Unfilmed Goldman

November 17, 2018
Like many screenwriters, William Goldman wrote a large number of scripts that were never filmed. Stephen Vagg, a big time Goldman fan, has read some of these scripts and reviews them for FilmInk in light of his passing.

The Sea Kings (1978 draft) – based on history

This was one of two screenplays Goldman wrote for Joseph E. Levine after A Bridge Too Far (the other being Year of the Comet), the saga of which Goldman talks about in his memoirs Which Lie Did I Tell? It tells the story of two real life pirates, Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet, and has the sort of melancholic-yet-funny-action-action-adventure tone that was in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It wasn’t made, mostly due to cost, which you can understand because it’s an 18th century pirate movie for two stars and presumably would have cost a bomb.

It’s a shame it was never made, though – I particularly loved Levine’s idea of casting Sean Connery and Roger Moore in the leads, both would have been perfect (Roger Moore and Dudley Moore, another combination floated, would have been awful). It’s much better than pretty much every pirate movie made in the ‘70s and ‘80s – Scallywag, Swashbuckler, Ghost in the Noonday Sun, Pirates, etc.

Some of it sags a bit – Bonnet’s desire to become a pirate feels a little clunky. Blackbeard’s initial appearance, with a tough guy backing away from fighting him the moment he realises who it is, is perhaps overly similar to Sundance’s introduction in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

But it’s very enjoyable. The part of Blackbeard is particularly excellent – tough, humorous, melancholic, prone to self doubt, regretful. Connery would have been great – also Lee Marvin, even Charles Bronson, one of the tough guys with sad eyes. (Not Roger Moore. Roger Moore would have made a great Stede Bonnet though).

The climax doesn’t quite work (SPOILERS) – Blackbeard double-crosses Bonnet, who goes looking for revenge. There is a big fight, Bonnet and Blackbeard duel… then they decide to be friends again and flee from some Virginians. It’s like it needed another villain. You don’t feel too roused because you know they will both die shortly after. (I thought Goldman would get around this by having someone take one of their places eg. Bonnet actually standing in for Blackbeard, like a franchise).

Verdict: With the right stars, this would have been a lot of fun, if made in the ‘70s or even ‘80s… post-Pirates of the Caribbean though it wouldn’t have been as fresh.

The Right Stuff (1980 draft) – based on the book by Tom Wolfe

Goldman said the hardest chapter to write in his memoir Adventures of the Screen Trade was the one on him scripting The Right Stuff. He was hired to adapt Tom Wolfe’s classic non-fiction tale by the producers Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler; Goldman’s version was well-received and the film was green-lit by United Artists, but then the producers hired director Phil Kaufman, who disagreed with Goldman’s interpretation, and subsequently made his own version. Kaufman’s film was a highly-regarded box office disappointment, particularly notable for a sensational cast – early-in-their-careers Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward (it was like The Godfather or The Outsiders in the sheer number of stars-before-they-were-famous).

As Goldman told it, the main difference between his and Kaufman’s version was that Goldman disposed of Chuck Yeagar (who featured heavily in the book) and concentrated on the astronauts – in particular, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn, ending on Glenn’s orbiting the earth. Kaufman’s take not only included Yeagar, he told the story right up until Gordon Cooper’s flight.

It’s always been a great Hollywood “what if” of mine about this film – what if they’d gone with Goldman’s version? Would it have been a hit? Yeah, yeah, I know – nobody knows anything. Still it’s interesting to wonder.

Like all Goldman scripts, this reads very well – it’s done in that compulsive Goldman style, full of hype (“the biggest shot in the movie”, “the most glorious day you ever saw”) and asides. He’s hamstrung by the fact that most of the characters were real people, and still alive at the time – but Grissom and Glenn are a bit different at least. I wasn’t wild about the device of the wise-cracking seen-it-all journo; this Greek chorus device had been used too many times (eg. Lawrence of Arabia).

It’s got one of those tricky beginnings Goldman likes – we meet a dog astronaut, then there’s a disastrous lift off from an American rocket. The first three characters we meet are Grissom, Water Schirra and Shepard – none of them are really the hero, or is Glenn, but he’s the most vivid character (all-American, ambitious, stuttering wife).

The structure really works with it going (1) intro (2) astronaut selection (3) training (4) Alan Shepard flight (5) Gus Grissom crash (6) John Glenn flight (these “acts” get shorter and shorter as the script goes on). Sometimes characters seemed to come in just to make a speech (eg. the colonel who accuses them of not having the right stuff). Lots of exposition and description of technical stuff.

Verdict: I think this would have made a great movie. Mind you, Phil Kaufmann’s is pretty good too.

Shazam (2003 draft) – based on the comic book

As a child, Goldman was a big fan of the DC comic Captain Marvel, which isn’t to be confused with the Marvel comic book Captain Marvel. (To help differentiate, the DC one is about an 11-year old boy who becomes a superhero, and the Marvel one is about a woman who becomes a superhero. There are films based on both coming out next year.)

This script, written in the early 2000s, is not great Goldman but there have been worse comic book adaptations and the source material sounds a little silly to start off with. I can’t think of a film with an orphan hero where the orphanage he lived in at the beginning of the story was such a nice place – Billy, said hero, has hot Jenny to drool over, and a nice billionaire overseeing the whole thing. It’s not great for creating sympathy.

There are some great bits in the script – cockroaches spilling out of the main villain’s corpse, the warden Hackman (presumably a nod to Gene) who refuses to believe the villain is dead and insists on having him tested, Captain Marvel saving Jenny from crashing on rocks by breathing her upwards.

The main villain is probably treated a little too comically (for a genius he’s failed a lot – it makes him less of a threat), the finale involving a brain test isn’t that visually gripping (Goldman admits he struggled with his endings – taking a stadium full of hostages feels tacked on), and it feels as though Billy has too many ways to get out of trouble without using his own skill (eg. saying “Shazam” and turning into Captain Marvel, having Captain Marvel draw on the skills of Zeus and Solomon at key points, being rescued at the end by the villain’s daughter).

There are lots of references in the big print to things Goldman liked such as Jean Simmons, James Cagney, Willie Mays, etc. Sometimes this is annoying – would a modern day teenager really have pictures of Jean Simmons on her wall?

Verdict: In 2003, when the comic book films being made were of the standard of the Ben Affleck Daredevil, this would have been okay… but not in a post-Christopher Nolan/Kevin Feige world where the bar is a lot higher. Probably a good thing it wasn’t made.

Some other unfilmed Goldman scripts:

Flowers for Algernon (1964) – Goldman’s first screenplay, an adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ novel, paid for by Cliff Robertson, who wanted to make a film of the novel for himself to star in. Robertson disliked what Goldman did, then hired Stirling Silliphant to write a new script. The resulting film, Charly, earned Robertson a Best Actor Oscar.

The Chill (1967) After his success adapting the Ross D. Macdonald novel The Moving Target into what became the film Harper starring Paul Newman, Goldman did another Macdonald adaptation. Considering Harper was such a hit, it’s surprising this wasn’t made. Goldman didn’t write the eventual Harper sequel, The Drowning Pool.

In the Spring the War Was Ended (1968) – based on a novel about deserters in World War Two by Stephen Linakis, this was reportedly cancelled by 20th Century Fox because they needed army cooperation to make Patton.

Papillon (early 1970s) – Goldman wrote an early draft of this movie, which was not used.

The Thing of It Is and Father’s Day (early 1970s) – These were both based on Goldman novels about songwriter Amos McCracken, a self-loathing Jew who has a nervous breakdown. He got particularly close to making The Thing of It Is in particular, but ultimately the deal fell through. At least the novels remain – neither strike you as being that cinematic but with the right director, who knows?

The Ski Bum (early 1980s) – Based on an article about a ski instructor which Goldman says was not made due to studio politics. It was one of a series of unfilmed projects he wrote in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that temporarily derailed his career, the others being The Sea Kings, The Right Stuff, Rescue and Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel (early 1980s) – Goldman always wanted to write a film musical – he wrote a short-lived Broadway musical, A Family Affair – and came close with this remake of the 1932 MGM film he wanted to make with Norman Jewison. Other failed attempts to do a film musical include Singing Out Loud, which he wanted to do with Rob Reiner and Stephen Sondheim, and an adaptation of Sondheim’s Company (which would have been amazing).

Mission Impossible Two (late 1990s) – Goldman did a draft of this that was not used. Tom Cruise ended up going with a draft by Robert Towne, whose path often crossed with Goldman back in the day – they both shared the same agent, and Towne wrote a new ending to the Goldman-scripted Marathon Man.

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