The list of movies Ken Russell didn’t make is nearly as impressive as the ones he did.
Russell had plans for a movie version of Hamlet starring David Bowie. He developed a film about Maria Callas which was to star Sophia Loren. He had plans for a film version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Peter O’Toole as the Count, Peter Ustinov as Van Helsing and Oliver Reed as Renfield. Other book adaptations included Graham Greene’s A Burnt Out Case, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and D. H. Lawrence’s St. Mawr.
He also wanted to make a film based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs and one of Rabelais’ Gargantua—“the man with the biggest prick in the world.” He had a thriller All-American Murder lined up with Christopher Walken, and tried for years to make a film version of Charlie Mingus’ autobiography Beneath the Underdog. He turned down The Rose (to make Valentino with Rudolf Nureyev) and had been a favorite to direct A Clockwork Orange before Stanley Kubrick with Mick Jagger in the lead.
Russell always had a film project on the go—it is only a shame that so few of them made it to the screen.
In 1997, I met Russell for the first time—interviewing him for a documentary I directed about the legendary dancer Nijinsky. I knew he had tried to make a film about Nijinsky but had somehow never managed to find the financial backing. We talked about films and he told me about two scripts he had just written. One was a full-length feature about young vampires—a rollicking romp through youth culture, gangs and the lives of traveling people. The second was a short called Ein Kitten für Hitler—A Kitten for Hitler.
Russell told me A Kitten for Hitler was inspired by a discussion about censorship with his friend and one-time collaborator (The Music Lovers, The Debussy Film) Melvyn Bragg—the author, broadcaster and editor of legendary arts series The South Bank Show. Russell had suggested there were some films that shouldn’t be made—as he later explained in the Times newspaper in 2007:
Ten years ago, Melvyn Bragg and I had a heated discussion on the pros and cons of film censorship. Broadly speaking, Melvyn was against it, while I, much to his surprise, was absolutely for it. He then dared me to write a script that I thought should be banned. I accepted the challenge and a month or so later sent him a short subject entitled A Kitten for Hitler.
‘Ken,’ he said, ‘if ever you make this film and it is shown, you will be lynched’.
I read both of Ken’s scripts and liked them. Russell gave me his blessing to see if I could raise funding or find a suitable production company who would be interested in making his films.
I pitched the scripts to producers, production company execs and a whole host of bland minions who were all at first excited by the name “Ken Russell” but scared of making any form of commitment. While these bods liked the vampire movie—they balked at A Kitten for Hitler. It was “sick,” “twisted,” “not suitable for viewing” and something they were “not interested in pursuing at this time.” Having already experienced years of smug, barely pubescent TV execs shitting on good ideas, I found the rejection of Russell’s scripts galling. This wasn’t some unknown film director or some hip young punk whose only claim to fame was working in a Blockbuster—this was Ken Russell. One of the greatest film directors of the second half of the twentieth century. The man who had made The Billion Dollar Brain, Women in Love, The Music Lovers, The Boyfriend, The Devils, Savage Messiah, Tommy, Altered States, Lair of the White Worm, Salome’s Last Dance and so on and so on.
While I didn’t get anywhere with these projects, Russell thankfully did. He did manage to make A Kitten for Hitler through the auspices of Comedy Box in 2007. It varies ever so slightly from the script I’d read—but the story’s the same and still as uncompromisingly offensive. Unable to cast a child actor as the boy Lenny, Russell cast Rusty Goffe. Ken’s wife Lisi Tribble plays Lenny’s Mom, Rufus Graham plays Harry S. Truman, Rosey Thewlis plays Eva Braun, and Paul Pritchard is Hitler. Ken Russell himself appears as Santa Claus. It’s low-budget, bad taste schlock, but is more imaginative than many of the films being pumped out by Hollywood at this very moment.