Not long ago at a Writers Guild of America event, a reporter friend came up to me. "I'm doing an article on the best screenplays that have never been made into movies," he said. "If you had to name one, what would it be?"
Without hesitating, I answered, Harrow Alley.
He scrunched his face. "I've never heard of it." And started to walk off. Just then, another screenwriter passed by, one with gravitas (and awards) to his name, a former president of the Guild. The reporter asked the same question.
Without hesitating, the gravitas writer answered, "Harrow Alley."
Now, the reporter took out his notepad. "Oh, I see," I chided. "Him you believe."
Every once in a while, some publication does an article like this. The Los Angeles Times once referred to Harrow Alley as perhaps the finest unproduced movie script ever. The Writers Guild Newsletter described it as, "A masterpiece...The most famous unproduced script in the country." In 1991, American Film magazine called Harrow Alley one of the best screenplays ever written. In July, 1999, Premieremagazine referred to it as "Arguably one of the most famous unproduced scripts of all time."
Harrow Alley is a stunning screenplay. Brilliantly crafted, dramatic, funny, heartbreaking, romantic and inspiring. It was written in the early 1960s by Walter Brown Newman, one of the great, unknown screenwriters. (Of course, most screenwriters are unknown, foolishly.) Newman's many credentials, however, include such classics as The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven and Cat Ballou. So, you see, it's got a pretty good pedigree. (Newman took his name off of The Great Escape. He was a crusty sort.)
So, why in the world has it never been made, I hear you cry?? Ah, therein lies a tale. And further tales.
Harrow Alley tells a hard story. It takes place during the Black Plague of the 14th century. The screenplay intricately weaves a breathtaking saga of how, during the worst time in the history of mankind, when the world was literally dying and no one knew how to stop it, or if it could be stopped, man will kick and fight and scratch and struggle to survive because man has a will to survive. At its center of many riveting characters are two totally opposite men, vibrant personalities whose lives intertwine and then set-off in utterly surprising ways.
When it was written, 50 years ago, most people were scared by the script, missing its rich optimism, and seeing only the rampant death, with the death-knell bell ringing unrelentingly throughout the story whenever yet another person died. It was an uncomfortable script for people to read back in 1960s, in the midst of hippies, the peace movement, drugs and the Love Generation, in the midst of Vietnam. People didn't want to deal with a movie about a plague wiping out mankind.
In William Froug's great book, The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter, Newman says that one studio story editor told him, "What the hell made you write this? Boy, I read it on a rainy Sunday and damn near committed suicide." The wife of a studio head sent an incensed note to Newman, telling him he was crazy.
The thing is, for all the horror of the Plague, the script is actually intensely hopeful and uplifting. It's filled with a glorious love story, a stunning act of heroism, humor, and characters who find profound personal depth. As Newman notes, "I was simply writing about how do we live under such conditions." And after looking at it years later, "I was glad to see, in rereading, that I was saying such a great big yes to living because I had no idea I felt that way."
Finally, a legendary director was anxious to make the film -- John Huston, whose many classics included The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen. Unfortunately, at the time he'd had a series of flops and couldn't get financing.
Next, a variety of top actors got interested. Among them, Charlton Heston. Even Peter Sellers was interested. The Royal Shakespeare Company inquired about adapting it for the stage. But nothing came of it.
And then George C. Scott enters the story.
The acclaimed actor loved Harrow Alley so much that he bought it outright. Several years passed, however, until he announced he wanted to make it. And therein lies another tale.
He wanted to direct. Scott was highly admired as an actor (soon to win his Oscar for Patton). But he hadn't yet directed a movie. And so studios were hesitant -- and again the project languished for years. Eventually, Scott was willing to let someone else direct and himself produce it. And yet another tale.
To his credit, George C. Scott adored Harrow Alley so much that he insisted not one word be changed. This is unheard of in Hollywood, and monumentally admirable. But even there, that turned into another major problem: the screenplay is very long, equal to a three-hour movie. It never lags, and remains riveting... but it's still three hours. Moreover, before they get involved, most directors want their imprint and insist on changing screenplays. (Not always for the better, of course.) But Scott would always say, "No." Not one word could be changed. Even when Walter Newman himself offered to trim his own script, in an effort to finally move the project along, Scott refused. And so Harrow Alley languished even more.
Eventually, George C. Scott passed away, but people remain interested in making Harrow Alley" However, in Scott's will, there's still a condition that the script cannot be changed, and that's served to be yet another hurdle, though not necessarily an insurmountable one. In fact, new producers got involved not long ago.
And so, though Harrow Alley is still the greatest screenplay never made, there is hope that will change. After all, what terrified people 35 years ago, is commonplace today. The world deals with the plague of AIDS daily. Nuclear devastation is an ever-present threat. We live with the threat of terrorism. Furthermore, there have even now been popular movies about worldwide plagues, like Outbreak ($190 million) and Contagion ($135 million) that prove the world will flock to such stories.
To be sure, Harrow Alley has an uncomfortable theme. But to be sure, as well, it has an enthralling optimism about mankind's will to live, lyrical majesty and vibrant characters -- and two, truly epic lead roles -- that soar like you can't believe. And audiences are long-since ready for it now.
The only remaining question is if a studio is ready to step up and finally make Harrow Alley.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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