Written by: David Conover and Philip J. Riley
Publisher: BearManor Media
Hardcover List Price $34.95
Softcover List Price $24.95
Ages 10 and up
Philip J. Riley is the editor of a wonderful series of books published by BearManor Media that are devoted to the shooting scripts of classic horror films such as FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, and many more. WAR EAGLES by David Conover and Mr. Riley is part of a separate series devoted to “lost” screenplays that were never actually filmed and therein lays a tale.
The film KING KONG was released in 1933 and was followed by the lackluster SON OF KONG. Eager to outdo the enormous success of KING KONG, producer Merian C. Cooper conceived of a lost tribe of humans living in a prehistoric environment near Antarctica that was warmed by a volcano. The tribe inhabits an inaccessible plateau beyond the reach of the dinosaurs that thrive in the fertile forests far below where the tribe must journey to gather food. Adding to the danger is a tribe of cave dwelling ape people that seek to capture the humans for cruel sport.
What elevated this setup to a level above and beyond KING KONG – both literally and figuratively – were the gigantic eagles that nest on the cliffs surrounding the oasis. The tribespeople are able to tame and ride the huge birds, and rely on them for protection against the ape people and the dinosaurs.
In Cooper’s original story a daring pilot crash lands in a volcanic crater on the South Pole. He is rescued from a dinosaur attack by a tribe of eagle-riders and taken to their village where he learns to fly an eagle and falls in love with the daughter of the tribe’s chief.
The young woman is captured by the ape people and brought to their lair inside a cavern where she is hung by her feet over an allosaurus! The pilot rescues her and defeats the chief of the ape people in hand to hand combat. He later returns with the rest of the warriors and engages the ape people in a battle using bombs he has fashioned out of materials he has found in the environment.
The pilot marries the young woman, and in an unusual twist, learns of an impending attack on New York City by an unnamed European country whose military has invented a secret weapon with the ability to disable America’s fighter planes. New York will be destroyed unless America surrenders! The pilot rallies the Vikings and they accompany him on the backs of their eagles to New York where they engage the villains in a spectacular aerial battle that takes place over the city and the Statue of Liberty. Whoa!!
Cooper brought the project to MGM and work began. The idea passed through the hands of several screen writers and at least eight draft screenplays were produced. Characters, dialog and story details were added, subtracted and tweaked; and action sequences were devised, revised and discarded depending upon their technical feasibility and cost.
As work on the script progressed, Willis O’Brien and his creative team worked on concept art, constructed stop-motion models, built sets and shot test sequences in technicolor. World War II intervened before the project could be formally approved and the project was ultimately abandoned.
Although WAR EAGLES was known to film historians for years, and pieces of artwork appeared in books and magazines, details remained sketchy. I read about the film in a great biography of Willis O’Brien by Steve Archer (published by McFarland), but Mr. Archer’s coverage of this project was handicapped by a lack of information. Thanks to the work of David Conover that problem has been solved!
Following years of untiring detective work, Conover amassed a wealth of material relating to WAR EAGLES. The book is packed with lovely concept drawings, test photos, rare documents, and the screenplay itself, which was derived from the last two drafts written by screenwriter Cyril Hume. Interestingly, the final draft came from the collection of Ray Harryhausen who visited O’Brien at his office while work on the project was ongoing.
While it’s not my place in a book review to rewrite Cooper’s story, I couldn’t help scratching my head over the Viking tribe that appears in the final draft. Given Cooper’s ambition to create a kind of western I wondered why this tale didn’t take place in the American Southwest. (Interestingly, eagles live on all continents except Antarctica!)
Instead of Vikings, the tribespeople could have been Native Americans and the hero could have been a barn-storming Texas pilot in the mold of Ben Johnson’s character Gregg, from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. The existence of the great eagles might have been kept hidden by the tribe to protect them from hunting and ultimately, extinction.
By incorporating Native Americans flying on the backs of eagles to defend the United States, the patriotic finale that Cooper envisioned would have had far more impact. One can imagine an impassioned speech delivered by a Texan on behalf of all Americans asking the people who were here first (and often mistreated) to join in an epic battle to defend freedom on the great birds that they protected.
Could this action-fantasy film have worked with Vikings as written? Absolutely. But the story might have had more substance and played better with some simple changes. One day I’ll have to ask Mr. Conover his thoughts on this subject.
I bought the hardcover edition and found it fascinating. You have to admire the author’s hard work and diligence in unearthing all of the details surrounding this imaginative film, and the publisher for making it available to us.
This is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone interested in the history of dinosaur cinema. Film fans will relish the historical details, concept art and test photos, and get a kick out of the last known version of the screenplay. Well done, gentlemen!