Global Hollywood Versus National Pride: The Battle to Film The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

by David Welky

From Film Quarterly Spring 2006: Volume 59, No. 3

Motion pictures play a significant role in determining how people around the world perceive their own and other societies. Governments have therefore been sensitive to cinematic portrayals of their countries and are quick to complain when they feel that a movie treats their citizens poorly. An example of this occurred in 2002, when Canadian-Armenian writer-director Atom Egoyan released Ararat, a fictional depiction of efforts to make a movie about the 1914 massacre of Armenians in the Turkish city of Van. Egoyan supplemented this film-within-a-film structure with subplots that considered the tragedy’s effects on future generations and pondered the relationship between history and memory. It was the first major picture to examine the Turkish genocide of one-and-a-half million Armenians during World War I.1

Turkey had long insisted that there was no organized campaign to eradicate Armenians and strongly opposed suggestions to the contrary. Ararat touched offa new round of angry denials and charges of hate mon-gering. Egoyan received a flood of hostile emails and detractors set up Web sites that disputed his movie’s truthfulness. Turks in Canada and elsewhere threatened to boycott all films from the film’s distributor, Miramax, and its parent company, Disney. There were rumors that the Turkish government would take legal action to bar the picture worldwide. State minister Yilmaz Karakoyunlu told the Ankara Daily News that “Turkey will do everything possible against this film. It is a shameful production.”2

Many were understandably surprised when, after attending Ararat’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, an organizer of the Istanbul Film Festival announced that he would push to screen the movie in his homeland. Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Minister, Erkan Mumcu, agreed that his country could “easily tolerate such things” and argued that a “strong reaction to this movie would only help keep the subject on the agenda.” He demanded only that a scene of Ottoman soldiers raping Armenian women be cut, as it violated Turkey’s law forbidding depictions of soldiers in uniform committing war crimes.3

Turkey’s new tolerance stemmed from the recent election of a moderate government that was eager to bolster the country’s bid to join the European Union by allowing more freedom of expression. Just days before Ararat was scheduled to open in Ankara and Istanbul, however, the film’s Turkish distributor yanked it in response to pressure from Ulku Ocaklari, a right-wing nationalist party with ties to paramilitary groups. The extremists had warned people planning to attend the movie that “whoever wants to destroy the unity of this nation and the will of our existence should be ready to pay the price.” Aris Balbikian, a spokesman for Canadian-Armenians, saw deep political, social, and cultural meaning in this battle. “Turkey is searching for its soul,” he explained. “There are some elements who don’t like what’s happening in Turkey: the democratizing of human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. They don’t want the healthy discussion and dialogue a film like Ararat would bring.”4

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Although no one seemed to remember it, this was not the first time a celluloid version of the alleged Armenian genocide had aroused nationalistic feelings, international debate, and discussions of art’s role in the world of realpolitik. Almost 70 years earlier, talk of a cinematic rendition of Franz Werfel’s novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (Die Vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, 1933) had touched off a controversy even more intense, passionate, and dangerous than that inspired by Ararat.

Major American movie studios spent 48 years trying to film the novel, only to be derailed by a series of domestic and international obstacles. An examination of this struggle, which was particularly intense during the Depression of the 1930s, illuminates the political, social, and economic issues that Hollywood faced in this time of global crisis. It also demonstrates the perils inherent in American dominance of the world market. The film capital’s unprecedented capability to spread powerful images and messages made it an obvious target for attacks from nationalistic groups concerned by its depictions of their homelands. The majors’ need for overseas revenue, which accounted for around 40 percent of their profits, left them vulnerable to such assaults and, as the example of Musa Dagh shows, fearful of making any film that might offend anyone.5

FRANZ WERFEL WAS BORN in Prague in 1890, the son of wealthy members of the city’s German-speaking Jewish community. He was a dreamy and distracted boy who reveled in literature, theater, and opera. The life of a writer, which allowed for late nights at the opera and long visits to cafés with Franz Kafka and other colleagues, appealed to his dislike of structure and schedule. He published his first collection of poems, The Friend of the World, to great acclaim in 1911. He kept writing during his service with the Austrian Army during World War I. His greatest military talent seemed to be his ability to avoid combat duty. Assignments to military offices in Prague, Vienna, and Switzerland left him with abundant time to write. His fame grew after the war: Juarez and Maximilian, his 1924 drama of the Mexican Revolution, established him as a formidable playwright. Such prose works as Verdi: A Novel of the Opera (1923) and The Pure at Heart (1929) won him even more popular acclaim.6

The inspiration for his best-known work came during a 1930 visit to the Middle East. While touring Damascus, he encountered a group of crippled and emaciated Armenians orphaned by a Turkish massacre. Although Werfel had read reports of the genocide during the War, this was the first time its human impact truly registered with him. He spent the rest of his trip locating survivors and listening to their stories. From them he learned of the heroic resistance on Musa Dagh (Mountain of Moses), where some 5,000 Armenians held off a Turkish force for 53 days before being rescued by French and British ships. Fascinated, Werfel determined to write a novel about the siege of Musa Dagh and the larger Armenian genocide.7

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh centers on Gabriel Bagradian, a wealthy Armenian who spent 22 years in Paris before returning to his ancestral village with his French wife, Juliette, and his son, Stephen. His homecoming coincides with the first stages of a methodical campaign to wipe out the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. Gabriel rallies the villagers and leads them to Musa Dagh, where they fight starvation, internal disputes, and the Turkish Army in a desperate struggle for survival. While clearly sympathizing with the Armenians, Werfel’s book included both humanitarian Turks and mean-spirited Armenians. It blamed the atrocities on the actions of Turks, Armenians, and Europeans alike.8

The novel won high praise in Austria and Switzerland. It found less favor in Germany, the author’s adopted country. Many of Musa Daghh’s European readers saw a connection between the persecution of Turkey’s Armenian minority and the Nazis’ rhetoric toward the Jews. Although the Nazis agreed with this analysis and therefore disapproved of the novel, they lacked either the authority or the will to block its publication. The book sold well in Germany until February of 1934, when the Nazis succumbed to pressure from the Turkish Government and agreed to halt its sales, ostensibly as a threat to public order and safety.9

However, neither the Germans nor the Turks could prevent the translation of Musa Dagh into English. It appeared in the United States in the fall of 1934 and rose to the top of the best-seller list. The Book of the Month Club made it a featured selection, helping to push American sales to around 150,000. Armenian Americans viewed Werfel as a hero—“a friend God has sent”—and mobbed him when he visited the United States in late 1935. Reviewers also responded positively. The Boston Transcript called it “a book to read, re-read and read again.” Writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, William Saroyan lamented that while Musa Dagh was long (817 pages), “in swiftness of movement it is all too short. Reading it, one hopes it might never end.” Many American critics saw connections between Werfel’s book and current events even though it was, and still is, unclear whether the author intended to allude to Nazi Germany. The New York Times‘ John Chamberlain interpreted Musa Daghhs plea for protection of minorities as “a burning, bitter and inspired protest against the Young Turk proclivities of the German Nazi movement.” Louis Kronenberger insisted that “it is hard not to read between the lines,” noting “the extremely close parallel between the plight of the Armenians under the Turks and that of the Jews under Hitler.”10

Kronenberger also observed that, “if Hollywood does not mar and mishandle” the novel, “it should make a magnificent movie.” Hollywood was in fact already hard at work on transforming the book into a film. Metro Goldwyn Mayer paid Werfel $15,000 for the screen rights in early 1934—a considerable sum for a novel that had not yet been published in the United States—and sent a 52-page synopsis to Joseph Breen’s Studio Relations Committee (SRC) in March of 1934.11 An MGM reader labeled Musa Dagh “an epic of exceptional strength; a combination of grim reality and colorful romance with a background that permits almost every variation and adaptation.” The reader did not anticipate any international difficulties. Neither did the SRC. Breen informed MGM head Louis B. Mayer that this “gripping and interesting historical epic” would present “no serious difficulty from the foreign angle” so long as the scenes of Turkish persecution were not too graphic.12

MGM and Breen’s benevolent reports suggest startling naïveté and an inability to grasp the importance other countries put on its products. This was surprising because American studios had dealt with overseas animosity before. Mexico, for example, had briefly banned American films in 1922 after tiring of cinematic representations of its people as greasers and ragged outlaws. Several other Latin-American countries followed its lead. Italy had recently forced MGM to cut a scene that showed an organ grinder warbling in nonsensical Italian from every print of Have a Heart (1934) distributed within Europe.13

Nevertheless, with the SRC’s approval in hand, Mayer put his son-in-law, David O. Selznick (who had been brought in to produce for MGM after Irving Thalberg suffered a heart attack in 1933), in charge of the movie. Selznick was the first to sense the danger in the project. He decided to soft-pedal the novel’s message by putting the blame for the atrocities on a single Turk, rather than on Turkey as a whole. He also asked Frederick Herron, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s (MPPDA) New York-based foreign manager, to let the Turkish government know that MGM was planning to film Musa Dagh. Herron recognized the movie was a potential lightning rod that could have a terrible impact on the entire industry. Bypassing the California-based Selznick, he plotted strategy with William Orr, who worked in MGM’s New York offices, before contacting the Turks. Herron suggested moving the film’s setting back 20 years to disassociate it from anyone currently in the Turkish government and emphasized the importance of depicting the Turks as “outstanding fine characters.” He implored MGM to treat the “French-Turk situation” with extreme care. The two countries were close allies. The Turks emulated elements of France’s culture, language, educational system, and military structure, and France was a major player in Turkish financial affairs. Should Turkey boycott the film, it could persuade France to join it. “While the Turkish market does not amount to much financially,” Herron reminded Orr, “our French market is a very important one.” Herron worried that, in this age of rising nationalism, “any place in the world today is in a position to fan a flame that can start a big bonfire motion picturewise.”14

Herron’s admonition came in the midst of larger domestic and international challenges that were changing the way Hollywood did business. Religious and civic groups had long accused the film industry of poisoning Americans’ morals with movies that glamorized vice, crime, sex, and violence. The major studios had responded to these complaints with self-censorship programs—including the SRC—designed to prove that they did not require government intervention. Voluntary codes, however, did little to alter the content of motion pictures or placate the moralists, whose outrage only grew as Hollywood churned out lurid sex comedies and violent gangster films in the early 1930s.

Matters came to a head in 1934. In April, a group of Catholic Bishops, egged on by a frustrated Joseph Breen, formed the Legion of Decency and encouraged their congregations to boycott movies that the new group deemed immoral. Other religious and civic organizations joined in, and Hollywood’s receipts plummeted as much as 40 percent in some cities. The empty theaters terrified the movie moguls, who took drastic action to save their skins. On July 1, 1934, they installed Breen at the helm of a new Production Code Administration (PCA). Unlike the SRC, the PCA had teeth. MPPDA members, which included all of the major studios, could not release or distribute a film without the PCA’s seal of approval. Among the more important articles in the newly enforced production code was one requiring that “the history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations …be represented fairly.” It was an ambiguous clause that the PCA interpreted broadly in the hopes of protecting the industry’s economic interests by ensuring that its products did not offend any national, religious, or ethnic group.15

Hollywood’s initial interest in Musa Dagh also coincided with a rising tide of nationalism in Europe. As Hitler’s forces consolidated their hold on Germany, they tried to purify the country’s culture by abolishing foreign influences; by mid-1934, Hollywood movies were banned with regularity. Italy had recently hiked taxes on foreign films and established a quota system requiring exhibitors to show at least one Italian-made movie for every three new productions they screened. The world market was becoming less accommodating at a time when Hollywood needed it most. With their domestic market struggling in the midst of the Great Depression, the industry’s leaders were increasingly willing to appease any force that threatened the foreign revenues they needed to maintain profitability.16

TURKEY ANNOUNCED its interest in the cinematic version of Musa Dagh in November 1934, just days before the novel hit American bookstores. Turkish Ambassador to the United States Mehmet Münir Ertegün voiced his displeasure with the project to the State Department’s head of Near Eastern Affairs, Wallace Murray, even though he knew that the American government had no official power to halt it. Mehmet Münir worried that the movie would give “a distorted version of the alleged massacres” that would stir up anti-Turkish sentiments and asked Murray to work informally to block it. Murray assured him that the studios were eager to avoid a conflict and was confident that the matter could be resolved.17

Even though Murray was unfamiliar with Musa Dagh—both he and Mehmet Münir thought that Paramount owned the rights—he knew whom to contact. MPPDA President Will Hays was Hollywood’s top troubleshooter. The former Postmaster General had extensive political connections and was accustomed to dealing with domestic and international crises. Murray passed along Mehmet Münir’s concerns and asked whether Paramount was indeed producing Musa Dagh. Hays, in turn, leaned on Frederick Herron to nip the dispute in the bud. The foreign manager assured Murray that MGM planned to focus on the relationship between Gabriel, the leader of the besieged Armenians, and his French family. Not only did the script avoid dwelling on “the Armenian massacre,” he explained, it “did not refer to it at all.” Herron promised to keep an eye on the film and insisted that “there will be nothing included in it that could offend the Turkish Ambassador or his countrymen.” Mehmet Münir seemed satisfied, and the affair appeared to blow over. A relieved Robert Skinner, America’s Ambassador to Turkey, congratulated the State Department for ensuring that the production would not cause him any headaches down the road.18

Turkey had good reasons to scrutinize Hollywood. With its graphic scenes of Armenian sufferings and Turkish atrocities, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was a potential public-relations disaster at a time when Turkey was deeply concerned about its image. Under Kemal Atatürk’s leadership, post-World War I Turkey had undergone a series of reforms designed to align it with the West. It abandoned theocracy, adopted the Latin alphabet, granted equal rights to women, and developed a progressive system of public education. Atatürk also worked to ensure stability by building a spirit of Turkish, rather than Arabic or Ottoman, identity. The government, the press, and the schools battled centuries of European scorn by boosting national self-esteem with triumphant narratives of Turkish civilization and history. Musa Dagh’s storyline veered wildly from the party line. If exhibited on the world’s theater screens, it could undercut Turkish efforts to cultivate a patriotic citizenry and win Western acceptance. Turkish efforts at modernization, moreover, needed help from abroad. Many of its cities had been devastated by years of war, and the country could not plan and pay for infrastructure improvements and industrialization without aid. A film like Musa Dagh could reinforce long-held stereotypes and convince Westerners to seek out more promising opportunities for their investments and expertise.19

A piece in the Hollywood Reporter reignited the dispute in April of 1935. The article claimed that MGM was proceeding with Musa Dagh and had approached William Wellman to direct. The Turks heard from other sources that the script mentioned Turkish atrocities. Mehmet Münir shot off a letter to the State Department demanding that it prevent MGM from making the movie. Murray took up the matter with Herron, who blamed the Reporter article on an “enthusiastic publicity man” and assured the Division Chief that MGM would not be so foolish as to raise the thorny issue of genocide. Herron’s faith in MGM’s wisdom was less than absolute. He privately asked Joseph Breen to monitor the project from his Hollywood office.20

The problem did not go away, and Herron found himself shuttling between the participants in the drama. Feeling betrayed and angered by the film’s reemergence, Mehmet Münir told Herron that Turkey would ban Musa Dagh no matter what scenes it cut. Although he accepted Herron’s offer to send a script to the embassy, he did not indicate that the script had any chance of winning his approval. Herron, on the other hand, refused to pressure MGM to shut down its production when Mehmet Münir gave his inevitable disapproval. MGM tossed gasoline on the flames by announcing Musa Dagh as a major feature on its upcoming 1935–1936 schedule and promoting it with an essay-writing contest in Modern Screen Magazine.21

Fearing that Musa Dagh could poison U.S.-Turkish relations, Division Chief Murray begged Herron to stop the madness. He explained that the film would be banned in Turkey. He explained that the film would be banned in Germany. He explained that the film would be banned in the Balkans. None of his arguments affected Herron, whose only real fear was that Turkey would persuade France to ban it. Meanwhile, Turkish newspapers began running anti-American articles and calling for boycotts of all MGM films. A frazzled Ambassador Skinner, who had been kept out of the loop, cabled to the State Department: “Revival Armenian Question can serve no useful purpose.”Murray could not have agreed more.22

After failing to make headway with the MPPDA or the State Department, Mehmet Münir turned his attention to MGM itself. The studio dispatched one of its vice presidents, J. Robert Rubin, to meet with the furious Ambassador. Mehmet Münir informed Rubin in no uncertain terms that “Turkish honor” was on the line. His country would ban not only Musa Dagh, but all MGM films, if the studio went forward with the project. Rubin, who had likely read neither the book nor the screenplay and therefore did not fully understand the controversy, left a copy of MGM’s scenario with the Ambassador. He seemed to feel he had accomplished something.23

Momentum continued to run against the studio, which seemed unable to coordinate its words on the East Coast with its actions on the West Coast. Fearing that the movie would inspire a new round of ethnic hatred, many in Turkey’s Armenian community began protesting MGM’s production. In late July, Istanbul’s Board of Censors, which represented Turkey’s largest movie market, voted to shut out all MGM products if the studio made Musa Dagh. Rumors abounded that Turkey was trying to convince France to do the same. Fearing a major international incident and wanting to keep his government clear of the fray, Murray told anyone who would listen that he had made it “perfectly clear” to MGM that “unfortunate repercussions might follow” if it pushed the film forward.24

MGM’s Irving Thalberg had been a fan of Musa Dagh from the start and had urged Louis B. Mayer to purchase the rights to it. By mid-1935 he had recovered to the point where he was ready to take control of Musa Dagh from Selznick. The producer resented both Turkey’s and New York’s interference in his affairs. He had already agreed to Selznick’s plan to place the blame upon one Turk and saw no need for further concessions. “To hell with the Turks,” he complained. “I’m going to make the picture anyway.” He envisioned a lavish spectacle and penciled in Clark Gable and William Powell as the stars. Mayer did not see matters the same way and, facing pressure from both New York and Washington, was starting to sour on the project. Thalberg was livid. “What can the Turks do if we make Musa Dagh?” he asked. “Okay, let them keep us out of their 30 theaters.” Mayer agreed that the Turkish market was unimportant, but he could not bear the prospect of losing France, which accounted for about ten percent of MGM’s foreign revenues. He and the other movie moguls were already reeling from signs that the French might impose quotas or raise taxes on American films and hesitated to alienate either France or the State Department, which would be an essential ally in any fight to preserve MGM’s economic interests.25

The Turkish press added to Mayer’s discomfort by launching a new barrage of attacks in September 1935. Joseph Breen passed these articles on to MGM as a not-so-subtle way of expressing his distaste for the studio’s stubbornness. Pieces in La République, Haber, and Son Posta slammed Werfel’s novel as maliciously bad history and called for boycotts of MGM films. To patronize MGM would be akin to “feeding a serpent in our very bosom.” The press accused Werfel and MGM of circulating outdated stereotypes that could irreparably harm Turkey’s reputation among Europeans and Americans. “We thought that we were their equals and were recognized as such by them,” La République complained. “We were deceived in believing that their opinion of us had changed.” Equally unnerving were the press’s references to Werfel as “a shameless Jew” and to MGM as a Jewish-dominated corporation. Anti-Semitism was on the rise in Turkey, and there was talk of relocating Jews to the hinterlands as a way of diffusing tension. Some in the American government suspected that Vedat Nedim Tor, Turkey’s Director General of the Press, was behind such attacks. Vedat Nadim had studied propaganda under Josef Goebbels, a fact that gave the newspaper campaign’s “under-current of anti-Semitism” an even more sinister tinge.26

Sensing his strong position and the Americans’ unwillingness to offend him, Mehmet Münir pushed the crisis further. In a letter to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the Ambassador once again denounced the production and demanded that the U.S. government either stop it or face a break in U.S.-Turkish relations. In response, Hull ordered Wallace Murray to broker a solution by going straight to the top. Murray accordingly demanded Will Hays’ assistance in “disposing of a question which appears to be assuming very large proportions in the minds of the officials at Ankara.” Hays, who understood the importance of maintaining strong relations with the State Department better than most in Hollywood, promised the MPPDA’s cooperation and increased its efforts to force the renegade studio to comply.27

The attacks from the Turkish press, the fear of losing the French market, the disapproval of the Hays Office, and the need to stay on the State Department’s good side finally crushed MGM’s resistance. In early October 1935, William Orr admitted to Ambassador Mehmet Münir that filming Musa Daghh, “whatever modifications it might be subjected to, could not but be harmful from every standpoint.” Mehmet Münir extended his “best thanks and hearty appreciation” to Wallace Murray for the State Department’s support and assured him that his actions had created “an excellent impression in my country.” American Ambassador Skinner was equally thankful that the State Department’s actions had such a “happy effect.” The only person to voice his unhappiness was Thalberg. “We’ve lost our guts,” he complained, “and when that happens to a studio, you can kiss it good-bye.”28

Turkey maintained its close watch on MGM. Any mention of the film in the Hollywood trade press brought a new round of inquiries from Mehmet Münir and a new round of denials that MGM was considering the project. And yet it was not completely dead. Thalberg still wanted to make the movie and lobbied Rubin and other MGM executives in New York to get on board. Joseph Breen also had some inexplicable interest in continuing. In late 1935, he asked the American Red Cross for information on Armenian relief efforts during and immediately after World War I. He explained, unfortunately without elaborating, that the material might be of use in the Musa Dagh screenplay. Perhaps he hoped to find a way for MGM to use the well-known title while completely changing the focus of the story. David O. Selznick, by now an independent producer, briefly considered reviving the film in 1936. It was hard to let go of a property with such earning potential, but fears of arousing a new diplomatic crisis ensured that these talks went nowhere.29

AFTER THE MUSA DAGH debacle, Hollywood accommodated the demands of foreign governments over the next few years. MGM cancelled shooting It Can’t Happen Here to avoid antagonizing Germany and defanged the anti-war comedy Idiot’s Delight (1939) to appease overseas opposition. Sam Goldwyn went through similar contortions during the production of The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938). The fear of retribution led Hollywood to nearly ignore the Spanish Civil War. Walter Wanger’s Blockade (1938) came closest to exploring its issues and impact, but the dangers of angering Spain, the Catholic Church, Germany, Italy, Latin America, and anyone in the United States who worried about their country being dragged into another conflict forced Wanger to create a confusing and ambiguous film that refused to name the sides or explain what they were fighting about.30

Changing circumstances, however, returned The Forty Days of Musa Dagh to the forefront in late 1938. The Nazis had by this point barred most American pictures from Germany and its conquered territories, and restrictive legislation in Italy would force the studios to abandon that market at the end of the year. With its European revenues disappearing anyway, MGM toyed with the idea of finally filming the best-selling novel in the hopes of racking up big domestic profits. Mayer was interested, but not enough to inform the company’s New York office that he was considering the controversial subject again. The trade press soon caught wind of the story and the Turkish diplomats again descended on the State Department, which—worried that MGM’s willingness to “disregard all scruples” would imperil other American businesses operating in Turkey—quickly clamped down on the studio.31 Using Herron as its primary contact, the Department made it clear that MGM should “do nothing to aggravate our relationship” with the Turks. Herron, who had read the same press reports as the Turks and had no desire to see Musa Dagh go forward, had already enlisted Breen to snoop around Hollywood. Breen confirmed that work on the script was proceeding but also gained assurances that MGM would stop if the government had “serious objections.”32

Herron was furious that MGM had again put him in an awkward position. The foreign manager relayed Breen’s findings to Washington along with assurances that the MPPDA would do whatever was necessary to kill the production. Faced with a united front of opposition, MGM dropped the project for the second time. It was a decision that contained a deep and troubling irony. Many who read Musa Dagh interpreted it as a parable of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. By not shooting the film, Selznick, Thalberg, Mayer, Rubin, and other Hollywood Jews were ignoring the lesson of the book. They turned their backs on the alleged Armenian massacre just as the rest of the world turned its back on the fate of German Jews.33

World War II reshaped the world, but Turkish attitudes toward Musa Dagh remained unchanged. Word that Hollywood was planning to shoot the movie spread again in 1950, and again the Turkish Embassy complained that such a film “would do irreparable harm to the relationship between Turkey and the United States.” Even though the rumors proved untrue, Turkey’s strong reaction suggested that the subject was still a sore spot. And yet the project would not die. Pandro S. Berman, Joseph Pasternak, Walter Wanger, and many others considered producing it in the following years. By 1969, when Jerry Gershwin and Elliott Kastner Productions announced Musa Dagh yet again, it had become “the most ‘on again, off again’ major literary property in the history of American motion pictures.” MGM had spent a reported $1 million in scriptwriting fees, producer costs, and various other expenses since purchasing the rights in 1934. Not surprisingly, Gershwin and Kastner’s company never shot a foot of film.34

MGM eventually sold the rights to California real-estate developer and Hollywood novice John Kurkjian. Even though he had never been on a movie set, Kurkjian still believed he could turn Musa Dagh into a profitable film that would make him a hero in the Armenian community. He waited for studios to knock on his door with lucrative production deals. They never did. After holding the title for about a decade, Kurkjian found himself in a jam. His agreement with MGM stated that the rights would revert to the studio if he did not make the movie within a given time. In 1982, just six weeks before the deadline, he decided to make it himself. He hired a young screenwriter named Alex Hakobian, dumped nearly a dozen versions of Musa Dagh scripts on his desk, and demanded that he “take the best from each one and make a great screenplay.”35

Hakobian did what he could to turn out a respectable screenplay, but the film never had a chance of meeting the grand expectations that MGM once had for it. Kurkjian’s promises of a budget of $8 to $10 million evaporated, forcing director Sarky Mouradian to rip out scene after scene in order to save money. He shot Musa Dagh in the foothills of Malibu for about $1 million—roughly the amount MGM budgeted for it back in 1934. The resulting movie was a slapped-together farce that lacked cohesiveness. It never had a theatrical release and was savaged by the few critics who bothered to see it. Variety called it “a dreary little film that does no justice to its weighty subject.”36

German director Ottokar Runze later gained control of the rights and, in 1989, a West German company announced plans to film a $25-million version of the novel. Runze has not yet made his movie. At this time, Ararat is the only movie about the Armenian genocide that has appeared in American theaters. Ironically, MGM again played an obstructionist role, as Miramax agreed to distribute the $11-million picture only after MGM’s chief executive, Alex Yemenidjian, decided that “economically it did not make much sense” for his studio to handle it.37

Yemenidjian’s concern reflects the ethos that has always driven Hollywood. It is also indicative of a side of the industry that the public has long been willing to overlook. Few fans had even the slightest awareness of the international ruckus MGM provoked in 1934 and struggled to manage for the rest of the decade. It barely registered even in the trade press. Most were interested only in what appeared on the screen; the political and economic machinations that lurked backstage were irrelevant. To ignore the Dream Factory’s intrigues and maneuverings, however, is to ignore the forces that determine what could and could not appear in theaters. The actions of both Hollywood and Washington show that artistic integrity and ideological content took a back seat to financial reality even during those most ideological of times. When faced with the choice of exposing the sufferings of the past or preserving financial and political peace in the present, power brokers on both coasts chose the latter. The history of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh reveals a Hollywood straining to understand its place in a complex world of high emotions and competing interests. MGM’s difficulties in navigating these choppy waters indicate that the industry had not yet learned the rules to what was indeed a very tricky game. The state of the world at the end of the 1930s suggested that even more dangerous shoals lay ahead.


1. Turkey still denies that there was an organized plan to eliminate the Armenian people during World War I and, although most historians argue the contrary, some agree. The reality, unreality, or exaggeration of the Armenian genocide, however, is irrelevant here and will not be taken up in this essay.

2. Variety (13–19 May 2002); Interview with Atom Egoyan, “N.P.R. Weekend Edition” (1 September 2002); New York Times (7 June 2002).

3. Ottawa Citizen (31 December 2003); Victoria (B.C.) Times Colonist (7 January 2004).

4. Toronto Star (6 January 2004); Victoria (B.C.) Times Colonist (7 January 2004).

5. Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990), 21. Edward Minasian’s “The Forty Years of Musa Dagh: The Film That Was Denied,” Journal of Armenian Studies 2 (Fall/Winter 1985–1986): 63–73, uses documents from the MGM archives to discuss the battles over shooting the film during 1934 and 1935. Minasian does not describe the flare-up that occurred a few years later, and documents from additional locations complete and expand our understanding of the events he outlined.

6. Peter Stephan Jungk, Franz Werfel: A Life in Prague, Vienna, and Hollywood (New York: Fromm, 1991), 3–61, 99–126; Lionel B. Steiman, Franz Werfel—The Faith of an Exile: From Prague to Beverly Hills (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1985), 9–18.

7. Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1934) (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1983), vii.

8. The truth or untruth of Musa Dagh is not considered here. For more on Werfel’s research, see George Schulz-Behrend, “Sources and Background of Werfel’s Novel Die Vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh,” Germanic Review 26 (1951): 111–23; D. J. Enright, “The Ghosts of Apes: Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” in Enright, The Apothecary’s Shop: Essays on Literature (London: Secker and Warburg, 1957), 145–67; Maria Berl Lee, “Agony, Pathos and the Turkish Side in Werfel’s Die Vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh,” Philological Papers 31 (1986): 58–65; and Lee, “‘Defictionalizing’ The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” The Armenian Review 26 (Spring 1973): 3–59.

9. Jungk, 137–45.

10. Ibid., 154; Jennifer Michaels, Franz Werfel and the Critics (Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994), 87–88; Boston Transcript (19 December 1934); Saturday Review of Literature 11 (8 December 1934): 335; New York Times (2 December 1934); New York Times (6 January 1936). For differing interpretations of the Nazi influence on Musa Dagh, see Steiman, 70–83 and Jungk, 137–42.

11. The SRC had existed since 1927 as an element of the major studios’ trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association. Its primary function was to review scripts and warn producers of any material that was likely to be cut by local censorship boards. Although all of the majors sent their scripts to SRC, the board had no power to enforce its suggestions. New York Times (2 December 1934); Hollywood Reporter (8 March 1934); Minasian, 64; Frank Miller, Censored Hollywood: Sex, Sin & Violence on Screen (Atlanta, GA: Turner Publishing, Inc., 1994), 52–53, 78–79.

12. Marjorie Haddock to Joseph I. Breen, 26 March 1934, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library PCA File (hereafter abbreviated AMPAS PCA File); Joseph Breen to Louis B. Mayer, 30 March 1934, AMPAS PCA File; Minasian, 64.

13. John Trumpbour, Selling Hollywood to the World: U.S. and European Struggles for Mastery of the Global Film Industry, 1920–1950 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 28; New York Times (7 July 1935).

14. Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel Kural Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol. 2 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 309; Donald Everett Webster, The Turkey of Atatürk: Social Process in the Turkish Reformation (Philadelphia, PA: American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1939), 24, 165, 234; Minasian, 64; Frederick Herron to Joseph Breen, 18 July 1934, AMPAS PCA File.

15. Miller, Censored Hollywood, 81–83, 297. For more on the Legion of Decency and the creation of the PCA, see Gregory D. Black, The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940–1975 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

16. Variety (3 April 1934); Variety (17 July 1934); James Hay, Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy: The Passing of the Rex (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 70; Ruth Vasey, “Foreign Parts: Hollywood’s Global Distribution and the Representation of Ethnicity,” American Quarterly 44 (December 1992): 618–20.

17. State Department Memorandum, 16 November 1934, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 59—Department of State, Decimal File, 1930–1939 (hereafter abbreviated NARA).

18. Wallace Murray to Will Hays, 19 November 1934, NARA; Frederick Herron to Wallace Murray, 22 November 1934, NARA; Mehmet Münir to Wallace Murray, 6 December 1934, NARA; Robert P. Skinner to Cordell Hull, 8 January 1935, NARA.

19. Emil Lengyel, Turkey (New York: Random House, 1941), 400–30; Shaw and Shaw, 375–88.

20. Hollywood Reporter (20 April 1935); Mehmet Münir Ertegün to Wallace Murray, 22 April 1935, NARA; Wallace Murray to Frederick Herron, 29 April 1935, NARA; Frederick Herron to Joseph Breen, 29 April 1935, AMPAS PCA File.

21. Frederick Herron to Geoffrey Shurlock, 16 May 1935, AMPAS PCA File; State Department Memorandum, 14 May 1935, NARA; Hollywood Reporter (7 May 1935); Hollywood Reporter (11 May 1935); Hollywood Reporter (26 June 1935).

22. State Department Memorandum, 14 May 1935, NARA; Robert P. Skinner to Cordell Hull, 4 June 1935, NARA.

23. State Department Memorandum, 18 June 1935, NARA; Frederick Herron to Wallace Murray, 24 June 1935, NARA.

24. New York Times (7 July 1935); New York Times (29 December 1935); Frederick Herron to Joseph Breen, 25 July 1935, AMPAS PCA File; Webster, 193; State Department Memorandum, 5 September 1935, NARA.

25. Minasian, 64; Bob Thomas, Thalberg: Life and Legend (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969), 310; Samuel Marx, Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints (New York: Random House, 1975), 245–46; Motion Picture Herald (7 December 1935); Variety (31 January 1933); Variety (29 May 1935); Variety (10 July 1935); Variety (16 October 1935); Variety (16 April 1969).

26. Webster, 281; G. Howland Shaw to Cordell Hull, 10 September 1935, AMPAS PCA File; La République (3 September 1935); La République (9 September 1935); Haber (3 September 1935). Translations of the Turkish newspaper articles appear in the AMPAS PCA File.

27. Minasian, 70; Wallace Murray to Will Hays, 7 September 1935, NARA.

28. Mehmet Münir Ertegün to Wallace Murray, 4 October 1935, NARA; Robert P. Skinner to Cordell Hull, 5 October 1935, NARA; Marx, 247.

29. Motion Picture Herald (7 December 1935); Frederick Herron to Wallace Murray, 17 December 1935, AMPAS PCA File; Frederick Herron to Joseph Breen, 19 December 1935, AMPAS PCA File; Joseph Breen to Frederick Herron, 16 December 1935, AMPAS PCA File; Joseph Breen to Executive Secretary, American Red Cross, 9 November 1935, AMPAS PCA File; Joseph Breen to Douglas Griesemer, 23 November 1935, AMPAS PCA File; Val Lewton to Joseph Breen, 8 June 1936, AMPAS PCA File; State Department Memorandum, 17 December 1935, NARA.

30. AMPAS PCA Files for It Can’t Happen Here, Idiot’s Delight (1939), The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938), Blockade (1938).

31. Frederick Herron to Joseph Breen, 13 January 1939, AMPAS PCA File; State Department Memorandum, 11 January 1939, NARA.

32. State Department Memorandum, 15 December 1938, NARA; State Department Memorandum, 20 December 1938, NARA; Frederick Herron to Joseph Breen, 27 December 1938, AMPAS PCA File; Joseph Breen to Frederick Herron, 3 January 1939, AMPAS PCA File.

33. State Department Memorandum, 11 January 1939, NARA; Frederick Herron to Joseph Breen, 13 January 1939, AMPAS PCA File.

34. Eric Johnson to Joseph Breen, 23 October 1950, AMPAS PCA File; Joseph Breen to Eric Johnson, 26 October 1950, AMPAS PCA File; Hollywood Reporter (10 April 1969); Variety (16 April 1969).

35. Author interview with Alex Hakobian, 5 August 2004.

36. Ibid.; Variety (25 November 1987). The film is available on video.

37. Hollywood Reporter (10 July 1989); Los Angeles Times (18 November 2002).

David Welky is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas specializing in twentieth-century mass culture, particularly film, mass media, and sports. He is currently working on books about Depression-era culture and Hollywood on the eve of World War II.

Image detail: March of the Penguins, from the cover of Film Quarterly 59:4