AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
At the age of 82, David Lean is out to capture one of the greatest novels never filmed by calling on two of the most literate screenwriters of out times – Christopher Hampton and Robert Bolt – and therein hangs a tale as rich and convoluted as Joseph Conrad’s own….
by Harlan Kennedy
QUESTION FOR SCREENWRITERS. How
do you extract the ore from a mineral-rich literary masterpiece never mined
before and turn it into silver for the screen? Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo is the
greatest English-language novel never filmed. Eighty-six years after it was
written, that’s about to change. In Almeria, Spain,
and London, England, Conrad’s tale of stolen silver, swashbuckling heroes and
South American revolutions is gearing up to go before the cameras of Sir
David Lean. Screenwriters – and thereby hangs a tale almost as rich and
convoluted as Conrad’s – Robert Bolt and Christopher Hampton. Nostromo is a wonderful novel and an
adapter’s nightmare. The Polish-born Conrad, 8 years settled in
On the silver screen, a kind destiny has kept it from Philistine hands all these decades. We might – who knows – have had Cecil B. De Mille’s Nostromo, with Victor Mature as the sailor hero of the title who steals a boatful of silver when revolution breaks out in Conrad’s fictional Sulaco. Or Sergei Bondarchuk (War and Peace) might have strewn the Russian steppes with ersatz palms and yelled “Action” at the Soviet army – dressed as Conrad’s vast cast of mine-owners, generals, idealists, politicians and action-men.
Of all filmmakers gifted with
an epic touch, David Lean has been saved for the project. Lean respects his
literary originals, from Great Expectations
to A Passage to
Few heroes come more flawed
than Nostromo, whose fall from grace sends shivers
through the moral timbers of a fictitious Latin American state. Conrad’s
coastal town of
One question at Nostromo’s heart – maybe the question – is, When does Our Man become his own man? When does Nostromo cease to be Sulaco’s errand-boy, garlanded with praise but with nothing more palpable, and become a creature of his own will, morality and imagination?
Moral dilemma. Period setting. Huge canvas. Just the dish to set before a screenwriter. Make that two screenwriters. And make that the longest dish to be struggled over in recent movie history – with knife, fork, spoon, seasoning, catsup, “Bring the head chef, “Send back the head chef,” and (for one of the screenwriters at least), “OK, I’m through; bring me the check.”
The script of Nostromo has
been “in progress” since the early 1980s. British playwright Christopher
Hampton, who won the Oscar last year for Best Adapted Screenplay (from his
own stage play of Les Liaisons Dangereuses), had taken a shine to the novel long
before that. “I took a boat to
Nor – guess what? – was it
about to be now. Powell read Hampton’s treatment, costed it, had a mental vision of the BBC cash register
exploding and pulled the plug. Explains
Never mind. Cometh the hour,
cometh Lean. In early 1986 – “just after Liaisons
had opened in
“We worked together practically uninterrupted for six months, by the end of which there was a sort of ‘draft’ and it was plain that the work wasn’t going to be finished. So another six-month contract period was arranged.”
“We had storyboards. And for me, as somebody who has had a certain amount of experience with film but not an enormous amount, it was a revelation. You know, having discussions with cameramen about how certain scenes would be lit. And looking at the storyboards and having artists doing pictures of what a ‘dissolve’ would look like between two scenes. All that sort of thing is not done anymore.
“Along with all this writing,
we were actually having screen tests during this period. For the role of Nostromo, we four times tested this poor boy, Georges Corraface, a Greek actor who’s with Peter Brook’s
“But what I enjoyed most about working with Lean was that he had a genuinely open mind. He had liked the book very much and had responded to it. And there were things in it, like the sequence in the middle of the night when two boats collide, that profoundly excited him in terms of getting them onto the screen.”
There are epic scenes and dashing deeds galore in the book. But what underpins them? What’s Nostromo actually about?
“It’s difficult to reduce it to one particular line. But I think it’s to do with [long pause] the delusions fostered by material things. I was very keen to in-clude in some way the fable of Conrad’s in the book’s first chapter, about the American prospectors who are unable to die because they’re pursuing this will-o’-the-wisp, which is the silver. But there are so many things. It’s like asking, What is the central theme of Hamlet? The novel is Shakespearean in scale because there are so many themes that are brought up by each of the different characters.”
The task of distilling them
into a screenplay – one that satisfied both writer and director – became ever
more elusive. Nine months and six drafts after work had begun, “I began to
feel that it wasn’t getting better,”
“I felt changes were being made for the sake of change. Lean is not the easiest person to deal with. We had no quarrels – I enjoyed the work. But I’d never spent so much time over details. We’d spend a week evaluating every element of a montage until we had the images in precisely the right order. Then we’d put away that version, and three weeks later, it would suddenly be held up to question and disassembled again. You grew to dread the words ‘Well, let’s go back and have another look at scene one’!”
Was Lean pleased?
“I think he understood. But I don’t think he was pleased. I think he felt it was a sort of desertion.”
At this point – leaping time and space like Mr. Conrad – we dissolve from Hampton’s book-lined study in West London, aerie’d above a tree-lined road of white-portico’d Victorian houses, to a half-timbered Tudor farmhouse in the country. Sprawling by a stream, melodious with the twitterings of birds, the house is surveyed by a crumbling 11th-century chapel atop a green and clovered knoll. It looks like an outtake from A Man for All Seasons.
It is, in a way. It’s the home
of Robert Bolt. Bolt took on Nostromo when Lean, to
“I went to his 80th birthday party” recalls Bolt. “And he sized me up and he said, Come again. I went again, and he said, Look, would you help me write Nostromo?”
Just like that?
“Oh, I was the first person who
for a film. I suggested it about 20 years ago. And then Lean went and gave a
lecture to the
Bolt is mum over how much of
If Hampton is the youngish Turk of British screenwriting, Bolt is the Grand Pasha: bearded, 65, and today struggling with the speech defect he incurred 10 years ago after a stroke (when he was half-paralyzed and given two years to live). Bolt speaks by pushing out his vowels in the hope the consonants will follow. His key catch-phrases – “Of c-o-u-r-s-e!” or “R-i-g-h-h-t!” – are like the roar of a lion. You look up startled from your interview notes, expecting to see Shere Khan framed in the French windows. And the word Nostromo comes out like some vatic incantation set to the rumble of thunderclouds: “N-o-s-n-r-o-a-h-m-o-a-h!” Some people are weakened by handicaps. Bolt seems to have turned into a combination of King Lear and the prophet Job.
Bolt goes straight to the heart of the matter. What’s Nostromo actually about? “It’s about a f-a-l-l! The fall of the hero Nostromo, the man everyone trusts with their bidding, the man who steals and betrays that trust. He is called our man, and our man falls!” (Nostromo, assigned to hide a cargo of silver from the rebel army, pretends to have lost it at sea. He actually buries it on an island and determines to “grow rich slowly” on its proceeds.)
“But others fall too,” continues Bolt. “Montero goes down, the President of the Republic goes down, Decoud goes down. The only people who rise above it are the women, and they aren’t women at all!” Touché. Conrad’s all-male perspective as a writer is witheringly apparent in Nostromo. Mrs. Gould perhaps excepted, the women are all either madonnas or vamps.
But the men are vivid even when two-dimensional. Take Nostromo himself, literature’s answer to Douglas Fairbanks. He leaps about the novel like gallantry incarnate – though never drawn with the depth Conrad gives less swashbuckling characters.
“Nostromo is more or less an an-im-al,” says Bolt. “They treat him as more or less an an-im-al. He has been brought up to say, ‘You want something done? I do it.’ He is a proletarian. Then when he has a chance to make a break, he enslaves himself to the silver. It is hor-rible, but it is also funny! And that is how the film will end: half-laughing, half-weeping. Conrad was deeply pessimistic, and we have made the film that way. But we have also put a lighter side to it.”
A gleam of silver?
“Yes. All our incidents are drawn from the novel, but some we have broadened from about this much” [two fingers held apart by a millimeter] “to about this much [fisherman’s gesture].” “To bring it closer to audiences today, we also hint at a modern parallel with the clearing of the rain forests. It’s the old conflict between greed and good. Understand?”
I do. But what of the film’s
portrayal of Nostromo himself? For here’s the most
fascinating divergence of all between Bolt and
F. R. Leavis in his famous essay on Nostromo sees Decoud as Conrad’s alter ego.
Decoud and Nostromo may battle it out for the honorific of “central character,” but for central image there’s no contest. It is the metaphor of silver. Any movie of Nostromo must find a way to write that image large and lustrous. Conrad’s precious silver gleams – for good and for evil – all the way from page one to page 500.
“The scene closest to Lean’s heart,” says
As a metaphor?
“Yes. I think it’s about
capitalism. I don’t know that Lean thinks that, but it is. I wanted to begin
with the quotation from Simon Bolivar that’s used by Gould’s father, when he
“And there’s a line of Conrad’s that I kept coming back to: ‘There was something inherent in the necessities of successful action which carried with it the moral degradation of the idea.’ So that what you have to do in order to do what must be done somehow ruins the whole thing. It’s a globally pessimistic Conradian observation, but it seems to have such a resonance in so many areas of the world and in so many parts of 20th-century history.”
The delusions of materialism.
The moral ruin of actions. Just the sort of complexities to go down big in
“I had a discussion with Steven Spielberg, who asked me, Who was the hero of the book and who was the villian? My answer was that the hero of the book is of course Nostromo, and the villian is the money. And that seemed to make sense to him.”
For Bolt, the silver of the
story is less curse-laden, more ambiguous than for
Clearly there are three
battling it out here.
For Bolt Nostromo is a more robustly humanist tale, bang in the Shakespearean tradition of falling heroes and redemption by tragedy. Clarify, clarify! are the words one imagines written in shaving cream on Bolt’s bathroom mirror. And it’s no surprise to find him whittling away at Conrad’s huge dramatis personae.
“What people don’t understand is that the film can be only one-t-e-n-t-h of the book!” he exclaims. “You cannot include it all. So, after I have read and reread the novel – I throw it out of the window! I write the screenplay in my head. No notes. And you have to decide to lose some characters.”
Bolt convinced Lean to cut figures – a cowardly merchant and a rebel officer. Lean worried what the critics would think. “And I said, ‘Oh, the critics – pah!’ “
Do critics bother Bolt, I ask?
They bother him when they get things wrong. Though rosy with afterglow from the Lawrence of Arabia revival, he still smarts at a famous misattribution. Lean admirers, including Spielberg, have long drooled over that majestic cut early in the film from the match doused by Lawrence’s fingers to the wide-as-infinity desert sunrise. But it wasn’t Lean’s idea at all. It was Bolt’s.
“Of course it was. It was m-i-n-e!”
(Roar of authorial amour-propre). “I remember David wanting to know how we
would make this transition to the desert, and how we would convey what that
transition meant for
Both writers, surprisingly, seem wedded to Conrad’s controversial ending: a confused, operetta-like flurry of love, conspiracy and sudden death, with the now prosperous Nostromo involved in romantic rivalry with two daughters of a lighthouse-keeper.
Conrad was surely getting tired at this point, wasn’t he?
“Yes,” says Bolt. “He was writing to meet magazine deadlines. The ending is most peculiar! But we have found a way. A very good way, I think!” He has a say-no-more twinkle in his eye.
“From the moment Nostromo sits on the island and looks at the mainland, where all these battles are going on, and says to himself, I must grow rich slowly, we have a sudden time-jump to when he’s wealthy. And I had the idea of introducing this section with the notion of a new century. It’s 1900, and suddenly he’s a substantial citizen. And there are trams in the street, and the flowing-through of this river of silver has turned this rundown, battered plaza we’ve grown to know so well into a place of banks and fountains and statues. A statue of Decoud, in fact.
“And then it seemed to me the love story was Conrad’s way to objectify the degradation of Nostromo. Someone who has chosen the false road now has to live with a ‘false’ love. We made great play of the image of the lighthouse, and the light passing over things. That’s the kind of thing Lean loves. The whole climactic sequence of Nostromo being shot by the old father was lit by the revolving light of the lighthouse.”
With both screenwriters, the ghostly figure of Lean seems ever-present: peering over their shoulder, part muse, part tyrant. In any scene calling for visual bravura, the director clearly goes into overdrive. But he can also, says Bolt, appreciate the telling visual short cut (especially if it helps the budget).
“Once or twice, he’ll say, ‘Robert, can we do with fewer people? Can we shoot in a room and hear the crowds outside?’”
For Bolt, it’s the fourth collaboration with Lean, after Lawrence, Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter. (Fifth, if you count their ill-fated Bounty.) They have occasional flare-ups – “about one in four days, the other three days (mimes sleep gesture)” – but rumors of alienation of friendship after Bolt’s stroke now seem greatly exaggerated.
“I must say that he went out on a limb for me. He has been so p-a-t-i-e-n-t, listening to me burble on with my speech defect! Because I was much less articulate when I took it on – awful! But he stuck with me, and he has turned out trumps.”
The most appetizing thing about a Conrad adaptation prepared by these two writers is that one senses a common skill in exposing their language and insights to the flavors of different places, different periods: 18th-century France (Les Liaisons Dangereuses), revolutionary Russia (Doctor Zhivago), World War I Middle East (Lawrence Of Arabia).
And if you don’t believe Bolt and Hampton were twinned by destiny, note that Hampton’s earliest acting role was in a school production of Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.
Both men are historical-cultural jackdaws, scavenging over time and space. Bolt has recently been working on the script for Buddha, with Bernardo Bertolucci set to direct. “As soon as I started writing, I found the characters were speaking a kind of ‘Sanskrit-urian’ prose.” Before that he wrote a screenplay based on the James Brady biography Thumbs Up.
None of these enterprises is exactly pop-corn-fodder for the masses. And Nostromo could be the most unpopcornish of the lot. They know they’re unlikely to make a killing with a doorstopping literary masterpiece never filmed before.
But they can’t be discouraged.
Bolt: “What can I do? Somebody
says, Will you do a script of Nostromo?
I say, L-o-v-e-l-y! Somebody
says to me, Will you do a script of
But then again, you never know.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MARCH 1990 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.