In 1942, a brief thawing of the stormy relationship between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces in World War II, inspired Hollywood to make a picture about the life of the Frenchman. Screenwriter William Faulkner was hired to write it.
Yes, that William Faulkner. Seven years from his Nobel Prize in literature, Faulkner was, as Faulkner scholar Robert W. Hamblin described him, “in dire financial need and unable to secure a desired military appointment.” Going Hollywood worked: Warner Brothers hired Faulkner in July of 1942 at $300 per week. His first gig was the Charles de Gaulle story.
By turn called Journey To Dawn, Journey To Hope, Free France, and finally the The De Gaulle Story, the outline, treatment, revised treatment, full-length screenplay, and finally revised screenplay evolved over five months of work. Ultimately, Faulkner produced 1,200 pages of manuscript.
Here’s a sample quoted by Hamblin:
De Gaulle: “I thought you were dead. What brought you back to life?”
1st Soldier: “France, General.”
2nd Soldier: “Someone whispered ‘de Gaulle’ in his ear.”
De Gaulle: “Does that raise the dead in France?”
2nd Soldier: “It will do better than that now. It will raise the living.”
But if you’ve never heard of The De Gaulle Story, screenplay by William Faulkner, that’s because it was never made.
Hamblin writes: “There are a number of reasons the script was never filmed, one of the major factors being the conflict that developed between Faulkner and the De Gaulle representatives who served as consultants on the project.”
Hamblin describes the conflict as “a debate on a topic that engaged Faulkner’s interest throughout his career—the fundamental conflict between fact and fiction.” Faulkner was concerned with story. This certainly fit into the Hollywood mode: the biopic genre usually fictionalizes biography. De Gaulle’s representatives—a Free French lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and a French film director/producer in Hollywood—were concerned with fact. “Observations on Inexact Details” was the title of one long list of factual errors, minor to major, ferreted out of the treatment by the French observers.
What Hamblin calls the “unbending factuality of the Free Frenchmen” drove Faulkner bonkers. “Let’s dispense with General de Gaulle as a living character in the story,” he pleaded to his producer at Warner Brothers in November of 1942. “Only by overruling the Frenchmen’s demands, Faulkner insisted, could the filmmakers ‘gain the freedom to make a picture which the American audience whose money will pay for it will understand and not find dull.'”
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Instead, Warner Brothers abandoned the project completely. F.D.R. went back to despising de Gaulle; Charles de Gaulle continued to glower about the Americans. According to Hamblin, Faulkner recycled some of his work on the de Gaulle story for other works. Some of his other screenwriting eventually did make it to the screen, notably in the Howard Hawks-directed The Big Sleep and To Have And Have Not.
The de Gaulle script languished in Warner Brothers’ files and then a private collection. It was finally published by the University Press of Mississippi in 1984. A translation into French followed and then, in 1990, a French television version entitled Moi, General de Gaulle was broadcast. It failed to wow the small screen. Reviews “concluded that the movie was not very good; moreover, it varied significantly from Faulkner’s original script.” In the end, William Faulkner was just another Hollywood writer getting the treatment.