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Comments on Robert Wise

28/09/2005. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

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While I was in Canada for the Toronto International Film Festival I heard the news that Robert Wise had died. He was 91 years and four days old. I was very sorry to hear that.

Wise is one of the directors I admired a lot, in spite of the fact that there were many in Hollywood who did not like him. But more of that later.

Wise was an interesting director, particularly for fans of the fantasy. He directed a wide variety of films, but I think of Wise first for having directed science fiction and horror stories. His classic of science fiction was THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which frequently shows up on top ten lists for best science fiction films.

He also directed THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and the first "Star Trek" film. His horror films included THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE BODY SNATCHER for producer Val Lewton. He also directed the first film version of Shirley Jackson's THE HAUNTING. He won Oscars for both Best Director and Best Picture for two musicals, WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

With the possible exception of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which was made as the Korean War was heating up, these films seem fairly seemed harmless and not very controversial. He worked in such varied genres as Westerns (TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN), drama (I WANT TO LIVE!), war films (RUN SILENT RUN DEEP and THE DESERT RATS), and political dramas (THE SAND PEBBLES).

One would not think of him as one of the more controversial directors of the studio system. In fact, there were and are people in the film industry who hated him with a passion. Some reviewers have a great deal of vitriol for him. For some Wise represents, I suppose, the victory of studio business interests over artistic values. Not that Wise was greatly artistic himself. Why then is he so disliked?

Wise worked with Orson Welles as editor for CITIZEN KANE and reportedly Wise and Welles got along very well for that film. They worked together again on THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS with again Wise as editor and they had a good relationship.

But Welles had a very independent work style. The young director showed no respect for the studio people who were paying him. He had had a history of battles with the money interests at RKO studio. The final straw was when Welles went off to Brazil doing preparation work for another film, IT'S ALL TRUE. Reportedly Nelson Rockefeller and the State Department had asked Welles to make a good-will film about Brazil, a documentary to tie the two countries closer together.

Welles headed off for Brazil and started to make a film about daily life in that country, which was not at all what RKO had in mind. They needed him to finish up with THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. RKO had decided that with the coming of World War II audience attention span would be shorter and they wanted to work with Welles to make AMBERSONS a little shorter and punchier films. Welles was just not available.

Finally RKO decided they had had enough. They were paying Robert Wise and ordered him to complete the editing with a briefer telling and get the film ready to release. Wise reluctantly agreed and did as he was told. Welles was not happy. He did not like the film as it was released and blamed Wise. He considered it a betrayal by a friend and they never worked together again.

Even today there seem to be film critics who are insulting to Wise. In his 2001 book BEYOND POPCORN: A CRITIC'S GUIDE TO LOOKING AT FILMS CRITIC Robert Glatzer describes the incident as, "Welles left for South America and the studio had the hack Robert Wise re-shoot and re-cut the ending." It is hard for me to think of the director of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, WEST SIDE STORY, and THE HAUNTING as a hack. Elsewhere in the same book Glatzer really tears into THE SOUND OF MUSIC. It may not be my favorite film, but it undeniably shows Wise's craftsmanship.

I think people in the science fiction community have more respect for Wise than the public at large. Multiple times at science fiction conventions I saw him on panels talking about his films, particularly THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. It may be only legend but apparently on one such panel he was asked about the Christ symbolism in the film. He professed to not know of any while the writer said that of course the script with full of Christ symbolism.

People who like good science fiction will certainly miss Robert Wise.

Mark R Leeper

(c) 2005 Mark R. Leeper

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