FOR A BRIEF period in the early Sixties, Samuel Bronston created a film-making empire in Spain where he produced some of the most expansive and spectacular historical epics in film history. He was to establish Spain as a film colony, notably for epics and westerns, but his own company collapsed after a series of ambitious failures.
Born in Bessarabia, Romania, in 1909, he was educated at the Sorbonne before starting work as a salesman for MGM in France. Moving to the United States at the outbreak of the Second World War, he became a production executive at Columbia where he made one film, City Without Men (1943), a listless melodrama starring Linda Darnell as one of a group of wives boarding at a hotel near the prison where their menfolk are serving sentences, before forming his own independent company and making Jack London (1943), a highly fictionalised account of the life of the author and adventurer. Though Susan Hayward was a vibrant heroine, Michael O'Shea was a colourless hero and the script incorporated some heavy anti-Japanese propaganda to aid the war effort.
It was in 1959, with the studio system collapsing and the cost of movie-making in Hollywood becoming increasingly prohibitive, that Bronston set up a base in Madrid and arranged to produce epics for release by Hollywood companies for a share of the profits. His first venture, John Paul Jones (1959), suffered from a bland leading player (Robert Stack, as the man who founded the US Navy) and, like most of Bronston's subsequent films, over-length and a rambling narrative which dissipated the impact of some effective battle-scenes and a brief appearance by Bette Davis as Catherine the Great. The King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Jeffrey Hunter, was more successful and the biggest money-maker of the year for MGM, its distributor.
Bronston had by now been encouraged to build an enormous studio complex near Madrid, establishing Spain as a prime centre for international film production, and produced his best-known epic, El Cid (1961), which had the same mixture of positive and negative qualities that distinguished most of his films - breathtaking spectacles, meticulous research (he spent nearly dollars 200,000 on medieval art objects and jewellery), superb photography and splendid battle-scenes (the stuntman Yakima Canutt staged the siege of Valencia with literally half of the Spanish army), but all this dulled by lethargic pacing and banal dialogue ('I shall wear deepest black,' announces Sophia Loren as a Spanish noblewoman).
55 Days At Peking (1963), an account of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, also had stunning battle- scenes staged by Canutt and directed by Andrew Marton, but Nicholas Ray (who confessed he took on the project purely for money) directed the rest ponderously and the film lost a fortune. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) had a Roman forum set said to be the largest ever built, but Anthony Mann, the director, later stated that he could do little with such a 'defeatist' tale, while one of its stars, Christopher Plummer, later complimented co-actors James Mason and Alec Guinness on 'the way they could take that truly appalling dialogue and make it sound acceptable'. The lavish production lost dollars 18m and was followed by another failure, Circus World (1964), starring John Wayne, after which Bronston, who had been borrowing heavily, had to suspend all film activity.
He became involved in court battles that lasted for years, but resurfaced briefly in 1978 to distribute The Mysterious House of Dr C, a mixture of dance, animation and live action based on the ballet Coppelia.