, if you say everything is historical, then you don't have the liberty - but there was a man called Pertinax who was the next in line. We were originally going to call Livius, Pertinax, but we decided against it, because we didn't want to tie it down so closely. Marcus Aurelius was one of the students of Hadrian. There was a law that no emperor could accede through a succession. The emperor must chose and train three or four men to succeed him. Marcus Aurelius himself was trained and Antonius and quite a few others, during Hadrian's time. That Marcus Aurelius decreed that his empire was to be left to Carmodus has always been very doubtful history, because, knowing the emperor as well as everyone knew him, for him to have left it to his son was not possible. So there was always this mystery about whether he had been poisoned or not. So we used it. These were all part of the things I had read. Then they scream and claim it is not historically accurate. It had more truth in it than untruth. And we tried to make it all as modern as possible so that it could be related to any society; so that people would understand.
CW: And that lovely scene when Guinness is trying to fend off the voices of death…
AM: The guy in Newsweek asked what right I had to do that scene. I said: 'Are you kidding me? I have the right to do anything I please! That you don't like, it is something else again. I'm sorry for you; you don't know what I was trying to do. It's about a man who's preparing for death and isn't ready for death. A man who was preparing an empire and it isn't ready for him to leave it yet. This was the story. There was a real idea behind that scene. Not something just tossed away.
CW: And the same device is repeated with Sophia Loren, the only other character to understand.
AM: Right, she feels it and sees what is happening in the world and tries to scream it out. Well, it took a lot of guts to do it this way.
This interview originally appeared in a slightly different form in Positif.