Chapter 24: The Giants Win And Lose
You may feel that I have rambled far from the assumed subject of this chapter, but all of this will fit together. You will see, as if you didn't know, that seemingly unrelated events, happening over a long stretch of time, can come together in unexpected ways, and with both good and bad results. Such was the case here. The arrival of Morton Schindel in Prague in early 1968 coincided with the great euphoria of the "Prague Spring," the "Socialism with a human face" of Alexander Dubček. But the Soviet-led invasion was coming in August to smash it. It seemed that our lives were at a crossroad - and they were - but when all that had played out, there followed a 25-year period of maximum creativity and honors with Mort Schindel and Weston Woods. That will all be the subject of the next chapter.
But first, back to the dilemma of the offer by the Czechs to back an original film by me. I didn't want to offend them with an all-out no. I just said that I couldn't afford to do a film without a hard-currency backer. But that didn't stop me from thinking about the idea, and a statement I had long wished to make about the futility of violence - violence begetting counter-violence. The seemingly endless blow and counter-blow between Israel and the Palestinians was on my mind. It had been going on a long time already in the mid-60s, and as of this writing it is still going on. So even though I couldn't make such a film for the Czechs, (The Prague government at that time strictly backed the Palestinians - no even-handed story about that could possibly be filmed here, however I might mask it.) But I nursed a hope that I might someday find a backer, so I worked up a storyboard. I titled it,"The Giants."
It was to be staged with symbolic characters, two equally ugly, snarling, spitting dwarfish figures, one solid blue, and the other a flaming magenta, on a deathly landscape. They hurl venomous insults at each other, to the constant, irritating, rasping sound of locusts. One dwarf loudly calls out the name of his protector. Thunderous, earth-shaking footsteps are heard, and giant feet and legs, the same color as the summoning dwarf, stride in and stand behind him. Then the other dwarf turns and calls out the name of his protector. More thundering footsteps, and a giant of his color strides in. Then the two dwarfs goad each of their giants to engage in a series of blows and counter blows. After numerous drastic exchanges, and a devious peace conference, the two giants ultimately abandon their two irreconcilable clients to fight it out by themselves. But the mean-spirited dwarfs have no stomach for personal battle, and so cling together in a terrified embrace, repeatedly moaning, "How will we get along without our protectors?"
While discussing the first children's book adaptations Mort wanted me to make for his Weston Woods company, he spotted the Giants storyboard on my desk. One look at it and he offered to co-produce it. Exactly at that moment, the democratization was blossoming in Prague. Suddenly, the idea of doing something for the Czechs was OK. The country was "becoming democratic," and I would be able to be paid in the dollars I needed. Weston Woods would pay me, and the Czechs would finance the animation production! So I plunged in with high enthusiasm.
I got the wildest designer in the country, Vratislav Hlavat_, to give the film the highly bizarre look the story demanded. Hlavat_ was not only a wild designer, but also a wild adventurer. He and few other hot-eyed pals were flying on natural gas in homemade balloons! I brought in my most promising assistant, Milan Klikar, to do the layouts. Then, just as we were ready to begin animation, the Russians came in! After a week of terror, I put Zdenka and the Giants layouts in my little Saab car, and drove over the border to Austria. I couldn't take a chance of being expelled from the country, and having Zdenka, still a Czechoslovak citizen, locked in.
As the Soviet occupation set in, and the democracy movement stalled, but not yet crushed, we were assured we could continue with the film, and were urged to return. In fact, the then leaders of the studio were eager to see the film finished before censorship would be restored. So it became a passionate challenge. When the film was finished it was a sensation in the Czech cinemas. Even though my story was inspired by the conflict in Israel, and had nothing whatever to do with the Czechoslovak political scene, or the Soviets, nevertheless, in the current dramatic situation the local audiences saw the red giant as the image of Moscow, and the blue giant as the image of America... It was illogical, as the film showed both dwarfs and both giants as totally amoral. With great enthusiasm, the Czechs entered The Giants in the San Sebastian, Spain International Film Festival, and it won the Grand Prize, not only over all other animated films, but also over all films in the festival! We knew we had a winner. I admit that world sympathy for the plight of Czechoslovakia at that time was a powerful plus, and knowing how such emotional factors influence Oscar voting in Hollywood, we felt sure we had a winner there too... and hey, I do think The Giants is my most powerful film. But Mort Schindel, being in the school film market, had no experience with the qualification procedures necessary for an Oscar entrant, and he muddled it. The film never got entered in the key year when - considering the world sympathy for this country - it had every chance of winning.