When one thinks of big-screen epics, one thinks of actors like Charlton Heston (pictured above with his El Cid costar, a young Sophia Loren).
But one may also think of Hollywood’s two great modern producer-mavericks, Sam Speigel and Samuel Bronston. Both produced some of the biggest — and best — epics in Hollywood history.
The two Sams were not just itinerant renegades but positive scoundrels with shady back rounds. But both also thought big, taking special pleasure in undertaking the kinds of grand-scale, large-screen production risks that frightened the daylights out of hired studio hands.
It’s interesting to note that Spiegel and Bronston were contemporaries (Spiegel was seven years older) from similar back rounds — Austrian and Russian-born Jews, respectively, from poor families who made many European stops in sometimes desperate flights from the Nazis and a number of personal creditors before landing in Hollywood.
Spiegel’s impressive production legacy includes Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai and On the Waterfront, among other titles. All three won best picture Oscars.
Today, we’ll focus on Bronston, (pictured below left with the striped tie in front of his expansive studio complex in Spain), born in 1908 to a family whose only distinction, perhaps, is a familial tie to revolutionary figure Leon Trotsky.
As a boy, Bronston’s impoverished family fled revolutionary Russia, heading for Paris and working the streets to make enough to survive. A bad-check incident in the early Thirties forced Bronston, on his own, to strike out for London where he cultivated the affections of American novelist Jack London’s widow, who financed some of Bronston’s adventures and provided access to London’s work.
As his son later said: (Bronston) throughout his career had a special talent for attaching himself to well-placed and influential people, who could finance him and his (screen) properties.
Bronston landed in Hollywood in the early Forties where he made a connection with B.P. Schulberg, then a powerful exec with Columbia Pictures. A series of mostly forgettable movies ensued — an adaptation of a Jack London property, 1942’s The Adventures of Martin Eden; a B picture starring Linda Darnell, City Without Men; and a pair of 20th Century Fox releases, director Rene Clair’s And Then There Were None; and the superb World War II drama, A Walk in the Sun.
Nonetheless, according to Bronston’s son, this was the lowest point of the producer’s career. He found himself going nowhere in Hollywood in a hurry.
Bronston’s improbable savior was the Catholic Church, specifically the Vatican, which asked him to supervise the filming of a series of half-hour shorts dedicated to photographing every artifact in the Vatican. The project got Bronston back to Europe where he lost little time in broadening his film business contacts.
By the late Fifties, Bronston had found his niche — in Spain, then an economically backward country ruled by military dictator Francisco Franco. What intrigued Bronston was the then cash horde built up by American companies in Spain, “frozen funds” that by government decree could not be taken out of the country. Why not build a studio outside Madrid, and use the frozen cash to finance movies in Spain, he reasoned.
The use of frozen funds plus the then new practice of selling movies to foreign distributors before they were made provided the wherewithal to build Bronston’s “Hollywood studio” in Spain. (In an arrangement with the Franco regime, Bronston also profited by buying imported oil at one price, and selling at a higher price to the government.)
Bronston believed in spending big. He supervised the building of enormous sets to accommodate his enormous, signature epics: King of Kings and El Cid, 1961; 55 Days at Peking, 1963; and The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964. Some were big hits (eg. El Cid) while some were big misses (Roman Empire).
Bronston regarded himself as a producer of quality, and no matter kept up the spending. The set for Roman Empire, for example, was at the time the largest ever built anywhere.
The end came when an enthusiastic backer from America, Pierre Dupont III of the Dupont chemical giant, pulled the plug. The parting was acrimonious, and Bronston paid a price. Effectively, his production career and his studio were history.
Bronston died at in 1994 at age 85, outliving Spiegel by a year.