Sunday, January 31, 2021

WILSON (1944), Darryl F. Zanuck's Forgotten Campaign for World Peace

It was August 1944 and World War II was advancing toward its cataclysmic end when 20th Century Fox launched a heavily promoted biographical spectacular, Darryl F. Zanuck’s production of Wilson. A tribute to Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States, and his vision for world peace, Wilson was the most lavishly mounted film since David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939) and would go on to be nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. The film debuted with great fanfare and was received with acclaim and enthusiasm. The Washington Post raved, citing Wilson as “one of the most distinguished films in the whole history of cinema.” Yet Wilson would also earn a reputation as “Zanuck’s folly” and disappear into the dustbin of movie history.



British Prime Minister Lloyd George, France's Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson
In January 1919, the Paris Peace Conference began. The hopeful world watched and listened as World War I’s peacemakers, most prominently the prime ministers of England and France and the President of the U.S., gathered to settle the terms of a peace treaty with Germany.

Parisians, thrilled by his proposed program for peace, hailed the arrival of the American president. A year earlier Woodrow Wilson had presented his “Fourteen Points,” a set of guidelines aimed at securing a lasting and “just peace.” The key 14th point outlined his concept of a peacekeeping “association of nations” that would guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity to great and small States alike.” Wilson intended his plan to underpin a treaty that would establish international collaboration, put an end to territorial disputes, encourage international commerce and support democracy. It was the announcement of his Fourteen Points that brought about the armistice in November 1918. 

The Paris conference was expected to last a few weeks but negotiations grew contentious and the meetings took months. Although Wilson had argued for moderation, the final “Treaty of Versailles” would severely punish Germany. The country had to accept all blame for the war, pay staggering reparations and disarm. It would also forfeit valuable border territory, be stripped of its colonies and have its foreign financial holdings and merchant carrier fleet confiscated. Most of Wilson’s 14 points were weakened or missing and he agreed to the treaty’s terms only so that his 14th point, the creation of an international peacekeeping alliance, would remain intact. Germany, infuriated with the Allies and feeling betrayed by Wilson, reluctantly signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919.


Wilson’s proposed League of Nations was founded in January 1920, but the U.S. would never be a member. The Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and so, with the world’s newest international power determined to mind its own business, the League of Nations would founder. In October 1933, Adolf Hitler withdrew Germany from the league. Six years later the German Army invaded Poland and World War II was on. Wilson had predicted that unless the nations of the world undertook a collaborative plan to maintain the peace, “within another generation there will be another world war.” He also foresaw that Germany’s weapons of World War I would seem “toys as compared with what they would use in the next war.”


Darryl F. Zanuck

Darryl F. Zanuck, a founding father of 20th Century Fox and Hollywood legend, would reign as Fox’s top ranking executive from 1944 until 1956. It was in the early ‘40s, when he was the studio’s Vice President of Production, that he first became interested in Woodrow Wilson and began developing an outline for a potential Wilson biopic. Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

As a teenager, Zanuck had served in France during World War I. During World War II he would serve in the Signal Corps in the Aleutians and North Africa. Like many, he saw the second war as a consequence of the failed Treaty of Versailles. His wartime experience and his view of the connection between the two wars would influence his growing desire to make a Wilson film. Zanuck was also inspired by his friendship with Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate of 1940 who, in 1942, became Fox’s chairman of the board. Willkie had penned a best-seller in 1943, One World, denouncing isolationism and arguing that had Wilson’s League of Nations come into being as he’d envisioned it, World War II would never have happened.

Zanuck first approached the Office of War Information offering to make a documentary on Wilson and the League of Nations. He was turned down and returned to Hollywood determined to make a feature length film instead. Wilson would not be his first biographical picture. Zanuck had previously and successfully overseen The House of Rothschild (1934), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) and Young Mister Lincoln (1939). Wilson was also to be a “message” film and, although he had done well with films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Zanuck knew such films were a gamble at the box office. But Wilson had become a hero for him and Zanuck badly wanted to convey to the widest possible audience what he saw as the former president’s still relevant program for peace.

Screenwriter Lamar Trotti, who scripted several biographies for Fox, sought historical accuracy for his screenplay primarily through Ray Stannard Baker, author of a Pulitizer Prize winning Wilson biography. One of Wilson’s daughters as well as his widow were also consulted. Trotti’s narrative would move episodically through Wilson’s high and low points, from his time as President of Princeton University until he left the White House in 1921. Vignettes of family life were included to add a personal dimension to the story.

Aware that Wilson had to offer more than biography and a strong moral/political point of view to be successful, Zanuck and director Henry King would also make of it a Technicolor spectacular. By the time Wilson was released it would be the most expensive film ever made, with production and marketing costs totaling $5.2 million dollars - more than even Gone with the Wind had cost.

The 1912 Democratic Convention re-staged at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium
Wilson opens with a high-spirited football game between age-old rivals, Princeton and Yale. There, a jovial Wilson, then president of Princeton, watches from the sidelines where he will soon offer wise counsel and inspiration to one of his team’s discouraged players. Not long after this, Wilson is approached by a political boss from New Jersey’s Democratic Party and urged to run for Governor in 1910 on a progressive platform. He does, he wins, and two years later is headed to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. Historian Thomas J. Knock writes that the extravagant full-scale re-staging of the 1912 Democratic Convention – with marching bands and speakers and 1,500 conventioneers in seersucker suits with banners and placards waving - was purely for its entertainment value.  According to Knock, “To backdrop other events in Wilson’s life 126 sets were built, including reproductions of the House of Representatives Chamber, the East, Blue and Oval Rooms, the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles, and hundreds of replicas of White House set pieces.”

Behind the camera conjuring stunning, color-saturated images for the big screen was Leon Shamroy, one of Hollywood’s great cinematographers. Shamroy’s use of natural interior lighting, unusual in 1944, along with the nuanced depth and richness of three-strip Technicolor made Wilson a literal visual feast. Zanuck was said to be so pleased when he first saw what Shamroy was shooting that he kissed him – to the applause and cheers of cast and crew.

Alexander Knox as Wilson
In front of the camera was relative unknown Alexander Knox as Woodrow Wilson. The 37-year-old Canadian actor was perhaps then best known for his supporting role in The Sea Wolf (1941). Leading men William Powell and Ronald Colman had been considered for the role but Zanuck decided that casting a lesser known actor would be more believable. Knox appeared in 294 scenes with 1,124 lines, delivering 338 speeches, some of them excerpted verbatim from Wilson’s actual speeches. It was the longest male role in movie history. The sizable cast also included Geraldine Fitzgerald, Cedric Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell, Charles Coburn and Vincent Price, along with scores of credited and uncredited players and 16,000 extras. It would be an extravagant, ambitious film.

Wilson received a standing ovation when it premiered in New York City on August 1, 1944. Its reviews were glowing and despite the film’s grueling, speech-heavy 2 ½ hour run-time, audiences turned out in record numbers; ticket sales would reach 10 million by February 1945. But Wilson’s internationalist message would also stir political controversy, bringing accusations from some quarters that it was pro-Roosevelt propaganda. Then the War Department determined that the film contained prohibited “partisan political content” and Wilson was banned from being shown to U.S. troops. It took a Congressional amendment to lift the ban.

Among the top grossing films of 1944, Wilson was #5. Had it been a less expensive film to make and market it would’ve been a box office hit but, with its out-size budgets, Wilson failed to recoup its costs. Hollywood began to whisper, “Zanuck’s folly.” When Academy Awards time came, Wilson would win five of the 10 Oscars it was nominated for: Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound Recording and Best Editing. But the film did not win in the categories Zanuck most coveted: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Even though he was honored with the prestigious Thalberg award that night, Zanuck was devastated. Three years later when he came to the podium to accept the Best Picture Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), a much less costly film with a message, Zanuck looked out into the crowd and said, “Many thanks, but I should’ve won it for Wilson.”

Wilson would be acknowledged for its role in popularizing internationalism, a doctrine that still dominates U.S. foreign policy. It would also be credited for its influence in developing widespread support for the United Nations, founded in 1945. But the film had washed out financially and its moment of historical influence passed. Within a few years Wilson slipped quietly into obscurity. 

Wilson occasionally surfaces on TCM and is available for rental through Amazon Prime Video.


History with Lightning: The Forgotten Film Wilson, by Thomas J. Knock, Princeton University, American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 5 (Winter 1976), published by the Johns Hopkins University Press (article accessible at jstor) 

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, by Margaret MacMillan, Random House, 2001

American Experience, The Presidents: Woodrow Wilson, 2002 PBS documentary (available on Kanopy)

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