Her Majesty's Secret Servant

At one time, the legendary director thought about adapting Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel for the big screen.

Bill Koenig speculates on what would it have been like.

Howard Hawks enjoys a reputation among film historians for producing films of a distinctive style while simultaneously being "commercial." In other words, he's seen as both artist and money maker. Unlike his good friend John Ford, who is mostly identified with epic Westerns, Hawks dabbled in a little bit of everything from screwball comedies (I Was a Male War Bride, His Girl Friday) to film noir (The Big Sleep) to Westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo) to basic action movies (Hatari!).

According to a recent biography by Todd McCarthy, Hawks also was intrigued by James Bond and gave some thought in 1962 to basing a film on Casino Royale, Ian Fleming's first novel. But the director lost interest after seeing an advance print of Dr. No, the first Eon Productions Bond film and Sean Connery's debut in the role.

Fake Still, the thought of Hawks helming a Bond film -- especially at a point when the Eon Bond formula hadn't been established -- is an interesting one. Here we'll play a little game of what if -- what if Hawks hadn't had those second thoughts?

Background: Charles K. Feldman, a successful agent, had formed a production company with Hawks in the 1940s. The result was Red River, a sort of Mutiny on the Bounty set in cattle country that featured one of John Wayne's best performances with Montgomery Clift as the soft-spoken son who is forced to rebel against his father. The film is considered a classic, but according to McCarthy's book, the Hawks-Feldman partnership didn't fare as well financially. Hawks shot slowly and often had scripts rewritten. So the film didn't come in on time, something that Hawks and Feldman didn't make as much money as they thought they would.

More than a decade later, Feldman had another hot property, the film rights to Casino Royale. Feldman discussed the project with Hawks. Things progressed far enough that the pair summoned screenwriter Leigh Brackett, writer or co-writer of Rio Braveo and Hatari!, to talk about a Bond script.

Hawks and his methods: We'll never know for sure what would have resulted, but there are clues from throughout Hawks's career.

First, Hawks never felt the need to stay faithful to source material. His Girl Friday and El Dorado, to cite just two examples, took major liberties with the play and novel upon which they were based. El Dorado was based on a book where the hero dies. Brackett thought her first draft (which was faithful to the novel The Stars in Their Courses) was the best script she had ever done to that point. Hawks ended up veering the 1967 film into a remake of Rio Bravo. John Wayne gets shot but has no lasting injuries. His Girl Friday was based on the play The Front Page and Hawks turned reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman and decided that editor Walter Burns should be her ex-husband.

So, how much of Casino Royale would Hawks have used? My guess is he would have retained the main plot of Bond vs. Le Chiffre, the tension of the casino and probably a cleaned-up version of the torture scene. But Hawks liked happy endings. So I strongly suspect the line, "The bitch is dead," would never have been uttered mainly because Bond and Vesper Lynd would probably be together by film's end.

Also, Hawks loved to put humor into his films, even when there were generally serious. In that regard, a Hawks version of Casino Royale would probably somewhat resemble the films that Eon produced in the '60s.

The crew: Leigh Brackett scripted most of Hawks' later films, so it's not surprising Hawks thought of her during the period that Casino Royale interested him. Brackett was adept at mixing comedy with action and the dialogue she wrote for Hawks was often excellent. Seeing what Brackett would have done with Fleming would alone be worth the price of admission.

For the music, Hawks likely would have turned to either Dimitri Tiomkin or Henry Mancini, who had scored the director's Hatari! movie. Either composer would have been more than up to the task.

Other members of the crew would have included Paul Helmick, essentially Hawks' right-hand man during the last 20 years of his career. On Hatari!,Helmick wore the dual hats of associate producer and second unit director. It was Helmick who was largely responsible for the outdoors footage of John Wayne & Co. capturing animals in Africa for zoos.

The cast: Hawks, according to McCarthy's book, favored one man -- Cary Grant. If anyone could have talked Grant into taking the role, it would have been Hawks. The two were good friends and liked working with each other. My guess is Hawks probably would have gotten an unknown for the Vesper role. During the '60s, Hawks (who was born in 1896) liked to hang out with people decades younger than himself. And he was always seeking young actresses, as if trying to duplicate his earlier success in discovering Lauren Bacall.

The result: In many ways, Fleming's Casino Royle novel would have been made to order for Hawks. By the late '50s, the aging director was avoiding long outdoor shoots, often relying on second-unit directors to get such footage. Casino Royale takes place mostly indoors, with a few outdoor action sequences that probably wouldn't have been too complicated to shoot.

Of course, all of this is speculation. But one can't help but wonder that we lost a valuable opportunity to see a somewhat different cinema take on Bond. A Hawks version of Casino Royale would have resembled the films Eon was beginning to produce, but would not have been a carbon copy by any means. Perhaps, in some alternative universe, this movie got made and is dissected by film historians who hold Hawks in high regard.

Copyright © 1998 by William Koenig


The stillborne Casino Royale project is only mentioned on one page of Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. But the 754-page book by Todd McCarthy is a fascinating look at the director's long career. So we thought we'd plug it here; you can order it from Amazon.com
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