High-minded National Geographic dips into murky world of films with Cold War drama

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The Independent US

The National Geographic Society, publisher of high-quality magazines and prestigious promoter of knowledge about nature and the great outdoors, is getting its hands dirty in the uncertain world of feature film production.

The National Geographic Society, publisher of high-quality magazines and prestigious promoter of knowledge about nature and the great outdoors, is getting its hands dirty in the uncertain world of feature film production.

National Geographic hasannounced that Harrison Ford will take the starring role in its Cold War submarine drama entitled K-19: The Widowmaker. The film, to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow, will start shooting in a variety of icy locations - from Russia to Canada - in February, and could be in cinemas by Christmas of next year.

The project is quite a departure for the high-minded, non-profit organisation, which has been active in documentaries and television but never produced a commercial feature. The plot is standard Hollywood adventure fare, centring on a Soviet submarine captain struggling to bury differences with his fellow officers to prevent a nuclear explosion and the possible outbreak of the Third World War. Ford will play the captain, and another big-name star, Liam Neeson, is said to be in advanced negotiations to play his second-in-command.

The story is based on a real incident - the discovery in 1961 that the cooling system on board the Soviet Union's first ballistic missile submarine had failed - and will adhere to National Geographic's adherence to scrupulous recreation of historical fact. The producers spent four years researching and developing the project, and took several trips to Russia to interview survivors and family members, including the captain's widow.

In addition to the feature film, there will be a television documentary about the K-19, which will appeal to National Geographic's core audience and serve as a useful cross-marketing tool.

National Geographic Television, which includes the film division, has announced ambitious plans for more features. Another project in development, called Endurance, focuses on Sir Ernest Shackleton's struggle for survival in the Antarctic. Mel Gibson is being wooed to take the lead role.

"These are all epic true-life stories that Geographic has covered in some way, using the resources of our book division and our magazines that include the new Adventure magazine,'' said Tim Kelly, president of the television and film division. "We have a number of other projects we're working on, and think our resources will continue to be a good source of true-life adventure stories.'' There is also a four-part mini-series in the works, based on the exploratory adventures of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the American West in the 19th century.

National Geographic is spreading the financial risk among other producing partners, but it has reason to think its foray into adventure film-making is well-timed. The big hit of this summer was the man- vs-elements drama The Perfect Storm - whose director, Wolfgang Petersen, is down to take on Endurance. The subject of K-19 has also been made timely by the recent Kursk submarine disaster.

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