Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ready when you are Mr Bronston

Driving into Peniscola for the first time I instantly recognised the seaside town on the hill as the backdrop for the 1961 film el Cid.  I'd always presumed el Cid was a 100% Hollywood Technicolor epic but not so, it was made entirely in Spain.

The man behind the Spanish epics was Samuel Bronston,  A nephew of Leon Trotsky he was born in 1908 in what is now Moldova. He studied in Paris where later he began to work for MGM. By the mid 1930s he was working in Hollywood. In 1941, he set up his own production company and made a couple of films. In 1959 he moved production to Spain.

The reason for using Spain was financial. Pierre S. Du Pont, the man behind DuPont chemicals, had made plenty of money in Spain but it was in pesetas which couldn't be taken out of the country. So DuPont had lots of idle money and Samuel Bronston had a money making idea. He wanted to make big Spanish films. In the end he made six. John Paul Jones (1959), King of Kings(1961), El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963),The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Circus World (1964)

The Spanish Government was overjoyed to have outside investment and offered significant help in sidestepping bureaucratic problems and offering favourable shooting conditions. That’s why Bronston got to use a real palace and a real throne for Bette Davis when he made John Paul Jones. Bronston was able to make large scale productions much less expensively than his contemporaries working in other major film centres such as Hollywood, Argentina, Mexico or London despite using big stars like John Wayne, Claudia Cardinale, Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, Alec Guinness, James Mason and Christopher Plummer.

At first Bronston hired studio space from local companies but eventually he bought the Chamartin studios and expanded them to shoot the interiors of his own films. Bronston loved to do things on a big scale and to spend money lavishly. The success of his first three films meant that when he began to shoot 55 Days in Peking in 1961 with Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven he had lots of willing backers and plenty of money so he bought a large area of land on which to build the exterior sets in Las Rozas just outside Madrid.

By the time he started shooting on The Fall of the Roman Empire his film set at Las Rozas covered the area of 30 football pitches. The centrepiece was an enormous Roman amphitheatre which took 1100 brickies six months and 170,000 concrete blocks to build. They also put up 27 other buildings. The final set had 600 columns, 350 statues and nearly 7 kilometres of stairs.

The Fall of the Roman Empire was a box office flop and so was his last production in Spain, Circus World. In 1964 Bronston was forced to stop all business activity. His backers deserted him and by mid year he filed for bankruptcy with debts of $13,000,000. By 1972 all of his personal and business assets had been embargoed, sold or auctioned and he retired to the United Sates where he died in 1994.

In his will he asked that his ashes be buried in Las Rozas

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