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.”
Both Atkins and King laugh incredulously when thinking back on the chaotic Hungarian shoot. Virtually everything that was promised — English-speaking extras, film processing equipment, editing rooms — were suddenly unavailable.
“I had to bring in a sound crew from Amsterdam, the camera package from Munich, actors from Western Europe and America,” says Atkins. “Our production designer, Laszlo Rajk, had to play the sympathetic commandant. He was an underground activist. He would disappear for five days at a time, and we didn’t know if he was in a jail cell!”
King fondly recalls the liquor truck that would pull up early every morning alongside the food truck, resulting in plenty of soused extras, “but that was OK, because they’d look like they’d just gone through a march,” he chuckles. On another jarring day, he says, 500 extras on loan from the army, who were supposed to be dressed as civilians, showed up in the same off-gray uniform.
Still, bitter as some of the screw-ups were, King, Atkins and crew never forgot that the cost of production would have skyrocketed had Forced March been shot in the states.
“It looks like a $30 million movie and it was made for under $3 million,” says Bardosh.
Atkins always regretted the film’s disappearance. But it wasn’t until the advent of digital delivery sites like Netflix and iTunes that he entertained the thought of re-releasing it. And it wasn’t until Bardosh invited the owner of Quad Cinema to speak at his class, and then introduced him to Atkins, that the idea became a reality.
“I’ve always had the copyright,” says Atkins. “I had one Laserdisc copy and one print. I made a transfer from the LaserDisc to DVD, and made the edits I wanted to, and that’s what the owner of the Quad saw.” Soon after, he netted a deal with digital distributor The Orchard, which will soon be supplied with the print transfer.
Given the rise of the openly anti-Semitic Jobbik Party in Hungary — taking up a large minority in Parliament today — the timing is, at last, perfect for Forced March’s release. This short but hopefully resonant opening will also arrive on the heels of a new Holocaust-related film, Aftermath, dealing with the complicity of anti-Semitic Poles in the 1941 pogroms.
King, Atkins, and Bardosh seem equally happy with the small changes. Before its initial wrap, Atkins and King debated whether to end the film with silence or a poem voiceover. They opted for the latter, which upset Atkins’s father. (“Now, he has the ending he wanted,” Atkins beams.)
Cut entirely was a scene set at a burlesque nightclub, mostly because the mention of East and West German borders seemed outdated. But also, “there’s nudity in the scene, which is not appropriate for children at all,” says Bardosh. “I enjoyed it myself, but this film should be a Holocaust studies collection for kids, so for the sake of longevity, it’s best to cut it.”