We were in Paris at the time Liz Taylor and Richard Burton were living in sin in Rome and filming Cleopatra. The scandal was worth millions in box office revenue to Spyros Skouras, the head of Twentieth Century Fox.
At that time Skouras had partially underwritten a documentary for Baudouin, the fifth King of the Belgians whose father, King Leopold III, had ruled the Congo. The Belgian Congo was in a rebellious state. Perhaps King Leopold thought that a first rate documentary on the glories of the country would bring him political allies.
In 1950 Leopold III gave up his crown because of his affiliation with the Nazis. The chief naturalist on the film was a renowned expert on animal behavior who had to be dropped because of his Nazi connections. For over a year the rushes had been locked in the vaults of the Studio of Boulogne. No editing had been done. A Belgian Executive Producer had titled the film Les Seigneurs de la Foret. Lords of the Forest.
Skouras asked the chief of the CBS News bureau if he knew anyone who might structure and edit the footage. I had written a number of documentaries from the American Museum of Natural History. I was living in Paris at my own expense. I seemed to be qualified.
Documentaries and nature films meant little to the head of Twentieth Century Fox. He had seen nothing but the print advertising campaign. Snarling lions, threatening gorillas. He liked the action. Anyway, he knew he would receive honors and medals from the Belgian Royal family. Nevertheless, show business is always business before show.
“How much would you want?” he asked.
“What about four thousand dollars?”
“You’re crazy! I can hire the best writer in Hollywood for four thousand a week.”
A WEEK!! I had been thinking of a total payment. “Then what do you suggest, Mr. Skouras?”
“Two thousand, and we can get rid of you on two weeks notice.”
I agreed. We would be able to live in Paris for another year.
The photography was brilliant. It was the first nature film to be shot in Cinemascope, a French invention. The first rate crew worked in the Congo for over a year. They filmed shy animals at nighttime: The pangolin, for instance, was an ant eating armored mammal that only ventured out after sunset. Their nocturnal habits had never been photographed. Somehow this small animal had been followed in wide screen Cinemascope. No trickery. There also was wonderful footage of the mountain gorillas. The animals had been filmed with loving care.
There was a fault.
The people of the Congo had been photographed as if they were strange animals. Herds of humans, you might say. Big children at play.
The solution was to edit out the loveable humans and make an animal nature film, similar to those on television today. I spent thirteen weeks editing and writing and recording a cue-script in English, to be translated to French.
I was summoned to Belgium—to the Royal Palace of Laeken. I found a screen, a projector, the new King the Belgians, Baudouin, and his Queen; their retinue, Spyros Skouras, his wife and two daughters.
The Belgian executive producer was also present. The last time we met was when he unlocked the doors to the editing suite at the Paris studio. A microphone and a stand were placed in front of me, and I read my typescript to the silent picture.
King Baudouin applauded, as did his attendants. The Hollywood contingent seemed pleased, and the biography of Spyros Skouras notes he received a decoration from Belgium for his service to the country. Everybody shook my hand and went to a dinner, to which I was not invited. I was enlisted hired help.
I went back to Paris. I thought I would have some two months to make a soundtrack and find a Belgian narrator. I found the executive producer in the editing room.
“Bien fait, Monsieur Wolff, mes felicitations.” Then in English, so I understood. “We don’t need you anymore. “
“Nothing is wrong. The pace is just a little too rapid for Europeans. I will change that. You Americans are too quick. I must slow things down. Also, the film now has to be totally Belgian. All the way.”
“Totally Belgian? What do you mean?”
“This is a Belgian production. You’ll receive no credit because your arrangement with Mr. Skouras did not include screen credit. But we’re grateful. We’ll expand your two week option to three weeks.”
It ended with twenty thousand for me, and no screen credit.
I saw it later. He truly had slowed it down.
They entered Les Seigneurs de la Foret at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958. It was nominated but did not win. The Congolese threw the Belgians out just before the release in the United States. It made no money either here or in Belgium.
Les Seigneurs de la forêt Movie Poster: http://www.encyclocine.com/index.html?menu=72608&film=11315