Kipling called cinema his greatest adventure, but it didn’t last long

Part 3: Of the three screenplays he wrote, two were not put to use despite the success of the first : ‘Without Benefit of Clergy’

(Read parts 1 & 2)

In 1921, soon after Without Benefit of Clergy released in America, there was talk of more Rudyard Kipling screenplays in the works. The author who would not allow his books to be turned into movies for anything had reluctantly become a screenwriter only a year earlier, but at age 56 he seemed enthusiastic about penning more screenplays.

It was reported that Kipling and Randolph Cooper Lewis, the professional screenwriter sent to assist him on Without Benefit of Clergy, had worked on two other scripts from the start — The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows, and Soldiers Three. When Lewis sailed for London with a print of Without Benefit of Clergy for Kipling, on June 25, 1921, it was expected that they would go over the plans for filming the other scripts.

Lewis returned three months later and the news went around: “Another Kipling Plot Brought From England Ready for Filming”. It was the turn of The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows, and the Evening Public Ledger of Philadelphia wrote: “The story is ready for the photographer, because before the author turned it over to the eager hands of Mr Lewis he had not only personally completed the scenario, the continuity and the working script, but had designed the costumes, the sets, interior and exterior, also compiling directions to the players as to the business.”

Although it was named after one of Kipling’s famous stories, another novel — To be Filed for Reference — and a poem — The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House — were ‘welded’ in it. To show just how pleased Kipling was with his new ‘ventures’, Lewis said he had “designed a striking poster for The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows.”

Neither of those movies was made. Another producer independently shot a film based on The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House a year later; Soldiers Three was made in 1951 as a talkie, obviously to a different script, and The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows became a Kickstarter project three years ago, but Kipling’s own scripts disappeared.

Greatest Adventure

While it lasted, Kipling’s dalliance with cinema seemed to him his ‘greatest adventure’. A writer of his stature with some two dozen publishers in his pocket — in America, Canada, England, Germany, Spain, Norway and Denmark, and France — was certainly risking his reputation by trying a new medium.

“He is compelled to sacrifice the finest, most compelling attributes of his art,” said The Bridgeport Times of September 22, 1921. “All he can do, to be efficient, is to make it perfectly clear to the director of his picture, the builder of the sets and other technicians of production, just what visual effects are to be made by the series of scenes tersely described in his scenario. Except for an occasional short title which may take the form of an epigram, or contain some literary grace, his picture manuscript is necessarily as dry and unilluminating as any properly arranged descriptive catalogue.”

The risk paid off. Without Benefit of Clergy was well-received. It premiered at the Capitol Theatre, New York, and “those familiar with Kipling’s published writings were heard enthusiastically to declare that the picture not only was faithful to the course and the atmosphere of the published story, but breathed throughout the Kipling spirit. No extraneous material was added for the sake of movie thrills… It was Kipling and that means a worthy and most astonishing novelty in motion pictures.

Even before he saw the film, Kipling had liked the photographs of the actors, sets and costumes that Lewis sent him:

“I am just back from Algeria and France, to find the photographs of the film waiting for me. They are superb and more correct in impression of detail than I could have imagined. The street courtyard scenes are specially good, and I was very much amused to see how you had managed to get the native cart — the ekka — in the foreground…

“As to the characters, I find them extremely good. Pir Khan is, as far as make-up and pose goes, quite perfect. I am glad to see the baby wears the little gold cap. The study ot Ameera against the night that is to cover her, is a really splendid one.”

Kipling finally saw the print Lewis had brought for him at a private screening in London’s Alhambra Theatre. He was extremely pleased with the result. In a cable sent to the producers, Pathe, he called it a “great artistic achievement.” He was quoted in the October 24, 1921 edition of The Arizona Republican: “I have no experience in such matters, as you know, but it seems to me to be the most carefully-worked film that has ever been portrayed.” And to Lewis he remarked:“It will be termed pictorial literature some day.”

Time proved him wrong there.

This article is the second in a series about Kipling and his first film, Without Benefit of Clergy, that released in 1921. Follow my blog to stay updated about the rest of this story.

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Part 1: How Hollywood signed on Rudyard Kipling

Part 2: How Rudyard Kipling recreated Lahore in Hollywood