Austria-Hungary Rejects Serbia’s Response

King’s Academy

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 133rd installment in the series.

July 25-26, 1914: Austria-Hungary Rejects Serbia’s Response

The delivery of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914 triggered frantic activity across Europe as men of state tried to defuse the situation by getting Austria-Hungary to extend the deadline or soften the terms. But in the end their uncoordinated efforts were too little, too late—and it didn’t help that some of them were sending mixed messages.

Wrong Impressions

In the final hours before the Serbian response was received at 6pm on July 25, Austria-Hungary and Germany tried to persuade Europe’s other Great Powers not to get involved. Above all they hoped that France and Britain, which had no direct interest in Serbia, would urge moderation on Russia—and at first it looked like they might get their wish.

In Paris the text of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum was delivered to Justice Minister Jean-Baptiste Bienvenu-Martin, filling in for Premier (and Foreign Minister) René Viviani, who was still at sea with President Raymond Poincaré on the return journey from St. Petersburg. According to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Paris, Count Szécsen, Bienvenu-Martin seemed to understand the need for harsh measures, and the German ambassador, Wilhelm von Schoen, made a similar report, leading German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow to conclude that “France, too, desired a localization of the conflict.”

Meanwhile, in London, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey still refused to take sides. On July 25, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov instructed Russia’s ambassador to London, Alexander Benckendorff, to point out that

So long as it is possible to avert a European war, it is easier for England than for any other Power to exert a moderating influence on Austria…  It was therefore very desirable that England should firmly and clearly make it understood that she considers Austria’s action unjustified by the circumstances and extremely dangerous to European peace. 

That same day, Grey’s own assistant undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, Eyre Crowe, argued that Germany’s attitude would determine the outcome, and that London should therefore warn Berlin before it was too late: “The point that now matters is whether Germany is or is not absolutely determined to have this war now. There is still the chance that she can be made to hesitate, if she can be induced to apprehend that the war will find England by the side of France and Russia.”

But Grey was reluctant to make even veiled threats to Berlin and Vienna, hoping instead to offer Britain’s services as an impartial mediator between Austria-Hungary and Russia—obviously still failing to comprehend that Austria-Hungary was set on war with Serbia no matter what. He also continued to suggest that Germany join the other Great Powers in mediating the dispute, for example telling the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, Berlin could “influence the Austrian government to take a favorable view” of the Serbian response—again failing to understand that Germany was actually encouraging Austria-Hungary to spurn compromise and crush Serbia. 

The Germans and Austrians took French and British ambiguity as evidence that neither would come to Russia’s aid, which in turn made it unlikely that Russia herself would actually fight when the chips were down. Thus on the evening of July 25 Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg sent a telegram to Kaiser Wilhelm II (still enjoying a cruise in the Norwegian fjords on the royal yacht) assuring him that “Paris and London are actively working for localization of the conflict.”

Victims of Their Own Deceit

But this was a disastrous misapprehension, as events would soon reveal. First of all, as minister of justice, Bienvenu-Martin had no experience or authority over French foreign policy, and the Germans should never have imagined that his casual remarks actually represented the views of the French government—a fact he emphasized himself. 

Second, when it came to Britain the Germans were ironically falling victim to their own trickery. Lichnowsky was under instructions to say that Germany had not been consulted by Austria-Hungary about the latter’s plans regarding Serbia. Foreign Secretary Grey took this lie at face value and assumed that Germany also wanted to keep the peace, which is why he didn’t threaten Berlin—but if he had known that Germany was secretly encouraging Austria-Hungary, he probably would have.

As a matter of fact, the German deception went even further than that: when Grey asked Berlin to urge Vienna to accept outside mediation of the dispute with Serbia, the Germans said they would recommend the idea to their ally—but actually told the Austrians to ignore the British suggestion and proceed with their plan.

The Serbian Response

Meanwhile, as the hours crept by on July 25 and the deadline approached, Serbian leaders worked feverishly to craft a humble response that would satisfy as many of the Austrian demands as possible, but without sacrificing Serbia’s sovereignty. Ultimately, the Serbians agreed to nine out of eleven conditions, including issuing an official statement disavowing subversion aimed against Austria-Hungary; suppression of publications inciting hatred of Austria-Hungary; dissolution of “Narodna Obrana,” a Yugoslav propaganda organization; elimination of anti-Hapsburg content from textbooks and teaching; removal from service of all army officers who espoused anti-Austrian propaganda; arrest of Ciganović and Tankosić, both implicated in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; suppression of cross-border smuggling between Serbia and Bosnia; and explanations of anti-Austrian statements by high-ranking Serbian officials. 

But two demands remained unfulfilled: item five, for the participation of representatives from the Austro-Hungarian government in the suppression of subversive moments, and item six, participation of Austro-Hungarian officials in the internal Serbian judicial investigation. Both conditions would have undermined Serbian sovereignty, leaving the Serbian government no choice but to deliver the following fateful response: “As regards the participation in this inquiry of Austro-Hungarian agents... this cannot be accepted, as this is a violation of the constitution and of criminal procedure.”

Chronicling America

As expected, the Serbian refusal on these two points provided Austria-Hungary the pretext it needed to break off diplomatic relations in preparation for war. After receiving the Serbian response at 6pm the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Belgrade, Baron von Giesl, notified Vienna, burned his codebooks, sent a note to Prime Minister Pašić declaring that diplomatic relations were broken off, and immediately headed to the Belgrade train station, where he boarded the next train for Austria-Hungary at 6:40pm. 

After receiving news of the Serbian response at 7:45pm, around 9 pm Emperor Franz Josef ordered mobilization against Serbia under “Plan B” (for “Balkans”), which called for the formation of three armies along the Serbian frontier—the Second, Fifth, and Sixth (see map below)—while three others guarded Austria-Hungary’s border with Russia. On the other side Serbia’s Prince Regent Alexander had already decreed mobilization that afternoon, and the Serbian government began evacuating Belgrade—just a few miles from Austro-Hungarian territory across the Danube River—and relocating to Kragujevac, about 50 miles to the south. In the opening weeks of the war the Serbian First, Second, and Third Armies would form north and west of Kragujevac before advancing to the Austro-Hungarian frontier (top).

On the evening of July 25 enthusiastic crowds gathered in Berlin and Vienna, cheering the rejection of the Serbian response. The British ambassador to Vienna, Sir Maurice de Bunsen, later recalled: “The demeanour of the people at Vienna and, as I was informed, in many other principal cities of the Monarchy, showed plainly the popularity of the idea of war with Serbia… Now the floodgates were opened, and the entire people and press clamoured impatiently for immediate… punishment of the hated Serbian race.” 

Russia Prepares to Mobilize

At the same time Russia was preparing to mobilize in support of Serbia, marking a dangerous escalation of the situation. On the morning of July 25, before Serbia even presented its response to the Austrian ultimatum, Tsar Nicholas II ordered “pre-mobilization” measures including the return of troops on maneuvers, automatic promotion of all cadet officers to full officers, and call-up of reservists for frontier divisions. The Tsar also approved—“in principle”—mobilization against Austria-Hungary, involving 13 army corps containing a total 1.1 million men; however the actual order for mobilization wasn’t yet given.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov hoped that a show of strength would suffice to deter Austria-Hungary from attacking Serbia, and also believed that a “partial mobilization,” limited to the Russian frontier with Austria-Hungary, could convey this message without threatening Germany. However he failed to realize two key details.

First of all, the pre-mobilization order actually affected all Russian forces along both the German and Austro-Hungarian borders—and the Germans were unlikely to grasp, or care about, the fine distinctions between pre-mobilization and mobilization. Indeed, it was all a matter of semantics, and the preparations certainly looked warlike to the French ambassador to St. Petersburg, Maurice Paléologue, who told the Italian ambassador on the evening of July 25 that the Tsar’s “Council of Ministers has taken decisions on the… measures to be put in force in the war against Austria and Germany, now regarded as imminent.” Later Paléologue accompanied Izvolsky, the Russian ambassador to France (now hurrying back to his post) to the train station, where, amid crowds of soldiers, they agreed, “It is war this time.”

Second—and even more disastrously—there was no such thing as “partial mobilization” against Austria-Hungary: the Russian general staff had only drawn up plans for general mobilization against both Germany and Austria-Hungary, on the reasonable assumption the allies would fight together. In other words, it was all or nothing, and when the Tsar’s ministers discovered this unfortunate fact, they would face a terrible choice: back down and let Austria-Hungary crush Serbia, or proceed to general mobilization.

More Misstatements 

As the sun rose on July 26, 1914, the situation in Europe was rapidly spinning out of control, but no one had declared war and swift, forceful diplomacy might yet have saved the day. Unfortunately, now it was Sazonov’s turn to misspeak. Still hoping to defuse the situation, the Russian foreign minister assured the German ambassador, Friedrich Pourtalès, that “no mobilization order had been issued… [and] the Cabinet had decided not to issue one until Austria-Hungary assumes a hostile attitude toward Russia”—for some reason leaving out Serbia, the focal point of the whole conflict. It’s hard to understand this omission, but Sazonov may simply have assumed that the phrase “toward Russia” covered Serbia as well, since everyone understood the basic situation—but in these fraught negotiations any misunderstanding could be catastrophic.

To be fair, Sazonov was in good company when it came to tragic misstatements. In one of the more significant errors, over breakfast on July 26, Britain’s King George V told the Kaiser’s brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, “We shall try all we can to keep out of this and shall remain neutral.” While it’s easy to see how the Germans might interpret this in an encouraging light, as with Bienvenu-Martin’s statements they never should have given so much weight to the opinion of a single individual, especially as the British monarch no longer exercised much real control over foreign policy; the king, who had not consulted extensively with Prime Minister Asquith or Foreign Secretary Grey, was expressing a personal opinion at most. 

In any event, the Germans often fell prey to irrational optimism. For example, on July 24, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill and Lord Chancellor Richard Haldane had dinner with Albert Ballin, a German shipping magnate and close friend of the Kaiser, who was apparently acting as an unofficial envoy from Berlin, and offered them the following unusual deal: “Suppose we had to go to war with Russia and France, and suppose we defeated France and yet took nothing from her in Europe, not an inch of her territory, only some colonies to indemnify us. Would that make a difference to England’s attitude? Suppose we gave a guarantee beforehand!”

Churchill and Haldane were skeptical about this strange, improbable proposal for a number of reasons. For one thing, there was no way to know that Germany would keep her word after defeating France and establishing control of the continent. But Ballin somehow came away with the impression that Britain might be open to such an arrangement, leading to another round of desperately confused last-minute negotiations as the fateful month of July 1914 drew to a close.

The Chain Reaction

Whatever the Germans—and many British—may have hoped, Britain didn’t actually have much choice about getting involved in a European war, having learned the hard way that she couldn’t allow the continent to fall under the control of a single power, as during the imperial heydays of Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte. On July 26, Crowe, the perceptive undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, sketched out the chain reaction that was about to start: 

I am afraid that the real difficulty to be overcome will be found in the question of mobilization. Austria is already mobilizing. This… is a serious menace to Russia, who cannot be expected to delay her own mobilization... If Russia mobilizes, we have been warned that Germany will do the same, and as German mobilization is directed almost entirely against France, the latter cannot possibly delay her own mobilization even for the fraction of a day… This however means that within 24 hours His Majesty’s Government will be faced with the question whether, in a quarrel so imposed by Austria on an unwilling France, Great Britain will stand idly aside, or take sides…

See the previous installment or all entries.

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35 Movies Roger Ebert Really Hated
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When Roger Ebert hated a film, he didn't mince words. On what would have been the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer's 76th birthday, here are some movies he absolutely loathed (including a couple of surprises) and his dry assessments of their value.

1. ARMAGEDDON (1998) // 1 STAR

“The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out. ... Armageddon reportedly used the services of nine writers. Why did it need any? The dialogue is either shouted one-liners or romantic drivel. ‘It’s gonna blow!’ is used so many times, I wonder if every single writer used it once, and then sat back from his word processor with a contented smile on his face, another day’s work done.”

2. THE BROWN BUNNY (2003) // 0 STARS

"I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than The Brown Bunny."

When the movie’s director responded by mocking Ebert’s weight, Ebert said, “It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of The Brown Bunny."

3. JASON X (2001) // HALF STAR

"'This sucks on so many levels.' Dialogue from Jason X; rare for a movie to so frankly describe itself. Jason X sucks on the levels of storytelling, character development, suspense, special effects, originality, punctuation, neatness and aptness of thought."

4. MAD DOG TIME (1996) // 0 STARS

"Mad Dog Time is the first movie I have seen that does not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time. Oh, I've seen bad movies before. But they usually made me care about how bad they were. Watching Mad Dog Time is like waiting for the bus in a city where you're not sure they have a bus line  ... Mad Dog Time should be cut into free ukulele picks for the poor."

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) // 1.5 STARS

"Once again, my comprehension began to slip, and finally I wrote down: 'To the degree that I do understand, I don't care.' It was, however, somewhat reassuring at the end of the movie to discover that I had, after all, understood everything I was intended to understand. It was just that there was less to understand than the movie at first suggests."

6. DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO (2005) // ZERO STARS

"[The title character] makes a living prostituting himself. How much he charges I'm not sure, but the price is worth it if it keeps him off the streets and out of another movie. Deuce Bigalow is aggressively bad, as if it wants to cause suffering to the audience. The best thing about it is that it runs for only 75 minutes ... Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."

7. MR. MAGOO (1997) // HALF STAR

“Magoo drives a red Studebaker convertible in Mr. Magoo, a fact I report because I love Studebakers and his was the only thing I liked in the film. Mr. Magoo is transcendently bad. It soars above ordinary badness as the eagle outreaches the fly.”

8. SPICE WORLD (1997) // HALF STAR

"Spice World is obviously intended as a ripoff of A Hard Day's Night which gave The Beatles to the movies ... the huge difference, of course, is that the Beatles were talented—while, let's face it, the Spice Girls could be duplicated by any five women under the age of 30 standing in line at Dunkin' Donuts."

9. GOOD LUCK CHUCK (2007) // 1 STAR

"There is a word for this movie, and that word is: Ick."

10. FREDDY GOT FINGERED (2001)// 0 STARS

"This movie doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels."

11. CORKY ROMANO (2001) // HALF STAR

Corky Romano is like a dead zone of comedy. The concept is exhausted, the ideas are tired, the physical gags are routine, the story is labored, the actors look like they can barely contain their doubts about the project.”

12. CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2000) // HALF STAR

Charlie’s Angels is like the trailer for a video game movie, lacking only the video game, and the movie.”

13. MANNEQUIN (1987) // HALF STAR

“A lot of bad movies are fairly throbbing with life. Mannequin is dead. The wake lasts 1 1/2 hours, and then we can leave the theater. Halfway through, I was ready for someone to lead us in reciting the rosary.”

14. EXIT TO EDEN (1994) // HALF STAR

“I’m sorry, but I just don’t get Rosie O’Donnell. I’ve seen her in three or four movies now, and she generally had the same effect on me as fingernails on a blackboard. She’s harsh and abrupt and staccato and doesn’t seem to be having any fun. She looks mean. ...  What were your first thoughts the first time Rosie turned up in the leather dominatrix uniform? Did you maybe have slight misgivings that you were presiding over one of the more misguided film projects of recent years?”

15. HOCUS POCUS (1993) // 1 STAR

“Of the film’s many problems, the greatest may be that all three witches are thoroughly unpleasant. They don’t have personalities; they have behavior patterns and decibel levels. A good movie inspires the audience to subconsciously ask, ‘Give me more!’ The witches in this one inspired my silent cry, ‘Get me out of here!’”

(What can we say? Ebert was occasionally wrong.)

16. TOMMY BOY (1995) // 1 STAR

“No one is funny in Tommy Boy. There are no memorable lines. None of the characters is interesting, except for the enigmatic figure played by Rob Lowe, who seems to have wandered over from Hamlet. Judging by the evidence on the screen, the movie got a green light before a usable screenplay had been prepared, with everybody reassuring themselves that since they were such funny people, inspiration would overcome them.”

17. THE VILLAGE (2004) // 1 STAR

“Eventually the secret of Those, etc., is revealed. It’s a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It’s so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don’t know the secret anymore. And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we’re back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets.”

18. THE LOVE GURU (2008) // 1 STAR

“Myers has some funny moments, but this film could have been written on toilet walls by callow adolescents. Every reference to a human sex organ or process of defecation is not automatically funny simply because it is naughty, but Myers seems to labor under that delusion. He acts as if he’s getting away with something, but in fact all he’s getting away with is selling tickets to a dreary experience.”

19. SHE'S OUT OF CONTROL (1989) // 0 STARS

“What planet did the makers of this film come from? What assumptions do they have about the purpose and quality of life? I ask because She’s Out of Control is simultaneously so bizarre and so banal that it’s a first: the first movie fabricated entirely from sitcom cliches and plastic lifestyles, without reference to any known plane of reality.”

20. SUMMER SCHOOL (1987) // HALF STAR

“You see it, you leave the theater, and then it evaporates, leaving just a slight residue, something like a vaguely unpleasant taste in the memory.”

21. CLIFFORD (1994) // HALF STAR

“It’s not bad in any usual way. It’s bad in a new way all its own. There is something extraterrestrial about it, as if it’s based on the sense of humor of an alien race with a completely different relationship to the physical universe. The movie is so odd, it’s most worth seeing just because we’ll never see anything like it again. I hope.”

22. NORTH (1994) // 0 STARS

"I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it."

Alan Zweibel wrote this film, and he got a chance to confront Ebert about the review. In a bathroom.

23. 200 CIGARETTES (1999)// HALF STAR

"Maybe another 200 cigarettes would have helped; coughing would be better than some of this dialogue."

24. DEATH TO SMOOCHY (2002) // HALF STAR

"In all the annals of the movies, few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant."

25. SAVING SILVERMAN (2001) // HALF STAR

"Saving Silverman is so bad in so many different ways that perhaps you should see it, as an example of the lowest slopes of the bell-shaped curve."

He included a critique of Neil Diamond, who makes a guest appearance in the movie: "As for Neil Diamond, Saving Silverman is his first appearance in a fiction film since The Jazz Singer (1980), and one can only marvel that he waited 20 years to appear in a second film, and found one even worse than his first one."

26. THE JAZZ SINGER (1980) // 1 STAR

From rogerebert.com:

"Diamond's whole presence in this movie is offensively narcissistic. His songs are melodramatic, interchangeable, self-aggrandizing groans and anguished shouts, backed protectively by expensive and cloying instrumentation. His dramatic presence also looks over-protected, as if nobody was willing to risk offending him by asking him to seem involved, caring and engaged.

"Diamond plays the whole movie looking at people's third shirt buttons, as if he can't be bothered to meet their eyes and relate with them. It's strange about the Diamond performance: It's not just that he can't act. It's that he sends out creepy vibes. He seems self-absorbed, closed off, grandiose, out of touch with his immediate surroundings."

27. ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE (1994) // 1 STAR

"Most of the people look as if they would rather be in other movies. The movie basically has one joke, which is Ace Ventura's weird nerdy strangeness. If you laugh at this joke, chances are you laugh at Jerry Lewis, too, and I can sympathize with you even if I can't understand you. I found the movie a long, unfunny slog through an impenetrable plot. Kids might like it. Real little kids."

28. STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT (1992) // HALF STAR

"Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! is one of those movies so dimwitted, so utterly lacking in even the smallest morsel of redeeming value, that you stare at the screen in stunned disbelief. It is moronic beyond comprehension, an exercise in desperation during which even Sylvester Stallone, a repository of self-confidence, seems to be disheartened."

29. THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (2005) // 1 STAR

"Of course you don't have to be smart to get into The Dukes of Hazzard. But people like Willie Nelson and Burt Reynolds should have been smart enough to stay out of it. Here is a lame-brained, outdated wheeze about a couple of good ol' boys who roar around the back roads of the South in the General Lee, their beloved 1969 Dodge Charger. As it happens, I also drove a 1969 Dodge Charger. You could have told them apart because mine did not have a Confederate flag painted on the roof."

30. GODZILLA (1998) // 1.5 STARS

"Going to see Godzilla at the Palais of the Cannes Film Festival is like attending a satanic ritual in St. Peter's Basilica. It's a rebuke to the faith that the building represents. Cannes touchingly adheres to a belief that film can be intelligent, moving and grand. Godzilla is a big, ugly, ungainly device to give teenagers the impression they are seeing a movie."

31. THE BUCKET LIST (2007) // 1 STAR

"The Bucket List is a movie about two old codgers who are nothing like people, both suffering from cancer that is nothing like cancer, and setting off on adventures that are nothing like possible. I urgently advise hospitals: Do not make the DVD available to your patients; there may be an outbreak of bedpans thrown at TV screens."

32. DIRTY LOVE (2005) // 0 STAR

"I would like to say more, but—no, I wouldn't. I would not like to say more. I would like to say less. On the basis of Dirty Love, I am not certain that anyone involved has ever seen a movie, or knows what one is."

33. BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2000) // HALF STAR

"This movie is awful in so many different ways. Even the opening titles are cheesy. Sci-fi epics usually begin with a stab at impressive titles, but this one just displays green letters on the screen in a type font that came with my Macintosh. Then the movie's subtitle unscrolls from left to right in the kind of 'effect' you see in home movies."

34. THE FLINTSTONES IN VIVA ROCK VEGAS (2000) // HALF STAR

"This is an ideal first movie for infants, who can enjoy the bright colors on the screen and wave their tiny hands to the music."

35. PINK FLAMINGOS (1972) // 0 STARS

"John Waters' Pink Flamingos has been restored for its 25th anniversary revival, and with any luck at all that means I won't have to see it again for another 25 years. If I haven't retired by then, I will. ... Note: I am not giving a star rating to Pink Flamingos because stars simply seem not to apply. It should be considered not as a film but as a fact, or perhaps as an object."

Reviews via RogerEbert.com.

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10 Big Facts About Last Action Hero
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Last Action Hero was a funky disaster. What began its life as an homage to the absurdity of '80s action movies called Extremely Violent became more or less a live-action cartoon starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as an action movie character who learns he’s an action movie character before saving the real world. There are golden tickets that let people and fictional beings cross over from one world to the next, a slew of intentional errors to remind us that we’re watching a movie, and an animated police detective cat voiced by Danny DeVito. Somewhere in the filmmaking process, it devolved into a spoof in the envelope of a love letter.

It was a hard-charging flop that’s earned back some cult appeal for audacity, with all of its fun-loving potential on screen next to all the eyebrow-raising nonsense. Here are 10 facts about the action movie too insane to succeed.

1. THE PRODUCTION ITSELF GOT META EARLY ON.

Original screenwriters Zak Penn and Adam Leff wrote what would become Last Action Hero as a film that would work both as an adrenaline-fueled action ride and as a goof on adrenaline-fueled action, but the sources they drew inspiration from soon invaded the project. Action icon Jack Slater’s name was originally Arno Slater as a nod to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who then took the role of Arno Slater. Penn and Leff studied all of Shane Black’s scripts (the Lethal Weapon movies and The Last Boy Scout) to get the satirical rhythm right, but then Black was hired to rewrite their script. They also used Die Hard and other John McTiernan-directed movies as a baseline for the movie’s style, and then McTiernan was hired to direct their movie. Their comedic love letter was taken over by titans of the very genre they were mocking, who were then put in charge of mocking themselves.

2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY THE SIMPSONS.

Beyond the Schwarzeneggerific action flicks, Penn and Leff launched the project because of an unlikely source: Matt Groening’s irreverent cartoon. “The weird thing is that The Simpsons inspired it in the first place,” Penn said. “We thought, ‘if this show can destroy genres even as it embraces them, why can’t we do it in live action?’” By the time Last Action Hero hit theaters, The Simpsons was already spoofing Schwarzenegger and his action movies with muscle-headed Rainier Wolfcastle, the star of far too many McBain movies, and the show that gave Penn and Leff the creative license to write their film later roasted Last Action Hero directly. In “The Boy Who Knew Too Much,” Bart Simpson tells Wolfcastle his last movie sucked, Wolfcastle admits there were script problems, and Chief Wiggum quips, “I’ll say. Magic ticket my ass, McBain!”

3. CARRIE FISHER, WILLIAM GOLDMAN, AND LARRY FERGUSON ALL DID REWRITES.

Penn and Leff were replaced by Black and David Arnott, who were replaced by novelist and Oscar winner William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Goldman earned a hefty $1 million fee which, according to Black, was to provide a safety net for producers. If it flopped, they could claim they did everything they could, including hiring a world-class writer to whip the screenplay into shape. Turns out they’d need all the excuses they could marshal. With Schwarzenegger and the studio still unhappy with the script, they called in other voices to polish the dialogue, including Carrie Fisher and Larry Ferguson, who was fresh off of The Hunt For Red October. The studio then tried to rehire Black to punch up some action sequences, but he refused. “It just made people breathe easier throwing money at this enormous behemoth,” Black said. The multitude of writers was a major reason the movie ended up so disjointed.

4. THE SCHEDULE DOOMED THE MOVIE FROM THE OUTSET.

Regardless of any problems finding the right script (rewrites are common on all big movies), the movie had almost zero chance because there simply wasn’t enough time to make it. From the greenlight to Columbia Pictures’s expected release date of June 18, 1993, McTiernan and company had a bit over nine months to put together a wannabe blockbuster with a massive budget, lots of explosions, and a ton of VFX.

Robert Greenberg, who was hired to do the CGI, said, “I don’t think a production of this scope has been pulled together on such a short schedule,” echoing a sentiment McTiernan (and others) would have later while explaining its failure.

As the project barreled toward a release date that the studio refused to change (even after a disastrous public feedback screening they claimed was “absolutely sensational”), the crew was working 18-hour days, six days a week. It got so bad they had to bring in a masseuse, and the final cut was done mere days before they had to ship prints to theaters. Last Action Hero was also released a week after Jurassic Park, which was … not so good for it.

5. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER GOT AC/DC TO WRITE A SONG FOR IT.

Last Action Hero was the first movie Schwarzenegger executive produced, and he had approval on every detail—right down to the marketing. Knowing that Jack Slater would need an explosive, memorable anthem, Schwarzenegger personally sought out AC/DC, but instead of asking for the rights to one of their hits, he asked them to write something new. Thus, “Big Gun” was born. It’s an uncomplicated, face-melting rock song and the most memorable element of the entire movie. With all the other miscalculations over the movie’s tone, the production schedule, and the release date, at least Schwarzenegger got this one right.

6. THEY HIRED A CHEAPER VERSION OF ALAN RICKMAN.

Charles Dance in 'Last Action Hero' (1993)
Columbia Pictures

Just as Schwarzenegger was the model for the beefy, gun-toting hero, the villainous Benedict was based on Alan Rickman’s steely Hans Gruber from McTiernan’s Die Hard. The young boy (played by Austin O’Brien) who travels into the world of Jack Slater’s movies even breaks the fourth wall by referring to Benedict as Rickman at one point in the script. So, naturally, the production tried to bring Rickman on board, but he turned them down. They hired Charles Dance for the role instead, and when Dance discovered he was a less expensive second choice, he showed up to set wearing a shirt proclaiming, “I’m cheaper than Alan Rickman!” which almost definitely fit with the meta vibe of the production.

7. THERE WAS AN OVERWHELMING NUMBER OF CAMEOS IN IT.

Schwarzenegger also called in a lot of favors from co-stars and connections he’d made while ascending to the very top of global Hollywood stardom. Sharon Stone shows up as her Basic Instinct character alongside Robert Patrick as a Terminator 2 T-1000 in a background shot. Schwarzenegger’s then-wife Maria Shriver appears as herself, Danny DeVito voices the police cat, and Joan Plowright plays a teacher showing a class her real-life late husband Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet (“You might remember him as Zeus in Clash of the Titans”). Plus, Leeza Gibbons played herself doing celebrity interviews, Tina Turner plays the mayor of Los Angeles, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jim Belushi, and Chevy Chase are in the audience for the premiere of Jack Slater IV. Tony Danza, MC Hammer, Little Richard, and James Cameron also pop up. There are even more, but the best is Ian McKellen playing Death, emerging from the screen from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

8. THERE IS ALSO AN OVERWHELMING NUMBER OF REFERENCES TO OTHER MOVIES.

References are to be expected with any spoof, but Last Action Hero smothers you with them. IMDB lists 68 references, which means there’s a reference to another movie every two minutes. They range from King Kong to The Wizard of Oz to Serpico to E.T., but of course the bulk of the callbacks evoke movies from Schwarzenegger, Black, and McTiernan. There are nods to Commando, The Running Man, Die Hard, Total Recall, Raw Deal, and an advertisement for Terminator 2 (with Sylvester Stallone starring instead of Schwarzenegger). But the sharpest homage comes after Frank’s (Art Carney) house blows up when a black cop says with resignation, “Two days to retirement,” referencing Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon.

9. IT WAS BOTH ART CARNEY'S AND TORU TANAKA’S FINAL FILM.

Carney got his start in radio in the late 1930s before becoming a star on The Honeymooners and winning an Oscar for Harry and Tonto in 1974. In Last Action Hero, he plays Jack Slater’s favorite second cousin, whose death he’s avenging in Jack Slater IV because he’d avenged all his closer relatives in previous films. It was his last movie, and his last line was, “I’m outta here.”

It was also the last credited appearance for Toru Tanaka (a.k.a. pro wrestling’s Professor Tanaka), who appeared in action movies in bodyguard and warrior roles. His inclusion in Last Action Hero as “Tough Asian Man” might also be considered a callback to The Running Man in which (spoiler!) Schwarzenegger also fights and kills his character.

10. IT WAS THE FIRST MOVIE TO BE ADVERTISED ON A NASA ROCKET.

The advertising campaign for Last Action Hero was boisterous to say the least. There was the four-story-tall Jack Slater/Schwarzenegger inflatable at the Cannes Film Festival (which they also erected in Times Square), but they went even bigger by painting the movie’s logo on an unmanned NASA rocket. The first attempt at space-based advertising reportedly cost $500,000 and literally didn’t take off. As with everything else in this doomed project, the COMET rocket that was set to launch in May to promote the June release of the movie was delayed for technical reasons and didn’t head for the stars until after the movie had flopped.

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