In this new series on famous unproduced screenplays, Don Groves looks at doomed efforts to film Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo.
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23 Jun 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

It had the backing of Warner Bros., a superstar producer in Steven Spielberg, a legendary director in Sir David Lean, and a casting wish list that boasted Peter O'Toole, Marlon Brando and Alec Guinness.

But five years' hard slog to adapt Joseph Conrad's epic 1904 novel Nostromo for the big screen came to nought when Lean died on April 16 1991, aged 83, six weeks before shooting was due to start.

The project cost the director of Lawrence of Arabia, Great Expectations and The Bridge on the River Kwai his friendship with Spielberg and almost certainly contributed to Lean's demise.

“It was a real labour of love for him,” his widow, Lady Sandra Lean, said in 2002. “He completely immersed himself in the film and slaved away on it for five or six years. I remember him saying to me, 'This is going to be bigger than Lawrence.'

English director Michael Powell once called Conrad's tome “impossible” to film, and he may be right. In recent years Martin Scorsese, Hugh Hudson and producer Richard Zanuck have tried in vain to mount Nostromo movies.

There was a miniseries in 1996, a critically-derided “Europudding” which flopped in Britain; the production was beset with problems including pay disputes, noisy political demonstrations, set construction disasters and bad publicity over the destruction of rainforest, and director Alastair Reid collapsed with exhaustion and filming had to be completed while he was in hospital.

Lean first read the novel, a tale of greed and corruption in a fictitious South American state, which follows an Italian sailor who becomes involved in a plot to smuggle silver out of a mining town, in 1986.

"I have a tremendous respect for Nostromo as a classic novel," he wrote in notes that were donated to the British Film Institute by the David Lean Foundation in 2008. “But this respect could cause me to make a not so good, old-fashioned film. [Instead] I would like to use the book as a basis for a modern movie, which will make the audience sit up straight with surprise."

He teamed up with playwright Christopher Hampton, and they worked on the script for a year in two warehouses the director bought in London's Docklands, and they sent agents to Mexico to scout potential locations.

In 1987, Spielberg, a longtime friend of Lean's, came on board as producer, with the backing of Warner Bros. But Lean bristled at script notes Spielberg provided and Spielberg quietly withdrew, replaced as producer by the veteran Serge Silberman.

Frustrated at lack of progress, Hampton asked Lean for six months off so he could write Dangerous Liaisons for director Milos Forman. Lean agreed reluctantly, but a few months later Hampton heard Robert Bolt had been hired to work on the Nostromo script with the director. Bolt and Lean had enjoyed a successful partnership, collaborating on Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter.

Hampton is convinced the film could have been made in that first year, but Warners was willing to put up just 50 percent of the budget while Lean wanted the studio to fully fund it. Bolt and Lean worked on several versions of the script until Bolt's health began to decline and Lean decided to write the script himself, assisted by Maggie Unsworth, with whom he'd worked on The Passionate Friends, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and Brief Encounter.

Lean decided to shoot the film largely in London and Madrid, partly to secure O'Toole, who insisted he would sign on only if it meant working close to home. Lean wanted Guinness to play the disillusioned, alcoholic Doctor Monyghan, but the actor turned him down, explaining: "I believe I would be disastrous casting. The only thing in the part I might have done well is the crippled crab-like walk."

In 1989, he told the New York Times he was hopeful Brando would play a gangster named Montero, but other reports say the notoriously fickle actor was simply toying with the director, as he did when Lean asked him to play the title role in Lawrence of Arabia. Dennis Quaid, Paul Scofield, Anthony Quinn, Christopher Lambert and Isabella Rossellini were all reported to be attached to the film at various stages.

Meanwhile the budget shot up from around $US30 million to more than $46 million. Silberman threatened to walk away in 1990, writing to Lean: "Today I am not so shocked but just depressed, emotionally exhausted and very much saddened by the fact that your and my efforts have been all in vain. I have lost all desire and enthusiasm to make the film."

Sadly, Lean's health deteriorated to the point that he was confined to bed, and he succumbed to throat cancer. He died “a broken man, frustrated that he was unable to see the project through,” The Independent reported. “His perfectionism and autocratic behaviour had alienated cast and crew, and delayed the start of filming for too long. Nevertheless, most who worked on Nostromo had an enormous respect for him. 'I learnt so much from David in the time I worked with him,' says Hampton. 'It's no coincidence that my Dangerous Liaisons script was the best I had written.'

The six-hour Nostromo miniseries, which starred Colin Firth, Albert Finney, Serena Scott Thomas, Claudia Cardinale, Lothaire Bluteau, Brian Dennehy and Italy's Claudio Amendola in the title role, drew fewer than 3 million viewers in the UK.

In 2002, the Lean Foundation was reported to be negotiating a deal for Scorsese to make the film, with Lady Lean's blessing. That never materialised, and one wonders if any director will ever pull it off.