Robert Ardrey began his film career shortly after his second play debuted on Broadway. His first two plays, Star Spangled and Casey Jones, though they had been commercial failures, caught the attention of executives at Metro, Twentieth Century, and RKO. Sidney Howard, who had been instrumental in securing Ardrey’s Guggenheim fellowship, sent word that Samuel Goldwyn might be interested in hiring Ardrey. In short order Ardrey was headed to Los Angeles, where he would quickly become Goldwyn’s highest-paid writer.
Ardrey is best known for his classic adaptations, including The Secret Garden (1949), Madame Bovary (1949), and The Three Musketeers (1948, starring Gene Kelly), and for his original screenplay, Khartoum (1966, starring Charlton Heston and Sir Laurence Olivier), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay. He also negotiated several landmark contracts that changed the way studios hired writers. His film career, which spanned from 1940 to 1966, left its indelible mark on both Hollywood and the history of American cinema.
For Ardrey’s first feature-length screenplay, he adapted his recently deceased friend Sidney Howard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play They Knew What They Wanted. Howard, who wrote the posthumously-produced Gone with the Wind, was important in Ardrey’s life, as he was the man who secured Ardrey’s Guggenheim grant. Though Ardrey significantly changed the plot of They Knew What They Wanted, he received a letter from Howard’s widow praising the adaptation’s faithfulness to the original.
The film, a story of love and adultery in the northern California wine country, starred Charles Laughton and, in her first dramatic role, Carole Lombard. Incidentally, during the filming of They Knew What They Wanted Ardrey was awarded the first ever Sidney Howard Memorial Award for his play Thunder Rock.
The film was a major success both critically and popularly, and launched Ardrey’s storied career as a Hollywood screenwriter.
Ardrey wrote his second feature while he was working at the Office of War Information. He negotiated three weeks of leave and wrote the screenplay during that time. A Lady Takes a Chance, starring Jean Arthur as a city girl on a bus tour of the West who has a liaison with the rodeo cowboy John Wayne, was one of Jean’s last great hits.
“Robert Ardrey still has managed to brighten up an old formula until it looks almost brand new.”The New York Times
The film opens with this written prologue: “Once upon a time: It was so long ago that people drove sixty miles an hour, And skidded their tires, And drank three cups of coffee all at once, And ate big gobs of butter, And there were more fellows around than there were girls, and everybody was having a good time without knowing it. That’s when our story happened. Away back then… in 1938”
Because of the rapidity with which Ardrey had written A Lady Takes a Chance, he was approached by H.N. Swanson to adapt A.J. Cronin’s novel The Green Years with only ten weeks left to deadline. Ardrey, who had recently left MGM, negotiated the first ever independent contract for a screenwriter. The contract, which came to be known in the industry as “The Green Years Deal,” granted Ardrey complete freedom during the drafting of the screenplay, and treated him not as an employee but an independent contractor. Ardrey never wrote another screenplay without a similar deal.
The film, about a boy in conflict with his staunchly atheist grandfather, starred Charles Coburn. It was shot with a then-exorbitant budget of two million dollars, and was released to record profits.
“A picture of considerable substance and expanse.”Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
“Since this is essentially a yarn built on careful development of its various characters, a major contribution is in giving new stature and audience appeal to virtually every player in it.”Variety
Following the success of The Green Years, Ardrey was contracted for his fourth feature, The Three Musketeers. It was the first film on which Ardrey worked with legendary producer Pandro Berman, with whom Ardrey would later make Madame Bovary.
Ardrey’s version of The Three Musketeers is considered a classic adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s 1846 French novel. The film was produced by George Sidney. Lana Turner starred alongside Gene Kelly, who later said it was his favorite non-musical role. The film also met great success at the box office, and was the highest-grossing non-musical of 1948.
Ardrey’s adaptation of the children’s classic The Secret Garden was the first film of a two-picture deal Ardrey signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after his previous successes. The film was originally to be directed and produced by Clarence Brown, but when Brown fell ill he had to give up the role. Ardrey, in his autobiography, writes, “In the end Clarence couldn’t direct The Secret Garden, and the studio gave it to somebody’s nephew. It came out a disappointment, looking precisely as if it had been directed by somebody’s nephew.”
The Secret Garden, compared to Ardrey’s other films, was not particularly successful. It did, however, inspire a television series with Brian Roper reprising his role as Dickon.
“The 1949 Secret Garden is a first-rate production that succeeds on just about every level.”Stuart Galbraith IV, 2013
Gustave Flaubert’s classic French novel Madame Bovary had proven for years difficult to adapt. In 1932 Albert Ray produced and directed a version that flopped terribly and quickly disappeared; a 1934 French version by Jean Renoir met with only a slightly better fate.
Robert Ardrey believed he knew why, and in 1947 he brought an idea to Pandro Berman, who had acquired the rights only two weeks before. They agreed to make Ardrey’s version together, to great success; it is considered the definitive adaptation of Flaubert’s novel.
The adaptation was directed by Vincente Minnelli. It starred Jennifer Jones as Emma Bovary and James Mason as Gustave Flaubert. Ardrey was also awarded another landmark contract for the screenplay, as MGM paid him his fee in installments over the course of ten years.
Ardrey continued to work with Pandro Berman for his next film, Quentin Durward. The film, an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel of 1823, was co-directed by Berman and Richard Thorpe. The plot revolves around a knight, Quentin Durward, caught up in the power struggles between King Louis XI and the Duke of Burgundy. It was the third film in an unofficial trilogy starring Robert Taylor. The final action sequence, a fight scene involving characters swinging from the ropes of a belltower, has become iconic.
Ardrey’s next film was a melodrama called The Power and the Prize, adapted from Howard Swiggett’s best-selling novel of 1954. Like Quentin Durward, the film starred Robert Taylor. It also co-starred Burl Ives, who had been blacklisted during the second Red Scare. Ardrey credits Ives’s performance as being one of the final strokes to finally break the Hollywood blacklist.
The Power and the Prize was directed by Henry Koster, and was the first film to be shot in black-and-white CinemaScope.
“Mr. Ardrey has written his screenplay sleekly, with sharp and sophisticated words, and he has kept his business maneuvers within a clear and dramatic frame.”Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
Ardrey next turned his attention to the Technicolor Western The Wonderful Country. Shot on location in the Mexican state of Durango, the film starred Robert Mitchum as the mercenary Martin Brady.
The film, though it has not been well-remembered, received a rave review from The New York Times upon its release, with the critic Howard Thompson calling it a “superior, intelligent film on nearly every count.”
“It was a pleasure yesterday to watch Tom Lea’s novel "The Wonderful Country” spreading across the screen pretty much, we suspect, the way the author must have wanted it.“Howard Thompson, The New York Times
While Ardrey was living in Spain and working on his landmark text on human origins, African Genesis, he accepted a commission from Julian Blaustein to adapt The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He completed the script in Spain, with occasional trips to Paris to meet with Blaustein.
The film, Ardrey’s penultimate feature-length screenplay, concerned an Argentine family living in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France, and starred Glenn Ford.
In 1964 Ardrey, continuing his collaboration with Julian Blaustein, wrote a screenplay adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s 1938 novel Out of Africa. It was the first screen treatment of the novel. While the project would never be produced, it laid the groundwork for Ardrey’s next and final film, Khartoum, another project set in Africa on which Ardrey worked with Blaustein.
Ardrey’s final feature was one of the few original screenplays he wrote. Working from the diaries of General Charles Gordon and original research in the libraries of the University of London, Ardrey wrote Khartoum as a dramatization of Gordon’s defense of the titular Sudanese city from Mahdist forces during the Siege of Khartoum.
The film was directed by Basil Dearden and starred Charlton Heston and Sir Laurence Olivier. Heston, in his autobiography, reflected on the film:
"It’s a good part, presents the challenge of doing a mystic, as well as the English thing. Also, it’s a helluva good script.”Charlton Heston
After its premiere in London, which was attended by H.R.H. Princess Margaret, the Countess of Snowden, Khartoum quickly became an international smash hit. The film also earned Robert Ardrey a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.