Imagine if Stanley Kubrik had been able to make his Napoleon movie!
If one were to compile an unabridged list of unfinished movies I don’t know how long it would be…but it would be long. Films are tough work and sometimes they hit snags. They run out of money, are plagued with deaths or injuries, or sometimes they’re just abandoned. There’s a lot of history we’re missing as a result of these missing works of art. Sometimes movies are salvaged from tragedy—think Bruce Lee dying before completing Game of Death or worse, Peter Sellers dying without completing any new footage for Trail of the Pink Panther. Richard Pryor’s Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales and the infamous The Day the Clown Cried (in which Jerry Lewis played a depressed clown in a WWII concentration camp) are lost and will remain incomplete forever.
What follows are just a few movies that could have been. Let the totally arbitrary countdown begin.
1. Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) always has problems when he’s making movies. A fellow Monty Python alum said of him in an interview that, “[Gilliam] only works when he is in opposition.” Gilliam is one of my favorite directors because he takes bold, strange chances and because even his movies that I don’t care for are still unmistakably personal and visually sumptuous. There are several movies Gilliam was supposed to have directed over the years but perhaps the most infamous and the one that was closest to being realized was The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. It was meant to be a retelling of Don Quixote but with an added time travel element and classic Gilliam surrealism. Poor Gilliam has been trying to get this thing made for ages. The chronicling of one attempt to make the film with Johnny Depp can be seen in the documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002). You can see all the footage that was shot, but the movie was quite far from being complete. The production was no match for floods, injuries, and military planes flying overhead. Gilliam keeps trying to make it, but the cast keeps changing. Don Quixote was switched from Jean Rochefort to Robert Duvall (Network) for a restart that never happened. I hope the film one day will get finished and then we can all see it. I was personally hoping Michael Palin (Life of Brian) might play Quixote actually.
2. The French Alfred Hitchcock, as he is occasionally known, had an unfinished work as well. Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Diaboliques, The Wages of Fear) was supposed to make Inferno in 1964. The footage that was completed is enchanting and hypnotic and combines both color and black and white photography. Production was stunted by illness, weather, pressure from local authorities, and finally halted when Clouzot suffered a heart attack. Although the movie was never finished you can still see what was done in a 2009 semi-documentary by Serge Bromberg. Once again, we were robbed of another pretty cool looking flick from a master of thrills and suspense.
3. Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler I have already written about, but it definitely makes the list. Williams worked on this gem for over 25 years. We have a few versions floating around now. There’s the one that was completed—but not by Williams—and released by the studio but with added songs, voiceovers, and the added animation sequences are definitely NOT on the same level as Williams’. Then there’s a few “re-cobbled” editions which can be found online. They combines pencil tests and sketched stills to fill in the missing pieces and appropriately remove the studio’s additional material. Even unfinished The Thief and the Cobbler is an incredibly enjoyable movie and a mesmerizing achievement for animation.
4. This next one might just be the greatest science fiction film never made. Directed by Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Zulawski, On the Silver Globe had production shut down by the government in 1977. Communism was tough on art. It was finally released in 1988, but in its incomplete form. For the portions of the movie that were not done Zulawski just seems to have taken a camera and ran around the Polish subway system while narrating all the action and dialogue verbatim from the script. Confusing? Why yes, but no more than the rest of the film. It starts out as an erratic POV movie about stranded astronauts and the birth of a new race and then the philosophy and craziness takes off. You will see things and hear things that I daresay have never been duplicated in any other film that I’ve seen. On the Silver Globe is a dense and wildly ambitious movie that can be difficult to follow, but you gotta stick with it because even if you don’t know where it took you, you will certainly experience unfinished greatness.
5. Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take it With You) is known for making wonderfully American and somewhat squishy movies with great casts and even greater morals. He’s an American institution and his movies are culturally iconic. So why had I never heard of Lost Horizons (1937)? It’s an epic fantasy action adventure story about the discovery of the legendary utopic city of Shangri-La. It was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and it starred Ronald Colman (Prisoner of Zenda), Edward Everett Horton (Arsenic and Old Lace), and Thomas Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) among others. Okay, technically it’s not unfinished exactly. It is missing footage and the DVD today includes the audio and some stills from the missing scenes and some sequences that were previously cut are very damaged. It’s mostly complete, only missing a few bits here and there. When I first saw it I said, “Frank Capra directed this?” It was so different from all his other movies and it was incredible. See this movie. My only complaints with this film are that it does get a little slow in the middle and it comes so close to having a startlingly elegant and enigmatic finale but foregoes it in favor of a simple and happy closed knot. Oh, well. It’s still awesome. If the first ten minutes don’t suck you in, you’re an idiot.
6. Sergei Eisentein (Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky) got away with the first two installments of his remarkable epic biographic film Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1958). Had Communist censorship not hindered the progress on the second film (paranoid Joseph Stalin kind of put it together that the movie was also a criticism of his rule) and had Eisenstein not died before he could conclude the third film we might have had another fantastic movie trilogy. It’s a historical masterpiece and the first two films are well worth looking at. Just a shame to be left wanting more.
7. In the late 1930s producer Merian C. Cooper (King Kong, She) and special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young) wanted to make a movie called War Eagles. Willis O’Brien left so many wild ideas unfilmed and maybe this one isn’t the most missed by the majority of people, but screw it. It sounds awesome. The plot was to concern Vikings who ride giant eagles and fight dinosaurs in New York City. This might be the greatest loss to cinema ever.