February 2016
The magnificent adventure of the abandoned Marco Polo

In 1961, composer Dimitri Tiomkin had completed The Guns of Navarone and was looking for another film. For every successful motion picture in Hollywood, composers and other creative types often spend considerable time pursuing potential projects. Scheduling conflicts, creative differences, and lack of funding are just a few of the many causes that can nix a credit from one’s filmography.

During the early 1960s American film studios were breaking up and independent productions were on the rise. Tiomkin sought to widen his film choices by scoring pictures being made in Europe. To this end he was in contact with Alain Bernheim. Shortly after visiting Bernheim in Paris, Tiomkin wrote to the producer and agent on May 26, 1961. Two projects on the horizon that interested Tiomkin were Marco Polo and The Longest Day. About the latter he wrote, “with my many years on the war orientation films with Capra, this is right down my alley.”

READ: The Film Music Society releases Tiomkin’s World War II documentary music

Marco Polo May 26 1961

Carbon copy of letter from Dimitri Tiomkin to Alain Bernheim, May 26, 1961

In the letter, Tiomkin confirmed that he would pay Bernheim ten percent of any deal arranged. (Tiomkin was represented in the U.S. by Famous Artists and he believed that there would be no conflict if Bernheim made deals on his behalf in Europe.) Bernheim replied on June 2 that he met twice with Raoul J. Levy, the producer of Marco Polo. The picture was to be shot in the Middle East in November.

By mid-summer there was no forward progress and a third film was mentioned, director Billy Wilder’s One Two Three. (Andre Previn ultimately scored the film.)

Marco Polo Jul 28 1961

Letter from Alain Bernheim to Dimitri Tiomkin, July 28, 1961

Tiomkin wrote Levy directly in September to see where things stood with Marco Polo.

Marco Polo Sep 11 1961

Carbon copy of letter from Dimitri Tiomkin to Raoul Levy, September 11, 1961

Bernheim met with Levy in mid-September to continue the conversation and went on to inform Tiomkin that Levy would be in California soon. Producer Levy, president of his own production company Han Productions, had just completed La vérite starring Brigitte Bardot. Levy produced a previous Bardot vehicle, …And God Created Woman, directed by Roger Vadim.

Tiomkin took a conference with Levy at the Beverly Hills Hotel on October 2 and reported on the meeting to Bernheim.

Marco Polo Oct 3 1961

Carbon copy of letter from Dimitri Tiomkin to Alain Bernheim. October 3, 1961

News of the project, now referred to as Travels of Marco Polo, made it into a film trade paper announcing Levy was negotiating with Seven Arts for financing and worldwide profit participation. The film was to star Alain Delon and an international cast. Filming was now being considered in January 1962 in 70mm widescreen.

Marco Polo clipping

The article gives the film’s format as “Universal International Trapanavision 70.” Since Universal International was commonly referred to as “UI,” the writer apparently misinterpreted the Ul in “Ultra” as “UI,” and substituted the company name Universal International for the initials. The result was “Universal International Trapanavision 70” instead of the correct moniker, “Ultra Panavision 70.” Ultra Panavision 70, which uses an anamorphic lens to create an unusually wide aspect ratio, was employed on a handful of films in the 1960s, notably for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Last seen in 1966 for Khartoum, last year director Quentin Tarantino resurrected Ultra Panavision 70 for The Hateful Eight.

Bernheim’s letter of October 10 to Tiomkin states that Levy may need to hire a “certain percentage of French participants” in order to receive a French subsidy.

Marco Polo Oct 10 1961

Letter from Alain Bernheim to Dimitri Tiomkin, October 10, 1961

In response, Tiomkin wrote directly to Levy to make his case by reminding the producer he is a member of SACEM, the French performing rights organization, and the French Legion of Honor.

READ: Tiomkin and the Ravel medal

Levy and Tiomkin planned to rendezvous in Paris in November, when Tiomkin would be traveling to Rome.

Marco Polo Nov 7 1961

Letter from Raoul J. Levy to Dimitri Tiomkin, November 7, 1961

A letter agreement dated November 13, 1961, was drawn up between Han Productions and Erosa Music, Tiomkin’s publishing company. Curiously, the agreement included a provision for Tiomkin to engage a [music] cutter at the production company’s expense as soon as a dupe negative was received.

As the year ended, Levy sent Tiomkin a postcard from India with the inscription, “…the picture will be terrific, that I can promise you.”

Marco Polo postcard front

Postcard from Raoul Levy to Dimitri Tiomkin

Marco Polo postcard back

Tiomkin expected to receive a $5,000 advance as specified in the letter agreement and sent a telegram to Bernheim on January 30, 1962, to inquire about the funds. Bernheim reported Levy couldn’t pay before February 20. A week later Tiomkin was still awaiting payment.

Marco Polo Feb 27 1962

Telegram from Dimitri Tiomkin to Alain Bernheim, February 27, 1962

With still no payment forthcoming, Bernheim, who said he was talking to Levy daily, wrote to Tiomkin with an update on the film. Some “beautiful film” was shot in Belgrade, but Levy was facing an assortment of difficulties, not the least of which was 200 starving elephants in Nepal that he didn’t have money to feed.

Marco Polo Mar 28 1962

Letter from Alain Bernheim to Dimitri Tiomkin, March 28, 1962

After Bernheim read in Variety about Tiomkin’s illness he wrote the composer that he too has been laid up in the hospital after he broke his leg in fourteen places in a skiing accident. (Timken had an eye operation in San Francisco in March 1962.)

The saga winds down with Bernheim’s letter of July 2, in which he states, “I’m very sorry about what happened with Levy and I told him so. Be quite sure that I am not forgetting you, and that I will look out for something interesting for you in this part of the world.”

Dimitri Tiomkin, 1960

Dimitri Tiomkin, 1960

The story of Marco Polo didn’t end with Tiomkin’s parting of ways with Levy. Levy’s production company owed monies for the production facilities and to others and the project was abandoned after director Christian-Jacque had shot and completed about eight minutes of film.

Lead actor Alain Delon left the fledgling production of Marco Polo some time prior to November 1962, to star in director Luchino Visconti’s film, The Leopard. In December 1963 a new version of Marco Polo emerged starring Orson Welles, Anthony Quinn, and Peter Ustinov. That film wrapped in July 1964 and Marco Polo became known as The Chessboard of God. Levy claimed ownership of the film, with rights as producer and writer of the screenplay. In 1966, MGM stepped in, and for the first time in that company’s history, the studio acquired a film for domestic release through a third party. Now titled for U.S. audiences Marco the Magnificent, the review in Time magazine said the film may look great on paper, but on film, unfortunately, it looks terrible.


quotes1This film was never completed. Producer Raoul Levy ran out of money after assembling a distinguished cast and shooting a few scenes. He later raised more money, and actually made a film, albeit with difficulty. It was entitled “La Fabuleuse Aventure De Marco Polo” and was belatedly released in Britain and America as “Marco The Magnificent” – it was a huge box-office flop.

IMDB on Marco Polo (the long-delayed and eventually abandoned version)


In 1962, with Marco Polo looking like a bust, Alain Bernheim wrote to Sam Spiegel suggesting Tiomkin score Lawrence of Arabia.

Marco Polo Jun 5 1962

Letter from Alain Bernheim to Sam Spiegel, cc: Dimitri Tiomkin, June 5, 1962


Correspondence courtesy of Olivia Tiomkin.

“Curtis Plays ‘Polo’ For Raoul Levy,” Variety, November 19, 1962

“First Scenes of New ‘Marco Polo’ Completed,” Variety, December 25, 1963

“‘Marco the Magnificant’ to Metro; French-Italian-Yugo Partnership Survives an Obstacle Course,” Variety, July 13, 1966

“Marco the Magnificent,” Time, September 30, 1966

Marco Polo (II) (1962)” on IMDB, accessed on February 22, 2016

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