Open Letter to Steven Spielberg

April 21, 2012, Toronto

DreamWorks Studios
100 Universal City,
CA 91608,
USA

Dear Mr. Spielberg,
 

I would like to tell you the saga of two famous 20th century books and two famous movie projects. They feature celebrated European writers, imperial heroes, several Hollywood and British stars, MGM bigwigs Louis Mayer and Irving Thalberg, the US State Department, Winston Churchill, ambassadors, British movie mogul Sir Alexander Korda, war and peace, heroes, villains, betrayal, censorship, boycotts, victory and defeat, wars of independence, and… as they say in Hollywood… a cast of thousands.
 
The first book is T.E. Lawrence’s “The Pillars of Wisdom”. It’s about the adventures of a British soldier, who acted as a liaison officer between the British government and the leaders of the Arab Revolt, against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War.  When it was published in 1922 it was  recognized as a modern masterpiece.

April 21, 2012, Toronto

DreamWorks Studios
100 Universal City,
CA 91608,
USA

Dear Mr. Spielberg,
 

I would like to tell you the saga of two famous 20th century books and two famous movie projects. They feature celebrated European writers, imperial heroes, several Hollywood and British stars, MGM bigwigs Louis Mayer and Irving Thalberg, the US State Department, Winston Churchill, ambassadors, British movie mogul Sir Alexander Korda, war and peace, heroes, villains, betrayal, censorship, boycotts, victory and defeat, wars of independence, and… as they say in Hollywood… a cast of thousands.
 
The first book is T.E. Lawrence’s “The Pillars of Wisdom”. It’s about the adventures of a British soldier, who acted as a liaison officer between the British government and the leaders of the Arab Revolt, against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War.  When it was published in 1922 it was  recognized as a modern masterpiece.

Nine years later, another famous book was published about resistance to the Ottomans: this one in Germany. Its title? “The 40 Days of Musa Dagh”. Musa Dagh means the Mountain of Moses. Austrian novelist Franz Werfel was the author. Although 900 pages long, the two-volume novel—based on events in Cilicia in 1915 when a small community of Armenians refused to die without a fight—became an international success. The following year the English version sold 34,000 copies in the first two weeks of its publication. Among the fans of the book were Jews the world over who were inspired by the Armenian struggle against the Turks. During the Warsaw Uprising the novel became a bible and a textbook to Jews fighting the Nazis. David Godine, who published a complete and new version of "The 40 Days of Musa Dagh" this year, said in an interview recently: "Werfel clearly intended his novel as a message to the Jews of Germany. He accurately saw the fate of the Armenians at the hand of the Turks as precursor to the slaughter of the Jews by the Nazis."
Irving Thalberg, the legendary MGM producer, bought the film rights and had it translated for the studio screenwriters. Pre-production work began in 1934; Clark Gable was cast as Gabriel Bagradian, the leader of the Musa Dagh Armenians. The year before, Gable had portrayed an Armenian journalist in the now-classic “It Happened One Night”. Meanwhile, critic Louis Kronenberger of the "New York Times" wrote: "If Hollywood does not mar and mishandle it, it should make a magnificent movie."
 
While Hollywood was gearing up for the production of the Werfel’s saga, on the other side of the Atlantic, film producer Alexander Korda bought the film rights to “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” from Lawrence. The script was written and Zoltan (Alexander’s brother) was assigned to direct and the shoot was scheduled for 1937 with Leslie Howard as Lieut. Col. Lawrence. Winston Churchill was hired as historical advisor.
 
Despite the glittering reputation of the people backing the project and the fame of Lawrence (he had died in a motorcycle accident in 1935), the movie was cancelled due to Turkish government pressure. Informal pressure was brought to bear on Korda by the British Foreign Office to drop the project. For good measure, the British Film Classification Board informed Korda that there was no chance that the board would certify the film. Without certification the movie couldn’t be shown in Britain. Korda, a recent Jewish immigrant from Hungary, decided not to challenge his hosts.
 
Similar pressure was applied to Werfel’s novel by the Turkish ambassador in Germany. ’Das Schwartz Korps’, the official newspaper of the SS, alleged that “The 40 Days of Musa Dagh” was anti-Turkish propaganda, that the author was an anti-Nazi Jewish agent and that his novel was being promoted by “America’s Armenian Jews.” The novel was burned at a public auto da fe, along with other books the Nazis disapproved.
 
Meanwhile back in Hollywood, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States had been busy trying to stop MGM’s “The 40 Days of Musa Dagh.” Despite the State Department’s several attempts to mollify the Turkish government by watering down the MGM script, Turkish Ambassador Mehmed Ertegun would not budge. He threatened that Turkey would launch a global boycott against MGM if the movie was made. The Turkish press, in full racist throttle, went on an anti-Semitic binge. In a Sept. 3, 1935 editorial, Istanbul’s ‘Heber’ newspaper opined that since Werfel was Jewish and MGM was owned by Jews, Turkey would boycott not only MGM but all Jewish companies around the world. In the face of Turkish threats, Louis B. Mayer, the MGM head, shuttered the movie.
 
While Korda had succumbed to Turkish and foreign office pressure in the late ‘30s, twenty-two years later the famed producer-director team of Sam Spiegel-David Lean revived the “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” project and titled it “Lawrence of Arabia.” It was shot mostly in Jordan. The movie, two years in production, starred Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, a host of British stars and a cast of many thousand Bedouins. Jose Ferrer played the sadist Turkish bey who raped Lawrence in Der’aa, in southern Syria. The movie was made despite Turkish objections and despite Turkish family ties to the Hashemite royal family of Jordan. The movie won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Since then ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ has been hailed by critics and the public as one of the best epic movies ever made. Mr. Spielberg, I know it’s one of your favorites.
 
While the gutsy decision by Spiegel/Lean paid off artistically and commercially, “The 40 Days of Musa Dagh” script gathered dust at MGM. In 1982 a low-budget, cowboys-and-Indians version was made by director Sarky Mouradian. Few people, other than Armenians, saw the film.
 
Since then several actors, including Sylvester Stallone, have expressed an interest in the novel. However, Turkish campaigns have succeeded in dissuading these actors from proceeding with the project.
 
Dear Steven, politically controversial movies have an honorable tradition. Costa Gavras filmed the classics “Z” and “Stage of Siege” about the Greek colonels and the Argentinean generals respectively; Richard Gere made “Red Corner” despite Chinese government threats; you made “Amistad” about slavery. Roman Polanski recently directed “The Ghost Writer”—an expose of former British PM Tony Blair.
 
Throughout your career you’ve shown daring not only in artistic and technical innovation but also in the handling–in truthful manner—of controversial and sensitive issues such as slavery, the Shoah, the Japanese occupation of China. You know about covert and overt pressure.
 
In 2015 it will be 100 years since the Ottoman Turkish government exterminated 1.5 million innocent Armenians and drove the rest from their 4,000-year-old homeland to the deserts of Syria. In three years, Armenians around the world will again raise their voices and demand that the international community persuade Turkey to admit its crime and atone for it. Armenians everywhere are, of course, thankful to the Shoah Foundation Institute (which you’ve established) for helping make Armenian Genocide survivor testimonies available to universities around the world.
 
I humbly ask you to film the Musa Dagh epic: an exciting story which will mesmerize millions of movie lovers. Don’t let Turkish intimidation and boycott strangle truth and justice. On the genocide centenary what better way to tell to the world about the martyrdom of 1.5 million Armenians? I believe you and your colleague, Steve Zaillian, are uniquely qualified to do justice to this grand story.  

The centenary is three years away. Time is running out. We know how time consuming movie production is—specially an epic.
 

Armenians and righteous people around the world would love to see, in 2015, giant billboards proclaim, in block letters, “STEVEN SPIELBERG’s THE 40 DAYS of MUSA DAGH”. It’s time to call “action” for the Musa Dagh shoot. 
 
Thank you.
 
An Armenian Movie Buff
 
 
18 comments
  1. Musa Dagh Tribulations

    Thank you for "Open Letter to Steven Spielberg". I learned a great deal about the tribulations these two works have gone through on their way to film studios–tribulations engineered by Turkey. I hope Mr. Spielberg reads your letter and goes into action.

    You might like to know what Vartan Gregorian wrote in his introduction to the new and complete edtion of "The 40 Days of Musa Dagh" which includes the missing 25% of the book which was deleted when the book was translated in the early ’30s. Mr. Gregorian wrote: "…the novel serves as an allegory, a not-so-veiled warning about the virulent racialism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism and amoral realpolitik that were about to be unleashed by the Nazis. It was a wake-up call for Jews and non-Jews alike about the impending calamity that was soon to engulf the Jews of Germany and German-speaking lands."

    1. Christian Genocide

      Dear Ms. Levy,

      I don’t understand why you would use the French soi-disant to describe the Armenian portrayal of their genocide. Soi-disant means so-called, pretended and, sarcastically, someone who thinks he is an authority on every subject. Surely you don’t mean that because Armenians talk about genocide then that horrible chapter is so-called, unverified or an occurrence which only Armenians believe was genocide. Perhaps you should check a French/English dictionary. 

      1. Misnomer

        Ms. Levy said the the term is a misnomer, I believe she believes in the Armenian Genocide, specially when the links she provided say a lot.

        1. Genocide Misnomer

          Misnomer means the wrong name or word to describe anything. Ms. Levy says we should not call the horror of 1915 "Armenian Genocide" because it was part of a larger genocide. I don’t agree with her. No one says what the Nazis did to Jews should not be called Holocause because Nazis also killed Pole, Gypsy, Russian, etc. civilians as part of Hitler’s grand ethnic cleansing plan. In fact, more civilian Poles, Gypsies and Russians died at the hands of the Nazis than Jewish civilians did. I realize that Ms. Levy recognizes the genocide of Armenians.

          1. Genocide Misnomer

            Holocaust means "sacrifice by fire" and it is well known that Poles, Russians, gypsies, the disabled, etc., were murdered during the Holocaust. In fact, there are many films, plays and books about the extermination of these populations. However, the Holocaust originated as a pre-meditated, systematic plan to annihilate an ethnic/religious group deemed as "inferior" – the Jews.  What began with the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 and progressed to mass shootings, gassing trucks and finally cyanide gas in death camps was a culmination of the Final Solution, the plan for the systematic genocide of the Jews.  A fairly recent book, The Holocaust by Bullets, A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews, documents previously unaccounted Jewish deaths by mass shootings in parts of the former Soviet Union where Jews were captured in their communities and forced to dig their own graves. This brings the total number of Jewish deaths during the Holocaust to 7.5 million.  

            What is specifically called the "Armenian" Genocide was, in fact, much more than that and the term is misleading. Furthermore, the public is unaware that what took place in the Ottoman Empire in the early part of the twentieth century for the most part, was a Muslim jihad against all Christians (and some Jews), much like we’re seeing today in Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, etc. It is estimated that approximately 1.5 million Assyrians and Greek Christians were murdered in addition to the 1.5 million Armenians. The differences with respect to the Holocaust are twofold:  1) the genocide was perpetrated to rid the region of Christians, not just Armenians, and 2) this fact is unknown to most of the world and needs to be exposed. Calling the ethnic cleansing of Christians the "Armenian" Genocide precludes that.  

             

          2. Misnomer (Cont.)

            Ms. Levy,

            I agree with you that the Turkish government committed genocide against the Assyrians and the Pontic Greeks. However, for reasons unknown to me, their genocide has not been studied, written and talked about as much as the genocide of Armenians. Over the past century, Armenians, with the support of non-Armenian governments, institutions, scholars, media, have obtained a high profile for their genocide thus becoming a lighting rod to persuade/force Turkey to admit its crime. If it’s now subsumed into the ‘Christian Genocide’ name, it would confuse people. Armenians then would be forced to start a whole new campaign, new books, new meetings, new everything. This would be a tremendous task for a forcibly exiled people scattered all over the world.

            I encourage Assyrians and Pontic Greeks to energize their campaign against the Turkish government’s denial. They can learn from the Armenian experience. Armenians, I am certain, would assist to make the Assyrian and the Pontic Genocides high profile. Armenians can work with them for a collective campaign while continueing to publicizing their own genocide.

            Against tremendous odds, Armenians from around the world, have kept alive their network of co-opeation, information exchange, joint Genocide recognition campaigns and related efforts. This network should not subsume its efforts and launch yet another series of committees, meetings, recognition campaign plans, fundraisers, promotions and media efforts under a new name.

            To again use the Holocaust (a Greek word which means mass burning)…although the Nazis also killed millions of  Poles (Hitler considered Slavs sub-human), Russians, Ukrainians, Gypsies, homosexuals and other groups, the genocide of Jews has remained distinctive, with its own name, although Slavs were also killed because of their race, just like the Jews. Atheistic Nazis didn’t care for the religion of the people they tried to exterminate. The Judaic religion was not the reason Nazis tried to eliminate the Jews; it was the ‘race’ of the Jews. Thus the Holocaust descriptive can be a misnomer, since sacrificial rite is associated mostly with religion. Incidentally, as early as the mid-1890s, the ‘New York Times’ described Sultan’s Abdul Hamid II’s butchery of Armenians as "holocaust."

             

             

          3. Misnomer

            That’s an excellent solution, Mr. Hayorti.  

            BTW, you might be interested in an important new book, "The Genocide of the Ottoman Greeks:  Studies on the State-Sponsored Campaign of Extermination of the Christians of Asia Minor (1912-1922) and Its Aftermath:  History, Law, Memory."  See a review here.    

            Thanks for an interesting interchange.  I enjoyed communicating with you and learned a few things.

            Best regards,

            Janet Levy

          4. Genocide Misnomer III

            Ms. Levy,

            Thank you for introducing the ‘genocide of Greeks by the Ottomans’ book in this discussion. I learned a lot from its review. I also enjoyed our exchange.

      2. Christian Genocide

        Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I always thought "soi-disant" was a close approximation of "so-called" as in the identification of a misnomer but without the sarcasm. I meant that the genocide that is referred to as the "Armenian Genocide," included very significant numbers of other religious/ethnic groups as well. I stand corrected.

        If you read my article, you’ll see that I very much believe that a Christian jihad took place against Armenians, Assyrians, Greek Christians and others.

         

         

         

        1. Armenian or Christian Genocide

          Dear Ms. Levy,

          In addition to the reason I cited why the horror of 1915 should be described as Armenian Genocide, I would like to add four more reasons in reply to your most recent comment:

          1. Armenians, have, for many decades, used "Armenian Genocide" as descriptor for the 1915 horrors. Pontic, Assyrian and other Christian minorities also use "genocide" to describe what Turkey did to them.

          2. To use the newfangled "Christian Genocide" might water down the tragedy inflicted upon Armenians by Turkey. There have been a great number of genocides of Christians in the Middle East and in Europe. I believe it’s happening in Nigeria and in Iraq now.

          3. "Christian Genocide" is an awkward descriptor because it combines religion with nation. Genocide means the killing of a nation.

          4. Turks tried to exterminate Armenians not only because of the latter’s religion.

    2. Yet Another
      Yet another subtle attempt of denial, even if covert, and seemingly innocent. Can genocide be diluted and be made less of a genocide?

  2. The 40 Days of Musa Dagh

    No matter what Armenians say, the Dollar is mightier than idle chatter. The Turks are ready to spend whatever it takes to stop any movie that will depict them as murderers! “Its good business for them"

    Now how many Armenians are willing to put their money where the mouth is?  And that is the reason the movie will never be produced.

    Stop the wining, put up the money and the movie will be produced.

    1. Unfortunately our community

      Unfortunately our community money is going on the wrong direction.  Instead of countering the Turkish and Azeri propaganda, we are dumping huge amounts of money building unnecessary churches outside of Armenia and doing other unnecessary investments in Armenia which doesn’t really benefit our cause at all.

      We need better organizations.

      Also we have billionaires, in Armenia and abroad, who should "put their money where their mouth is" as you put it.

      1. Our Comunity

        Dear all,

        It is very difficult to say "we" or "our community." Which Armenian do we mean? Armenian in Armenia, in Lebanon, in Brazil/Argentina/Uruguay, in USA/Canada or in Europe?

        We have so many different cultures and several local languages. We have to protect and develop our Armenian mother tongue, our private Armenian schools, our religion, our culture to keep us and our next generation Armenian.

        I do not support the spending our money for expensive building such as churches and other unnecessary investments. To know about our religion and our history is a good thing, but they belong to the past. I mean here and now is important. Here and now means where we are living in "our" democratic/humanistic countries with their democratic parliaments, their governments. We can only benefit if their senators/parliamentarian begin to discus the Armenian Genocide in their democratic parliaments. This should be goal.

        If they are really humanist, they should have the chance to show their true colours. But to achieve this, needs big effort, confidence, an ocean of patience, endless work for us. It is not easy to establish such a strong lobby which would protect our interests. It’s very difficult but possible. See, for example, many European countries, especially Switzerland. Since December 2003 it is forbidden to deny the Armenian Genocide in Switzerland. There are only four thousand Armenians in Switzerland It is possible to reach "impossible" targets even with little power.

         


  3. Mr. Spielberg

    Are there any plans to actually send this letter to Mr. Spielberg, or it will remain ‘open’ and no action taken?  We have Armenian producers and directors in Hollywood and other who can make sure this letter is delivered.  I hope Mr. Spielberg will read and reply with action.

     

  4. Support the Project

    A movie, as proposed in the Open Letter to Steven Spielberg, will need an investment running of millions of dollars to, in addition to legal and ancillary expenses that may incur due to the interference of the Turkish government and its supporters in the U.S. Is it unrealistic to ask prominent Armenians such as Kirk Kerkorian, Alejandro (Alex) Yemenidjian, Kevork Hovnanian and Kim Kardashian of U.S., Eduardo Eurnekian of Argentina, Nar Khatchadourian of Lebanon, Ara Abrahamian of Russia and Charles Aznavour of France to show their moral and financial support to get the project off the ground?

  5. 40 Days of Musa Dagh

    The article was written in an acceptable, well-worded and in an appealing style. I hope Mr. Spielberg, who is an honest man and a man of integrity,  will not ignore the one-and-half million Armenians who perished during the first Genocide of the 20th century. I am sure he knows the excuse of Hitler while he and his team of hyenas were taking the most devilish decision of the 20th century–the extermination of the Jews.

    Minas Kojayan

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