Those in the elite rungs of society often have expensive taste. Nicolas Cage bought himself a pyramid to preserve his physical form after he’s gone (presumably as a mummy). Bleeding Gums Murphy had a $1,500 a day Faberge Egg habit. And Steven Spielberg has recently been binging on legendary, unproduced Hollywood screenplays. First came Napoleon, Stanley Kubrick‘s massive historical epic – the epic that was declared unfilmable once Kubrick enlisted the entire 50,000 Romanian army to stage the battle sequences (and after several other Napoleon films had just bombed at the box office). Spielberg is already hard at work, transforming that one into a TV miniseries. And now, according to Deadline, Spielberg may be adding another priceless gem to his “to-do” list: Dalton Trumbo‘s Montezuma.
Here’s how the story goes. In 1947, Trumbo was exiled from Hollywood after refusing to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in 1950 spent eleven months in prison (something we’ll all undoubtedly learn more about when Bryan Cranston finishes his Dalton Trumbo biopic). Kirk Douglas finally fixed things for Trumbo in 1960, by hiring him to write Spartacus, and then publicly announcing Trumbo’s involvement (whereas before, the blacklisted Trumbo had to pen his screenplays from behind pseudonyms). After that collaboration was such a rousing success, Douglas and Trumbo were all ready to team up again for Montezuma, a similarly-sized epic about the relationship between Hernan Cortez and the titular Aztec ruler he befriended and eventually betrayed and imprisoned. Yet somehow, Montezuma fell through the cracks and was sentenced to a near 50-year sentence in development hell.
Until Steve Zaillian, who previously teamed with Spielberg on Schindler’s List, decided to re-write Trumbo’s screenplay (because as intriguing as it would be to shoot the film straight from the 49-year old screenplay, Montezuma probably needs a tweak or two for modern audiences). Zaillian will also be acting as a producer on the project. Javier Bardem is said to be circling the role of Cortez; that piece of news, along with a screenplay that’s supposedly from Cortez’ perspective (despite being titled Montezuma), may lead to the title changing from Montezuma to Cortez. Although changing the name takes away a little of the fun, doesn’t it?
Either way, Montezuma (or whatever it’ll be called) will have no problem finding a place in Hollywood, considering the slew of historical epics that are currently on their way – Noah, Exodus, several Hercules films, Pompeii and that Ben-Hur remake we’re all dreading. Whether Spielberg decides to make Montezuma or not (because as of now, he’s still “circling” the film), if it can get off the ground, it’ll fit right in.
What’s really of interest here, however, is Spielberg’s attachment to yet another famously-unproduced script. It was newsworthy enough when he resurrected Napoleon; now he’s poised to do the very same thing a second time. Spielberg has been waffling between projects for his next post-Lincoln film, picking up and then dropping the science-fiction epic Robopocalypse and the Chris Kyle biopic American Sniper. If Montezuma signifies the next step in Spielberg’s creative evolution — going back to the classics — he’s got plenty to work from. The folks at Film Comment have set about compiling a big list of famously unproduced films, and there are quite a few that would appeal to a big Hollywood filmmaker like Spielberg.
A few almost-made-but-then-weren’t films from John Ford, like The Family (about a Russian family exiled to China), or The Miracle of Merriford (an English church uprooted by American soldiers passing by during WWII) seem like a good fit. Spielberg already has his hooks in Ford’s (and John Steinbeck’s) The Grapes of Wrath, but he also swore he’d never direct that project, so a film Ford never got around to making might feel a little less like encroaching on someone else’s turf. Also on the list is Werner Herzog’s The Conquest of Mexico, which covers the subject of… Montezuma and the conquest of the Aztecs. That one might be covered already- and according to Herzog, the only way it could have been filmed was with a with a great big Hollywood budget. Smart man.
Maybe ,as giant Hollywood epics work their way back into the public eye, the public will gain a little more appreciation for the giant Hollywood classics that inspired them. And maybe if Steven Spielberg keeps going back to the well and picking up where famous filmmakers left off, we’ll all learn a little bit more about those who first put those classics together (the classics that actually got made, anyway). At least it’s be a step up from Ouija Board: The Movie.