The battle to produce Hallmark’s WWI drama

Dec 3, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Academy Award-winning director Delbert Mann cut his teeth during the Golden Age of Television. His best known TV work is live dramas aired in the late ’40s and early ’50s. But he holds a very special place for a show he directed for “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” in 1979, an adaptation of the classic novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.” The show was nominated for an Emmy as outstanding drama or comedy special. Mr. Mann was interviewed for Electronic Media by Dan Einstein, TV archivist at the UCLA Television and Film Archives, and EM Editor Chuck Ross.
Delbert Mann: It’s my opinion that `All Quiet on the Western Front’ was maybe the best show I ever did. I had a very strict vision in my mind when we started rehearsals of the show, and we got on screen what I originally envisioned more than on any show that I can remember.
It was a tough show to do because it was all done in Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain, with the marvelous cooperation of the Czech government, though they drove me crazy at times. I had endless, endless, endless repeat meetings with the Czechs to outline specifically what we needed-all the equipment, the personnel they were to supply on a certain day, such as six ambulances and 14 trucks and 32 soldiers et cetera, et cetera. I’d be very specific, and then we’d have the same meeting over again the next week, and then the same meeting over again. I was going mad, and I finally told the production manager, `Hey, you’ve gotta take this over.’
EM: You had some script problems initially, too, didn’t you?
DM: Yes. We had a script, and Norman Rosemont, the producer, said he didn’t like that script and he wanted a new one written. So we got Sidney Carroll, who’s a wonderful writer [“The Hustler”] and a wonderful man, to do a complete rewrite. We met with Sidney in his apartment and at the Dakota in New York before we ever went to Czechoslovakia.
I talked to Sidney specifically about what I wanted in the script. I wanted to go back to the book as the source. The book is incredible. It’s written by Erich Maria Remarque about his experiences in the German army and World War I in the trenches in that most horrendous of wars. All the ugliness of the gas attacks-getting a whiff of gas and throwing up their lungs as they died, the rats in the trenches, the stabbings and woundings and the bayoneting and all the rest. But he writes it in a manner that I can’t put my finger on. It’s done in a poetic kind of way, so you end up participating in the agonies of that war, but you are not so horrified by it that you put the book down. You’re taken in by it, you’re moved by it enormously, but at the same time there’s a distancing that takes place in the reading of Remarque’s book, and I wanted Sidney to capture that in the screenplay. I didn’t know just how to do it other than to utilize several strong packages of narration.
Well, Sidney agreed that this is what he would do. As we finished the meeting in his apartment, he asked if we would mind if he let his son do some of the writing. `He’s a good writer and he needs the credit,’ Sidney said, and Norm said, `Sure that’s OK, but you just check it out. I want it to be essentially your work.’ And then Norm and I left for Prague for preproduction.
EM: And then after you’ve made all your arrangements with the Czechs and you’re days away from shooting, the script came from New York, right?
DM: We were driving to a location we were going to use-Norman was driving and put the script in my lap and said `Read this.’ Two hours later we arrived at the little town the Czechs had given us permission to blow up, and Norman said, `Well, what do you think?’ And I said, `Norman, this is the worst piece of shit I have ever read in my entire life.’ He said `I thought so too. What are we going to do?’ I said, `We are locked in with the Czechs. We cannot change what we have requested. This script does not fit what we said we were going to do, nor is it any good as a script. I think we’ve got to get another writer who would be selfless enough to come over here and sit down at the typewriter and write the scenes, which I will outline for him from the book. I haven’t got time to argue with anyone about it or discuss it or even talk about it.’
Norman said it was a good idea, but he thought we ought to give Sidney a chance to do it first. I said OK. So we called Sidney and I said, `Oh god, Sidney, we’ve got a problem. The script just doesn’t work, and we got to have a complete rewrite and have it right away, and I’m asking you if you would you come over here and write to my specifications.’
Well, he quickly confessed that he had turned over the whole project to his son because he was writing something else himself and he had just given the script a quick glance before he sent it to us. He apologized and agreed to come over to do as I requested. And he did exactly that.
EM: The Hallmark people were behind you all the way?
DM: Hallmark is the most remarkable sponsor that I ever worked for. No interference, except indirectly in one spot. I had a scene in which a French soldier comes toward the camera and grabs hold of some barbed wire, and a tremendous explosion goes off between the soldier and the camera. The screen is just obliterated by smoke, and when the smoke clears the soldier is gone, but you see his hands down to the wrist holding on to the barbed wire. Well, the gentleman on the set who was representing Hallmark and CBS objected to it, saying it was too gruesome for an audience at home.
I said, `We need that shot because it illustrates what the whole war was about. [He said,] `You just can’t do it.’ He said CBS will not allow it. So I said, `Let me try to fiddle with it a bit,’ and the editor and I trimmed and trimmed and trimmed, getting it shorter and shorter till finally it was just a flash on the screen, a split second. He said, `I’m telling you, CBS will not accept it, so you might as well take it out right now.’ So I relented and took it out.
Some months afterward, the show’s finished and on the air, and I made a point of seeing Louis Milestone’s original film version of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” And believe it or not, there was that shot of the soldier [being] blown away and just his hands hanging on the barbed wire. So I thought, well, it wasn’t too tough for an audience in 1930, but CBS thought it was too tough for an audience 50 years later.