Scoundrel, sailor, mogul, spy: film to explore life of Maxwell

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The Independent Culture

The first cinematic treatment of the life of Robert Maxwell, the disgraced newspaper tycoon, is to be filmed as a homage to Orson Welles' seminal inquiry into wealth, power and ambition, Citizen Kane.

The screenplay for Citizen Maxwell is due to be completed next month by Gordon Thomas, co-author of the controversial biography The Assassination of Robert Maxwell: Israel's Super Spy.

It will go into production early next year, portraying the former owner of the Daily Mirror as a Mossad agent who was eventually murdered by Israel. It is to be produced by the cinematic veteran Harry Alan Towers, 84, a close friend of Welles, and will reach cinemas next year. It is understood that among the actors approached to play the title role is Albert Finney, who won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm. With a budget of $10m (£5.4m), the film will aim for international appeal.

The Maxwell legend has resonance with audiences not only in Britain, but eastern Europe, Israel and the United States, where his daughter, Ghislaine, is a prominent socialite.

Towers, who has more than 100 film and television credits to his name dating back to the 1950s, said the project would be dedicated to the memory of Welles, whose depiction of the publishing magnate William Randolph Hirst in Citizen Kane is widely considered to be one of the best films of all time.

"Hirst wasn't a scoundrel like Maxwell. But Maxwell's life was extremely colourful, there were the helicopters, the yacht and the penthouse on the top of the Daily Mirror building. I bumped into Maxwell once, it was in a restaurant. He was extremely unpleasant and his voice dominated the whole room," Towers said yesterday as he confirmed the deal.

Thomas's book, written with Martin Dillon in 2002, angered the Maxwell family, provoked a fierce and public row in the Jewish press and prompted allegations that its publication in the United States was nobbled.

In it, the authors allege that Maxwell was murdered aboard his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, named after his daughter, off the Canary Islands in November 1991. His death prompted an investigation into his business dealings which revealed a £400m financial black hole. It emerged that Maxwell had been diverting money from his employees' pension funds to prop up his ailing companies.

In the book, Dillon and Thomas claim that Maxwell had worked for Mossad for six years as a "super spy". During this time, it is claimed, he was passing on secrets gleaned through contacts such as US president Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He had also cultivated relationships with Balkan crime families, it is claimed.

The authors, using FBI documents and intelligence files as evidence, say Maxwell's excesses were tolerated in Tel Aviv until he became involved in a plot to overthrow the Russian president, Mikhail Gorbachev.

They claim that the publisher was approached by the head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryunchov, who sought an end to the reforms of President Gorbachev and a return to communism. He wanted to use the Lady Ghislaine as a meeting place to broker the coup between Mossad, the KGB and senior Israeli politicians.

In return, the new regime in Moscow would provide Maxwell with the £400m he desperately required to shore up his disintegrating finances. Kryunchov would also guarantee the free passage of thousands of Russian Jews to Israel.

The Israelis would have none of it, however, and Maxwell, fearing he was about to be engulfed by the cash crisis, called in his debt with Mossad. According to Thomas, this was a wrong move. "He had threatened his wife. Threatened his children. Threatened newspapers. But finally he issued one threat too many - he threatened Mossad," Thomas said.

The Israeli secret service dispatched a four-man hit squad which double-crossed Maxwell, delivering not the cash he craved but a lethal injection of nerve agent before tipping him into the sea, the book claims.

Born into extreme poverty in the Carpathian mountains in what was then Czechoslovakia as Jan Ludvik Hoch, Maxwell built his fortune through the publishers Pergamon Press and was a Labour MP between 1964 and 1970. He bought Mirror Group Newspapers in 1984.