A Dream Cast

Christoph Huber

Peter Handke’s novel Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (Short Letter, Long Goodbye, 1972) pivots around a last-act-appearance of none other than John Ford: Impressed by Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), the first-person narrator of the book decides to make a pilgrimage and visit Ford to tell him how this film made him understand America and develop a sense of history. “We hardly dream at all anymore,” Handke’s Ford laments: “And when we do have a dream, we forget it. We talk about everything, so there’s nothing left to dream about.” That Handkes’s Ford is generally given to demystifying, even explanatory statements about himself may explain one of the problems I have with Handke as an author; frankly, not unlike Michael Crichton–and yet in a totally different way–he seems a better director than writer. (I’m sure there are others, maybe here’s the seed for a contrarian retrospective?)

In any case, we should not forget that the real Ford was the kind of person who would rather just sculpt film-dreams than talk this way, throughout his entire career. Looking into the John Ford Interviews book (University Press of Mississippi, edited by Gerald Peary), already the second talk anthologized (dated 1925), ends with the reporter transcribing the following response to a somewhat abstract question: “The reply sounded like ‘exactly’, but perhaps it was ‘bologna’.” And for late glory, it is hard to beat the superb episode of Cinéastes de notre temps , titled Entre chien et loup, John Ford (1966), in which Ford proves a master of misdirection, guiding (or goading) his enthusiastic interviewers as he sees fit. (I first saw it combined–as in the link above–with the Hitchcock interview, and for my money the cunning old fox Ford easily outdid the master of suspense as a showman, however grumpy).

A draft script for a film adaptation of Handke’s novel has survived in the library of the German Literature Archive Marbach–a handscribbled note in the margins suggests November 27, 1978 as a projected broadcast date, but it must have been submitted years earlier. The man behind the project was Austrian-born director and actor Bernhard Wicki, probably best known internationally for his relatively small, but crucial parts in Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) and Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) or, as a filmmaker, for the rather interesting results of his brief flirt with Hollywood in the early 1960’s (the German scenes of The Longest Day, the Dürrenmatt adaptation The Visit starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, and the Brando-Brynner face-off Morituri).

But Wicki’s finest work is to be found among his German films–he made about a dozen, from the early little marvel Warum sind sie gegen uns? (Why Are They Against Us?, 1957) and the internationally successful anti-war drama Die Brücke (The Bridge, 1959) to his grand Joseph Roth epics like Das falsche Gewicht (Weigths and Measures, 1971) and his final work, Das Spinnenetz (Spider’s Web, 1989). Still, despite the presumable literary pedigree of the Handke project–Wicki specialized in ambitious adaptations, and co-wrote the draft with noted publisher Dr. Rudolf Rach–it never was made. However, the Marbach file contains a possible cast list, which is remarkable, to say the least. The choices for the main roles:

Christoph Seldan: Bruno Ganz or David Hemmings
Judith Seldan: Andrea Jonasson, Geraldine Chaplin or Romy Schneider
Claire Madison: Margarethe von Trotta or Lea Massari
Dramaturg: Max von Sydow or Martin Benrath
John Ford: John Ford

John Ford in Directed By John Ford.
John Ford in Directed By John Ford, 1971, Peter Bogdanovich