Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Minnelli’s Attempt at Historical Epic

Vincente Minnelli’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ended up being a huge flop after four year of hard work and a waste of $8 million, a huge budget by standards of the time.

For many reasons, it was a bad idea to begin, and it got worse and worse during a lengthy production process.

Uniformly panned by the press, “Four Horsemen” was the first movie that really damaged Minnelli’s reputation, as well as tarnished his self-confidence. This movie signaled the beginning of Minnellis decline as a major Hollywood filmmaker, and for the next decade, he would make only mediocre movies.

Pre-production on “Four Horsemen” began before MGM put all of its energy and resources into the remake of “Ben-Hur,” the 1926 Judeo-Christian Roman spectacular starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. However, released two years before Four Horsemen, in 1959, “Ben-Hur” was a smash success, sweeping all the Oscars.

Everything about Ben-Hur was enormous, beginning with the 300 sets that covered more than 340 acres. The arena that housed the chariots race took about 18 acres, the largest single set in film history. These may sound as trivial elements, but the MGMs publicity machine, in one of its most successful campaigns, positioned Ben-Hur as an event movie before the term even existed. Hence, daily press releases informed about the 8,000 extras, the 40,000 tons of sand imported from the beaches for the 20-minute race, which took three months to shoot, the 1,000 workers who labored for a year to build the colossal arena.

This information, leaked with gusto by the director William Wyler had a damaging moralizing effect on every movie in pre-production and production at MGM at the time, including Four Horsemen. Budgeted at the unheard of $12.5 million, “Ben-Hur” dwarfed anything in sight.

For Minnelli, this was bad news in two ways. First, he knew that MGM would not rally behind his pet project with the same gusto and resources. And second, he cast envious eyes toward Wyler, who shot the epic on the famous Cinecitta Studios in Rome, where Minnelli had always wanted to shoot a picture. Size and scope mattered, and when Wyler told Minnelli that Cinecitta was gutted of more than a million props, and the sculptors were hired to make more than 200 giant statues specifically for his movie, he could only lament the lack of enthusiasm for his epic.

Even those who didnt like Ben-Hur had to acknowledge its pageantry, sweep, kitschy appeal, and the exciting climax of the chariot race. Despite the astounding budget, with prediction of near bankruptcy, Ben-Hur grossed the staggering amount of over $40 million. In contrast, Four Horsemen was deemed a mid-size project in budget and scope. From the beginning, some of MGM execs raised an issue over the outdated nature of the film, a remote chapter from the past that even on paper seemed to have little relevance for modern viewers.

In June 1958, MGM announced its intent to remake Four Horsemen with Minnelli directing, but plans remained vague due to the failure of two WWI remakes: Selznick’s production of A Farewell to Arms, with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, and Kubrick’s cynical war expose Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas, Minnellis favorite actor. The two war films should not be mentioned in the same sentence, since the former was a nostalgic star-driven vehicle, whereas the latter had a fresh angle and a cynical take on the War. Even so, Hollywood being Hollywood, when both movies failed to ignite the box-office, the blame was quickly put on their underlining genre. In actuality, of course, they failed for very different reasons.

At MGM, all involved agreed that the story needed an update. When Graham Greene declined to write “a free treatment” of the novel, Robert Ardery took over, spending six months on revitalizing the archaic script. At Minnelli’s request, Ardery changed the character of Julio into a dashing Argentinean living in Occupied Paris, poised between fascism and the Resistance. The in-between milieu was reflected in the way that the yarns major characters were divided in their political philosophies and even personal behaviors.

Producer Julian Blaustein had supervised the costume drama Desiree, a smash hit with Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, but he had not done a movie on the scale of Four Horsemen, not to speak of its unconventional narrative. The studio then hoped that Paris would inspire Minnelli again to overcome the pictures problems. They were encouraged that in his 1950s melodramas, Minnelli could generate sparks from generic and even routine material. Minnelli knew that the characters made no sense when taken out of their historical context, but he was flattered that his talent was considered indispensable to the project.

Minnelli began thinking about Four Horsemen after attending the Cannes Film Festival for the premiere of Home from the Hills. That picture was well-received by the French, representing a high point for Minnelli, whose work began to be appreciated by international critics, not just the French but also British in such magazines as Sight and Sound. He took advantage of being in Europe and went on a two-week vacation to Italy, sampling Rome, Milano, and Venice, to which he will return a year later to shoot his melodrama Two Weeks in Another Town.

In assembling the cast, Minnelli first considered Dirk Bogard, then Monty Clift, both a far cry from the script’s macho-heroic conception. For a while, Minnelli considered Home from the Hill’s George Hamilton, due to his youth and dark looks, but the studio ruled him out as a lightweight to carry such a movie, hoping to find someone in the mold of Ben-Hurs Charlton Heston.

Then, during his stay in Rome, Minnelli met and was immediatelt smitten with a stunningly looking French actor named Alain Delon, who had made an impression on the art house circuit in Rene Clements thriller, Purple Noon. Luchino Visconti, who cast Delon in Rocco and His Brothers and had a rumored affair with him, arranged for a meeting between Delon and Minnelli.

Minnelli was taken by Delons dashing looks and good behavior. At their first meeting, he couldnt take his eyes off Delon. Stories of Delons suspicious liaison with Visconti, while dating Romy Schneider, made him a desirable topic in the international press.

However, MGM undermined Minnellis excitement, claiming that Delon’s appeal was limited to the European market and that his command of English was limited and heavily accented. In vain, Minnelli reminded his superiors that Charles Boyer and Muarice Chevalier had never mastered English and they still became stars in the U.S.

Minnellis final recommendation, Horst Buchholz, the German matinee idol who had recently arrived in Hollywood, was also rejected. In the end, with trepidation, Minnelli consented to casting the role with the all-American Glenn Ford, who Minnelli thought was good looking but bland and stiff in acting. Even so, Minnelli hoped to bring out the old Ford erotic charm, of the times he made Gilda and other noir melodramas, before being turned into a conventional macho American hero in Westerns and crime flicks.

As for the women, Swdish Ingrid Tulin, who had made a mark in Ingmar Bergmans movies, was cast as the female lead, and starlet Yvette Mimieux, who would become known for Where the Boys Are and other fluffy movies, was chosen to play a supporting role.

Neither Ingrid Tulin nor Glenn Ford was helped by the overly explicit and banal dialogue, that was full of speeches and messages. To compensate for the lack of chemistry between the stars, Minnelli resorts to sumptuous display of sound and light.

When Julio and Marguerite meet at Versailles, the autumn radiance of the photography and the violin of Andre Previn’s love theme were meant to distract the audience from paying attention to the dialogue, which was anachronistic and borderline inane.