This is exactly what attracted Frankenheimer to the idea of adapting Joseph Kessel's French novel to the screen, and he bought the rights immediately after reading it. "I think it has a modern theme to it about a man who's looking for his own identity," he said in a 1971 interview. "It's an adventure story between the father and the son that is very touching."
For the role of the son, Frankenheimer cast an actor he considered to be among his favorites, Egyptian born Omar Sharif. Frankenheimer praised Sharif's professionalism, dedication to the project, and willingness to push himself for authenticity. Already a good rider, Sharif went beyond what he thought he could do in the horseback sequences. He also endured the extra stress of working with one leg bent up behind him to simulate the character's loss of his lower leg after a severe infection (although Frankenheimer noted that in some shots you could see the shadow of the "missing" limb). "He's good, he works hard, he's an inspiration to the rest of the cast," the director said, comparing his lead actor favorably to other favorites, such as Alan Bates and Gene Hackman.
The father was played by Jack Palance, heavily made up for some scenes because he was only 13 years older than Sharif. Frankenheimer had directed Palance on television and admired his work on film. He needed someone who could play younger and more physically imposing than Sharif in flashback scenes and also thought the American-born actor of Ukrainian descent could convincingly play Asian because of "those marvelous high cheekbones." To get the feeling of the character in old age, Palance put weights around his arms and waist to make his movements more strained and difficult.
The project was actually begun as early as 1968, when the rights to Kessel's novel were purchased for $150,000 and Dalton Trumbo was brought in to adapt the screenplay. Production began in late spring 1969, but the shooting schedule had to be split to allow for Sharif's commitment to The Last Valley (1970). In the hiatus between September 1969 and April 1970, Frankenheimer made the low-key drama I Walk the Line (1970) with Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld.
The exterior scenes of The Horsemen were shot with much difficulty in Spain and Afghanistan. Frankenheimer took on the extra burden of shooting all the second-unit material himself. Usually on large-scale epics and action films done on location, a second-unit director will have the responsibility for crowd shots, action sequences, and the like, such as Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt did for the Ben-Hur chariot scene, but Frankenheimer preferred to do it himself. "I've always managed to cut out every shot a second unit ever made in a film of mine, and I would go out on Sundays and re-shoot it," he later explained. Highly respected and sought-after director of photography James Wong Howe was supposed to have been in charge of cinematography on The Horsemen, but either illness (according to Frankenheimer) or a falling out with the director (according to other sources) prevented him from completing it, so Frankenheimer said he went to Afghanistan himself with three camera operators whose work he trusted. They shot "endless" Buzkashi games and many landscapes, then returned to Spain where Claude Renoir took over as cinematographer. Renoir was the son of actor Pierre Renoir and nephew of director Jean Renoir, for whom Claude shot six films.
Pressures brought about by these changes in crew, a staggering budget, and working in a country like Afghanistan, with its language barriers, extreme heat, threat of military intervention and, at the time, lack of resources for filmmaking, were nothing to Frankenheimer compared to the blow dealt him by Columbia, the studio producing The Horsemen. The movie was originally intended as a three-hour road show (opening in a limited number of theaters in selected cities for advanced ticket prices). Midway through production in Spain, Columbia changed management and told the director they now wanted a shorter film for wider, normal distribution. Frankenheimer said that at the time they announced this decision he was engaged in an intricate sequence involving a caravan of trucks with about 1500 extras. "Does this change anything for you?" executives asked. Frankenheimer replied that they might as well dismiss everyone on set that day and scrap the scene, along with any others of large scope that conveyed a passage of time and a sweep of physical space. "It was a horrible experience because we had to re-edit the film and the script," he said. "It was a terrible blow, it really was. It altered everything about the movie, the look of it, the balance of the narrative. What we had planned, what we had visualized, we weren't allowed to do." Nevertheless, The Horsemen ended up costing $6 million (according to Frankenheimer, contradicting studio publicity claiming $4.5 million), and he praised the studio for getting behind the film and pushing it at the box office. Nevertheless, it received mixed reviews in America and did middling business. Typical of its assessment here was this New York Times review: "Wrong-headedness can occasionally be moving and tragic, but "The Horsemen" is a remote, choppy adventure, chiefly interesting as the work of a director who, though his strength is contemporary melodrama (The Young Savages , The Manchurian Candidate), persists in pretending he's a romantic." The critical and commercial reception was much better overseas.
Director: John Frankenheimer
Producer: Edward Lewis
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel
Cinematography: Claude Renoir, James Wong Howe, André Domage
Editing: Harold F. Kress
Art Direction: Gil Parrondo
Original Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Omar Sharif (Uraz), Leigh Taylor-Young (Zareh), Jack Palance (Tursen), David de Keyser (Mukhi), Peter Jeffrey (Hayatal).
by Rob Nixon
Quotes from John Frankenheimer in this article are taken from The Films of Frankenheimer: Forty Years in Film by Gerald Pratley (Lehigh University Press, 1998)