DATE October 8, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author James Reston Jr. discusses the history of the
Crusades and the battles between Christians and Muslims
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A few days after the September 11th attacks, President Bush said about the
American response, `This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a
while, and the American people must be patient.' His use of the word
`crusade' outraged many Muslims. The new book "Warriors of God" explains
why. It's a history of the Third Crusade, written by James Reston Jr. He's
also the author of "The Last Apocalypse" and "Galileo."
There were five major Crusades. Reston writes, `The Crusades stretched over a
period of 200 years, unleashing a frenzy of hate and violence unprecedented
before the advent of the technological age and the scourge of Hitler. The
madness was initiated in the name of religion by Pope Urban II in 1095 to
redirect the energies of warring European barons from their bloody local
disputes into a so-called noble quest to reclaim the Holy Land from the people
they considered infidels. Once unleashed, the passion could not be
I asked Reston to explain more about why the president's use of the word
`crusade' got such a negative reaction.
Mr. JAMES RESTON Jr. (Author): Well, that was probably the worst thing that
Bush could have said, because the Crusades are remembered to Arabs almost like
the Holocaust is remembered to the Jews in Israel. You remember when the pope
went to Israel several years ago, you know, the big question in Israel amongst
the Jewish community was whether or not he would apologize for the Vatican
complicity in the Holocaust, which he did, in a manner of speaking. But the
Palestinian community was waiting whether to--to see whether he would equally
apologize for the Crusades. And it's, I think for a Western audience, very
unusual and almost unbelievable that for the Arab world in general, and the
Palestinians in particular, that the Crusades of the, you know, 1100s through
the 1300s, are remembered almost as vividly as anything else in their history.
And it's remembered, of course, as an attack and an invasion by Europe of the
Middle East in which a great, great many tens of thousands of Muslims were
massacred. And in the very first Crusade, which captured Jerusalem, the
Christians came over the walls of Jerusalem and proceeded to slaughter many
thousands of Muslims before they dropped on their knees in the Holy Sepulcher
and gave thanks to Christ. So the notion, generally, of a Western crusade
against Arab peoples and the Middle East is probably the worst image that
could be evoked.
GROSS: Your new book, "Warriors of God," is about the Third Crusade. What
was that Crusade about?
Mr. RESTON: Well, the First Crusade, which captured Jerusalem, put into
being a state called the kingdom of Jerusalem, which was not all that much
bigger than the current state of Israel. It was a little bit larger, but
basically, had the same configuration along the coastline. And from the Arab
perspective, the era of history after the capture of Jerusalem and the
establishment of this European state, the goal was to consolidate Arab forces
in Egypt and in Syria to surround this kingdom of Jerusalem and recapture for
Islam their native land and their holy sites because, of course, Jerusalem's
just as holy to Islam as it is to Christianity.
And what happened was that under the great Arab leader Saladin, in fact, the
Crusaders were defeated and Jerusalem was recaptured for Islam. And that sent
terrific shock waves through Europe, the loss of Jerusalem and the collapse of
the kingdom of Jerusalem. And that's what made Richard the Lionheart fall to
his knees, and all of Europe mobilized for the Third Crusade.
GROSS: The Arab army, under the direction of Saladin, had seized the True
Cross. What was the True Cross? What was its significance?
Mr. RESTON: Well, of course, this was thought to be the True Cross, the
cross that Christ was crucified upon. And it was--there is great controversy
as to whether it really was the True Cross or whether these pieces of wood
that were kept in the Holy Sepulcher actually were the True Cross that Christ
was crucified on. At any rate, the Christianity at the time thought it was,
and they would trot it out when they had a great battle against the Muslims.
And it had always worked up until the year of 1187. It seemed as if whenever
the True Cross was brought onto the battlefield by the Crusaders and the
Christians that they always won their battles.
Well, they didn't win the one in 1187, and the True Cross, or whatever relic
of that cross was in the Christian camp, was taken by the Muslim forces. And
it became a bargaining chip in the years that succeeded that.
GROSS: You say that the Muslims then revered Christ as a true prophet but had
contempt for the story of the crucifixion. Would you explain that?
Mr. RESTON: Well, they--Islam feels that the story of crucifixion is unworthy
of a great religion, the notion of a god actually dying in human form and then
being resurrected. They believe that Christ--that there was a substitute for
Christ, and that Christ was not really himself--was not really crucified.
They just simply feel that it's unworthy, and they don't believe it as it's
told by Christianity.
GROSS: How important was the seizing of that cross to the mounting of the
Mr. RESTON: Oh, I think it was one of many things. It's--much more
important than that, of course, was the collapse of the Crusader kingdom and
the loss of Jerusalem and the loss of the holy sites. The loss of the True
Cross went along with that. But I think that's a secondary question. It's
that--you know, what's going on today between the various religions in the
Middle East really has its roots back 800 years ago, and many of these same
issues were fought over just as violently and just as intensely as they are
GROSS: How did Jerusalem change in the Third Crusade when it was recaptured
Mr. RESTON: Well, this is interesting because Saladin, while thought of as a
great warrior in the Arab world, is also very well known for his generosity
and his sentimentality. And this is something very much in direct contrast to
the way in which the image of Saladin is used today. But when, as I said
before, the first Crusaders came over the walls of Jerusalem, they slaughtered
whatever Muslims and Jews they could find within the Old City. By contrast,
when Saladin took the city, there was no massacre. And there was a great
debate within Saladin's inner circle about what to do about the Christian holy
sites. And it's very clear in the medieval chronicles that Saladin basically
overruled the--whatever was being proposed by way of just decimating the Holy
Sepulcher and the other Christian sites, and says very clearly that it's
simply not to be a good Muslim to defile another religion.
And this sort of attitude, not only of generosity towards those that he
defeated, but it's actually a criticism of them that he allowed the Christians
who were in Jerusalem to leave the city and to go north and, in fact,
protected their--these refugees going north and--instead of driving them all
completely into the sea. And this came back to haunt him later because, you
know, the city of Tyre remained in Christian hands, and that gave Richard the
Lionheart a toehold when he came.
GROSS: How did Jews fare under the Christian rule and the Muslim rule of
Mr. RESTON: Well, the Jews fared very poorly under the Crusader kingdom, and
very poorly under the Christians and fared very well under Saladin. I mean,
this is another interesting irony in relation to today's world, that Saladin
was very generous to the Jews, invited them back into Jerusalem and had Jews
on his staff, his physicians and the--it's very clear from the historical
record that the Jews felt very well towards Saladin.
GROSS: My guest is James Reston Jr. His new book is called "Warriors of
God." It's about the Crusades. We'll talk more about a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest, James Reston Jr., is the author of a new book about the
Crusades. It's called "Warriors of God."
When Christians and Muslims were fighting over control of Jerusalem back in
the 1100s to the 1300s, what was at stake for each of them? What were the
claims they each had to Jerusalem?
Mr. RESTON: Well, Terry, it's very interesting to research a book like this.
Here's an 800-year-old story--research a book like this in the Middle East
and talk equally to Arab scholars, as to Western scholars. It's almost
emblazoned in the Western canon that there were five Crusades and everybody's
a bit confused about which one was which and what was more important. And
they all get kind of lumped together as the same thing.
From the Arab standpoint, it's looked at quite differently. The--it's looked
at, really, as a three-stage process, not five battles or wars. The first is
the loss of Jerusalem itself in--with the First Crusade in the year 1098 and
the establishment of the European kingdom of Jerusalem. That's phase number
one, that terrible blow to the Arab world.
Phase two is an 80-year effort to consolidate these very disparate tribes of
the Arabian world into some of a consolidated force that could recapture the
land which we now know as Palestine. And this is a very slow, but quite
steady process in which the great effort is to consolidate Egypt and Syria and
then to fall upon the kingdom of Jerusalem and defeat it. That's phase two,
that consolidation process, as the Arabs see it.
And phase three is the great triumph of Saladin, where that goal is realized
in the defeat of the Crusaders and basically the pushing of the Crusaders and
the Europeans into the sea. And, of course, that's the reason that Saladin
lives so vibrantly in the Arab world today, because he's the great hero that
drove the Europeans out.
GROSS: Was the word `jihad' used during the Crusades?
Mr. RESTON: Yes, it was.
GROSS: How as it defined then?
Mr. RESTON: Well, it's defined more broadly than we think of it today.
It's--to begin with, it is, of its nature, a defensive concept. It is the
protection of Islam. Now it has been misused subsequently to refer to the
proselytizing of non-Muslims. I mean, the Muslim movement after Mohammed
became a very, you know, military one and Islam spread across North Africa,
partly by military force. But the original concept of jihad is the protection
of Islam against assault from the outside.
GROSS: And that's the context that it was used in during the Crusades?
Mr. RESTON: That's correct.
Mr. RESTON: And it was--but the Crusaders had invaded Palestine, and that
was--and had taken that vast area of the coastline there. And a jihad was
called in order to recapture what they thought was theirs.
GROSS: Did you go through the Koran and try to read how jihad is used in the
context of the book?
Mr. RESTON: Yes.
GROSS: What'd you find?
Mr. RESTON: Well, it's about as I described it, but I think also it was
interesting to me when I was in Syria researching the book to find that jihad
can also be applied in a personal sense, that one can have a jihad of the
tongue, for example, that keeps a good Muslim from blaspheming. And it can be
used in other personal ways that attempts to purify the personal behavior of a
Muslim. In other words, it doesn't have to always be applied as a national or
a militant concept for states or peoples.
GROSS: You did interviews in the West and interviews in the Arab world as
part of your research for your book on the Third Crusade. What are some of
the different perspectives you got in the Christian world, compared to the
Mr. RESTON: Well, the central one was what I mentioned before about the
different way in which that Crusader period as we know it in Western--the way
Western history is written, how differently that is viewed as Arab history.
That's the central thing. Beyond that, of course, the Crusades in childhood
lore--and I certainly had plenty of this when I was growing up--is thought to
be the age of chivalry. And Richard the Lionheart was very much a part of the
Robin Hood lore and the noble heroic quality of Crusaders returning from their
noble quest in the East to their homes. All of that was great stuff of, you
know, childhood bedtime stories and little movies that we used to see when I
was quite young. So there is, of course, none of that in the Arab world.
GROSS: And do you think that there's still a grain of truth to the nobility
of the knights and so on, or do you think that that's really mythology?
Mr. RESTON: Well, it is mythology, but, you know, we love mythology. And
more often than not, there is a grain of truth to mythology. I supposed to
some extent in the internecine fights between the knights of one province
against another, there was probably some chivalry on the battlefield. But
when the Crusaders moved to the Middle East, I think the notion of chivalry on
the battlefield pretty well went out. Richard the Lionheart, one of the first
things that he did after his first great victory in Palestine when he overcame
the siege of Acre, was to pull out 2,700 Muslims out of that city and massacre
them. So there's no chivalry in that at all. And actually, if one's looking
for chivalry in the Third Crusade, one finds, I would say, marginally more
amongst the Muslim forces and particularly Saladin himself than in the
GROSS: What are the ways in which your research into the Crusades have
informed the way you interpret what's happening now in terrorism and the
coalition against terrorism?
Mr. RESTON: Well, Osama bin Laden no more represents Islam than Jim Jones or
David Koresh represents Christianity. I mean, Osama bin Laden is a
perversion, an aberration and, you know, we're going through this very sad
period in America where it all gets lumped together from the American,
particularly white American Christian standpoint. But Osama bin Laden is a
cult and a perversion, and there is actually a very good parallel to what
Osama bin Laden is from the Third Crusade because there was a cult at that
time also called the cult of the Assassins. And it was led by a figure called
Rashiduddin Sinan. And the Assassins had a territory deep in the mountains of
Syria, and they basically terrorized all of Palestine. But they were in no
way representative of established Islam. It was a sect and a perversion of
Islam. And yet, they used the technique of political murder to great effect
with actual assassinations and attempted assassinations, including an attempt
on Saladin himself.
So instead of us thinking about Osama bin Laden as representative of anything
in a broad scale, I think we need to think of him as an aberration who is
really a direct descendant from the so-called Old Man of the Mountain, who
presided over the Assassins of the 12th century.
GROSS: Well, Jim Reston, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. RESTON: Thank you. My pleasure.
GROSS: James Reston Jr. is the author of "Warriors of God." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, the story behind one of the first films shot on location in
Manhattan. We talk with the director, Jules Dassin, who returned to New York
from his home in Greece after the attack on the World Trade Center.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jules Dassin, film director, talks about his career
and his life
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Many people have cancelled travel plans, but not film director Jules Dassin.
Although he's 90 years old, last week he made good on his promise to come to
New York for a film retrospective produced by the Film Forum in downtown
Manhattan, featuring the work of his late wife, the actress Melina Mercouri.
Dassin directed her in the films "Never on Sunday" and "Topkapi."
He lives in Greece; he's lived abroad ever since he was blacklisted in the
1950s. While living in France, he made the classic film "Rififi." In the
'40s, before he was blacklisted, he made "Brute Force," "Night in the City"
and "The Naked City."
"The Naked City" was one of the first films shot on location in Manhattan, and
it's particularly interesting to watch it now in the light of the World Trade
Center attacks. The opening sequence features terrific aerial shots of
Manhattan, while we hear this voiceover.
(Soundbite from "The Naked City")
Mr. MARK HELLINGER (Producer): Ladies and gentlemen, the motion picture
you're about to see is called "The Naked City." My name is Mark Hellinger. I
was in charge of its production. And I may as well tell you frankly that it's
a bit different from most films you've ever seen. It was written by Albert
Maltz and Malvin Wald, photographed by William Daniels and directed by Jules
As you see, we're flying over an island, a city, a particular city, and this
is a story of a number of people, and a story also of the city itself. It was
not photographed in a studio; quite the contrary. Barry Fitzgerald, our star,
Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Ted de Corsia and the other actors
played out their roles on the streets, in the apartment houses, in the
skyscrapers of New York itself, and along with them, a great many thousand New
Yorkers played out their roles also. This is the city as it is; hot
summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone,
the people without makeup.
Well, let's begin our story this way. It's 1:00 in the morning on a hot
GROSS: Last week, I asked director Jules Dassin why, at the age of 90, he
came to New York for the Melina Mercouri retrospective in spite of the World
Trade Center attack.
Mr. JULES DASSIN (Film Director): As soon as I heard about it, I had a great
need to be here, and my daughters--I live in Athens, my daughters live in
Paris, and I said `I'm going,' and they said, `Not without us.' And all three
of us reserved, booked flights, and came.
GROSS: I want to talk a little bit about your 1948 movie, "Naked City," which
I believe was the first movie shot on location in New York.
Mr. DASSIN: No, it was not the first, actually.
GROSS: Not the first?
Mr. DASSIN: But I think maybe the first all of it, both interiors and
exteriors in New York.
GROSS: Now in the opening, there are great scenes of Manhattan. Some of
those shots seem to be shot from above, maybe from a helicopter?
Mr. DASSIN: From a little plane.
GROSS: From a little plane.
Mr. DASSIN: Yeah.
GROSS: Can you tell us the feeling of it?
Mr. DASSIN: Well, I tell you, I was raised in New York from the time I was
three till I went to live in California for a while, and it's my city, it's my
town and I love it. This is the New York that I thought--this is interesting.
I thought I knew New York, but you learn a city when you're really going to
film it and you have to walk it all. And you find out all the secrets of how
the city is fed and how the dead are buried and the hospital systems and all
the key things that are the organizational life of a city, the simplicity of
When I was much younger, I was very unhappy that streets were calling First
Street, Second, Third and Fourth, whereas in Europe, you had North-South
Avenue and Beethoven Alley and so on. But here, I didn't find any poetry in
the numbers. But then seeing, understanding that grid system, I thought it
was just brilliant planning.
GROSS: Did shooting "The Naked City" make you feel even more attached to
Manhattan than you'd felt before?
Mr. DASSIN: Yes. Yes, because there was this passionate interest that
sometimes became huge problems, because the camera and actors attract people.
And we had to use all kinds of techniques to hide the camera. I had a
portable newspaper kiosk with me. I put the camera inside. I had a flower
delivery van with a mirror that looks out, and most of all, I had a marvelous
actor guy who, when the crowd would gather--and they'd learned before, when we
came to a shooting place, the crowds were already there. They had checked
with hotels or who--where actors were, and they knew where we would be. And
sometimes I would turn up and there'd be hundreds of people, literally. And
this actor friend was very important to us, because about a few blocks away,
we would set up a ladder. He would get up on the ladder, wave an American
flag and begin to agitate, and people would rush to him, and I'd get my shots
quickly and get out.
GROSS: That's really funny. So you had an actor who was a decoy.
Mr. DASSIN: That's right.
GROSS: And you were able to shoot under cover, because you hid in this
portable kiosk or in the flower truck.
Mr. DASSIN: Well, in such situations, there was no place to hide the camera,
that's when we used our public speaker.
GROSS: That's really great.
Mr. DASSIN: Yes.
GROSS: Film director and actor Jules Dassin is my guest.
A few years after you made "Naked City," you were blacklisted. How did you
know that you were blacklisted?
Mr. DASSIN: I think I read it in a newspaper. I had been invited to come to
make a film in Italy, and I didn't work out. We agreed to disagree. And
while I was in Rome, I decided I would go to the Cannes Film Festival. And
when I was there, I learned that I had been enlisted into this noble brigade
of refugees and subversive characters.
GROSS: And what did you decide to do?
Mr. DASSIN: I decided to go right back to the US states. But I was waiting
to be called and was not for a while, and then I was engaged to--because New
York did not admit a blacklist; the theater would not be intimidated--and I
was engaged to direct, of all things, a musical revue starring Bette Davis,
and one couldn't understand why she wanted to do that, but she did. And I
said, `Fine,' because it was a job, and went into rehearsal and only after
rehearsals had maybe--I think we had gone into about two weeks or so--a fellow
turned up with what he called a subpoena to come to Washington to testify.
And I was very frustrated because I said, `Well, I can't go now. I have the
responsibility of this play. They'll have to wait, and they'll have to wait
for quite a time, because we're going to take it out of town,' you know, as
you try these plays before you bring them to New York.
And this guy who served these subpoenas became a buddy. He came to these
different cities and said, `Hey, hey, hey, hey.' He would call me `Julie,' as
a matter of fact. `Hey, Julie, you're in trouble. You'd better go.' And I
said, `I will not discharge--I have this responsibility and I'm going to
finish, and I'll be in Washington the very next day.' And a day or two before
we opened in New York, there's a telegram that came signed, and they said,
`These hearings have been indefinitely postponed,' so I never got to make my
GROSS: My guest is film director Jules Dassin. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is film director Jules Dassin. He directed "Night in the
City," "Brute Force," "Rififi," "Topkapi" and "Never on Sunday." He was
blacklisted a few years after he made the 1948 film, "The Naked City."
You ended up making your next movie in France. Had it become impossible to
work in the United States?
Mr. DASSIN: Well, it became impossible because I knew that once I was named
as a subversive, and that I understood the blacklist had by that time been
well-entrenched, there was no work, and people avoided you. Friends would
pretend they didn't see you, and I had a family to feed. And I was offered a
film in France, a film with the actor, that great comic actor, his name was
Fernandel, and I grabbed, leaped at it.
A few days before--no, about a week before we were to shoot, the actress whom
we had hired, an American actress, came weeping, said `I have been told if I
work for Mr. Dassin I will never get a job in America again, and so I'm
obliged to leave. Excuse me; I'm out.' And this gave the producer a little
bit of shock, but I said, `Well, we can cast that again,' and we began to do
that, and then he got another message from a man whose name I'll tell you, and
whose name--I'll never forget it: Mr. Roy Brewer, who was the president of
the technicians' union in California. And his message to the producer was
that `If you make this film with Mr. Dassin, it will never see a release in
the States, nor will any film you ever make from then on be released in the
States.' And they took this threat seriously, and I was out of a job. And
that went on for about four years, until "Rififi" came up.
GROSS: And "Rififi" is just a brilliant, now classic, heist movie, and let me
read something Francois Truffaut said about it. He said, `Out of the worst
crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have
ever seen.' Were you skeptical of making the novel into a movie? Did you
dislike the novel as much as Truffaut did?
Mr. DASSIN: I was not enchanted by it. But it was a job.
GROSS: You wanted to work.
Mr. DASSIN: And there was just this section of the--in the novel, which was
about a heist, a robbery, and I decided to make the film, build it around
that. So all the themes, ideas, and some racist notions in the book I did not
have to face. As a matter of fact, I became friends with the writer, the
author of the book later on. But it was so glorious and wonderful to work
again after five years.
GROSS: I guess the exhilaration of working again is part of what we're seeing
in the movie.
Mr. DASSIN: I hope so. I would be glad if that were true.
GROSS: The most famous scene in "Rififi" is the actual jewelry heist. This
is a scene of close to 30 minutes.
Mr. DASSIN: Yes.
GROSS: There's no dialogue and there's no music...
Mr. DASSIN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...as these guys work without making a sound.
Mr. DASSIN: That's right.
GROSS: Why did you shoot it without dialogue or music?
Mr. DASSIN: I just felt it that way, and I think it came from my trust in
the characters as written and as played. They had no need to talk or
communicate. They were professionals. They knew each other. They
anticipated each other, and they knew that noise was an enemy, noise was
dangerous. They worked quietly, efficiently, and in touch with each other,
contact that was very strong, and it worked better in the silence.
GROSS: Now most filmmakers, I think, would have put music underneath,
suspense music or some kind of music.
Mr. DASSIN: Oh, I think then, you've heard my story, a story. There's a
wonderful composer in French history, as a matter of fact. His name's Georges
Auric, who also did film work. He's written some marvelous stuff for
movies, and he said, `I look forward to writing music for this huge sequence.'
And I said, `No, I don't want music.' He said, `You're mad. You're mad.' And
the producer said, `You're mad. You're going to have 30 minutes without
dialogue, without music?' I said, `That's what I hope.' And he said, `Look,
I'm your friend, I'm going to cover you. I'm going to write the music.' I
said, `I don't want it.' `I'm going to write it.' And he did, almost a
And this wonderful guy, I invited him, I said, `Come to screening. I'm going
to show you the film once with music and once without music, and I want you to
tell me what you think I should do.' And he sat through both versions, and he
said, `Music, out!' Wonderful guy.
GROSS: Now do you think that audiences early on realized that there was no
Mr. DASSIN: Oh, yes.
GROSS: ...no dialogue, or did it just work on them unconsciously?
Mr. DASSIN: Well, I trapped them a little bit, because there was one sound I
did make. The guy accidentally touches a piano key, and when I saw that with
an audience and they gasped when he made that sound, I said, `OK, we're in.
They don't want him to make any noise.'
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is film director and actor Jules
I'm going to quote Francois Truffaut. He wrote, "The relative permissiveness
of the French censors allowed Dassin to make a film without compromises,
immoral, perhaps, but profoundly tragic, warm, human." And I think one of the
"immoral," quote, parts that he's referring to is a scene in which the main
character, le Stephanois, played by Jean Servais, has just gotten out of
prison, and he discovers that his old girlfriend is now with his enemy. So he
punishes her by forcing her to strip, then whipping her with a belt and
throwing her out the door before she can zip her dress back up. We never see
her undressed, nor do we see him actually whip her. We just hear it. And we
also see how disgusted he is by his own act when he's through whipping her.
How did you decide how to shoot that scene?
Mr. DASSIN: Well, may I correct one thing?
Mr. DASSIN: He did not come to punish an enemy. He didn't even know who the
man was. When he went to prison, this woman, very sympathetic character, as a
matter of fact, just had to take up another life, and Servais, the character
who was prisoned, I thought, felt, as did the actor, that he behaved cruelly,
but that's the way that he would behave. And the cruelty was suggested more
Mr. DASSIN: As a matter of fact, not a single scratch or blow was filmed. It
GROSS: But I understand that the movie ended up on the Legion of Decency list
of movies to avoid, and that it was actually censored in some countries.
Mr. DASSIN: Look, the Legion of Decency, I'm convinced, treated it that way
because my name was on the film.
Mr. DASSIN: You know, something I have some pride about was that after
people who needed work, friends, blacklisted people, talent people that I knew
about, had to work under false names, and I just--when "Rififi" was seen by
American distributors, it had already opened in Europe and was very
successful, made a lot of money. And producers of the States, distributors,
came to me and offered me a lot of money if I would remove my name from the
film and put up some false name, but I refused. And that was the first film
made by a former blacklistee that had the director's name on it. This is
credited to my dear friend, Dalton Trumbo, who made "Spartacus."
GROSS: Right. That's the story I always hear.
Mr. DASSIN: No, but that came after "Rififi," considerably later. And with
my name on it, all we got at the beginning was one theater in New York, one,
but it opened and was very successful, and so some other theaters took it up.
But it got very limited distribution at the time.
GROSS: I know you acted in the Yiddish theater in New York before you even
directed. What kinds of parts did you play in the Yiddish theater?
Mr. DASSIN: I actually played one speaking part...
Mr. DASSIN: ...because I was an apprentice in that theater, and I played the
lead in one part because I was the understudy, and I stepped in and I was
great. And then the next day I was terrible, and the third day I was just
inadmissible, and I said, `Oh, my God. You mean one has to do this every
night?' I said, `No more actors for me,' and that's when I decided to go in
GROSS: Was Yiddish your first language?
Mr. DASSIN: Well, actually, it's very strange. My mother and father were
Jewish, but my father insisted that we speak in English, and so I did. I
spoke some Yiddish, but not well. But when I saw that theater and said, `I
want to be in this theater,' because I think it was a great theater, called
the Artef, marvelous, wonderful theater with a brilliant director--a man
whose name was Benno Schneider, and I said--oh, I was a boy, I was very
young, but I said, `I want to be part of this theater.' And part of it was
Mr. DASSIN: And I spent five, almost five, six years in that theater. A
happy, happy time.
GROSS: My guest is film director Jules Dassin. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is film director Jules Dassin.
Now, Jules Dassin, you--two of your best-known movies, "Never on Sunday" and
"Topkapi," starred Melina Mercouri, who also you were married to for many
Mr. DASSIN: Yes.
GROSS: She passed away in 1994.
Mr. DASSIN: Mm.
GROSS: And she became minister of culture in Greece, but before that had
happened, she was exiled for several years after a military coup, and then
Mr. DASSIN: That's right.
GROSS: ...she was voted into Parliament, then she became minister of
Mr. DASSIN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did you become a couple before you started working together, or did
you become a couple through working together?
Mr. DASSIN: Both. At a Cannes Festival in 1954 or '55, Melina came with a
film representing Greece, a film called "Stella," and I came representing
France with "Rififi." And we met there, and I admired her performance very
much in "Stella"--that was the title of the film--and I was preparing another
film called "He Who Must Die," in which there is a part that I thought she
would be perfect for, and I told her about that and that's how our life began.
GROSS: What was her image in Greek movies before "Never on Sunday"...
Mr. DASSIN: She had po...
GROSS: ...in which she played a...
Mr. DASSIN: She had on...
GROSS: ...kind of earthy prostitute?
Mr. DASSIN: In "Never on Sunday."
Mr. DASSIN: Yeah. She had made only that one film before, this film,
"Stella," was the first film she ever made.
Mr. DASSIN: That's all she had--that was the first movie.
GROSS: So you kind of discovered her, in a way.
Mr. DASSIN: Well, the man who made "Stella" discovered her, but she was a
very important star in the Greek theater.
GROSS: Now you've continued to live in Greece.
Mr. DASSIN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: What do you like about living in that country? I guess your family is
Mr. DASSIN: No, my family is in Paris. But, you know, we see each other; my
daughters are here with me now, right outside your studio door. But you know
this dictatorship that you refer to lasted seven years.
GROSS: In Greece.
Mr. DASSIN: Yeah. It lasted seven years. And for Melina to be cut away
from Greece, which she passionately loved, she loved everything Greek. If you
had a Greek name, she loved you. She was a nationalist, a jingoist, a
chauvinist, whoever; whatever came to Greek she loved. And for her to be away
was very serious punishment. And when the junta fell, I happened to be in New
York. On the day it happened, Melina was in Paris, and she said, `I'm going
back tomorrow. Think of what you're going to do, and let me know.' And I had
said to myself now--I was thinking of my work, mostly; my Greek was
practically nonexistent, limited--and I had to decide quickly what I would do
the rest of my life, but I knew what Greece meant to Melina. She had to be
there. I knew what she meant to me, so I had to be with her, and that was the
decision. I went to live in Greece.
GROSS: Well, Jules Dassin, thank you for talking with us. Thank you for
visiting New York.
Mr. DASSIN: I enjoyed talking to you.
GROSS: And I wish you the best.
Mr. DASSIN: Thank you.
GROSS: Film director Jules Dassin. Last week, he flew to New York for a film
retrospective featuring his late wife, Melina Mercouri. It runs at the Film
Forum in Manhattan through October 18th. He will appear at the Harvard Film
Archive October 11th, where they're doing a tribute to Mercouri and
Dassin. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
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