Roger Ebert Home

Interview with John Frankenheimer

It's a crazy business," John Frankenheimer said. "It's gotten to the point where all they want to know is how much money your last movie made. A body of work doesn't count anymore..."

And because it doesn't, Frankenheimer was on the road last week, making a rare personal appearance tour to beat the drums, as the press agents say, for his new movie. It's called "The Horsemen," it stars Omar Sharif and Jack Palance, and it was filmed in Afghanistan and Spain for about $4,500,000, which is a lot of money as the movie industry goes these days. If it's not successful, Frankenheimer may be in a rather uncomfortable spot.

His new film comes after three straight box-office flops: "I Walk the Line," which had Gregory Peck chasing a moonshiner's daughter, "The Gypsy Moths," with Burt Lancaster as a skydiver, and "The Extraordinary Seaman," a whimsical comedy that brought Frankenheimer eyeball-to-eyeball with MGM.

Because a director's whole career doesn't count with the bankers and executives who decide which films will get financing, Frankenheimer isn't exactly a hot investment right now. The three flops, however, came at the end of a long and unique string of successes, including "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962), "Seven Days in May" (1964), "Seconds" (1966), "Grand Prix" (1967) and Frankenheimer's own favorite film, "The Fixer" (1968).

"Sometimes you never can figure out why a film isn't successful at the box office," Frankenheimer said, "but sometimes the reasons are horrifyingly clear. 'The Gypsy Moths,' for example, was a nightmare because of the situation at MGM while I was making it. The front office management changed hands three times during the filming, and no one was really interested.

"I liked that film a lot. A lot. But MGM's management was more concerned with stock transactions. The movie was dumped in multiple releases and never had a chance to find an audience. What it would have done with an intelligent release, we'll never know now."

Frankenheimer's "The Extraordinary Seaman" inspired rumors in the trade papers when MGM decided not to release it. "I'll tell you anything you want to know about it," Frankenheimer said. "Anything. You want to know the truth? MGM hated it. They wanted changes, and I wouldn't make them. So they sat on it. I don't know if it's been released to this day. Isn't thatincredible?"

He said the film was a "quiet little anti-war story," about a British sailor (David Niven) whose ghost had been condemned to sail the Atlantic until he finally sunk an enemy ship. The ghost had a long wait until World War II came, and he got his chance. He ran Into some American sailors who didn't know he was a ghost, and...

"Well, MGM didn't like it. They didn't want a quiet little anti-war story. That was that."

Frankenheimer's "I Walk the Line," which has been getting first-rate reviews in England and France,wasn't nearly so well received in the United States. "Maybe people weren't interested in a story about moonshiners," he says. "It was a very ordinary subject, about ordinary people, and we had to handle it honestly. Well...," he shrugged.

The film studied the disintegration of a law officer, played by Gregory Peck, who falls in love with a much younger girl and finds himself hopelessly entangled with her hillbilly family. After moonshiners, ghosts, sky-divers, auto racers, assassins and prisoners, and now a film about the players of a brutally dangerous horseback game in Afghanistan, it might not appear that Frankenheimer's films have much in common. But they do, he says.

"People tend to divide my work into the epics, like 'Grand Prix,' and the intimate films like 'Birdman of Alcatraz' and 'The Fixer.' Actually, all of my films have the same theme, and that's a definite choice on my part. I take a character and push him to hisphysical or emotional limit, to see how he reacts. I think that's the only way you can ever really reach the limits of a human personality, and that's what I'm interested in exploring in my films."

Frankenheimer tested himself, as well as his characters, in filming "The Horsemen." He shot for six months in Afghanistan, while the entire company lived in tents, and brought back footage including asensational 25-minute sequence of sustained violence on horseback.

"It wasn't easy to shoot in Afghanistan, needless to say," he said with a look that seemed to indicate he wasn't eager to shoot in Afghanistan again for a while. "But for the movies, you have to do it. You have to have the authentic locations.

"One of the things that bugs me is the way the studios have sold off all their product to television, undermining the movie audience for the sake of a few good-looking earnings statements. They're cutting their own throats. And besides, movies aren't directed for TV.

"On TV, when I was doing 'Playhouse 90,' we used to build up to a fake crescendo before commercials. Then we'd start again in low key, and build up to another climax. We were directing for the commercials. And we gave ourselves two minutes to grab an audience. We figured that was how long we had. And that was in the days before they had those little electronic guns and could switch you off from across the room.

"A film is made with infinitely more care, and the commercials simply undermine it. You take 'The Horsemen.' If I thought for a moment that the goddamned thing was only going to be shown on TV, I assure you I wouldn't have gone to Afghanistan. I would have sent a second unit to shoot some scenery, and I would have stayed on a studio lot.

"But some day it will turn up on TV, I suppose." He signed. "What are you gonna do? 'Seven Days in May' is supposed to be on TV next week. You know, it's a funny thing, it's been so dated by the facts. We thought we were doing some fairly far-out stuff when we made it, but we would never have dared to insinuate the kinds of things that we're reading about now in the New York Times..."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

The Beach Boys


comments powered by Disqus