We love to read details about high-profile movies from some of our favorite filmmakers that sadly never got made, which is why we're such a fan of writer David Hughes' books. Hughes, a long-time film journalist, has written several compendiums of films that almost were, his first being the highly informative and entertaining The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, and now he's back with an update to his second book on the subject, Tales From Development Hell.
The first edition of the book was published in 2004, but now with almost another decade of progress both large and small on the films covered, Titan Books is publishing a revamped edition with newly discovered details throughout, as well as several entirely new chapters. Just a few of the films in question include Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Darren Aronofsky's Batman: Year One, James Cameron's Fantastic Voyage, and Ridley Scott's Crisis in the Hot Zone, but today we're here to share with you our favorite film that almost-was: Paul Verhoeven's ultraviolent sword-and-sandals epic Crusade, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Ahead of the books' release on February 28th, Titan has graciously given us a nearly 5,000 word excerpt from the Crusade chapter to share with you. So if you want to learn the gory details of how Paul Verhoeven and company spent nearly $10 million developing one of the most brutal epics imaginable, only to have the film's plug pulled at the 11th hour, please do read on.
If you've read the previous edition of Tales From Development Hell, some of this might be familiar, but do note this is not the entire chapter, only an excerpt.
Nine hundred years after the First Crusade, another began: a campaign by Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Paul Verhoeven, collaborators on the worldwide sci-fi hit Total Recall, to make an epic movie set during this bloody chapter of history. Part Spartacus, part Conan the Barbarian, Crusade was to star Schwarzenegger, then the world’s biggest box office star, as Hagen, a thief-turned-slave who winds up joining the Christian army to free Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1095, only to discover that each of the rival faiths have more than religious reasons for waging holy war. As Verhoeven recalls of the project’s origins: “We were sitting outside Arnold’s trailer in Mexico City at Churubusco Studios, while we were shooting Total Recall, and he started to talk about a script he had once read about the Crusades. He said it wasn’t a good script, but he really liked the idea so much, to make a movie about the Crusades. And it was also one of my favourite times in history.” Verhoeven had read a great deal about the period while still living in Holland, and even though he had discussed the possibility of a film with his regular screenwriting collaborator, Gerard Soeteman, he did not think they would ever get such a project financed. “But then, when Arnold mentioned it, I said, ‘Well, that’s very interesting, I think I know exactly who the writer for that would be,’ because by then I had met Walon Green.”
Born in Baltimore in 1936, Green had begun his screenwriting career as co-writer (with director Sam Peckinpah) on the bloodthirsty western The Wild Bunch. His first collaboration with Verhoeven was an unrealised adaptation of Women by Charles Bukowski; this was followed by a script for what became Disney’s Dinosaur, which Verhoeven originally planned to direct using a combination of Phil Tippett’s ‘stop motion’ effects and Dennis Muren’s CGI. Says Verhoeven, “I thought Walon was a great writer, and I got along with him very very well. He reminded me of my Dutch screenwriter, Gerard Soeteman, in that he’s very well read, and he knows a lot about politics and history, and he has a good take on the politics of the Crusades. He seemed to be the perfect candidate for Crusade. When I discussed it with Walon,” he adds, “he was immediately enthusiastic.” Mario Kassar and Andrew G Vajna, whose Carolco pictures had bankrolled Total Recall, paid Green to develop a script, which they hoped would reunite their two biggest stars, Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger, for a profitable venture into history.
Green’s first draft of Crusade opens in France as Hagen, a cynical thief in the employ of Count Emmich of Bascarat, is caught robbing an abbey, and brought before the Abbot. Sentenced to hang, he finds himself in jail with a Jewish snake oil salesman named Aron (‘Ari’), also sentenced to hang for using the occasion of a visit by Pope Urban II to sell fake cure-alls to the locals. Ari explains that Hagen’s booty of gold and silver is all very well, but religious artefacts — the tooth of a saint, the finger-bone of John the Baptist, a fragment of the holy cross — are where the ‘real’ money is. Upon hearing that the Pope is always on the lookout for signs from God, Hagen burns a huge cross into his back, thereby tricking the holy fools (including Bishop Adhémar, the Crusade’s spiritual leader) into thinking it is a stigmata-like symbol of his piety, and so engineering his emancipation. (This scene may have been inspired by the ‘miracle of the lance’: Provençal peasant Peter Bartholomew, claiming to have had a vision of Christ and St Andrew in which they told him that the lance used to pierce Christ’s side was buried beneath the high altar of St Peter’s Church, was allowed to supervise the digging, and the lance was duly found. Although the crusading army’s leaders were sceptical that a miracle had occurred, many of the Crusaders were convinced, and they took advantage of the boost in morale to launch a last-ditch attempt to break the siege of Antioch.)
Released from his bonds, and with Ari in tow, Hagen is dispatched to the Holy Land, where his first action is to rescue a Jewish wedding party from a merciless attack led by Emmich. “We wanted to be honest to history, and as close to what we think happened at that time, and were the motives of the time,” says Verhoeven. “And also to point out that the Crusades started out with persecuting the Jews. The moment they [the Crusaders] go on the road, they think, ‘These are the killers of God, the theocides, so let’s kill them first.’ That was all acknowledged in the script.” Emmich responds to Hagen’s interference by challenging him to a duel in which Emmich is defeated, and scarred for life. Adding insult to injury, Robert, Duke of Normandy, punishes Emmich for his unprovoked attack, and rewards Hagen for his heroics by inviting him to march in his command. Emmich, vowing vengeance, sells Hagen into slavery in Jaffa, where he is rescued from a eunuch’s fate by Ari, now posing as a Muslim in the service of local Emir Ibn Khaldun, commander of Jerusalem’s forces. The Emir, meanwhile, is trying to marry his beautiful daughter Leila to a Muslim fundamentalist, Djarvat, whose army her father is eager to use to bolster his own. Although she and Hagen have a growing attraction — albeit from a distance both physical and social — and she is suspicious of Djarvat’s motives, Leila agrees to go along with the arranged marriage.
When Djarvat’s true nature as a bloodthirsty warmonger is revealed, Ibn Khaldun calls off the wedding, but Djarvat kidnaps Leila and demands the Emir’s obeisance in return for his daughter’s life. Hagen manages to rescue Leila, but after they consummate their relationship, she is captured again, this time by Emmich. Emmich is about to rape her when the alarm is sounded — Muslims are approaching the encampment under a flag of truce, and ‘Hagen of the Miraculous Cross’ is with them! Ibn Khaldun offers peace in return for his daughter, and a truce is agreed between the Muslims and Christians. Having brokered Leila’s rescue, Hagen then feels betrayed when Ibn Khaldun sends her away and, following Emmich’s murder of Ibn Khaldun, he finds himself on the side of the Crusaders in the subsequent battle.
When the Christians are victorious, the defeated Djarvat offers Emmich a deal: he will allow Emmich to acquire the holiest relic of all — a fragment of the cross on which Christ was crucified — if he is spared and allowed to control the Muslims who survive the slaughter to come. Emmich agrees, on one condition: he wants Leila too, “to wed and bed the true love of Hagen of the cross while he watches and dies.” Djarvat’s attempt to kidnap Leila is frustrated by Hagen and Ari, but the sepulchre containing the Holy Cross is set on fire — and only Hagen can save it. Hagen rushes in, and emerges from the smoke and flames carrying the cross on his back — a spectacle which brings his destiny full circle, and has Emmich’s men falling to their knees. Hagen seizes the chance to kill Emmich, and escape with the holiest of relics and his beloved Leila. At the end, disgusted by the death and destruction unleashed in the name of one god or another, Hagen turns his back on the Crusaders, and places the true cross in the hands of monks who vow never to reveal its location. According to a closing caption, it has never been found.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, coming as it does from the co-writer of The Wild Bunch, the script is as bloodthirsty as it is scatological. At one point, Hagen is bound, sewn into the rotting carcass of a donkey and set upon by hungry hyenas. He narrowly escapes the fate of a eunuch — namely, having his genitalia cleanly severed, the wound cauterised and compressed with a mixture of tar and fresh cow dung. An enemy is killed by having a trident thrown through his face. In a climactic scene, Emmich is severed in two by Hagen’s sword, his legs and lower body remaining on his fleeing horse while his upper body falls to the ground. It’s hardly PG-rated stuff. Blood and guts, carnage and chaos are seldom far from the screen, a tendency which might have phased lesser film-makers, but not the taboo-breaking, envelope-pushing director of such ultra-violent films as Robocop and Total Recall, who later courted a different kind of controversy with Basic Instinct and Showgirls.
“There are touches of lightness and romanticism and there are often funny scenes,” Verhoeven says of Crusade, “but it’s not a happy story. It’s cruel and it’s violent — my kind of ultra-violence that I’ve displayed in many movies — but there is also a lightness and tenderness, and I think with Arnold it would have worked for an audience. And the fact that it wasn’t made had nothing to do with the disbelief of the producer or anyone else that this movie, with Arnold as a Crusader and an honest political touch, would not reach its audience — we all felt that we would.”
The political viewpoint of Green’s script was certainly intriguing, if not groundbreaking. Although it does not contextualise the period in historical or epochal terms — it does not, for instance, open with a caption explaining what the Crusades were all about — there are political elements to both the story and the characters. The fictional Emmich and his cousin Waldemar are corrupt opportunists, using a Papally-sanctioned religious crusade as an excuse to rape and pillage — vividly illustrated by the attack on the Jewish wedding party, launched on the pretext of having them contribute to the war effort. Pope Urban II, for his part, seems more concerned with the geographic incursions made by the Muslim Empire than the souls lost to Islam as a result. Robert of Flanders, commander of the Papal guard, is nobler, decreeing that pillage or violence against any but the enemy will be punishable by death. Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the knights leading the Crusade, is as noble as his counterpart Ibn Khaldun, who believes that Christians, Jews and Muslims are fundamentally the same, and hopes that peace may be forged between the disparate religions. Khaldun’s new ally, Djarvat, seeks no such accord; he wishes to drive the infidels from the Holy Land as surely as the Crusaders wish to wipe worshippers of Allah from the face of the Earth with the rallying cry of “Convert or die!”
“It was always supposed to be a movie for Arnold,” says Verhoeven, “so we were all very much aware what kind of movie we had to make. I knew it would have a certain grandeur, also perhaps a little bit of hyper-reality, but on the other hand we wanted to have the historical events be completely correct, and the political point of view — the evil side of the Crusades, which is undoubtedly there. We wanted to make clear that this was not a great endeavour; that it was all cheating by the Pope, who basically lured all these fighting nobles from France so they could die somewhere else, instead of having trouble with them! That’s what most historians think about Urban II. On the other hand, there was this idiotic thinking in Christian religion that Jerusalem should be in Christian hands, for some unclear reason. Even today people think the city should be part of Christianity — [a view] still subsidised by a lot of fundamentalists in the United States.” Before the Crusades, he adds, there was no persecution based on religion in Jerusalem: “Arabs, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Jewry were all accepted. There was just this evil thought of the Church that because Jesus had lived there, or spent a couple of weeks there, and got killed, that this belonged to Christianity — an even more absurd claim than saying that God promised it to the Jewish population. But as Gore Vidal pointed out, ‘God is not a real estate dealer’.”
Despite the script’s obvious strengths, Verhoeven was not entirely satisfied with the early drafts, and Total Recall co-writer Gary Goldman was called in to rework it. “They came up with a draft or two, and for some reason Paul wasn’t excited about it,” says Goldman. “I think he more or less decided there was something wrong with it, or it wasn’t good enough for him to be ready to make, so he kind of lost interest in it. He showed it to me at around that time and I remember thinking it was very good, and I told him so, and he thought I was an idiot for liking it.” Goldman describes Green’s draft as “a picaresque tale about a roguish serf who gets caught stealing, and the only we to get out of being hanged is to fake a miracle. He cynically endorses the Crusade, and shows the venality of all the European lords who were jockeying for power. It was a very good screenplay,” he adds. “He has a wonderful feeling for period. It was well written; filled with wonderful ideas. It was a great story, and very cynical — a serious historical epic tailored to Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
Moreover, Goldman believes it was a subversive script, hiding an intelligent film in the guise of an action movie, allowing Verhoeven to have his cake and eat it — a trick they had already pulled off with Total Recall, in which the audience gets to enjoy an action-packed Arnie movie despite the fact that it takes place almost entirely inside the putative hero’s head. “We presented it in the way of Total Recall,” Verhoeven confirms, “so you can be looking at this movie completely in a non-involved way, just Arnold and adventure: he gets caged, he nearly gets castrated, he finds a girl — this beautiful Arab princess — and he has to kill the bad guys, and then he decides that the best part of life would be to be on his farm with his Arab wife. You could see it on that level. But there were also these other levels: the anti-Semitism, the anti-Arab thinking, prejudices left and right.
“You could say the movie was also pro-Arab, or certainly not anti-Arab — there are bad Christians and good Christians, bad Arabs and good Arabs, but most of the Arabs seem to be okay, so it doesn’t fit into this [attitude of] looking at Arabs as evil people. It wasn’t the Arabs that persecuted the Jews, it was the Christians, with a couple of thousand years of anti-Semitic thinking. In the year 1000 this was common thinking. Even the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, are permeated by anti-Semitic thinking. So I think we wanted to express that without hitting it hard.” Goldman recalls that the script was an indictment of the Crusades specifically, but, more generally “it was an anti-war statement, basically saying that the Christians had no business going there. That’s not how Hollywood would do it,” he concludes, “but at Carolco we were free to do what we wanted.” Voerhoeven, for his part, wanted to do for the Crusades what Oliver Stone, among others, had done for Vietnam, and revisionist Westerns had done for the ignoble conquest of the American West. “If you see other movies about the Crusades,” he explains, “Christianity is saving the world in Jerusalem, and there is this absolute claim of Christianity that that city should be their property. So for the last four hundred years they have desperately tried to get it, and [they believe] that if it’s not to be in Christian hands, at least it has to be fully in Jewish hands.”
Not being the kind of writer to throw out the baby with the bathwater – even though it may result in the Writers Guild of America awarding a larger share of the writing credit, and thus residual payments – Goldman’s final rewrite did not differ significantly from Green’s. “We tweaked and tweaked and tweaked until we finally got it to the point where Paul was very happy with it, and they were ready to go ahead and make it,” the writer explains. “Some of it was that after trying things and trying things, Paul started to realise how good the Walon draft really was, so he kept the changes that were improvements and got rid of the ones that weren’t, pieced together the best parts of each draft, and we ended up with a draft that he was ready to make. I was very excited about it. Walon Green was also very happy with it. He thought the best parts of all his drafts had been chosen all along, which was Paul’s doing. Your horror as a writer, or your fear, is that someone’s going to ruin your work, but I’ve always been a very respectful rewriter, and Paul really is a creative rewriter-developer. He’s not into starting over.”
One of the more fundamental changes has Hagen and Emmich re-imagined as half-brothers, with the latter as the true heir of a Count, and Hagen as the illegitimate son of the same father (shades of Gloucester’s sons in King Lear). Not only does this add a suitably Biblical sibling rivalry to the relationship, but the Abbot who catches Hagen stealing also uses it to his own advantage: because he knows Hagen is legally entitled to half the estate of Emmich’s father, he agrees to sentence Hagen to death only if Emmich signs a quarter of his estate over to the Abbot. Goldman tones down the attack on the Jewish wedding party so that it is disrupted, not decimated, and Hagen saves the bride from being raped by Emmich and his men, rather than intervening too late.
Leila is also given something of a makeover. Instead of agreeing to the arranged marriage with a Muslim noble (named Duqaq in Goldman’s versions — though in reality ‘Duqaq’ is a rank, not a name — and with Djarvat demoted to a relatively minor presence), she rejects his proposal, forcing Duqaq to resort to nefarious means to ensnare the woman he loves. Furthermore, in Goldman’s version, Ibn Khaldun promises his daughter that in marriage her will is to be her own, to which Djarvat retorts that no woman’s will is her own – and further twists the situation to his advantage by suggesting that their faith faces desecration because of a woman’s pride. Another key device in Goldman’s revisions is that it is Hagen who attempts to broker the peace accord between the Christians and the Muslims, only to have Djarvat’s soldiers attack — thus, it appears that Hagen led the Christians into a trap.
Goldman’s greatest addition to the script is the spectacular ‘Shadow Warrior’ sequence, perhaps the most memorable scene in the entire 132-page enterprise. As Goldman envisaged it, in the middle of the climactic battle between the Crusader army and Djarvat’s Muslim horde, the setting sun projects a gigantic image of Hagen on horseback onto a wall of smoke, throwing the Muslims into a panic and inspiring the Crusader army to victory. The effect is increased when Hagen throws a sword at a Saracen horseman, who keels over dead with the sword arcing straight up like a triumphant cross, surrounded by a mystical aureole of sunlight. From this point, the battle becomes a slaughter, with even Ibn Khaldun — who survives far longer in Goldman’s drafts — falling to Emmich, who drives his men to attack even as the Saracens lower their colours and attempt to surrender. As the surviving Muslims retreat to relative safety within the walls of Jerusalem, the Crusaders lay siege to the city, killing Jews and Muslims with equal vehemence. At the end, Hagen and Leila walk off into the sunset, leaving Ari to ponder which of the three religious faiths he will adopt this week, and the Crusaders to wonder where the true cross is hidden.
Appraising the draft dated 24 January 1993 for the Ain’t It Cool website, reviewer ‘Damien Thorn’ described it as “the greatest unproduced script of the decade… a brutal action epic laced with literate political dialogue and evil humour (what you’d expect for a slicing cavalier Paul Verhoeven flick), this is foremost a smashingly entertaining story that hurtles forward like all those severed limbs in Starship Troopers. Green is known for his ruthless sense of structure and here every scene is loaded with fascinating details that set up the following events with enormous payoff. The Arnold character, Hagen, is the ultimate part for him — iconic and shrouded in charismatic mystery that reveals a keen intelligence and the sort of presence you can believe would be at the center of an epic shite storm in the medieval Christian world.”
Thorn also pointed to a few problems — some “ordinary” action sequences, and a third act which was somewhat “perfunctory”. He felt that the script might benefit from more political scenes, à la Ben Hur or Spartacus, and a punchier ending, but concluded that with its play on church politics, mass schizophrenia and sense of entire civilizations out to exterminate each other, it was a worthy and timely event film, “Verhoeven’s answer to Alexander Nevsky, Lawrence of Arabia”. It might not make back its production cost, and would, he felt, certainly antagonise “every known special interest group on the planet,” but was nevertheless the film that Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven “were born to make.” Another Ain’t It Cool script reviewer thought the draft somewhat muddled. “Crusade doesn’t want to take a religious stand, although it does seem to indicate at one point that Hagen has had a Christian vision,” the anonymous poster opined. “The result is that we watch three religiously-motivated armies (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim) fight over Jerusalem and its Holy Shrine, and we don’t really care about any of them. Truth be told, I found the character of Ari (Hagen’s little con man sidekick) far more interesting and complex. It’s all terribly violent, even for Verhoeven,” the unnamed critic concluded, “but at least there’s a creative escape from prison.”
Carolco put the film into pre-production in early 1993, with Schwarzenegger being joined by Robert Duvall as Adhémar of Le Puy, John Turturro (though some sources say his brother, Nicholas) as Ari, Christopher McDonald (Thelma and Louise) as the evil Emmich. Verhoeven recalls screen testing a number of actresses for the role of Leila, before finally deciding upon Jennifer Connelly, a future Academy Award winner for A Beautiful Mind. “I only knew Jennifer from this Disney movie where she flies [The Rocketeer], but since then I have asked her several times for other movies — Starship Troopers and Hollow Man — but she felt they were not good enough, or not her kind of movie.” With shooting scheduled to begin in the summer of 1994, however, Carolco began to feel the aftershocks of its production profligacy, with expensive misfires such as Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin presaging a general downturn in the company’s fortunes, despite the strong box office performance of such high-profile pictures as Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
“We couldn’t quite figure out where the money went,” says Goldman, “but by that time it had gone. Crusade was a giant movie, and the company didn’t trust the numbers that were being thrown around. They felt that the movie was going to end up costing a lot more than Paul and [producer] Alan Marshall said — which is odd because Paul and Alan are probably the two least political film-makers on that level. Paul is ideologically honest; he takes pride in defining himself as a person who will give you the brutal truth, and expect you to handle it. So he doesn’t really lie about budgeting, which is a mistake because there’s no way to get these movies made without lying. People won’t ever admit up front that they’re willing to make the movie for that amount — you have to get them slightly pregnant, or they’ll never have the guts to bite, because they’ll be held accountable on these decisions.”
Verhoeven, who holds a PhD in mathematics, agrees. “I was too honest. I was stupid. I should have said that we could do it for a hundred million. We started out with seventy-five or eighty or something, but we didn’t really get the budget lower than ninety-five or a hundred because it was too complex.” As a result, Carolco began to lose confidence that it could be brought in on budget, and despite the millions of dollars spent getting to this point — including a ‘pay or play’ deal with Schwarzenegger, which meant that he was owed his full salary whether the movie was made or not — the film was scrapped at the eleventh hour. “We were already building [sets] in Spain,” says Verhoeven. “We had to break it all off, and the whole pre-production cost of the not-made movie was about $10 million. Despite the hefty write-down, Carolco’s backers likely saw it as a saving of $90 million – possibly more.
© 2012 by David Hughes. All rights reserved.