Gavin Foster
Gavin Foster

Take a bow, Alan Smithee

So there go 87 minutes of my life, wasted on a deplorable movie called 2010: Moby Dick, compliments of DStv. Based very loosely upon the 1851 Herman Melville classic, it ramps Captain Ahab and his ferocious nemesis, a gigantic albino man-eating sperm whale, straight into the 21st century. The unrepentant mariner is once again hell-bent on destroying the monster that took his leg. This time Ahab’s weapon of choice is an American nuclear submarine that Moby Dick turns out to be fully capable of biting in half. The script is pathetic, the acting appalling, the dialogue atrocious and the plot unbelievably – well, unbelievable. At one stage the 160m-long whale leaps over a small mountain range on an island, landing smack-bang on one of Ahab’s henchmen on the beach below. The cranky cetacean then leopard crawls across the sand, wriggles back into the ocean and swims off in search of the submarine and its one legged skipper, while the heroine totters up to the sadly compacted crewman, gazes into his fluttering eyes, and says “Don’t move!”

I don’t think he’s listening, honey …

My every instinct told me that this movie just had to be the work of that most infamous of Hollywood directors, Alan Smithee. Smithee first popped up in movie credits in the mid-20th century, and has been responsible for about three dozen movies since then. Most were garbage – try Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh (1991), Gunhed (1989) and The Barking Dog (1978) for size. What most filmgoers don’t realise is that Alan Smithee doesn’t exist, and never has. The name is a pseudonym for directors who wish to disassociate themselves from their work because it has been altered beyond recognition through the unwanted tinkerings of producers, lawyers, accountants and their ilk.

The Directors’ Guild does not generally allow its members to distance themselves from their work because it feels that, as the artistic creators of the final product, they should take the blame as well as the credit where necessary. They made an exception, though, in certain cases. When they feel incompetent superiors have mutilated their work beyond recognition, directors, and sometimes scriptwriters can appeal to the Guild to have their names replaced with that of “Alan Smithee”. Why Smithee? There is a theory that it was chosen as an anagram of “The Alias Men”, but the reality is that the Guild wanted to use a name that was unlikely to ever turn up in the hands of a legitimate director, as it were. Smithe was briefly considered before they added the extra “e” to make the name genuinely unique.

Alan Smithee occasionally turned out to be a better producer than anybody could possibly have anticipated. One of the early films attributed to him – some say the first — was Death of a Gunfighter in 1967, actually directed by Don Siegel and Bob Totten, who both demanded that their names be removed from the credits after their work had been hacked to bits by management. When the movie was screened the critics lauded it and its uppity new director, Alan Smithee, to the ceiling. “Smithee’s direction keeps the action taut and he draws convincing portrayals from the supporting cast,” said Variety. “Sharply directed by Allen (sic) Smithee who has an adroit facility for scanning faces and extracting sharp background detail” gushed the New York Times. Years later Siegel told an interviewer that after that review he used to tell young friends who wanted to be film directors to change their names to Smithee and take credit for the direction of his movie. “I don’t know if anyone did this. I still think that under certain circumstances they might have cracked the ‘magic barrier’ and become directors,” he said.

Anyway, back to Moby Dick. Much to my surprise, a fellow called Trey Stokes in fact directed the film that encapsulates everything bad about made-for-television movies. The Guild of Directors put Alan Smithee to rest in 1997, after Arthur Hiller directed a movie called An Alan Smithee Film – Burn Hollywood Burn, lampooning the whole Alan Smithee thing and crediting the fictional character as co-director. That spoilt the film industry’s little in-house joke, and they killed Smithee off without naming a successor.

I wonder. T-R-E-Y S-T-O-K-E-S is a very uncommon name …

First published in The Crest / The Ridge magazines.

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    • Kevin Sprong

      Well definitely will give Moby Dick a miss. ‘cetacean’ you sure about this word? Sounds wonderful to drop into a conversation “Went Cetacean watching in False Bay last month!”
      But absolutely fascinating, as usual, about Alan Smithee. Love how you find out about Death of a Gunfighter as well. Thanks again for a wonderful read.

    • The Creator

      Kevin, next time you kiss a toad, remember that it’s a batrachian!

      Viva Alan Smithee, viva! (Incidentally there’s quite a good blog written under that pseudonym)