This is the true story about a famous bit of early 20th century history, the Armenian Genocide. It is also about the suppression, with the help of the American government, of a movie based on a novel about that time.
In the early 1900s, Turkey was run by a government of younger activists who wanted to "cleanse" Turkey of all non-Muslims (sound vaguely familiar?). Starting in 1915, it became official policy to kill or deport all Armenians (who were Christian). The population of Armenians in Turkey dropped from approximately 2 million to its present number of less than 100,000. Several villages of Armenians, facing "relocation" to the Syrian desert, made their last stand at a place called Musa Dagh. It is in present-day southeatern Turkey, just north of the border with Syria. They held out for approximately 2 months against the Turkish Army, before being rescued by a French ship.
In 1934, a novel called "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" by Franz Werfel was published to worldwide acclaim. The Armenian Genocide had become The Forgotten Genocide, so Armenians around the world were overjoyed. They were even more overjoyed when MGM announced, in 1935, that a major motion picture would be made based on the novel. Then the Turkish government got involved.
They exerted a lot of diplomatic pressure to stop the film from ever being made. Turkey threatened to ban all American films from Turkey. France, their long-time ally, was willing to go along. The American State Department took Turkey's side. To this day, the Turkish government strongly denies that anything like genocide ever took place. MGM was eventually convinced to shelve the film, but they refused to let anyone else make it, diligently renewing their rights to the film every few years.
In the years after World War II, a number of well-known Hollywood figures were interested in making the film. No less than 15 different scripts were written. To satisfy Turkey, it was suggested that the Turkish Ambassador in Washington read the script before production, or that the title or setting is changed, so that it has nothing to do with Turkey or Armenians. The Turkish response was that no amount of re-writing was sufficient. During the Cold War, the threatened closing of the NATO base at Incirlik, Turkey, provided a very good reason to not get Turkey upset over the film.
In the 1980s, rights to the film were acquired by an Armenian from California named John Kurkjian. He was very interested in making the film, but he had a huge time constraint. If the film was not "in the can" by a certain date, a few months away, all rights to the film would go to Anna Mahler, Werfel's widow. Kurkjian was forced to make the film in the Hollywood Hills, using unemployed Armenian actors and a second-rate director. He was a total newcomer to the world of "Hollywood," so he was unmercifully taken advantage of by everyone involved in the film. It was a rushed, low-budget film, and the final cut looked like it. Kurkjian made the deadline, but when the film was shown in front of Armenian audiences, words like "disappointing" and "tragic" were used (the film stunk). He was able to make back the money he spent on the film; the only good thing about the whole experience was that the permanent rights to the film were now held by an Armenian.
This is a fascinating and eye-opening book. It exposes a little-known piece of American film history and is highly recommended.
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About the reviewer
Paul Lappen (plappen)
I am in my early 50s, single and live in Connecticut. I am a lifelong very, very avid reader and am a freelance book reviewer with my ownblog (http://www.deadtreesreview.blogspot.com). Please visit. It … more
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