Armenia's Doomed Quest to Recruit Steven Spielberg

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The country has been trying for years to get a Hollywood treatment of the Armenian genocide.

spielberg feb15 p.jpg

Steven Spielberg / Reuters

Has Armenia's National Film Center pulled off a massive cinematic coup? According to reports issued last month by some Armenian outlets, the Yerevan-based Film Center is in negotiations with director Steven Spielberg and Schindler's List screenwriter Steven Zaillian to make a film about the 1915 Armenian genocide. Per the reports, the film would premier around the time of the centennial commemoration of the genocide.

So will the director of E.T. and Jurassic Park be lending his cinematic skills in support of the Armenian cause? Not likely, it would seem. Following up on the Armenian press report, Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News checked in with Vartan Abovian, the deputy director of another organization, the Armenian National Film Academy, who said he was "baffled by the story" (although acknowledging that his group also has plans to make a movie about the events of 1915).

True or not, the Spielberg rumor would only be the latest chapter in the ongoing battle to bring the story of what happened in 1915 to the big screen. Armenian groups have for decades tried to get Franz Werfel's classic 1933 book "Forty Days on Musa Dagh" -- which tells the story of a small Armenian community's stand against the Ottomans -- made into a big-budget film, only to have their efforts stymied by Turkish pressure. In recent years, both Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone expressed an interest in turning Werfel's book into a movie, though neither has followed through with anything. Here's what Stallone had to say about his interest in Werfel's book during a 2006 interview with the Denver Post:

For years Stallone's wanted to create an epic, and the book that intrigues him is Franz Werfel's "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh," detailing the Turkish genocide of its Armenian community in 1915. (After futile attempts to turn the novel into a movie, filmmakers finally succeeded in 1982, but it was a low-profile production.)

French ships eventually rescued some Armenians, and Stallone has his favorite scene memorized: "The French ships come, and they've dropped the ladders and everybody has climbed up the side. The ships sail. The hero, the one who set up the rescue, has fallen asleep, exhausted, behind a rock on the slope above. The camera pulls back, and the ships and the sea are on one side, and there's one lonely figure at the top of the mountain, and the Turks are coming up the mountain by the thousands on the far side."

A pretty great shot.

The movie would be "an epic about the complete destruction of a civilization," Stallone said. Then he laughed at the ambition. "Talk about a political hot potato. The Turks have been killing that subject for 85 years."

At the same time, Hollywood efforts to bring Turkish history to theaters have faced challenges of their own. When producers in 1998 signed up Antonio Banderas to play Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's secularizing founder, in a $25 million film, a Greek-American group responded with a fierce campaign that ultimately led Banderas to bow out of the project. As the New York Times reported at the time:

After an intense letter-writing campaign led by Greek-Americans, Mr. Banderas withdrew from the project. His agent, Lisa Baum, said he wanted to devote his full energy to another project, ''The Phantom of the Opera.'' Producers of the Ataturk film, however, say Mr. Banderas was reacting to pressure from Greek-Americans and others who consider Ataturk unworthy of favorable portrayal.

This article originally appeared at EurasiaNet.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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