Crossed Swords: Richard Fleischer (1916-2006)

It offered one of the great surprise twists in all of sci-fi cinema. And in the summer of 1973, some viewers saw it as another triumph for Charlton Heston (after 1968’s Planet of the Apes and 1971’s Omega Man), while others mourned that it was the final film for Edward G. Robinson. Soylent Green was a sensation, but few pointed to the director as the reason.

Throughout his 40-year career, Fleischer, who died 25 March 2006, garnered mixed appraisals. On one hand, he was praised for groundbreaking genre films (like 1966’s Fantastic Voyage), his innovative true crime effort (The Boston Strangler [1968]), and his use of spectacle (Tora! Tora! Tora! [1970], 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea [1954]). On another, he was criticized for big-budget failures, such as Doctor Dolittle (1967), Mandingo (1975), and Crossed Swords (1977). Because Fleischer’s last works consisted ’80s B-fodder — Amityville 3-D, Conan the Destroyer, Million Dollar Movie — his legacy seemed lost in a swirl of shortsighted professional choices.

Born in Brooklyn on 8 December 1916, he was the youngest of animator Max Fleischer’s children. Max’s popular creations — Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, interpretations of Superman and Popeye — made him and his brother Dave famous. But, as Richard said later, his parents worked to keep the kids apart from the movie industry.

Fleischer studied medicine at Brown University, but soon made the switch to the Yale Drama School. When World War II broke out, Richard got a job at RKO’s Pathé newsreel studios in New York, where he made propaganda pieces and basic entertainments. One such series, the Flicker Flashbacks (a burlesquing of old silent shorts) got the studio’s attention , and soon Fleischer was lensing low budget efforts like 1947’s Banjo, 1948’s Bodyguard (starring Laurence Tierney), and 1952’s The Narrow Margin.

The latter, a minor film noir masterwork, impressed Stanley Kramer. The two worked together on 1952’s The Happy Time, and it was this genial coming of age tale that compelled his father’s rival, Walt Disney, to hire him for the studio’s first full-length, live action film, an adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Fleischer was flabbergasted that the man who competed with his father for the hearts of animation fans would let him helm such an effort. When he inquired if Disney knew who he was, the cheerful chief said he was recruited because he was, indeed, the best man for the job.

Fleischer went on to tackle Westerns (1956’s Bandido), epic war films (1956’s Between Heaven and Hell), and period pieces (1958’s The Vikings). He was reunited with Kirk Douglas on the latter, yet they were soon at odds over the approach. Disgruntled, Fleischer turned to the 1959 courtroom drama, Compulsion, a dramatization of the Leopold and Loeb story starring Orson Welles. It was so well received that Fleischer worked throughout the 1960s: Barabbas (1962), Fantastic Voyage, and The Boston Strangler.

He was also associated with some of the decade’s biggest disasters. Eager to repeat the success of The Sound of Music, Fox went after the story of an English veterinarian who could talk to animals. Fleischer was brought on, and no expense was spared for musical score or elaborate sets and location shoots. Yet the film stiffed at the box office. Even star Rex Harrison seemed uncomfortable on screen, and Flesicher later admitted he had to “kick” the unhappy actor “in the head” a few times while working with him on Dolittle.

Initially, Fleischer felt none of the flop’s reverberations, going on to direct Tora! Tora! Tora! and 1971’s 10 Rillington Place. But it was Soylent Green that produced his moment of mainstream glory. Premised on the then hot-button topic of global overpopulation, the film included government-supported suicide pavilions, corporate conspiracies, environmental abuses, and a population surreptitiously fed a horrifying helping of its own impending extinction. Heston once again sold this sci-fi jive with such non-kitsch concentration that the spotty plot now seems oddly prophetic.

The positive effects of Green for Fleischer’s career were short-lived, thanks to Mandingo. Striving for a combination of period authenticity and social outrage, the film’s flagrant racism was stunning. Fleischer went on to make several lesser films (including the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer, with a horribly miscast Laurence Olivier and Neil Diamond in the lead, and the Conan movies). By the end of the decade, Fleischer’s career behind the camera was officially over.

Determined to preserve his father’s legacy, he took over the family estate, resolving rights issues and fighting the mishandling of his dad’s cartoons. With the advent of DVD, Fleischer’s efforts have become well-known and respected. As a filmmaker, Richard Fleischer tackled every genre with professionalism and purpose. Unlike Hitchcock or Ford, he was never able to pick and choose his projects. Instead, he was one of many essential cogs in the industry’s dream factory, necessary, but barely acknowledged. It’s time to give him is due: he deserves it.