Entry dated :: September 13,1960
Tolon, Greece   
The Iliad :
The Burning Ships

      Today is already brighter.  The six ships on the beach, doused in Napalm, are finally on fire.   Since their hulls are water-logged from the many years they spent under the Aegean, all that burns from them are the local telephone poles that serve as masts, and the plywood prow heads.


      When I had arrived here late last night, all that was ablaze on the beach was a campfire surrounded by a party of the Iliad production crew.  Joe Powell, the stuntman, was serenading Susan with a guitar.  The Cinematographer, Werner Kurz, a viewfinder in one hand and a bottle of Retzina wine in the other, was observing a Salome-like dance that was being performed by Alecki, a shapely art student interning as a Wardrobe mistress.    Further from the campfire, under the totemic prow of a beached ship, was my out-of-control director, Desmond O’Donovan. He seemed totally entranced by Anna, the teen-age daughter of the set carpenter (though he spoke no Greek, and she spoke no English).   

      I discreetly extricated O'Donovan from the charms of this young siren to give him new marching orders.  Tomorrow, without any further delays, he was to shoot the establishing shot for the battle of the ships.  Puzo's script called for the camera to be mounted on a platform in the water so that the picture framed a gauntlet of two burning ships filled by battling Greek and Trojan soldiers.

       "I wish that it was possible but you can see it's going to be overcast tomorrow," he said, pointing to the night's sky.  "But don't worry. I have written a great contingency scene.  It has a magnificent-looking old man-- he must be 90-- tussling with the dog for his bone.  It represents.."

      "No old man, no dog, no more metaphors " I angrily interrupted. Since Rudy Mate had told me his best shots in The Passion of Joan of Arc were in cloudy weather, I had been seething over O'Donovan's delays.. "Clouds or no clouds, rain or shine, shoot the battle scene."

      O'Donovan called Kurz over, who raised the issue of his reputation as a cinematographer (even though previously he had only been a camera operator).   "I will shoot in bad weather if you insist, but I will not put my name on the clapboard."

      "Neither will I," Donovan said, his gaze still fixed on his Siren.

      " Put my name on the clapboard as both cinematographer and director," I volunteered, expanding my portfolio of credits and ending the issue.

       Not having been on a movie set before, I had no idea how long it would take to prepare 1,200 extras for a single shot.  At 7 a.m. the student interns from Athens began the somewhat precarious job of fitting the Greek Soldiers into loin cloths.  What made the task dicey was that Susan had meticulously copied the Trojan loincloth from a highly-stylized vase in the Knossos museum that depicted a row of wasp-waisted Minoan warriors.  Unfortunately, modern Greek soldiers did not have the same hour glass figures.  Given the embarrassing mismatch, most of the extras insisted on wearing their polka-dotted boxer shorts under the loincloths.  So the student dressers had to make the necessary alterations on hundreds of the plumper (or less exhibitionist) soldiers.

      Building the camera platform on pylons during low tide was also time consuming.  The carpenters (including the Siren's irate father) waded out to the half-sunk LST landing ship, and using it as a seaward base, began building it, testing it by jumping on it, then, when it collapsed, rebuilding it.

     On shore, meanwhile, my German pyrotechnician, Herr Baumgarten, used a squad of prison volunteers to load each of the 6 ships with a ton of kerosene-soaked tires from a nearby waste dump.  He then taught them how to smear incendiary napalm on the ship's masts and railings. Meanwhile, the stuntmen  supervised the erection of the stacks of cardboard boxes that would break their fall when they leapt from the fiery decks.

     By noon, the wranglers were still struggling to attach two large (and rearing) white horses, supplied by the King's Guards, to a flimsy chariot built by the local blacksmith.  The problem again proceeded from Susan's brilliant effort to get life to imitate art. As with the loincloths, Susan had taken the design from a beautiful Mycenean vase.  Our imitation overlooked the fact that horses had changed in 3,000 years.

        Finally, at 3 pm, after the crew had had their lunch, the crew wades out to the platform in a rising tide.  Kurz tests the camera and signals it works.  O'Donovan signals the assistant director, Eric Andreo. Baumgarten sets the ships afire.  The extras, all in position, raise their shields. The camera is rolling. The clapboard--with my name on it--claps "Take 1."  Eric shouts over and over again "Mache" [War], but the soldiers do not move. It is a mutiny. They claim the sand is too hot for their bare feet.  "Cut," O'Donovan shouts.

     While the dressers scrounge up sandals and rags for the soldiers to wear,  Baumgarten's crews put out the fires, which is not difficult since the telephone polls and prow heads have burnt to a crisp by now.  The prisoners then replace them by sending out a foraging party to gather other telephone poles from the road to Athens (and adding to the area's communications failures).   

       Meanwhile, the tide rises nearly to the level of the camera platform.  It is now 5 p.m.  The army is again placed in position but this time, at my suggestion, the untested charioteer (driven by Joe Powell) is just behind the extras. 

       The fires are relit, the camera rolls, the clapboard claps "Take 2", the wranglers release the chariot from the guide ropes, the horses rear, hoofs flashing. Eric Andreo again shouts "Mache," and the soldiers charge forward in to the gauntlet of burning ships pursued by the chariot. The expressions of fear on their face are not entirely pretense: they now know, like everyone else on the set, that the chariot has no brakes and is completely out of control.


      "Cut. Great, Print it, " O'Donovan yells, along with his one Greek word "Efcharisto (Thank you)".  The water now partly submerges the camera platform.



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