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 Britain, began it as a potboiling magazine serial in 1903. Plagued by money troubles, he wrote “If I can finish N in three months, I am saved.” Three months, ha! (as a Conrad character would exclaim). Soon the book was pounding on into 1904, gaining new characters by the boatload, straddling vast tracts of fictional time and space, and turning into the longest book Conrad ever wrote. Today it’s the most panoramic of all the great novels, War And Peace alone excepted.

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 India. And he’s made the post-Conradian flawed hero a specialty: from Alec Guinness’ doomed and dotty martinet in The Bridge on the River Kwai to Peter O’Toole’s broken-god Lawrence of Arabia, rightly seen by Pauline Kael as bloodbrother to Conrad’s Lord Jim.

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 Sulaco is a tiny, silver-rich haven in a country whose civil wars, though epidemic, seldom spill over the mountain-range protecting Sulaco and its valley. But when violence does break through – a military revolt by self-styled “democrats” to overthrow the country’s benevolent dictator – every player in Conrad’s huge cast is caught up. Among them, the austerely visionary English mine-owner Charles Gould; his long-suffering wife, who knows the silver mine’s power to obsess and corrupt; the young Frenchman, Decoud, an idealist who dreams of making Sulaco a separate state; and the dashing Italian dockers’ captain Nostromo, whose name (“Our Man”) denotes his availability for heroic action at the snap of almost anyone’s finger.

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 South America and read the book and really fell in love with it.” Soon he was hewing away at the text for a projected seven-hour BBC TV serial, having persuaded BBC serials’ head Jonathan Powell to get away from the usual diet of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen: “which is all very well but sort of unadventurous and boring, and Conrad had never been done as a TV serial before.”

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 Hampton: “It would have cost at least a million pounds an episode, and it just wasn’t a practical proposition.” Not even with military help from Latin America. “We had discussions with a certain gentleman, who promised us the Venezuelan army at a very reasonable price!”

Never mind. Cometh the hour, cometh Lean. In early 1986 – “just after Liaisons had opened in London as a play” – Hampton’s phone rang and he was summoned to the presence. “I went to Lean’s house, and he said, ‘I understand that you want to do Nostromo,’ and I said, ‘Why, yes.’ And he said, ‘So do I. Let’s do it.’” And battle was commenced. Not just between Lean-Hampton and Nostromo, but between Hampton and Lean.

“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.”

For Hampton it began to be a lesson in Lean meticulousness – as he watched not just a script but a whole embryonic movie taking shape.

“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 Paris theater company and in Brook’s film of The Mahabharata. He was very interesting, in the sense that he looked like a working man, but there was a sort of strange sensitivity or melancholy about his eyes that registered very strongly on the screen. And Lean was very excited, especially about the last, rather exhaustive screen test. I remember him saying that he felt this way about Omar Sharif when he first came across him. And he seemed a very intelligent boy, as well as being physically right for the part.

“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,” Hampton says.

“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’!”

Hampton laughs now. Sort of. But back then, frustration built up so much that he left the project at the end of his second six-month contract period to take up a “now or never” offer to adapt his play Les Liaisons Dangereuses for the screen. “Milos Forman had announced he was planning his own Liaisons, based on Laclos’ book, so it became suddenly a matter of urgency. Lorimar said, If you don’t deliver the screenplay by Thanksgiving [1987], we can’t commit. So I gave Lean two weeks notice, saying I’d be prepared to go back and reexamine the script and work on the set and rewrite.”

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 Hampton’s surprise, turned the project over to his old comrade from Lawrence, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter.

“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 suggested Nostromo for a film. I suggested it about 20 years ago. And then Lean went and gave a lecture to the Oxford Film Society, and they said, Why don’t you do Nostromo? And he went and bought a copy, and that’s it.”

Bolt is mum over how much of Hampton’s input he’s using. But now that screenwriter number one has handed over the task to screenwriter number two, a fascinating unspoken dialogue can be heard between contrasting visions of Nostromo, crafted by perhaps the two most literate moviewriters of our time.

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 Hampton.

Hampton may have moved to the sidelines of Nostromo the movie project, but it’s clear he’s still bound up with Nostromo the movie concept. Even his uncertainty about what Bolt is doing with the script has a proprietorial edginess: “I haven’t seen the script he and Lean have arrived at. I don’t know what they’ve done to it, and I don’t know whether I’d like it.”

For Hampton, Nostromo isn’t the story’s central character at all. It’s the ambiguous Decoud: the ironist turned idealist, the man of thought who accompanies the man of action (Nostromo) on his silver-carrying mission: only to end by killing himself days later, gorged on the loneliness of the rocky island.

F. R. Leavis in his famous essay on Nostromo sees Decoud as Conrad’s alter ego.

Says Hampton, “Decoud is such an interesting character. When Lean and I sat down on day one, I said to him, ‘Shall we start with an image of the body of Decoud sitting on the bottom of the sea with silver coming out of his pockets?’ In a sense, he’s the key to the whole story. He’s a Hamlet figure, he’s destroyed by his intellectualism.”

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 Hampton, “was that epic sequence we planned in which the silver is brought down from the mountains. We dwelt an enormous amount on the silver.”

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 says, “America is ungovernable and those who have tried to govern her ‘plow the sea.’

“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 Hollywood. Hampton smiles and remembers a conversation he had with the movie Midas who, it was once rumored, was going to bankroll the film.

“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 Hampton. He thinks Nostromo is about new thoughts and new ideas coming into the world. “And the thing that raises them up is the silver. The story is about everybody’s attitude to the silver – their lifeline to the outside world.”

Clearly there are three different Nostromos battling it out here. Hampton sees in Conrad’s novel a story infused with political pessimism. For him Nostromo is an anticapitalist tract in which despairing impotence (Decoud) is the main character and material growth brings spiritual ruin.

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 Lawrence. I said, Well, he blows out a flame which is the flame he can o-f-t-e-n blow out. And the next thing is a flame he c-a-n-n-o-t blow out! And that flame goes r-i-g-h-t across the screen. And he said, Oh. And he did it.”

Bolt and Hampton both believe that this kind of magic shorthand – the cinema’s power to elide time and crystallize concepts – must work overtime in Nostromo.

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.

Hampton – whose study boasts a tottering pile of library copies of the very magazine in which Nostromo was published (T.P.’s Weekly) – believes the answer lies in turning the whole ending into giant ellipsis. The “match-sunset” syndrome strikes again.

“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.

Hampton has two projects on the burner. Faith, Hope and Glory, an adapted 19th-century Hungarian play for Britain’s National Theatre and a movie adaptation of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, the story of renegade Vietnam officer John Paul Vann (the inspiration for Coppola’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now).

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 Indiana Jones? I say, No. Well ... How much money do you offer?”

Hampton: “In the end, it’s a very difficult, dark, labyrinthine story; and you only do it because you want to do it. You can’t do it thinking this is going to make $100 million.”

But then again, you never know.








©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.