LENINGRAD: THE 900 DAYS – Sergio Leone’s Unmade Epic – The Global Tofay

LENINGRAD: THE 900 DAYS - Sergio Leone's Unmade Epic - The Global Tofay Global Today

Introduction

Sergio Leone, while an iconic legend of film, had never been nominated for an Academy Award. He had received only one Golden Globe nomination during his career, and had a relatively low output of production (compared to his peers), in terms of directorial features. Leone, the son of Italian cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone, started churning out scripts in his native Italy in the late 1950s.

The young Leone would get his big break at directing much the same way that Stanley Kubrick got his break (see Spartacus). This was done by taking over an existing production, that had already commenced filming. In Leone’s case, it was when director Mario Bonnard fell ill. The production was The Last Days of Pompeii in 1959.

Leone’s first credited directorial feature was the forgettable yet enjoyable The Colossus of Rhodes, released in 1961. It was your typical sword and sandal epic of the day and Leone did his best on a relatively low budget. The film only grossed approximately $350,000 as per MGM’s records. The best part of the movie was the impressively built Colossus and the fight to the death atop it. It brings to mind the climax of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, which was released two years earlier.

The “The Colossus of Rhodes” was Sergio Leone’s first credited film as director. Released in 1961, the film starred Rory Calhoun and Lea Massari.

Spaghetti Westerns

Leone’s next directorial effort in 1964 would begin what would be considered an epic 20-year run. A Fistful of Dollars would catapult the director into stardom. Its star, Clint Eastwood, would have to wait a few more years. The landmark film would also initiate the rise of a unique sub-genre of movies – the “Spaghetti Western.” Most importantly though, it started a lifelong partnership and friendship between Leone and legendary composer Ennio Morricone.

With A Fistful of Dollars grossing over $14,000,000 worldwide on a micro-budget of $200,000, all parties involved made a killing. The powers that be wanted to keep the “Dollars Trilogy” going, and they did. The script for the sequel was written in NINE days. For A Few Dollars More was released in 1965 (1967 in US theaters). The movie, on a small budget of $600,000 was another smash hit, earning over $15,000,000 globally.

United Artists bought the rights to the film, as well as the rights to make a third one. They hired screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, who convinced Leone to come back for one more. That film would be The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, released in Italy in 1966. All three of the Dollar Trilogy films were released in the US in 1967, cementing Eastwood as a star. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly would make $25,000,000 globally on a $1,000,000 budget, another smash hit.

LENINGRAD: THE 900 DAYS - Sergio Leone's Unmade Epic - The Global Tofay Global Today
Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood in between shots and on the set of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Released in 1966, the film was a runaway success, grossing over $25 million on a $1 million budget.

Once Upon A Time…

Over the next 18 years, Sergio Leone would only helm three more movies. Two of them would be absolute masterpieces; 1968’s Once Upon A Time In The West and 1984’s Once Upon A Time In America. While both of these movies are considered “classics” and were well-received critically upon release, neither movie did particularly well financially. Once Upon a Time In America grossed only $5,000,000 on a whopping $30,000,000 budget, almost bankrupting The Ladd Company, the film’s production company.

Arguably, the main reason for the poor performance of Once Upon A Time In America was the horrific editing job performed by The Ladd Company. This was done without Leone’s supervision or cooperation. The purpose was to trim the film down from almost 4 hours to 139 minutes, for the North American release. At times, this version of the movie is almost incoherent.

There were many projects that Leone had considered taking on during his illustrious career. The Godfather, The Phantom, Don Quixote, and several others had all been offered to him, yet he declined. Throughout the 1970’s, Leone had continued to stay active. He was producing, executive producing, and even acting as second-unit director on numerous films based out of Italy. He also directed the grossly overlooked Duck, You Sucker! (1971).

Leningrad: The 900 Days

In the final years of Sergio Leone’s too-short life, there was one project that the director was working on more aggressively than anything else. It would also be the one that came closest to commencing production. That film would have been called Leningrad: The 900 Days. It is based on Harrison Salisbury’s non-fiction work, The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad.

While Leone was completing production on Once Upon A Time In America, he had read Salisbury’s book, which told the story of the siege sustained by the Russian city of Leningrad during the Second World War, at the hands of the German army. While Leone did not have a full script in place, he spent several years writing treatments.

The director also performed meticulous research on the brutality that the inhabitants of Leningrad endured during this time. Leone had even obtained the approval of the Soviet Union’s leaders of the time (Gorbachev), to film inside of the Soviet Union. This was not an easy thing to do. He also planned on teaming up again with his long-time musical partner, Ennio Morricone.

LENINGRAD: THE 900 DAYS - Sergio Leone's Unmade Epic - The Global Tofay Global Today
Robert De Niro and director Sergio Leone on the set of “Once Upon A Time In America.” The film was scored by Ennio Morricone and edited by Nino Baragli.

Casting and Pre-Production

Leone intended to reunite with Robert De Niro. By the late 1980s, De Niro was considered one of the 2-3 greatest actors of his generation, with a pedigree filmography too lengthy to list here. De Niro’s character would portray an American photographer (or cameraman), who becomes trapped in the City when the siege begins. Leone said about his planned film:

“From very specific elements documented in this book, I imagined a parallel story and invented other characters. Thus, in my film, the hero is not a journalist but a young cameraman who is supposed to be accompanied on his trip to Leningrad. Initially, the two men were only there for a few days, but very quickly, without really realizing what happens to them, they find themselves trapped in the besieged city by Hitler’s army. They will remain there until the end, until death.”

By 1989, Leone had raised almost $100,000,000 from various financiers. His plan was for an epic, Oscar-worthy World War II movie. One with a love story built in. Leone had De Niro’s character falling in love with a Russian woman while keeping the relationship hidden from the Russian secret police. Tragically, he would be killed on the day that Leningrad is liberated.

LENINGRAD: THE 900 DAYS - Sergio Leone's Unmade Epic - The Global Tofay Global Today

Leone had just returned from Moscow in early 1989, after scouting locations with his son Andrea. During his visit, he had also decided to hold a press conference in Moscow for the Russian media. The Master had planned to commence production with his ambitious project in 1990. According to Andrea:

“…during a press conference in Moscow the master described the film scene by scene, so he had every sequence worked out in his head…”

A Tragic End

Two days before he was to have signed his contract and made it official, Sergio Leone died of a massive heart attack in 1989, at the age of 60. Leningrad: The 900 Days would have been shot in Russian and English. It also would have largely been filmed within the Soviet Union. The first Soviet co-production.

It was also rumored at the time to have been the most expensive film in history to go into the pre-production stage. The movie would have been monumental on so many levels and would have also marked a new direction for the director. It also may have been the most expensive film production in history, up to that point. Filmed behind the iron curtain and staring one of the most heralded actors on the planet.

LENINGRAD: THE 900 DAYS - Sergio Leone's Unmade Epic - The Global Tofay Global Today
On September 8th, 1941, the siege of Leningrad began. This was one of the most horrible, yet heroic episodes in human history. More than one million people died.

Perhaps Sergio Leone would have finally gotten that Oscar nomination he so richly deserved. When asked by an interviewer whether his new project would be a metaphor for current US/Russian relations, Sergio Leone replied:

“If anything, it might be some kind of example, but not a metaphor. What I hope, as a result, is that Reagan and Gorbachev, after seeing the film, would be a little friendlier between themselves.”

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