The Great Unmade? Sergio Leone’s Leningrad


Italian director Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is considered by many to be “the greatest American Civil War picture ever made”. Here, he displayed an eye for large scale action and drama, combined with impressive research, for scenes such as the bridge battle and the Union prison camp. It was in 1969 after shooting Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) that he came across Harrison E Salisbury’s The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad, a non-fiction account of one of the most arduous and horrific campaigns of the Russian Front in WWII. Intrigued, he would begin a long battle to realise a human scale story around this tragic and brutal backdrop of famine, death and destruction, with atrocities on both sides.

Leone said: “From very specific elements documented in this book, I imagined a parallel story and invented other characters. Thus, in my film, the hero is not a journalist but a young cameraman who is supposed to be accompanied on his trip to Leningrad. Initially, the two men were only there for a few days, but very quickly, without really realizing what happens to them, they find themselves trapped in the besieged city by Hitler’s army. They will remain there until the end, until death. During the siege, the U.S. cameraman has a love affair with a young resident of Leningrad. At the time, Stalin punished with ten years in prison every Soviet citizen convicted of having an affair with a westerner. But the girl does not care because she has no hope of surviving the siege. In the end, the cameraman dies on the day of the liberation of the city, when he is filming the surrender of the Germans. And the girl is aware of his death by chance seeing a movie newsreel: the camera sees it explode under a shell … “.

Leone first travelled to the USSR in 1971 to gain their trust and cooperation, feeling he could not film anywhere other than Leningrad itself. However, it took the ascendance of Gorbachev in 1984, and the relaxing of restrictions, or Glasnost, to change Soviet inflexibility; Once Upon A Time In America was the first of Leone’s films to be allowed a release in the Soviet Union. Leone suggested a Russian writer, familiar with the conditions of the siege, work with him on the script, to which the authorities agreed. Leone envisioned the film beginning thus:

“I start with a close-up of the hands of Shostakovich. They are on the keys of his piano … The camera will be on a helicopter out of the house and close up will be taken through the open window. We see the hands seeking the notes of the “Leningrad Symphony”. And the composer begins. The music is repetitive. It begins with three instruments, then five, then ten, then twenty, then one hundred … And my opening will be made ​​on this music. In one clip. A clip as it has never been done: the camera leaves the close up of the hands of the composer. It goes back. We discover his room. It comes out through the window. It is the street. Dawn. Two civilians out into the street. Everyone carries a gun. And they ride on a tram. The camera follows the tram. The music continues. The tram stops several times. Civilians take it. They are all carrying weapons. Finally, the tram arrives in a suburb. It stops in a small square where there are already several other trams. And beside them, there are waiting trucks. Trams empty. All the passengers were armed men … no women. Men climb into the trucks. The camera follows the truck. Always the music. Always the same plane. No cuts. No inserts. And we arrive at the front trenches to protect the city. Music is increasingly strong. There are trenches. And suddenly, the camera goes to the steppe. Huge. Empty. The music rises more. Until the camera has crossed the steppe to take in a row, thousands of  German tanks ready to fire. And from the first shots, mixed with music, I cut! Following plan: a curtain opens. This is the concert of Shostakovich. Five thousand people in the room. Hundred eighty musicians play. And then: CREDITS!”

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That sounds like an incredible opening. Shostakovich of course wrote his famous 7th Symphony during and about the siege of Leningrad. Leone’s regular composer Ennio Morricone rearranged Shostakovich’s music for the film; it was scored, but never recorded. Rober DeNiro was envisioned by Leone as playing the American photographer; a Russian actress would play the woman he falls for. Leone biographer and expert Sir Christopher Frayling said,

“What’s interesting about that is you can see in Once Upon A Time In America, human relationships are becoming more important to Leone in his films. There’s this man desperately in love with this girl, and he changes his entire life. There’s an emphasis on personal relationships which you never get in his Westerns. The heart of the Leningrad film was to be this love affair. Leone was definitely changing. He was going to be a different kind of film maker. Relationships, emotions and characters who develop because of their experiences. You don’t get that in the Westerns at all. There, they’re icons.”

By the end of 1988 Leone had finally managed to raise about 100 million dollars for this American / Soviet / Italian co-production, purely through his own “sheer personal magnetism” (Frayling). However, his health was failing, and he requested that should he be unable to continue, French director Jean-Jacques Annaud take up the mantle. In 1990, two days before Leone was to sign the contract to begin work on his long realised dream, he died of a heart attack.

Annaud said, “A few days after his death, the producer Alexandre Mnouchkine called me to tell me that Sergio wanted me to take “The 900 Days of Leningrad.” I asked him if he has a script and he says he has a suitcase of books on the subject! So I had to let go.” Annaud went on to make a film based around a love triangle between the real Russian sniper folk hero Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law), fictional Commisar Danilov (Ralph Fiennes) and Tania (Rachel Weisz) in Enemy At The Gates, set during the siege of Stalingrad. This simplified story was received poorly in both Russia and Germany, leaving us only to wonder what Leone could have achieved had he lived.

Originally posted 2013-11-03 12:02:41. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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