The Classic That Never Was

There’s a film that I should have seen multiple times by now and so should you; a black and white classic from the early days of Hollywood that my parents and grandparents should also have seen. You know the type; an old favourite like Mutiny on the Bounty, Casablanca or Treasure of the Sierra Madre but maybe even better, leaving an unforgettable impression; horror at the injustice and cruelty mixed with pride in a people’s willingness to not go quietly to their destruction.

A while ago I made my children sit through Spartacus and yes they squirmed and fidgeted and wanted to do other things during the many dull parts but I made them watch it to the bitter end. Not because I’m cruel or because I wanted them to get creeped out by Laurence Olivier but because they needed to see the “I am Spartacus” scene. Within a fortnight they had spotted two pop culture references to it that would previously have passed them by. At some stage they will have to see the French patrons of Rick’s establishment stand and sing “The Marseilles” in defiance of the German occupiers and if they don’t get goosebumps I will have to disown them.

So what is this classic and where can you get a DVD? It’s called “The Forty Days of the Musa Dagh” and you are not allowed to see it because it wasn’t made. You haven’t seen it despite 80 years of efforts to have it produced by Hollywood. It was strangled at birth by dark forces too powerful to resist and the tale of its smothering is a sordid affair.

In 1933 Franz Werfel wrote The Forty Days and MGM optioned it before publication. Franz had travelled in the near east in 1930 and had seen the pitiful surviving remnants of the Turkish Armenians eking out their existence in Damascus, which made him want “to snatch the incomprehensible destiny of the Armenian people from the Hell of all that had taken place” and tell the story of 5,000 people who did not wait meekly for their destruction or report for deportation and doom.  He also re-wrote the book after an initial draft to warn of Hitler’s rise in Germany, paying the price with time in a concentration camp.

Under pressure from the Turkish government the book was banned in Germany in 1934, copies of the 900 page blockbuster made it to Turkey, so it was banned there the next year. Germany’s SS newspaper spoke of “alleged Turkish horrors” and blamed the worldwide success of the book on US Armenians buying it as a political act to embarrass the innocent Turks. Despite this the English translation sold 34,000 copies in the first weeks and the New York Time Book Review was breathless in praise. The reviewer, Luis Kronenberger, added, “If Hollywood does not mar and mishandle it, it should make a magnificent movie.”

Vartan Gregorian writes a preface to the 2012 English edition, where scenes of pre-Genocide Armenian life have been returned. He says, “It is truly remarkable to consider how closely The Forty Days of Musa Dagh foreshadows the cataclysm that would befall the Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe at the hands of the Nazis”. The parallels were such that when the scheisse hit the fan for the Jews of Poland and Lithuania those ghettos that chose to not go quietly, such as Bialystock and Warsaw, used The Forty Days as a handbook of resistance.

Mordecia Tannenbaum, sent from the fighters of Vilna in Lithuania noted, “Only one thing remains for us: to organize collective resistance in the ghetto, at any cost; to consider the ghetto our ‘Musa Dagh’, to write a proud chapter of Jewish Białystok and our movement into history”. Additionally, if the Germans reached Palestine the plan was to make Mount Carmel the Musa Dagh of Palestinian Jewry. Meri Batz, militia leader said, “We put our faith in the power of the Jewish ‘Musa Dagh’ and were determined to hold out for at least three to four months.” Imagine the power if this book had also been an Oscar winning movie seen across the world.

The Turks picked up on the Jewish connection when they used their influence to close down production of MGM’s blockbuster at the time of pre-production, with young heartthrob Clark Gable already chosen as the charismatic resistance leader, Gabriel Bagradian.

Turkey’s Haber newspaper wrote:

We will have to take our own steps in case the Jewish people fail to bring the Jewish company (MGM) to reason… The Forty Days of Musa Dagh presents the Turco-Armenian struggle during the World War in a light hostile to the Turks. Its author is a Jew. This means that MGM, which is also a Jewish firm, utilizes for one of its films a work by one of its companions… Declare a boycott against pictures by MGM… Jewish firms which maintain commercial relations with our country will also suffer if they fail to stop this hostile propaganda

This was after Munir Ertegun, the Turkish ambassador to Washington had first tried to shut down production. Bizarrely the State Department responded to his demands over the “alleged massacres” by pressurising the studio and getting the script for the ambassador to review and reject. His disapproval extended to the watered down versions which the writers were made to then trot out. MGM’s golden boy producer, Irving Thalberg, had said that the initial script was one of the best he had seen and was convinced the film was a sensation waiting to happen. The threat of action against the film and MGM’s movies was enough to persuade Louis B Mayer to cancel the project and deprive us of that classic.

Ambassador Ertegun stated, “If the movie is made, Turkey will launch a worldwide campaign against it. It rekindles the Armenian Question. The Armenian Question is settled.” If, that is, you call the extermination of between 75% and 88% of the total population in a single year of death marches, massacres, famine, rape, slavery and forced labour settlement.

In the absence of the blockbuster we are left with a black and white silent film made in the US in 1919 called Auction of Souls or Ravished Armenia and based on the writings of a genocide survivor, Aurora Mardiganian. Unhappily no complete version of the film survives, just a little over 20 minutes of blurry images remain for us. They include striking scenes of a row of crucified young Armenian women and girls being made to run through a crowd pushing them onto swords embedded in the ground. Reality proved to have been even worse as Aurora explained many years later to film historian Anthony Slide.

“The Turks didn’t make their crosses like that. The Turks made little pointed crosses. They took the clothes off the girls. They made them bend down, and after raping them, they made them sit on the pointed wood, through the vagina. That’s the way they killed – the Turks. Americans have made it a more civilized way. They can’t show such terrible things.”

Indeed, you can’t show such terrible things and you definitely couldn’t show Armenians resisting a state ordered annihilation on celluloid in the 1930s, as that would re-ignite the indignation people felt after seeing Auction of Souls and re-open debate on the fate of the Armenians and other minorities. MGM caved under that threatened anti-Jewish campaign and Turkey learnt a very valuable lesson on the value of persistence in genocide denial and how willing foreign governments were to help them do so.

However, MGM kept the rights and were working on a Carl Foreman script in 1965 when British filmmakers were sniffing around to produce it with Alec Guinness in the leading role. Once again diplomats were instructed by Ankara, they rolled out their objections and the studio rolled over, trying again two years later before abandoning the project altogether. By the 1970s they had enough and let the rights go, leading to the only version being made in 1982, with substantial parts missing from the story and a cut price budget. You won’t have seen it and no one will be showing their children that film as a part of a coming of age rite.

Still The Forty Days continues refuses to report to the authorities for deportation and a roadside firing squad over the hill outside town; people persist in trying to get it on screen and the Turkish government still fear that happening. Silvester Stallone is supposed to have walked away from directing a version in 2006 and Mel Gibson was apparently scared off in 2009. Thousands of emails from ASIMED – The Foundation for the Struggle against Baseless Allegations of Genocide – had too strong a deterrent factor. We don’t know what their content was, or if these were the same people who sent the avalanche of emails to Hrant Dink in 2006.

Hrant was from the Armenian community in Istanbul; the same community that was forced to burn Franz Werfel’s book in the 1930s in ceremonies echoing the Nazi ones of the time. That was simply the price of their continued survival and they went along with it like prisoners reporting for roll call. Hrant, however, chose to advocate Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and spoke up for minorities and human rights. He had the effrontery to point out that while the denial of genocide continued that reconciliation would never happen. Shortly after that email avalanche Hrant Dink was executed with three shots to the head outside his newspaper office. In hindsight the photos of the nationalistic youth arrested for the murder posing with grinning cops in front of a Turkish flag were probably a mistake, as was their slipping out into the public domain. In a recent twist two Turkish policemen were arrested for suspected complicity in Hrant’s murder.

200,000 people marched with placards that read, “We are all Armenians” and “We are all Hrant Dink” through the streets of Istnabul but you won’t have seen that reported, in the same way you haven’t seen The Forty Days. As Hitler told his generals before invading Poland while advocating the remorseless extermination of the Poles, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Perhaps we would be more likely to speak of it now and others to speak of it then if the Classic That Never Was had been made. Hearts might have stirred and geese bumped as a conflicted Clark Gable rejected the easy option of the miraculous escape on the French armoured cruiser Jeanne D’Arc, after a heroic stand against insurmountable odds. Spurning life as an exile and choosing to stay with his fallen son’s burial spot and his people’s land of thousands of years we may have choked up to then see him die in a crescent of Turkish soldiers.

As for my children, after watching Spartacus they googled the story of its baddie, Crassus, the world’s richest man of the time and killer of Kirk Douglas’ rebel gladiator. Later, as governor of Syria, Crassus came up against the Parthians, who captured him, poured molten gold in his mouth and used his head as a stage prop in a play.

If my kids had The Forty Days to inspire them they could find out that all three of the Young Turk Pashas who ordered the 1915 genocide were dead within seven years, two of them killed by Armenians seeking revenge in Operation Nemesis and another by the Soviets when he turned on them in exile.

On April 24th 2015 try to stop for a moment, pause and think of the start of the Armenian genocide when community leaders were rounded up in a pre-planned decapitation program designed to remove anyone capable of organising resistance. Then think of the Turkish government’s century of denial of that genocide, which continues to insult the impaled girls and all the 1.5 million victims of that six month holocaust.

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