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WAR EAGLES: THE UNMAKING OF AN EPIC
By DAVID CONOVER, PHILIP J. RILEY (Bear Manor Media; 2011)

The "Greatest movie never made?" Not quite, but the 1939 production WAR EAGLES is an intriguing piece of film history. It was conceived as a like-minded follow-up to KING KONG by that film's creators Willis "Obie" O'Brien and Merian C. Cooper, but never made it to production. Today all that remains of this would-be epic are some conceptual drawings, production notes and a shooting script, all of which are reproduced here (a reel of special effects test footage was allegedly shot but has yet to turn up).

     Author David Conover traces WAR EAGLES' every surviving permutation, exhaustively poring over each piece of evidence and interviewing everyone he can find who had any connection with the production. Foremost among the latter is special effects legend Harry Harryhausen, who Conover grills at length because Harryhausen once spoke with Willis O'Brien in the WAR EAGLES production office. Certainly Conover's efforts are obsessive, often to the point of annoyance (his reconstruction of the unseen test footage is redolent of the Warren Commission Report's examination of the JFK assassination film), yet I can't help but admire his determination.

     As to WAR EAGLES itself, it was conceived as a large-scale special effects spectacular about a daredevil pilot who in true KING KONG fashion happens upon a primitive land packed with dinosaurs. There he happens upon a race of giant eagles that come in handy when a foreign power invades the U.S. with a weapon that shorts out all electricity, leading to a very KING KONG-esque aerial showdown in the skies of NYC. All this is contained in the shooting script by Cyril Hume (a rewrite of an initial screenplay be novelist Harold Lamb), which to these eyes read like KING KONG lite, emphasizing spectacle over content and containing critters that are a far cry from the mighty Kong.

     So no, I don't quite share David Conover's enthusiasm about WAR EAGLES, although I do admire his exhaustive efforts at unearthing the particulars of this fascinating history. Now if only somebody would do the same for equally intriguing never-made films like David Lynch's RONNIE ROCKET, Sergio Leone's LENINGRAD and Obie's own GWANGI…

     

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