Monday, February 8, 2021

From Napoleon To A Mexican Bandido


Guadix Spain – While James Coburn, tenderly rubbing his read end, prepared to die for the fourth time that night, here on the Spanish location of “Duck! You Sucker” (which it is hoped will be the superspaghetti western of the year), the experts had finally unjammed Rod Steiger’s obstreperous machine gun and it was time to shoot again. Or at least try.

     The special effects crew started the fire again and fanned it and director Sergio Leone gave his orders, which were duly repeated and translated into several languages; the extras rose from their brief siestas and prepared themselves to be living and dead soldiers of the Mexican Army of 1913 and the Revolution.

     As the cameras rolled and Coburn leaped in the air to fall down dead in front of the cameras, and Leone, clutching his heart, played his version of Coburn’s death behind the cameras, falling to the ground himself, Steiger began firing his machine gun and once again, it jammed.

     I COULD SEE him cursing, then he shrugged and approached, laughing at Leone, who was picking himself up from the ground.

     ‘Non e necessario, Sergio,” he said in Italian and then he sat down beside me and began to talk in Mexican accented English because, I suppose, he is a method actor and does not like to break his mood between scenes. It may be apocryphal but I’d heard that on the set of “Waterloo,” in which he plays Napoleon, he spoke to the press with his right hand firmly inside his uniform, holding his heart.

     “What crasee, boring teengs we do in tees incredible journey we call life,” he said.

     It was freezing now and someone came over to put blankets over us, but Steiger waved his away and we went over to where a large, real fire had been built and joined the extras and the production crew who were trying to warm themselves. Steiger showed me his hand, which had become bloody from doing battle with the stubborn machine gun.

     WHY FUSS about eet, why carry on?” he asked the world at large. “I wanted to do a western after playing Napoleon and so I am playing a western. Also I wanted to work with Leone, who knows how to create a fantasy based on a fantasy, and eesn’t the western, the American fantasy, the ultimate meethology?”

     “Eets funny,” he said “sex ees the only subject that ees permeated to be discussed on the screen today. Maybe someday people weel learn where to put their equeepment and they won’t have to be shown pm the screen and we can go on to other theengs. Funny that you can discuss sex but not atomeec energy. Funny that in an age where total destruction ees possible at any moment, you can’t even talk about eet. Not just atomeec energy but serious subject.”

     “The time ees now to go eenside of people, but who ees going eenside?” he went on. “Fantasies, meethologies, that is what they want.”

     THE THEATER? What theater? After Rashomon, I deed one more play on Broadway, Orson Welles’ production of ‘Moby Deek.’ We got five and half good notices and one and a half bad ones and we closed after 12 performances while such gems of truth as ‘Barefoot een the Park’ went on forever. ‘Moby Deek’ wasn’t great theater maybe, but eet deedn’t cheat the publeec, and I have not done one seence then.

     “What would I like to do een the future?” he said, “Well when thees ees finished, I go to London where ‘Waterloo’ will be shown to the Queen and then I would liek to make a feelm of Erecht’s ‘Galileo’ and to speaz to Ken Russell about a life after Beethover, wheech I want to do.”

     I had very much liked his last release picture, “3 into 2 Won’t Go,” in which he had co-starred with Claire Bloom, but I was a little wary of bringing up the subject because immediately after finishing the picture MISS Bloom divorced him and married producer Hilliard Elkins, and I’d heard that Steiger had taken it hard. I decided to tell him how much I had liked the picture but that his own character was the one amorphously drawn one in it.

     “Yes,” he agreed, “eet was a nice peecture about a marriage that was deesolving and funny teeng – that was what was happening to Clair and wasn’t a good part for me – I always knew eet but I went eento eet just so that the two of us could work together and what happened?”

     He laughed a little bitterly.

     “That taught me a lesson,” he said. “An arteest’s chief responsibility is to himself and hees art and he should not meex een emotion. I hope, I can only hope, I have learned the lesson.”

     “No” he said in reply to a question, “No Malibu ees not my home. I have a place here like I have in London, two rooms off Sloane Square that I like to paint and feex up, eet ees my home. Not Park Avenue where Claire the apartment ees up for sale and as soon as I sell eet, I weel move to Greenwich Veelage, back where I belong.”

     ONCE AGAIN everything is ready and it’s time to shoot. The flames of the gas fire are restarted and fanned and the extras reluctantly leave the warmth of the real fire and take their places. Coburn tenderly rubs his backside in anticipation of his balletic death once more and it’s time Steiger to lead his revolutionaries to a Pyrrhic victory. And it is time for me to go. There is still a long trip back to other fantasies, mythologies and motion pictures to be covered.

     So I say goodbye and Steiger, who is being assured in English and Italian that this time, the machine gun will most certainly work, mutters “Eet better,” then turns to me and says, “You are goeeng already?”

     He seems anxious to talk to some more and says, “You weel be here tomorrow? Maybe we can have some lunch?”

     I shake my head.

     “Eef not, thank you and good luck to you,” he says.

     HE IS OFF to his trench and I can see him feeling the gun and nodding as he is being reassured that it will work, while Leone prepares to give his signal, once more before dawn breaks on the now freezing, sleepy town of Guadix, and it will be too late.

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