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10th May 1998

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The making of God King-part III

Continued from last week

Second chance

By Richard Boyle

I remember feeling thoroughly de- pressed after Anthony Greville-Bell informed me, with a sadistic grin, that he had halted the production of The God King. Everyone was hanging around unsure of what would happen next, when, lo and behold, Manik Sandrasagra returned from India just as unexpectedly as he had left. Greville-Bell had tried in desperation to reach Manik by telephone in India but had failed time and time again. Now he seemed about to burst a blood vessel. With his temperament, it was inevitable that he went for a head-on confrontation with Manik on his arrival.

The result of this meeting was reasonably positive, however. It was agreed that the production should not be called off but that anyone who wanted to leave should do so. The British actors and the Greville-Bells wanted to quit the production. Only Eric Allwright, the make-up person, decided to stay on. Everyone returned to Colombo, and waited for Dimitri de Grunwald and Ray Torin to fly in for crisis talks.

Over endless cups of coffee and cigars, Dimitri listened politely to anyone who wanted to air complaints or opinions. At the end of the post-mortem, all those who still wanted to go were asked to leave, and there was talk of possible legal action. In an acrimonious last few days in Sri Lanka, some members of the British contingent resorted to verbal abuse against those who were staying on.

“The tragedy of it all,” as Lester observes, “was that Ben Kingsley left the cast.... He was a superb actor and was mad about the role. It was very upsetting for him when they decided to call a halt to the production.” To add to the depression regarding his loss, the first rushes had arrived back from the laboratory in England. They revealed that Kingsley was “absolutely magnificent” as Kassapa. Those rushes, if they still exist, are part of cinema history, as he was not to appear in another feature before Gandhi (1982), although he had acted in a number of television productions, most notably an adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Dimitri had asked Manik and Lester what was necessary to restart the production and complete it successfully without further disruption. One of their main suggestions was that a high-powered first assistant director was vital for a production of such a size. Another was that any future actors should be more adaptable and more used to location filming. “There was no place for rigid, theatre-bound Shakespearean actors,” Manik insists. So Dimitri and Ray returned to England to salvage the production while the Sri Lankan contingent finished off the huge palace set, claimed to be the world’s biggest, on the shores of the Nuwara Wewa.

In the new British cast, Leigh Lawson replaced Ben Kingsley as Kassapa. Lawson had recently got his first big break in Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (l973). Oliver Tobias, who acted alongside Yul Brynner in Abraham Polansky’s Romance of a Horsethief (1971) and starred as King Arthur in the TV series Arthur of the Britons (1972), came in for Mark Burns as Migara.

Geoffrey Russell, who had most recently appeared as a newspaperman in Jack Couffer’s The Darwin Adventure (1972), received a career boost when he was cast as Dhatusena instead of Stephen Murray.

For the immensely important job of first assistant director, Dimitri chose Gus Agosti, an Italian who enjoyed the reputation of being the world’s finest. Not only had he worked on some of the biggest Hollywood movies of the era - such as Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy (1956) , William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959), Richard Quine’s The World of Suzie Wong (1960), Robert Aldrich’s Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) and Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) - he had also worked on David Lean’s Bridge On The River Kwai (1956), and so he already had first-hand experience of Sri Lanka.

As production supervisor Dimitri brought in Bill Kirby, who had worked on Anthony Asquith’s The VIPs (l965) and Fred Zimmermann’s A Man For All Seasons (19660). To replace Ann Greville-Bell as art director there was Herbert Smith, who had worked on Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965). Then of course there was the make-up person, Eric Allwright, survivor of the earlier fiasco, who had worked on Stanley Donen’s The Grass is Greener (1960), Anthony Asquith’s The VIPs (1963) and Ken Hughes’ Arrivederci (1966).

And so, given a second chance, The God King eventually went into production once more - but this time better prepared, more professional, more practical. “Dimitri, with an unerring instinct in certain areas of film-making, had not merely salvaged a doomed monster of a film but had saved our pride - our reputation as technicians and artistes,” Lester declares. “This time around, Manik, Dimitri and I were determined to complete the film.”

Migara (Oliver Tobias) and Kassapa talk peace at MannaThe aborted production had started safely with small-scale scenes atop Sigiriya. But the new, phoenix-like production, under the galvanising influence of Gus Agosti, started boldly with the confrontation between Dhatusena’s army, commanded by Prince Kassapa, and Migara’s army, on the endless sands of Mannar. It was at Mannar that Leigh Lawson and Oliver Tobias joined up with the production, fresh from the airport, for their first scenes. Everyone soon realised that they were more easy-going than their predecessors, especially when they did not complain about the poor standard of accommodation we all had to endure at Mannar, and took a liking to toddy.

The Mannar scenes open with a shot of a mother and child gathering resources from the sands, the sole figures in the landscape. Suddenly the woman expresses alarm when she looks up to see two advancing armies on opposing horizons. Realising she will be caught between them, she snatches up the child and flees. The tension builds as the armies converge, although of course Kassapa and Migara did not do battle but came to an honourable agreement not to fight. It may seem anti-climactic, but the poignancy of the mother and child is over-riding.

The important role of the Sri Lanka Army must be acknowledged at this point, for all the 2000-plus extras required for this and other scenes, including the battle at the climax of the film, were genuine soldiers. Being a ceremonial army in those days it was possible for the Army Commander to extend such co-operation. For the soldiers it must have been an unusual change, too, although being ordered around by Gus Agosti must have led to uncomfortable reminders of their own drill sergeants. Gus, you see, was the original no-nonsense, domineering, order-barking first assistant director, of whom even Charlton Heston must have been wary.

Vijaya Kumaratunga, Leigh Lawson, Oliver Tobias (left to right) return to the palace, AnuradhapuraWith the palace set complete at last, the production moved to Anuradhapura and rolled up its collective sleeves for a serious multi-week schedule. I have very fond memories of this stage of the production. It is unusual to feel fully settled on location, but that is how it felt at Anuradhapura in 1973. Life slipped into a familiar routine, starting with the early morning drive to the other side of the Nuwara Wewa where the palace set was located.

The curious villagers thereabouts witnessed some remarkable sights during those weeks. Apart from a genuine cast of thousands of spear-waving extras leaving the palace for battle, there was a procession of 400 Buddhist monks who had refused alms from King Dhatusena, a full perahera Kandyan-style (a glaring inaccuracy), the burning alive of Varuni, and a menagerie of animals, including two snarling leopards, horses, and various reptiles.

The long weeks at Anuradhapura presented an ideal opportunity for members of the multi-national cast and crew to get to know each other better and dispel any lingering doubts about whether such a collaboration was possible. Fortunately, Leigh Lawson and Oliver Tobias adapted quickly and got on well with everyone, and so amply made up for the deficiencies of the earlier contingent. The “weird assortment” (Lester’s words) that made up the unit included a German sound recordist (with the son of Ivan Peries, who had never left England before, as boom operator), an American wardrobe mistress, and an English film-school lecturer and protege of Dimitri de Grunwald, who was commissioned to direct a documentary on the making of The God King.

The production was visited during the long schedule by a foppish young journalist from London’s Evening News, called William Hall, whose boyish enthusiasm sometimes got the better of him. The first of his two reports from the location appeared on October 9, 1973 and was headed “The Quiet Man is putting Ceylon right on the Map.”

“Look for Lester James Peries in a crowd, and you will not spot him easily,” Hall began. “LJP is small, not much more than five-four. But he is King Bee in the hive - Ceylon’s top director, and not just because Ceylon is rather low on the ground in directors, either. In the space of 12 months and on the strength of one film (Nidhanaya) he has become internationally recognised as a creative force in world cinema.

“Now Peries is on his way to London - once he gets through the epic he is shooting in the remote jungle up-country in Ceylon, 6,000 miles away,” Hall continued. “The film is The God King, a £ million slice of history as far removed from the intimacies of Nidhanaya as the kitchen sink is from Ben Hur.

“Peries himself is 52. The face in the crowd is nut-brown and wrinkled. He squints through a view-finder at the enormous bulk of Sigiriya, 600 feet high, the biggest boulder in Southern Asia. Exuding patience and a placid calm that quells the nerves of actors, extras and technicians alike in the blood-heat of 95 degrees.”

Hall quoted Dimitri de Grunwald as saying, “There’s a myth that only shouters get things done in films. Lester disproves that.” But then, as Hall realised, Lester is the exception to a lot of rules. “Anyone who can come up with a masterpiece, or anything approaching it, in the over-heated conditions - artistic and political, as well as meteorological - prevailing in Ceylon, must be someone special. He revolutionised the local static attitude to making movies by shooting Rekawa entirely out of doors.

“Today Ceylon has a thriving little film industry churning out 25 movies a year, varying from average to awful, all of them in black and white. There’s no TV, and for the 12 million inhabitants the picture-house on the corner - some still advertising “talkies” - is the big night out, with seats in the 400 cinemas priced at 5 English Pence upwards.

“What makes this film different from all the rest is not just its four-month schedule, or the fact that it’s being shot in Todd AO and colour. But it’s the first time a co-production has been mounted in this way, using Ceylonese artists, as well as simply their manual labour. Previous films like Bridge On The River Kwai and Elephant Walk brought in the big-gun Hollywood units in the traditional way.

“For the first time,” says Peries, “film makers from another country are honourable partners with us. It’s a very interesting experiment. If it does work out, other countries will follow; Ceylon will be on the map in a big way”.

A week later, on October 16, the second report appeared in the Evening News headed “The God King and I” “We were in the biggest film set in the world, a fifth century palace stretching 400 ft along the muddy banks of Lake Nuwara,” Hall bragged, and continued by injecting some exotic drama. “There was a killer elephant on the loose nearby. An 18 ft. crocodile had eaten three children further down the river. And the local paper reported that an angry brown bear had attacked two woodmen and put them in hospital”

“You are asked not to drive after 6 pm in case of bandits,” Hall went on. “And if you survive all this, it’s reassuring to know that a man who trod on a cobra yesterday, died almost instantly”. His fear of the island’s wildlife resurfaced later on when he described other non-human hazards, including “a plague of frogs, agile creatures that hide in the toilet and when disturbed hop unnervingly out of the bowl at you. Strong men have been known to rush off shrieking into the night.” It’s a good thing he didn’t come across a centipede in the bidet, or a tith polanga in the shower.

Hall quoted Dimitri de Grunwald as saying, “They don’t make films like this any more. If this isn’t a good commodity, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing out here making this picture. Every country has one great story to tell. This is Sri Lanka’s. We’ve simply got to put on a bigger show than TV to entice people back into the cinema. TV can afford failures. We can’t!”

The God King certainly tried hard to be part of the “bigger show” that Dimitri wanted to create. Take the final battle scene, which was filmed at the Mahakandarawa tank, Mihintale. I will let William Hall tell the story: “Last week they used 33 elephants in a battle. They lost one when it panicked and went flopping off into the jungle still in its gold and silver finery, leaving its quick-witted mahout clinging to a branch as he passed under it. It took two days to get the elephant back, and it gave coachloads of startled tourists something to write home about. No, they don’t make films like this any more.”

Other locations included Swami Rock at Trincomalee, from the top of which an intrepid diver, doubling for Oliver Tobias, hurled himself into the sea, scores of feet below. Eventually the production returned to Colombo where Herbert Smith had been performing wonders at the Wijaya Studios, Hendala, with the construction of the palace interior. Unbelievably, after the filming of these scenes, the long, gruelling production was finished. As Lester admits: “Looking back on the traumas of The God King, during which there were half a dozen nervous breakdowns, and one which nearly led to a gruesome murder, the fact that the film was completed at all is a miracle.”

To be continued

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