One-Eyed Jacks, the only film Marlon Brando ever directed, was Francis Ford Coppola’s choice of a film worthy of rediscovery when asked to write about one for the Locarno Film Festival project, Serious Pleasures. The project’s editor, Bill Krohn, is a friend of mine who granted me several of the titles to write about.The way it worked was a known director would pick a favorite film in need of rediscovery, write about why, and then I’d research and write about the film’s backstory. Previous examples posted include The Sand Pebbles, Point Blank, The Hill, etc. I was overjoyed to write about One-Eyed Jacks while still researching Lee Marvin Point Blank
The underrated western had the following storyline: After robbing a Mexican bank, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) takes the loot and leaves his partner Rio (Brando) to be captured, but Rio escapes and searches for Dad in California, who has become sheriff of a coastal town and married a widow (Katy Jurado) and adopted her daughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer). Rio and his gang (Larry Duran, Ben Johnson and Sam Gilman) make plans to rob the town’s bank during a fiesta but dad has other plans. 
Coppola’s thoughts on One-Eyed Jacks are below in italics, followed by my detailed essay on the film’s production. The images are from photographer Sam Shaw’s book of working with Brando during the film entitled Brando In The Camera Eye.

I know nothing about how Marlon Brando made One-Eyed Jacks, but I do know his intelligence, attention to detail and lack of caution. I saw the film when I was a film student, with my colleagues, and we were all impressed with its depth, its drive, its vitality, and the quality of the scenes, acting and spectacle. I have not seen the films for many years, but I was impressed with the scope of it. I liked especially the scenes on the beach, of which I understand there as another forty minutes that was lost. 

Title page for chapter I wrote in SERIOUS PLEASURES.

Although it was released in 1961, One-Eyed Jacks was initiated in 1955, when Paramount Pictures offered the much sought-after Marlon Brando a western and agreed to give him complete autonomy to produce it himself. Having formed his own production company, Pennebaker [his mother’s maiden name], Brando partnered with Paramount in the venture and began looking for the right script. 

Finding it proved difficult because he wanted to make a western that would break all the Hollywood cliches. He first tried writing it himself, working for several years with his close friend, Carlo Fiore, while completing his other commitments. Initially he wanted the film to be tongue-in-cheek, and gave it the working title of “A Burst of Vermillion” because the hero wore a colorful flowing scarf. Eventually, Brando submitted a 240-page draft that Paramount executives promptly turned down.

While he was considering other approaches (at one point he wanted to do a western version of The Count of Monte Cristo), Paramount producer Frank P. Rosenberg came a cross a book entitled The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider. Future film legend Sam Peckinpah wrote a screenplay which the usually hard-to-please Brando surprised everyone by accepting with no changes, even though everyone else involved thought it needed more work.

At the studio’s urging, Peckinpah set about re-working the script while Brando and his collaborators looked for a director. After seeing Paths of Glory (1957) and The Killing (1956), Brando signed Stanley Kubrick at about the time Sam Peckinpah was given the heave-ho. About the experience, Peckinpah later said, “Very strange man, Marlon. Always doing a number about his screen image, how audiences would not accept him as a thief, how audiences would only accept him as a fallen sinner — someone they could love.”

TV veteran Rod Serling then took a crack at the script, followed by Calder Willingham once Kubrick came aboard. Brando’s ideas about what he wanted may have seemed strange to Peckinpah but they were positively normal compared to the story conferences that ensued following the hiring of Stanley Kubrick. All parties involved met regularly at Brando’s Oriental-style Beverly Hills home for story conferences during which they were required to remove their shoes (Kubrick inexplicably went further by removing his pants.). The meetings were punctuated by a loud gong Brando struck whenever the arguments became too heated.

The gong was struck more frequently in the ensuing months, usually during arguments between Brando and Kubrick. when Kubrick suggested Spencer Tracy to play “Dad” Longworth, for example, he didn’t know Brando had already hired Karl Malden on the payroll. When Kubrick said, “I’ve read the script and I don’t even know what it’s about,” Brando told him: “It’s about me having to pay Karl Malden $25,000 a week.” 

After Kubrick and Brando argued for the umpteenth time, Brando excused himself and flicked his head at Rosenberg to join him in the kitchen. The two men agreed that Kubrick had to go, but Brando turned down Rosenberg’s alternative suggestions, saying that he should direct the film himself. Rosenberg voiced reservations about the actor cutting his teeth on such a large undertaking but when Paramount agreed, Brando became the director. Part of the ambiguity surrounding the making of One-Eyed Jacks is whether Brando took over directing begrudgingly or whether he had intended to do so all along. In his recent autobiography he insists that he took the project on by default after every major Hollywood director turned it down.

Paramount announced that Kubrick had left to pursue his own project, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1962). When Carlo Fiore told him Brando would be directing, Kubrick said, “If he had hired another director it might have appeared that I was lacking in talent or was temperamental or something. But if Marlon directs it, it gets me off the hook…I can see Marlon’s point. You can’t really call a film your own if somebody else directs you.” Brando went further by having Rosenberg fire Willingham and bring veteran screenwriter Guy Trosper into the production. 

To those in Hollywood who considered Brando difficult, especially with directors, it may have seemed just desserts to have him finally behind the camera. They had not counted on the Brando ingenuity that had made him a major force in Hollywood in the first place. 

His approach to casting was unusual. During auditions he would tell an actor a phone call had been received that a close family member had been injured. If the actor gave Brando the response he was looking for, he got the part. For the romantic lead he preferred an unknown, adding, “No tits. I don’t want my leading lady’s heaving big boobs on that wide screen while I’m trying to get a point across to my audience” A young Mexican actress named Pina Pellicer, whose previous experience was a Spanish language production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” filled the bill.

Brnado explains what he wants to nervous leading lady Pina Pellicer, Tragically, she committed suicide in 1964.

The rest of the cast was made up of Brando cronies, including Malden, a friend of Brando’s from New York named Sam Gilman, and a former pickpocket turned stuntman named Larry Duran, as well as western veterans Katy Jurado, Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson. In Johnson, an alumnus of John Ford’s stock company, Brando had a model to build his own character on. He engaged the former rodeo superstar in endless conversations so as to acquire his speech patterns and vocal inflections.

The film, which was supposed to begin shooting on September 15, 1958, finally started to roll on December 2 for a scheduled six weeks as all of Hollywood wondered if Brando could pull it off. Some saw an incident on the first day as an omen: As the director looked through the viewfinder to set up a shot in front of visiting reporters, he complained that the device was useless because it made everything look so small. Assistant director Chico Day quietly took the viewfinder from Brando, turned it around and gave it back to him. “If you think this is bad,” Brando joked, “wait till the fifth day of shooting.”

(L-R) Actor/director Marlon Brando discusses a scene with assistant director Chico Day.

At the end of the first day, Brando was told something he would be hearing for the duration of the production — he was already behind schedule. In spite of these ongoing reminders, he had actually found himself enjoying the filmmaking process. In his autobiography he wrote, “One-Eyed Jacks is one of my favorite pictures…We shot it at Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula, where I slept with many pretty women and had a lot of laughs.”

Brando taking advantage of the Big Sur location.

The joy the usually moody actor felt was contagious. He offered extras $200 out of his own pocket for the best reaction onscreen. He was patient and sensitive with the nervous Pellicer, who was having trouble with the English dialogue; to help her register appropriate shock in one scene, he fired a gun off-camera. Sometimes his ingenuity would backfire. Larry Duran was supposed to look both shocked and angry in a pivotal scene. Before the take, Brando strolled over to have a talk; when the actor seemed at ease, Brando hauled off and hit him flush in the face, ran behind the camera and started to film. Unfortunately, he hit Duran so hard he knocked half the actor’s beard off. 

For Brando it was all part of the learning process. “Some scenes I shot over and over again from different angles with different dialogue because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he admitted years later. “I also did a lot of stalling for time trying to work the story out in my mind while hoping to make the cast think I knew what I was doing.”

Since reporters were welcome on the set (Brando played host to everyone from Jacques Tati to a Japanese beauty queen), stories began to circulate, as Rosenberg told columnist Army Archerd, “This isn’t a movie. It’s a way of life.” If the director was trying to match a shot from the previous day after the weather changed, it would be reported that he kept the crew standing around while he waited to shoot the right wave. Similarly, it was reported that he had ruined days of shooting by getting drunk, when in fact he had tried to shoot a scene in which he was drunk by actually getting drunk. It was an experiment he had long wanted to try, but he ended up passing out and not getting the shots he needed. 

French film comedian Jacques Tati visiting the set of One-Eyed Jacks.

Paramount chief Frank Freeman let it be known he was coming to the set and if he was not satisfied, he would pull the plug. Rosenberg was amazed at how nonplussed Brando was when he told him. The next day, after viewing the dailies, Freeman appeared, told Brando he was doing a good job, gave him a bear hug, and walked away. Brando caught Rosenberg’s eye and thumbed his nose.

Finally, on June 2, 1959, after six months of filming, One-Eyed Jacks wrapped. Originally budgeted at $1.6 million, the film had ended up costing $6 million, and an arduous editing job still lay ahead. While most directors shoot an average of 150,000 feet of film and print 40,000, Brando had exposed over a million feet. 

What happened next depends again on which source you believe. Many Brando associates claim the film was taken away from him and chopped up to the point that he never again wanted to direct. Brando himself, although not happy with the final cut, has said, “I started editing it but pretty soon got sick of it and turned the job over to someone else. When he finished, Paramount said it didn’t like my version of the story. The studio cut the movie to pieces and by then I was bored with the whole project and walked away from it.”

At the studios’s behest Brando directed a day of reshoots in October of 1960, filming a new ending in which Pellicer’s character didn’t die. The 4 hour and 42 minute film was cut down to 2 hours and 20 minutes, and along the way whole subplots were removed, including one in which Brando’s character, recuperating in a Chinese settlement, rapes a young girl in a drunken stupor (The drunk scene that had given him so much trouble didn’t make it into the movie.). An ad-lib which Karl Malden inserted into every film he ever did must have been eliminated, too; One-Eyed Jacks is the only Malden film in which he the actor never says the name “Sekulovich,” which he had been obliged to change when he came to Hollywood.  

Old friends Karl (“Mladen Sekulovich”) Malden & Brando joke around between scenes.

When the film was released it received good reviews except for Brando’s own performance. He was quoted as saying at the time: “I didn’t feel it’s what I set out to do. In my film, everybody lied, even the girl. The only one who told the truth was the Karl Malden character. Paramount made him out to be the heavy, a liar. Now the characters in the film are black and white, not gray and human as I planned them.” As was the custom at the time, negative trims and outs were jettisoned so we will never see a director’s cut of One-Eyed Jacks

Besides being the last film shot in the expensive VistaVision process, permitting better color definition on the wide screen, One-Eyed Jacks was indeed like no other western, and through the years personalities as different as actor Charles Grodin and political satirist Mort Sahl have spoken of it as their favorite film. Like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch are fans and so is Monte Hellman, who has said that Fabio Testi’s poncho in China 9, Liberty 37 (1978) is a tribute to the poncho Marlon Brando wore in One-Eyed Jacks

The film’s title implies the duality of human behavior. At one point Brando’s character tells Karl Malden, “You’re a one-eyed Jack around these parts. But I’ve seen the other side of your face.” The title could apply equally well to the Rashomon-like contradictions contained in printed accounts of the film’s production, where everything seems to depend on one’s point of view — or on what one wants to have seen — like a one-eyed Jack. 

Original ad art for One-Eyed Jacks.

  • Dwayne Epstein.
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The Sand Pebbles, the under appreciated 1966 epic, may seem another odd choice for a  blog dedicated to promoting my book, Lee Marvin Point Blank, but thanks to Oliver Stone, it’s actually quite appropriate. As I had done previously in my blog entries on Sean Connery and The Hill, as well as Lee Marvin and Point Blank, I was fortunate to write about the making of another personal favorite when director Oliver Stone made The Sand Pebbles his choice for inclusion in Serious Pleasures (1997). It follows below intact except for where I placed ellipitcal dots. Since I don’t believe in ‘spoiler alerts’ I removed the sentence in which he gives away the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, yet. This month also being the 40th anniversary of Steve McQueen’s untimely passing, I thought it an appropriate time to include this.  Following Stone’s lengthy essay, is my piece about the making of the film set apart in italics. Enjoy!

Rare ad art from the original release of THE SAND PEBBLES.

“The Native Strain” Oliver Stone on The Sand Pebbles
I Think that Robert Wise is one of America’s most overlooked directors, and The Sand Pebbles is one of the most powerful big budget epics ever filmed. The backdrop for The Sand Pebbles is civil war-torn China in the 1920s, with a terrific Steve McQueen starring as Jake Holman, a world-weary sailor assigned to an American gunboat, the San Pablo, which becomes fatally enmeshed in another country’s problem. […….] 
   There are two extraordinary romances in the film, one between different classes (Steve McQueen’s working stiff sailor and Candice Bergen’s virginal, aristocratic missionary daughter); the other between different races (Richard Attenborough in a great performance as a veteran mariner and Marayat Andriane’s beautiful, oppressed Chinese woman). Both end in tragedy that tears your guts out. 
   There are so many memorable scenes in The Sand Pebbles‘ three-hours of running time. One of them, the politically motivated killing of a Chinese coolie (played by the Japanese-American actor, Mako) befriended by Holman, was the first movie scene that ever made me cry for an Asian character. There’s an incredible battle between the American gunboat and a blockade manned by young Chinese students that terrifyingly moves from distant shelling and shooting to brutal hand-to-hand combat. The tension between the sailors on the gunboat is very well delineated; many of Holman’s shipmates (like the one played by evil Simon Oakland) are beasts trying to drag him down to their level, instead of All-American heroes.

Montage of Steve McQueen in THE SAND PEBBLES.

   The Sand Pebbles was perceived as a failure in its time — audiences were still more attuned to the John Wayne version of war. But I thought then and now that it’s a remarkable and very brave film. I was a fan of Wise’s work even as a nine-year-old boy, when his Helen of Troy had a huge impact on me, encouraging me to read The Odyssey and other Greek classics and myths. The film was ridiculed at the time, but I recently saw it on a newly released laserdisc, and it still holds up as an inspiring mythological film.
   Over his 50 plus years of making movies after starting as an editor(with credits including Citizen Kane), Wise worked across all genres, and his 39 films include a number of classics. The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher, his first and third films were fine, moody horror movies. The Set-Up was a great noir boxing movie. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a science-fiction standard. The Desert Rats, Destination Gobi and especially Run Silent, Run Deep, with Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable, are exciting World War II dramas, with the latter a wonderful submarine movie that was the precursor for The Hunt for Red October, just as Somebody Up There Likes Me was the precursor for Rocky and The Andromeda Strain for Outbreak. Executive Suite, set against the business world, influenced me when I made Wall Street. I Want to Live! was the ultimate woman’s movie and Odds Against Tomorrow is one of the most depressing and powerful melodramas of the New York school of the Fifties. West Side Story was revolutionary in its approach to the movie musical and then Wise returned to his atmospheric early work with The Haunting, a frightening psychological ghost story with only four main characters. Then he made The Sound of Music, unbelievably successful, before turning the tables again with The Sand Pebbles. 
   I think it’s a real crime that Wise, like many others of his generation, including [George] Stevens, [William] Wellman, [William] Wyler, [Lewis] Milestone and [Stanley] Kramer, have been nailed by critics who rejected their classical style for the French Nouvelle Vague [New Wave] and their American imitators. I loved and was influenced by Godard, Resnais and the others, but it wan’t a betrayal to continue appreciating the American traditions.

The Sand Pebbles was a roadshow, an expensive film shown solely on a reserved-seat basis, made by the foremost practitioner of the form during its mid-Sixties, Robert Wise.

Opening page from SERIOUS PLEASURES chapter on THE SAND PEBBLES.

   Richard McKenna’s mammoth novel of The Sand Pebbles was based on his own experience of 22 years as a sailor in China during the 1930s. After he left the Navy, McKenna earned a B.A. in English literature, married the school librarian and wrote his only novel using the U.S. Villa-Lobos from the Spanish-American War as his prototype. The Sand Pebbles stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 28 weeks.
  “I thought it was time the American public was reminded that the phrase ‘Yankee Go Home!’ which was very prominent in WWII was not born then but had been heard in a lot of areas around the world through the century,” said Wise, explaining why he wanted to turn McKenna’s book into a film. Wise, who had visited Vietnam during the earliest phase of America’s involvement, has also said he thought the story could serve as an allegory of what was happening there.
   He first approached United Artists, but after a budget dispute it was Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox who ended up purchasing the book rights. Wise balked at the front office insistence on making the film in San Francisco and held out for Taiwan, knowing that the process of obtaining permission would be a long one. 
   For the key role of sailor Jake Holman, he first wanted Paul Newman, with whom he had worked on Somebody Up There Likes Me. But, when Newman declined, Wise turned to another actor on his short list who had made his first screen appearance as an extra in Graziano biopic. The front office thought Steve McQueen was not a big enough star to carry such an expensive film.
   While playwright Robert Anderson worked on turning McKenna voluminous book into a workable screenplay, Wise accepted Fox’s offer to direct a film William Wyler had abandoned, The Sound of Music. When the film became the biggest grosser in history, Wise had carte blanche for The Sand Pebbles, and in the interim, The Great Escape (1963) and Love With the Proper Stranger (1963) had made McQueen a major star. Sensing that this would not be an overnight production, McQueen stipulated in is contract that his wife and two children accompany him to the Orient.
   Fox did secure permission to film in the Orient, but technically Taiwan and China were still at war. A week before the company’s arrival, a pitched battle took place near one of the film’s primary locations, but this international incident caused Wise no trouble at all compared to the problems that ensued during filming on locations at Keelung Harbor, Taipei, Tamsui and Hong Kong when production began November 22, 1965, with an 11-man crew, 47 actors and 32 interpreters. Helping the director get through “the most difficult film I’ve ever done,” which went way over its $8 million budget and 80-day schedule, was the news on the radio that he had won the Oscar for The Sound of Music.
   The problems were manifold and concurrent. On the 65th day of shooting, Costar Richard Crenna told a reporter, “The popular phrase here is that if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes, it’ll change.” and these unpredictable changes caused massive delays. Equally treacherous was the tide, which would leave the film’s main prop, the San Pablo (a $250,000 replica of the Villa-Lobos) stranded on shore at the beginning of a day’s shooting. Because the boat was built without a draft, maneuvering it was like trying to control a kite in a tail-wind. Most of the cast and crew members fell victim to illness. 
   Wise told an illustrative story about trying to get a simple shot of the ship’s flag on a bad-weather day: “This was the only thing I could think of shooting until the weather straightened out. We got the shot all lined up. The wind was blowing and we couldn’t hold the San Pablo. We had a tugboat on each side trying to hold her. She was swinging back and forth, left and right, ruining everything. Just as we were about to turn the cameras on, a puff of wind comes or a cable wold break and she would swing. After two hours of this I said, ‘That’s it! I’ve had it! Wrap everything up!’ I just couldn’t take it any more.”
   Although Wise held McQueen in high regard, he and McQueen disagreed constantly about what would work on film. Wise shot two versions of each scene, his and McQueen’s, to appease his star — a time-consuming process, particularly in view of the fact that none of McQueen’s versions wound up in the film.
   The film wrapped in May of 1966. McQueen was so grateful to return home that he was photographed kissing the ground of the airport tarmac. He told reporters, “Whatever sins I’m guilty of, I paid for them making this picture. I just hope something decent comes of it.”
   When the film began its roadshow engagement at the New York Rivoli on December 20, 1966, it got very good reviews. McQueen, buoyed by the best notices of his career, surprised everybody by publicizing the film in a way he had not done before and never would again. Although The Sand Pebbles lost money, it received eight Oscar nominations, including one for McQueen — the only one he received in his career. The film lost in all its categories.

(L-R) Young Chad and Terri McQueen watch as their father kisses the ground of the airport tarmac.

   “I’ve often wondered if maybe I tried to tell too many stories in The Sand Pebbles,” Wise has said of what he considers his most personal film. Co-star Mako is on record as feeling that the film was a head of its time as a Vietnam allegory. In any case, when Francis Ford Coppola was in the midst of filming his trouble-plagued Apocalypse Now, he requested a copy of The Sand Pebbles from Wise to show his crew what could be accomplished under adverse conditions.  
– Dwayne Epstein

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