Ed Minassian investigates why a big studio–poised to take on a big production of Forty Days of Musa Dagh–dropped the project; he ventures not only into MGM archives and the authors personal papers–but also the State Department’s file on the matter.
By Brooke Bryant
MORAGA( Knight Ridder)–As a child in the 1930s–Ed Minasian often found refuge in the movie theater across the street from the three-story tenement where he grew up in Massachusetts.
"From our window I could see the Grace Episcopal Church–and next to it was the Capitol Theater. On some Sundays–I chose the latter over the former," Minasian said. At 10 cents a show–it was the best entertainment value of the day–and the darkened theater offered an escape from everyday woes.
There was plenty to escape from: The Depression was in full swing on one side of the ocean–Adolf Hitler was coming to power on the other–and in the Armenian community he grew up in–the memory of the atrocities committed against his people during the genocide that began in 1915 was still fresh.
Turkish forces–trying to purge Turkey of Armenia’s–caused the deaths of 1.5 million people in outright killings or in forced deportations that led to starvation during World War I. The Turkish government denies the genocide occurred.
For someone of Armenian descent–it rarely takes long for the conversation to circle around to the genocide 90 years ago. For Minasian–it takes no time at all for the conversation to circle around to movies.
The 80-year-old Moraga–California–resident–who lost siblings during the mass killings–has spent 24 years researching the place where those two circles intersect: 1930s Hollywood. His findings–which he hopes to publish in a book–detail how the Turkish government managed to squelch repeated attempts by MGM studios to make a movie about the genocide.
The Armenian community–scattered throughout the world after the genocide – had hoped the film would finally bring international attention to their plight–and he felt the loss keenly.
"All of us knew–yes–Turkey had something to do with stopping that movie from being made–but we never knew who–what–when–where–why?" Minasian said. "Well–I found out."
He was 10 when the book that piqued MGM’s interest–Franz Werfel’s "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh"–came out in 1934. It quickly topped the best-seller charts–but it was another 10 years before he finally sat down to read it.
By then Minasian was in the Air Force–"stationed in a godforsaken place in west Texas called Rattlesnake Army Air Base," where they trucked in girls from nearby towns on the weekends to dance with the GIs.
"None of us ever got to finish a dance–because we were always cut in–but I had plenty of time to read in my off hours," he said. He found the book at the base library. "I read that book more often than any other book. I used to read it every April… because April is the anniversary of the genocide."
Werfel’s novel is a fictionalized account of the following events:
Having heard about the soaring death tolls on the forced "death marches" to the Syrian desert–the villagers of Musa Dagh decided to resist Turkish forces. Nearly two months later–the survivors were rescued by the French–who spotted their distress banners from nearby ships.
The villagers were relocated to the Middle East–where they formed a community in the Anjar area of present-day Lebanon–says Barlow Der Mugrdechian–a professor of Armenian Studies at Fresno State University who knows of Minasian’s project. The incident is "a well-known story to the Armenia’s."
But the book–written by an Austrian Jew as Hitler was gaining influence–had an even broader appeal. It was embraced with particular enthusiasm by Jews who saw it as an inspirational tale–and Germany quickly banned the book.
"I say–look–if the world had responded to the Armenian genocide–there might not have been a Holocaust," Minasian says.
When MGM bought the rights–intending to bring the story to the screen with the help of Hollywood greats like producer Irving Thalberg and Armenian director Rouben Mamoulian–Armenia’s everywhere were ecstatic–he recalled. "That wonderful book is going to be made into a movie–and that movie will play all over the world–and finally our story of the genocide will get out."
The celebration was short-lived.
MGM soon dropped that project and several subsequent attempts over the next few decades. It was widely rumored that the deal collapsed under pressure from the Turkish government–and in 1981–Minasian decided to find out exactly what had happened.
Over the next decades–Minasian sifted through archives from Armenian newspapers–Hollywood institutions and the US State Department to piece together a picture of the doomed flick’s fate.
Between raising a family and pursuing a teaching career–he has written articles on the topic published by the National Association for Armenian Studies and a 300-page man’script he hopes to publish soon.
"He’s done a rather thorough study of this whole issue," says UCLA professor Richard Hovannisian–a leading scholar of Armenian studies.
Turkey’s role in the movie’s demise isn’t a matter of speculation; it’s well-documented in diplomatic correspondences in the US State Department archives–he said. "(The movie) would have attracted worldwide attention on the screen–so the quashing of the work was a blow to historical memory."
In his quest to document who dealt that blow–Minasian was granted rare access to MGM’s archives by the studio’s story editor Samuel Marx–and he spent more than a week sifting through four grocery carts filled with files on the Musa Dagh movie. He dictated the interesting bits into his tape recorder. It took nearly three years after that to transcribe the recordings into notes.
Over the years–he also read through Werfel’s papers housed at UCLA and the scripts kept by the American Film Institute.
To cap it off–he used the Freedom of Information Act to get the State Department’s file on MGM and the Musa Dagh movie.
Minasian knows he faces a few publishing hurdles. To begin with–he’s an unknown author with no agent–and also–he’s been told his subject is "esoteric" and "passe." He figures he may end up self-publishing the book.
His passion for film is one of the forces driving the project–evident in the old movie posters lining his walls. Conversations about almost anything can lead back to movies–from the book Minasian just finished reading ("The Da Vinci Code," whose movie version will star Tom Hanks) to Armenia’s early embrace of Christianity (which elicits a reference to the recent Crusades flick "Kingdom of Heaven").
When "Sideways" came out last year–Minasian was the first to spread the word throughout the local Armenian community: Some of the final scenes feature an Armenian-American wedding–filmed at a real Southern California Armenian church.
For Minasian–the genocide isn’t just history–it’s family history.
His parents both survived the massacre but lost their first spouses and some of their children. His mother was 19 when she watched the men in her village–including her first husband–marched away by Turkish soldiers–carrying the shovels to dig their own graves. His mother and sister joined the long line of Armenia’s forced to march toward the Syrian desert with only as much food and water as they could carry.
His father was already living in the United States–hoping to send for his first wife and three children back in Turkey–when the massacre began. Only one daughter from that marriage survived–and when Minasian met her in 1976–she told him about a brother he had never heard of–who died of typhus at age 3 on one of the forced marches.
Minasian–who still wonders why his father never mentioned the little boy–now carries a copy of the child’s picture in his wallet.
His work is a tribute to them.
"I see it as my legacy for my folks–who were survivors–and so many of the people I came to know in my youth and even now," he said. "You see–we’re not fighting for vengeance–we’re fighting for justice. We want the Turkish government to own up to what they did."