In 1953 John Wayne went to see director Dick Powell. Wayne was due to fulfil the last of a three-picture deal with Howard Hughes’ RKO studio and was keen to discuss candidate films. Powell popped out of his office for a moment and, when he returned, Wayne had dug a script out of the bin and was enthusing about it. This was the movie he wanted to make.
The script was for ‘The Conqueror.’ Originally written with Marlon Brando in mind, it told the story of the twelfth century Mongol warlord, Genghis Khan. Brando had turned the project down, citing contractual obligations elsewhere, and Powell thought the script was absurd. Yet Wayne sensed that this heroic warrior emperor was right up his street, and rookie director Powell didn’t feel he could say no to The Duke in his prime. ‘The Conqueror’ went into production in 1954 and was released in 1956. It is widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made.
‘It was just like a Western, only with different costumes.’
‘The Conqueror’ was epic exoticism. It was all nomadic chieftains, rampaging tribesmen, theatrical battles and abusive relationships. There were fireside feasts, dubious moustaches, mobile yurts and a treacherous shaman. There were galloping horses, occasional camels, a dancing bear and an incongruous black panther. Utah’s Escalante Valley substituted for the Mongolian steppes. Only two people of Asian descent were cast and only one of them got to speak. The dialogue was particularly grating, having been written in a kind of Hollywood Homeric that none of the actors, least of all Wayne, looked comfortable with.
‘I grieve that I cannot salute you as I would…I am bereft of spit!’
‘The Conqueror’ was justifiably panned by the critics, and at the box office it failed to recoup the substantial six million dollars it had cost to produce. It was responsible for the demise of RKO and was the last film Howard Hughes was involved with. Worst of all, the movie had been shot close to a US nuclear test site and, tragically, many of the cast and crew, including Wayne, were subsequently diagnosed with cancer.
In the years that followed Hughes spent twice the original production budget buying back all the prints, and he wouldn’t allow ‘The Conqueror’ on TV. In 1976, in the last few months of his life, the now reclusive billionaire, unwashed and unkempt, watched the film repeatedly, alone in the penthouse suite of a Bahamian hotel.
It’s never easy to put ideas in the bin. And it’s harder still to leave them there.
Ideas can hang around like insensitive guests at a party, lingering long after they’re welcome. However much we recognise that a concept is flawed - that it doesn’t quite address the brief, that it has not been properly realised in execution - we rarely forget our initial enthusiasm. We cling to the hope that some subtle adjustment or radical rewrite will solve everything and will realise the true potential of our original thought.
I’ve often seen fundamentally sound pitch decks bloated by insightful but irrelevant observations that the planners can’t bring themselves to edit out. I’ve seen historic hypotheses cling to the core argument like barnacles to a ship’s hull, weighing it down, slowing its progress.
I’ve seen old scripts pop up in creative reviews, rebooted and refreshed for a different sector and brand. I’ve seen concepts rekindled, headlines refashioned, images repurposed. Sadly, for the most part these ideas tend to be as underwhelming as they were the first time. But now they’re ill-suited to the brief as well.
The learning is clear: if in doubt, cut it out. Consign the banal to the bin. And leave it there.
And yet sometimes - just sometimes - I’ve been surprised by a concept which, when dusted down and tidied up, looks surprisingly spick and span. I particularly recall the previously unloved Levi’s scripts that returned triumphant when the time was right, when the context was different, when the appetite had changed.
Occasionally it is worth putting an idea in the bottom drawer and saving it for a rainy day.
Around the same time that filming began on ‘The Conqueror,’ the great American dramatist Tennessee Williams picked up a short play called ‘A Place of Stone.’ He had drafted it the previous year and, frustrated with how it was progressing, had put it away unfinished. Looking at the work afresh, Williams found new inspiration and impetus. By the summer of 1954, after a good deal of thought and application, he had re-crafted it into ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’
The key is to know when to reach for the bottom drawer and when to aim for the bin.