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The first incarnation of Forced March, the 1989 tribute to acclaimed Hungarian poet and Holocaust victim Miklós Radnóti that will be shown — in re-edited, digitalized form — at Quad Cinema on November 1, was plagued by unexpectedly bad timing.
It was shot in Hungary exactly 25 years ago, just when Communism — and, in turn, Soviet funding for the arts — was trickling out of the country. The budget sank, and the local Hungarian crew struggled to keep up with the demands of the contract. Co-producers/co-writers Karl Bardosh and Dick Atkins and director Rick King pulled together to bring Forced March in for $2.7 million. But back home, the independent film industry — or what was left of it — wasn’t exactly waiting with open arms.
“Before we started filming, there were probably a dozen smaller distribution companies, the Vestrons of the world, that were possibilities for the movie,” Atkins recalls. “By the time we finished, they were all out of business.”
After a brief showing at Cannes that spring, Atkins hired a top Hollywood lawyer, who brought Forced March to Tri-Star and Columbia. The issue, the major studios claimed, is that there was no justification for spending $10 million on advertising for a $3 million movie.
“But underlying that, it was a Holocaust movie,” says Atkins. “Once Spielberg did Schindler’s List, then it became mainstream. Before that, [the studios] were just gun-shy.”
So Forced March ended up in the hands of the now-defunct Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertaiment, known for schlock action pictures — some directed by James Glickenhaus himself — such as The Exterminator and Maniac Cop. (Glickenhaus now works for his father’s firm on Wall Street.) At a New School screening of the picture, the owner of midtown’s Cinema 1 theater was in attendance, and was moved enough to insist the film open there, on November 3, 1989. Unfortunately, SGE proved to be just as timid about promoting the film as its major competitors.
“They were so nervous, I had to split costs with them to show it in New York,” Atkins remembers.
Vincent Canby’s terse, bland New York Times review (“it meditates upon a number of topics but is never very articulate”) didn’t help matters. (“I swear, he slept through half the movie,” groans Atkins, who was at the same screening.) More lamentably, a scheduled run at Los Angeles’ prestigious Laemmle theater was canceled. Forced March got a few rave reviews, including from Newsweek, but its limited visibility always haunted Atkins.
In 1986, Bardosh, an NYU film professor, and New York lawyer and fellow Hungarian George Zelma — longtime friends who had both been involved in various film and television productions — presented Atkins with the script for Forced March. The duo had yearned to make a film about Radnóti, who, despite his conversion to Christianity, was sent by Hungarian troops to a Yugoslavian labor camp in early 1944 and, months later, killed during a Nazi-ordered forced march to a German concentration camp. His now-legendary poems were found in his coat pocket.
In order to make the film “more palatable to contemporary audiences,” Bardosh says, it needed a framing device wherein a modern-day actor playing Radnóti would go through his own personal journey. This character (played by Chris Sarandon) has parents that narrowly escaped the Holocaust, a subplot that mirrors Bardosh’s family history.
“The story of the main character’s mother, who jumped into the river before being shot, is my own mother’s story,” Bardosh explains. “And my father was at Bergen-Belsen when the Allies came in.” (Coincidentally, Atkins’s father, a U.S. soldier, rescued prisoners at the nearby Nordhausen camp).
Though initially reluctant to produce a Holocaust picture, Atkins was drawn to the story’s emphasis on a victim, “one of the 6 million that died,” as opposed to a tale of extraordinary heroism.
“Almost every story that I could remember was about someone who did something special,” he says. “They broke out of a camp, or hid in the attic. What we had here was someone who’s so beaten down, physically and emotionally, he just can’t fight back. We had a voice literally from the grave, speaking to us in real time.”
After raising money independently — including from his father — Atkins began the grueling search for cast and crew. Veteran cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was contacted (to potentially direct the film), as were directors Jerzy Skolimowski, Mark Rydell, and Michael Crichton. (At one point, Jeff Goldblum’s agent expressed interest, but the deal fell through.) Rick King, who had directed the 1986 sleeper indie hit Hard Choices, was eventually selected.
“I thought it could be interesting to have a good director who wasn’t so familiar or intimately involved with the history,” Atkins remembers. “He had to learn this subject along the way, like the lead character.”
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