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Charleroi and Mons

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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 140th installment in the series.

August 20-25, 1914: Charleroi and Mons

After the inconclusive opening engagements of the Battle of the Frontiers earlier in the month, from August 21 to 23, 1914, the Allied armies of France and Britain ran headlong into reality at the Battles of Charleroi and Mons. These linked battles, sometimes referred to as a single engagement, showed beyond doubt that French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre, had seriously underestimated the size of the German forces invading northern France via Belgium, forcing him to make drastic revisions to his strategy. In the months to come, Allied troops would be locked in one long, desperate defensive struggle.

Battle of Charleroi

Following the failed offensive of the French First and Second Armies in the south, on August 20, Joffre ordered the Third Army under General Pierre Ruffey and Fourth Army under General Fernand de Langle de Cary to cross the Belgian frontier into the Ardennes region, where he expected them to find a weak spot in the center of the German line. Meanwhile, Fifth Army, under General Charles Lanrezac, would cross into Belgium near Maubeuge to attack the Germans on their western flank.

However, Joffre was sorely mistaken about German strength and dispositions. For one thing, the Germans were using reserve troops in their attack, and thus the French and British were badly outnumbered all along the line. The five German armies moving through Belgium had a combined strength of just over 1.1 million men, including 320,000 in First Army, 260,000 in Second Army, 180,000 in Third Army, 180,000 in Fourth Army, and 200,000 in Fifth Army. Opposing them were three French armies and the British Expeditionary Force forming near Maubeuge; the French Third Army numbered 237,000 men, the Fourth Army 160,000, and the Fifth Army 299,000, while the BEF at this early stage had just 80,000 men, for a total of around 776,000 men in the Allied armies in this theatre.

In short, the German center—composed of Third Army under General Max von Hausen, Fourth Army under General Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg, and Fifth Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm, son of Kaiser Wilhelm II—was actually quite strong. Furthermore, the German right wing, composed of the German First Army under General Alexander von Kluck and the Second Army under General Karl von Bülow, was operating much further west than assumed in Joffre’s plan, meaning Lanrezac’s Fifth Army was in danger of being outflanked itself (see map below).

Thus, while Ruffey and Langle de Cary led the French Third and Fourth Armies into southeast Belgium, Lanrezac’s Fifth Army proceeded more cautiously, reflecting his skepticism about Joffre’s estimates of German forces. Writing off the fortress city of Namur as a lost cause, on August 22, Lanrezac tried to force the German Second Army under Bülow back across the Sambre River at Charleroi—but Bülow beat him to the punch, launching a preemptive attack and seizing two bridges across the Sambre. Wave after wave of German infantry gradually drove the French back from their positions along the Sambre amid incredibly fierce fighting, with bayonet charges and counter-charges often ending in hand-to-hand combat. Paul Drumont related an account by another soldier who fought at Charleroi:

We knew we were bound to be slaughtered… but in spite of that we rushed into the firing line like madmen, just hurled ourselves at the Germans to bayonet them, and when the bayonets broke from the violence of the shock we bit them, anywhere we could, tore out their eyes with our fingers, and kicked their legs to make them fall down. We were absolutely drunk with rage, and yet we knew that we were going to certain death.

The situation worsened on August 23, as the French center began to fall back and Lanrezac begged Joffre to allow Fifth Army to retreat before it was destroyed. He also asked for support from the British Expeditionary Force, which arrived west of Fifth Army on the evening of August 22, in the hopes that the British might be able to attack the German Second Army on its right flank (below, British troops wait to go into battle).

Battle of Mons

However, the BEF under Sir John French had its own problems to deal with, in the form of the German First Army under von Kluck, advancing south after occupying Brussels on August 20. Given the crushing German superiority in numbers, there was no doubt that the Allied forces would have to retreat eventually; the only question was how long they could delay the German advance. In this situation, the best the BEF could do was dig in and protect the left flank of Lanrezac’s Fifth Army from the German First Army while Lanrezac tried to hold off the German Second and Third Armies on the right.

The British troops entrenched themselves behind a canal running west from Mons to nearby Condé, which the Germans would have to cross in a frontal assault. At dawn on the morning of August 23, the Germans opened battle with an artillery bombardment, followed by the first German infantry attacks at 9am, focusing on the key bridge across the canal. Once again, the Germans advanced in dense, orderly formations, making incredibly easy targets for the professional soldiers of the BEF, who could fire their rifles 15 times per minute. This led the Germans to believe the British were firing machine guns (in fact, the BEF was woefully underequipped with the new weapons).

One British officer, Arthur Corbett-Smith, described the carnage: “Miss? It’s impossible to miss… It is just slaughter. The oncoming ranks simply melt away… The attack still comes on. Though hundreds, thousands of the grey coats are mown down, as many more crowd forward to refill the ranks.” On the other side a German officer, Walter Bloem, recalled the advance towards the canal: “We had no sooner left the edge of the wood than a volley of bullets whistled past our noses and cracked into the trees behind. Five or six cries near me, five or six of my grey lads collapsed on the grass. Damn it!... Here we were, advancing as if on parade ground…” Later, Bloem’s unit wisely dispensed with the parade ground tactics: 

And so we went on, gradually working forward by rushes of a hundred, later fifty, and then about thirty yards towards the invisible enemy. At every rush a few more fell, but one could do nothing for them... Behind us the whole meadow was dotted with little grey heaps. The hundred and sixty men that left the wood with me had shrunk to less than a hundred… Wherever I looked, right or left, were dead or wounded, quivering in convulsions, groaning terribly, blood oozing from fresh wounds… The bullets hummed about me like a swarm of angry hornets. I felt death, my own death, very, very near me; and yet it was all so strangely unreal.

Despite horrendous casualties, by the evening of August 23, the Germans had reached the canal and forced a crossing in several places, pushing British troops back from an exposed salient created by a curve in the canal. The British were suffering very heavy casualties themselves, including direct hits by German artillery, resulting in gruesome scenes like the one recorded by Corporal Bernard John Denore:

One man was in a very bad way, and kept shrieking out for somebody to bring a razor and cut his throat, and two others died almost immediately.  I was going to move a bundle of hay when someone called out, "Look out, chum.  There's a bloke in there."  I saw a leg completely severed from its body, and suddenly felt very sick and tired. The German rifle-fire started again and an artillery-man to whom I was talking was shot dead.  I was sick then.

Worse news arrived in the early morning of August 24, when, at around 2am, Sir John French learned that the French Fifth Army under Lanrezac was retreating south, with apparently no warning to the British, leaving the British right flank exposed to attack by the German Second Army.

Disaster in Lorraine and the Ardennes

The French retreat was the result of a chain reaction of events that began further east, where the French First and Second Armies were tossed out of Lorraine by the German Sixth and Seventh Armies, then cascaded to the Ardennes region of Belgium, where the French Third and Fourth Armies were mauled by the German Fourth and Fifth Armies.

Joffre had ordered the First Army under Dubail and Second Army under Castelnau to invade Lorraine on August 14, heading for the towns of Sarrebourg and Morhange, while the newly formed Army of Alsace under Pau advanced on Mulhouse to the south. However by August 19 the French invasion was beginning to stall and a dangerous gap had opened between the French First and Second Armies. On the other side Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the commander of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies, received permission (sort of) to mount a counterattack—a major departure from the Schlieffen Plan, which called for Germany’s southern forces to stage a fighting retreat in order to lure the French armies away from the line of fortresses protecting the Franco-German frontier.

On August 20, Castelnau’s Second Army attempted to resume the attack on Morhange, only to find their infantry subjected to a ferocious bombardment by German artillery, followed by a sweeping counterattack by the Bavarian infantry of the German Sixth Army. Meanwhile, Dubail’s First Army came under attack by the German Seventh Army at Sarrebourg, and by the end of the day both armies were in retreat. To the south Joffre also ordered the small Army of Alsace to retreat, even though it wasn’t threatened immediately (it faced only Army Detachment Gaede, a smaller force created by the German high command to guard the frontier) because he needed the troops for his northern offensive in the Ardennes.

Even after the French First and Second Armies began their retreat from Lorraine, Joffre was still intent on a thrust into southeast Belgium, because (as noted above) he believed there were only light forces holding the center of the German line. His sole concession to reality—detaching some forces from Third Army to create a new Army of Lorraine to guard against the German offensive in the south—just ended up weakening Third Army more.  

On August 21, 1914, the French Third Army under Pierre Ruffey and the Fourth Army under Fernand de Langle de Cary began their invasion of the Ardennes region of southeast Belgium, encountering little resistance during the first day of the advance—but on the second day they ran smack into the German Fourth Army under Duke Albrecht of Württemberg and the Fifth Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm. The result was catastrophe, as the French armies—well equipped with 75mm field artillery, but sorely lacking in heavy guns—simply wilted under savage bombardment by German 150mm and 210mm guns, as well as 77mm field artillery, machine guns, and massed rifle fire.

August 22, 1914, would be remembered as the bloodiest day in French history, with 27,000 French soldiers killed and countless wounded.  One anonymous French soldier, fighting in the south, later wrote home: “In regard to our losses, I may tell you that whole divisions have been wiped out. Certain regiments have not an officer left.” As at Charleroi, over the next few days fighting often ended in savage hand-to-hand combat. A German soldier, Julius Koettgen, described the fighting near Sedan in northern France:

Nobody can tell afterwards how many he has killed. You have gripped your opponent, who is sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger than yourself. In the light of the burning houses you observe that the white of his eyes has turned red; his mouth is covered with a thick froth. With head uncovered, with disheveled hair, the uniform unbuttoned and mostly ragged, you stab, hew, scratch, bite, and strike about you like a wild animal… Onward! onward! new enemies are coming up… Again you use your dagger. Thank heaven! He is down. Saved! Still, you must have that dagger back! You pull it out of his chest. A jet of warm blood rushes out of the gaping wound and strikes your face. Human blood, warm human blood! You shake yourself, horror strikes you for only a few seconds. The next one approaches; again you have to defend your skin. Again and again the mad murdering is repeated, all night long…

The Germans also suffered heavy casualties at the hands of retreating French troops, who fought fierce rearguard actions: Altogether, around 15,000 German soldiers were killed in the Battle of Ardennes, while 23,000 were wounded. Another German soldier, Dominik Richert, recalled the struggle to seize a bridge over the River Meurthe in eastern France:

Almost as soon as the first line showed itself at the edge of the woods, the French infantry opened sweeping rapid fire. The French artillery shelled the woods with shells and shrapnel… We ran like mad from place to place. Quite close to me a soldier had his arm torn off while another one had half of his throat cut open. He collapsed, gurgled once or twice, and then the blood shot from his mouth… As we moved further forward we all headed for the bridge, and the French poured down a hail of shrapnel, infantry, and machine-gun fire on it. Masses of the attackers were hit and fell to the ground.

The Great Retreat Begins

As the German offensive ground relentlessly forward, on August 23, the French Third and Fourth Armies under Ruffey and Langle de Cary had no choice but to retreat or be annihilated. The withdrawal of Fourth Army left the right flank of Lanrezac’s Fifth Army, still fighting Bülow’s Second Army at Charleroi, exposed to the German Third Army under Hausen, which attacked the Fifth Army’s I Corps under Franchet d’Esperey (later nicknamed “Desperate Frankie” by the British) along the River Meuse. D’Esperey managed to fight off the first German attack, but Lanrezac judged the situation untenable and gave the order for a fighting retreat.

The Fifth Army’s retreat would be a bone of contention between the French and British for years to come, as the French apparently fell back without giving any warning to their allies, leaving the right flank of the BEF exposed in turn. While it’s still not clear what happened, it’s certain that in the heat of battle confusion reigned and communication broke down, resulting in bad blood between the Allied commanders. Corbett-Smith account reflects the views of mid-ranking British officers even years afterwards: “Any record of feelings during those hours is blurred. But there was one thought which, I know, was uppermost in every man’s mind: ‘Where on earth are the French?’”

Whatever the reason for the French retreat, it left the British commander, Sir John French, no choice but to begin withdrawing as well. Now began one of the most dramatic episodes of the First World War, the Great Retreat, which saw all the French armies and the British Expeditionary Force falling back before advancing German forces, fighting a series of desperate rearguard actions, seeking to delay the enemy as much as possible in order to give the Allied generals time and space to regroup and formulate a new, defensive strategy. At Joffre’s headquarters there was no longer any thought of mounting a glorious offensive; now the only object was to survive.

Ordinary British and French soldiers would remember the Great Retreat—with its endless forced marches under the blazing late August sun, sometimes in the rain, often with no food and no water, and no forage for horses—as one of the most physically trying parts of the war. One British soldier, Joe Cassells, described the retreat from Mons:

Of that fearful time, I have lost track of dates. I do not want to remember them. All I recollect is that, under a blazing August sun – our mouths caked, our tongues parched – day after day we dragged ourselves along, always fighting rear-guard actions, our feet bleeding, our backs breaking, our hearts sore. Our unmounted officers limped amongst us, blood oozing through their spats.

Another anonymous British soldier recalled a welcome interlude courtesy of Mother Nature:

The men had marched for the last three days almost incessantly, and without sufficient sleep… Dirty from digging, with a four days’ growth of beard, bathed in sweat, eyes half closed with want of sleep, ‘packs’ missing, lurching with the drunken torpor of fatigue… Then the heavens were kind, and it rained; they turned faces to the clouds and let the drops fall on their features, unshaven, glazed with the sun, and clammy with sweat. They took off their hats and extended the palms of their hands. It was refreshing, invigorating, a tonic.

If there was any consolation, it was that the journey was equally exhausting for the pursuing German troops, urged on by officers to keep pace with the strict timetable dictated by the Schlieffen Plan, whose success hinged on not giving the French and British time to regroup. The scene described by Bloem, a captain in the German First Army, is strikingly similar to the picture painted in British memoirs:

We were all tired to death, and the column just trailed along anyhow. I sat on my war-horse like a bundle of wet washing; no clear thought penetrated my addled brain, only memories of the past two appalling days, a mass of mental pictures insanely tangled together that revolved eternally inside it… the only impressions that remained in our dizzy brains were of streams of blood, of pale-faced corpses, of confused chaos, of aimless firing, of houses in smoke and flame, of ruins, of sopping clothes, of feverish thirst, and of limbs exhausted, heavy as lead.

The Burning of Louvain

As the French and British armies fell back, on August 24 and 25, the small Belgian Army under King Albert tried to distract the Germans with a daring raid from the fortified “National Redoubt” at Antwerp in the direction of Louvain (Leuven). But unfortunately, the raid accomplished little besides setting off panic among German occupation troops who then committed one of the most infamous atrocities of the war—the burning of Louvain.

German atrocities had already claimed the lives of thousands of Belgian civilians, who were shot in mass reprisals for supposed guerrilla warfare by “france-tireurs,” which turned out to be mostly figments of the German soldiers’ imagination. In this case, as Belgian forces approached Louvain, German soldiers marching through the city claimed that Belgian civil guardsmen dressed as civilians shot at them from the rooftops. Although this was highly improbable, it triggered an orgy of murder, looting, and arson that lasted five days, completely gutting the city (image below).

Hugh Gibson, the secretary of the U.S. embassy in Brussels, visited Louvain’s main street towards the end of the destruction:

The houses on both sides were either partially destroyed or smouldering. Soldiers were systematically removing what was to be found in the way of valuables, food, and wine, and then setting fire to the furniture and hangings. It was all most businesslike… Outside the [train] station was a crowd of several hundred people, mostly women and children, being herded on to trains by soldiers, to be run out of town.

The casualties included the city’s medieval library, which contained 300,000 priceless manuscripts, and was torched along with the rest of the city (photo showing the remains of the library below). In addition to the inestimable cultural loss, this was also a huge, self-inflicted propaganda defeat for Germany. Indeed, while the Germans committed hundreds of atrocities across Belgium, killing a total 5,521 Belgian civilians, the burning of the library at Louvain would stand out, along with the destruction of the cathedral of Rheims, as the crowning symbols of German barbarity, helping turn opinion in the United States and other neutral countries against the Germans.

Battles of Kraśnik and Gumbinnen

As the British and French fell back on the Western Front, the last week of August also saw the first major battles on the Eastern Front, as Russian and Austro-Hungarian forces clashed at the Battle of Kraśnik. While a victory for Austria-Hungary, Kraśnik was just the first in a series of huge battles in August and September that would ultimately see Hapsburg forces sent reeling back into Austria, forcing chief of the general staff Conrad to plead with his German colleagues for help.


(Click to enlarge)

Elsewhere on the Eastern Front, the German Eighth Army under Maximilian von Prittwitz faced encirclement by the Russian First Army under Paul von Rennenkampf and Second Army under Alexander Samsonov, advancing into East Prussia from the east and south in pincer fashion. The first serious German attempt to stop the Russians met with defeat at the Battle of Gumbinnen on August 20, prompting Prittwitz to order a hasty retreat to the River Vistula in order to avoid encirclement.

However, the German high command wasn’t willing to accept the loss of East Prussia so easily, and on August 22 Prittwitz was relieved of command, to be replaced by Paul von Hindenburg, an older officer called out of retirement, advised by Erich Ludendorff, the hero of Liège. The German high command also withdrew three army corps from the Western Front, although Ludendorff insisted he didn’t need them—further weakening the all-important thrust through Belgium.

Meanwhile, Prittwitz’s chief of staff, Max Hoffman, was already drawing up a daring plan, for which Hindenburg and Ludendorff later received the credit: the Eighth Army would use the East Prussian railroads to shift troops south against the invading Russian First Army, relying on East Prussia’s network of lakes and forests as a baffle to keep the Russian Second Army from coming to its rescue (map below).

With any luck, Eighth Army would not only be able to avoid encirclement but then defeat the Russian armies “in detail” (one at a time) without ever having to face their combined strength. On August 23 the first German troops, from the I Corps under Hermann von François, began the rail journey to the south, setting the stage for the Battle of Tannenberg.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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30 Facts About Your Favorite Martin Scorsese Movies
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Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

In the pantheon of iconic American film giants, Martin Scorsese gets to sit at the head of the table and carve the turkey. In a career spanning 50 years, he has created some of the most visually spectacular and quote-worthy material ever put on celluloid. To celebrate the auteur’s 75th birthday, here are 30 facts about some of your favorite Scorsese movies. Ready? Great… now go home and get your #@$%ing shinebox!

1. MUCH OF THE MEAN STREETS BUDGET WENT TO ITS SOUNDTRACK.

Clearing songs for 1973's Mean Streets ate up almost half of the film's $500,000 budget. Staying true to his well-documented love of rock, Scorsese used tunes by The Ronettes, Eric Clapton, and The Rolling Stones for the soundtrack. “For me, the whole movie was 'Jumping Jack Flash' and 'Be My Baby,'" the director said in Scorsese on Scorsese.

2. LAURA DERN HAD A TINY ROLE IN ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE.

Future Oscar nominee Laura Dern made one of her earliest, albeit uncredited, appearances toward the end of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Working alongside her mother, Diane Ladd, Dern—who was seven years old at the time—played a little girl eating a banana-flavored ice cream cone at Mel’s Diner. It took 19 takes to get the shot, which required Dern to consume 19 ice cream cones. Impressed by the budding actress, Scorsese told Ladd that “if she doesn’t throw up after [19 takes’ worth of cones], this girl is ready to be an actress.”

3. THE “YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?” SCENE FROM TAXI DRIVER CAME FROM BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN.

Robert De Niro improvised that whole paranoid monologue, including what would become the movie’s most famous line. (The film's screenwriter, Paul Schrader, later said, “It’s the best thing in the movie, and I didn’t write it.”) De Niro got the line from Bruce Springsteen, whom he’d seen perform in Greenwich Village just days earlier, at one in a series of concerts leading up to the release of Born to Run. When the audience called out his name, The Boss did a bit where he feigned humility and said, “You talkin’ to me?” Apparently it stuck in De Niro’s mind.

4. MUCH OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK WAS IMPROVISED (WHICH MAY HAVE BEEN ITS DOWNFALL).

In 1977, Scorsese released New York, New York. What was meant to be an epic musical turned out to be one of the director’s biggest bombs, due partly to the fact that the normally very regimented director decided to take a more improvisational approach to the film. “I tried to have no idea at all what I was going to do, as much as possible, on the day of shooting—as opposed to having a fairly strong idea of what I was going to do,” he said. “I was really testing the limits … I had a very chaotic style, on purpose, on New York, New York. And I found it didn't work for me."

5. A LOT OF FAMOUS CINEMATOGRAPHERS WERE INVOLVED IN THE MAKING OF THE LAST WALTZ.

The seven 35mm camera operators who shot The Last Waltz, Scorsese's 1978 concert documentary, included Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter), and László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Scorsese and Robbie Robertson (who also served as a producer) came up with a 300-page shooting script of diagrams and text that assigned the camera positions with the music lyrics and cues. According to the film's production notes, it was the first music documentary made on 35mm.

6. JOE PESCI WAS RUNNING AN ITALIAN RESTAURANT WHEN SCORSESE AND ROBERT DE NIRO APPROACHED HIM ABOUT RAGING BULL.

Joe Pesci had been a professional actor and musician (he sang and played guitar) off and on since childhood, but he called it quits in the 1970s. His 1975 Broadway show with comedy partner Frank Vincent (whom he would later recruit to play Salvy in Raging Bull) had closed after a week, and his first movie, 1976’s The Death Collector (also featuring Vincent), was a flop. But Robert De Niro happened to see that film in 1978, and was so impressed by Pesci’s performance that he pitched him to Scorsese. The two tracked Pesci down and called him at his restaurant to coax him out of showbiz retirement to co-star in Raging Bull.

7. SCORSESE INITIALLY DIDN’T SEE HOW THE SCRIPT FOR THE KING OF COMEDY WOULD WORK AS A MOVIE.

Robert De Niro passed Paul D. Zimmerman’s script for The King of Comedy on to Scorsese, hoping that he could interest him in directing it. "I didn't get it," Scorsese later admitted. "The script is hilarious. But the movie was just a one-line gag: You won't let me go on the show, so I'll kidnap you and you'll put me on the show.” Eventually, he came to see how it could be turned into a feature.

8. GRIFFIN DUNNE HAD TO GIVE UP, WELL, PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING TO STAR IN AFTER HOURS.

In order to capture the desperation and paranoia to play word processor Paul Hackett in After Hours (1985), Scorsese gave star Griffin Dunne some very specific instructions. “I was at a symposium with Marty Scorsese and he said, ‘I really had to be hard on Griffin for this part. I said, no sex, no going out, none of it,’” Cher told People at the movie’s after-party. “It must have worked,” she added. “He’s so good at being frustrated.”

9. IT WAS PAUL NEWMAN WHO APPROACHED SCORSESE ABOUT THE COLOR OF MONEY.

Walter Tevis had written the book The Hustler and its sequel, The Color of Money, yet Paul Newman didn’t care for the adapted screenplay to the latter. So Newman went to Scorsese, as he was a fan of his work, particularly Raging Bull, which he felt had a similar tone to what The Color of Money should be.

10. SCORSESE GOT THE IDEA FOR GOODFELLAS WHILE SHOOTING THE COLOR OF MONEY.

In a rare moment of downtime on The Color of Money set, "I read a review of [Nicholas Pileggi's] Wiseguy ... and it said something about this character Henry Hill having access to many different levels of organized crime because he was somewhat of an outsider," Scorsese told Rolling Stone. "He looked a little nicer. He was able to be a better frontman and speak a little better. I thought that was interesting, because you could get a cross section of the layers of organized crime—from his point of view, of course. So I got the book, started reading it and was fascinated by the narrative ability of it."

11. THE FAMOUS “FUNNY HOW?” SCENE IN GOODFELLAS WASN’T IN THE SCRIPT.

The most famous (and certainly the most quoted) scene in Goodfellas comes at the beginning, when Pesci's Tommy DeVito jokingly-yet-uncomfortably accosts Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) for calling him "funny." In addition to being the driving force behind the scene on screen, Pesci is also responsible for coming up with the premise.  

While working in a restaurant, a young Pesci apparently told a mobster that he was funny—a compliment that was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. Pesci relayed the anecdote to Scorsese, who decided to include it in the film. Scorsese didn't include the scene in the shooting script so that Pesci and Liotta’s interactions would elicit genuinely surprised reactions from the supporting cast.

12. STEVEN SPIELBERG TRADED CAPE FEAR TO MARTIN SCORSESE FOR THE RIGHTS TO SCHINDLER'S LIST.

Scorsese was set to direct Schindler's List, but was apprehensive about making it after the controversy surrounding his previous two films, Goodfellas and The Last Temptation of Christ. At the same time, Steven Spielberg was set to make Cape Fear, but decided that he "wasn't in the mood" to make a movie about a "maniac." So they traded projects. Spielberg had Bill Murray in mind to play Max Cady. Scorsese had other ideas.

13. THE CASINO OPENING TITLES WERE DESIGNED BY THE LEGENDARY SAUL BASS.

Saul Bass is certainly the most famous (and possibly the only) well-known designer of opening credit sequences, with more than 50 to his name. If there was a movie in the '50s or '60s with distinctive opening titles, odds are good that it was Bass's work, often in conjunction with his wife, Elaine. (Among them: Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, West Side Story, Spartacus, and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.) Bass did the titles for Scorsese's Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, and Casino, which turned out to be the final film of his career. He died five months after the film opened, at the age of 75. 

14. GANGS OF NEW YORK WAS 32 YEARS IN THE MAKING.

Scorsese read Herbert Asbury’s 1928 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld in 1970 and immediately thought it would make a good movie. He didn’t have any money or clout yet though, so he had to wait. He bought the movie rights to the book in 1979, and even got a screenplay written around that time, then spent the next 20 years trying to get the project off the ground.

15. THE DEPARTED IS A REMAKE.

While Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan claim they did not watch the 2002 Hong Kong action movie Infernal Affairs before making The Departed, the two films share more than a few similarities. Infernal Affairs director Andy Lau unsurprisingly prefers his own film, saying of The Departed, “Of course I think the version I made is better, but the Hollywood version is pretty good too.” 

16. “GIMME SHELTER” IS SCORSESE’S UNOFFICIAL GANGSTER THEME SONG.

Before The Departed, Scorsese had previously used the Rolling Stones song in Goodfellas and Casino. It seems Billy Costigan loves the Stones, too; the CD that he mails to Sullivan is housed in the case for the Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street.

17. MEAN STREETS TOOK ITS TITLE FROM A RAYMOND CHANDLER ESSAY.

Originally titled Season of the Witch, the film’s name was changed to Mean Streets from a line from Raymond Chandler’s 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” Writing about the art of storytelling and plumbing the depths of humanity, Chandler wrote. “In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

18. DE NIRO WANTED TO MAKE RAGING BULL AS A PLAY, TOO.

This was in early 1978, before it was even written as a movie yet, when De Niro was collaborating with Mardik Martin to adapt LaMotta’s memoir, while simultaneously trying to convince a noncommittal and increasingly drug-addled Scorsese to take on the project. De Niro’s idea was to stage it as a Broadway play (to be directed by Scorsese), and then, during the run of the show, spend the daylight hours shooting the movie. De Niro liked the idea of the day’s filming influencing the way they performed the play that night. But Martin’s script wasn’t yet ready for either medium, and Scorsese was in no shape to do it then anyway. 

19. SCORSESE WAS WORKING ON NEW YORK, NEW YORK AT THE SAME TIME HE WAS MAKING THE LAST WALTZ.

Scorsese was supposed to be in New York editing the Liza Minnelli/Robert De Niro musical drama when he was in San Francisco preparing and shooting The Last Waltz. According to Scorsese, New York, New York producer Irwin Winkler was "very upset" when he learned this.

20. CHANDELIERS FROM GONE WITH THE WIND WERE USED ON THE LAST WALTZ.

The performance recorded for The Last Waltz was designed by Boris Leven, who has served as production designer on West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Leven created a backdrop inspired by the films of Luchino Visconti (Death In Venice, The Leopard), borrowing props from the San Francisco Opera's production of La Traviata and chandeliers designed for Gone with the Wind. Robertson wasn't sold on the elaborate decor. He told Leven, "Chandeliers? I don't think that's going to go over with Neil or Bob or the rest of the musicians. These people don't do chandeliers, Boris."

21. THE FIRST SCENE SHOT FOR GOODFELLAS WASN’T DIRECTED BY SCORSESE. 

As you might know, the business of filming is rarely chronological—directors tend to jump scenes for cost, scheduling, and efficiency reasons. For Goodfellas, the scene that broke shooting ground was the intentionally low-budget Morrie’s Wigs commercial, which plays just before Henry and Jimmy hassle Morrie about a debt near the beginning of the film. To get the feel of the commercial right, Scorsese contacted Stephen R. Pacca, who had created his own ultra low-budget ads for his replacement window company, to write and direct the Morrie’s Wigs ad. 

22. REESE WITHERSPOON BLEW HER CAPE FEAR AUDITION. SO DID DREW BARRYMORE.

"It was my second audition ever," Witherspoon said in 1999. "My agent told me I'd be meeting Martin Scorsese. I said, 'Who is he?' Then he mentioned the name Robert De Niro. I said, 'Never heard of him.' When I walked in I did recognize De Niro, and I just lost it. My hand was shaking and I was a blubbering idiot.''

Drew Barrymore auditioned for the role, too, but believed she overacted for one of Scorsese's assistants. In 2000, she called the audition "the biggest disaster" of her life and said that Scorsese thinks she's "dog doo-doo" because of it.

23. GEORGE LUCAS HELPED WITH SCORSESE OUT WITH AN ELEPHANT PROBLEM FOR GANGS OF NEW YORK.


ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

The Star Wars creator, then working on Attack of the Clones, had visited the massive set in Rome and told Scorsese that it was probably the last of its kind, that such large re-creations would be done on computers now to save money. Lucas’s know-how in such matters came in handy later, when Gangs needed an elephant and none of the animal wranglers in Italy were able to produce one in time. So Scorsese called his old friend Lucas and asked for help: “We’re effed," Scorsese told Lucas. "We don’t have [an] elephant! Tell us how to shoot it!” Lucas, an old pro at such things, guided them through the process of filming without the elephant and having it digitally created later. It’s the only thing in the movie that’s completely computer-generated. 

24. SCORSESE WAS INSPIRED TO CAST GWEN STEFANI IN THE AVIATOR AFTER SEEING HER PICTURE ON THE SIDE OF A BUS SHELTER.

The Marilyn Monroe-inspired pictures, taken by Herb Ritts for a Teen Vogue cover, caught Scorsese's eye. Stefani told MTV the story, as she heard it from DiCaprio. “Martin Scorsese’s driving in New York City and he sees my Teen Vogue cover on the side of a bus stop shelter. And he’s like, ’Who’s that girl? Let’s get her!’ I had Leonardo DiCaprio tell me the whole story in Martin Scorsese’s voice, so it was pretty bizarre.” Stefani portrayed Jean Harlow; it was her first film role. 

25. BERNARD HERRMANN DIED JUST A FEW HOURS AFTER RECORDING THE MUSIC FOR TAXI DRIVER.

Scorsese was lucky to get Bernard Herrmann, a Hollywood legend who had scored Citizen Kane, Psycho, Cape Fear, North by Northwest, and dozens of others. Herrmann wrote the Taxi Driver score and conducted the recording sessions himself, finishing in Los Angeles on the evening of December 23, 1975. He retired to his hotel and died sometime during the night, officially Christmas Eve morning, at the age of 64. He was posthumously nominated for an Oscar. 

26. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS WAS TRAINED BY REAL BUTCHERS FOR GANGS OF NEW YORK, BECAUSE OF COURSE HE WAS.


Miramax

Ever the Method actor, Day-Lewis first took lessons from two Argentine brothers with a butcher shop in Queens, then from a master butcher specially flown in from London.

27. SCORSESE THREATENED TO TAKE HIS NAME OFF OF RAGING BULL OVER ONE MINOR SOUND ISSUE. 

Very late in the post-production process, when the film was due to premiere soon and Scorsese was still tinkering with the final sound mix, producer Irwin Winkler gave him a drop deadline: All work would cease at midnight on a certain night, and that would be it. When the hour arrived, Scorsese was obsessing over one minor line of dialogue someone says to a bartender —“Cutty Sark, please”—which he didn’t think was audible. Winkler told him too bad, we’ve got to send this thing out. Scorsese declared that if Winkler released the film this way, he wanted his name taken off it as director, because it no longer reflected his vision. Winkler said, “So be it.” Like all good producers, he knew that sometimes you have to let an overtired director throw a tantrum and say things he doesn’t really mean. Sure enough, Scorsese recanted sometime later.

28. SCORSESE AVOIDED AN X RATING ON TAXI DRIVER BY MAKING THE BLOOD LOOK MORE BROWN THAN RED. 

Scorsese desaturated the color in the film’s gorier scenes, rendering the blood less realistic and more like a black-and-white tabloid newspaper (without actually being black-and-white). Not only did it fit the lurid tone he was going for, it soothed the nerves of the ratings board. 

29. CATE BLANCHETT DID HER HOMEWORK FOR THE AVIATOR.


Miramax

At Scorsese's request, Blanchett watched all of Hepburn's first 15 movies for The Aviator. Blanchett also screened Hepburn's 1973 interview with Dick Cavett, read a memoir about her, took golf and tennis lessons, and took cold baths just like Hepburn. On June 29, 2003—the same day that Blanchett arrived on set for the first time—Hepburn passed away. "I picked up the paper thinking, 'Isn't it odd that Katharine Hepburn's on the cover?'" Blanchett recalled. "She had such a remarkable life, and then with her death, she was even more present in everyone's mind."

30. WE MAY NEVER KNOW WHAT THE REAL SAM “ACE” ROTHSTEIN ACTUALLY THOUGHT OF CASINO.

Lefty Rosenthal—the inspiration for Sam Rothstein, who died in 2008—said he only ever saw Casino once. If that's true, it was the screening of a rough cut that was also attended by Nicholas Pileggi. Pileggi sat with Rosenthal—they were the only ones in the screening room—and said Rosenthal's reaction was positive. But near the end of his life, when an interviewer mentioned that, "You only saw Casino once—and you don't like the movie," Rosenthal replied that "It lacked the detail of what I did. There are scenes where the Rosenthal character repeated the same thing twice. I would only tell you to do something one time—that's all I needed. And there was that scene that still angers me when I think of it—I never juggled on The Frank Rosenthal Show. I resent that scene. It makes me look foolish. And I only did that TV show [at] the behest of the chairman of the board of the Stardust so that the public would realize I was a decent guy and not a mobster as portrayed by the media covering us at the time.” Did Rosenthal change his mind over time? Did Pileggi misinterpret his initial reaction? We'll never know.

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25 Things You Might Not Know About Home Alone
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20th Century Fox

On November 16, 1990, what appeared to be a fun-filled little family yarn about a kid left to his own devices at Christmastime and forced to fend off a couple of bungling burglars became an instant classic. Today, no holiday movie marathon is complete without a viewing of Home Alone, the movie that turned Macaulay Culkin into one of the biggest kid stars of all time. And while you may be able to recite its dialogue line for line, here are 25 things you might not know about the John Hughes-penned picture. So settle in and enjoy, ya filthy animals. 

1. WITHOUT UNCLE BUCK, THERE’D BE NO HOME ALONE.

The idea for Home Alone occurred to John Hughes during the making of Uncle Buck, which also starred Macaulay Culkin. Always game to play the precocious one, there’s a scene in which Culkin’s character interrogates a potential babysitter through a mail slot. In Home Alone, Culkin has a similar confrontation with Daniel Stern, this time via a doggie door.

2. THE ROLE OF KEVIN WAS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR MACAULAY CULKIN.

But that didn't stop director Chris Columbus from auditioning more than 100 other rascally pre-teens for the part. Which really was all for naught, as Culkin nailed the role.

3. MACAULAY WASN’T THE ONLY CULKIN TO APPEAR IN THE FILM.


20th Century Fox

Macaulay's younger brother Kieran also landed a part, as Kevin’s bed-wetting cousin, Fuller. Though the film marked Kieran’s acting debut, he has since gone on to build an impressive career for himself in movies like The Cider House Rules, Igby Goes Down, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

4. CASTING CULKIN TAUGHT CHRIS COLUMBUS A VERY IMPORTANT LESSON.

Since Home Alone, Columbus (who also wrote the scripts for Gremlins and The Goonies) has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s premier family-friendly moviemakers as the director of Home Alone 2, Mrs. Doubtfire, and two movies in the Harry Potter franchise. But one lesson he learned from Home Alone is that when you agree to work with a kid actor, you’re also agreeing to work with his or her family.

“I was much younger and I was really too naive to think about the family environment as well,” Columbus told The Guardian in 2013. “We didn't know that much about the family at the beginning; as we were shooting, we learned a little more. The stories are hair-raising. I was casting a kid who truly had a troubled family life.” In 1995, Culkin’s parents, who were never married, engaged in a very public—and nasty—legal battle over his fortune. 

5. THE FILM IS A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER.

In its opening weekend, Home Alone topped the box office, making $17,081,997 in 1202 theaters. The movie maintained its number one spot for a full 12 weeks and remained in the top 10 until June of the following year. It became the highest grossing film of 1990 and earned a Guinness World Record as the highest-grossing live-action comedy ever domestically.

6. THE MOVIE’S UNPRECEDENTED SUCCESS LED TO ITS TITLE BECOMING A VERB.


20th Century Fox

In his book The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? And Other Essays, two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman admitted that the unexpected success of Home Alone contributed a new phrase to the Hollywood lexicon: to be Home Aloned, meaning that other films suffered at the box office because of Home Alone’s long and successful run. “More than one executive said to me, ‘My picture did 40, but it would have done 50 if it hadn’t been Home Aloned,’” wrote Goldman.

7. IT SPAWNED MORE THAN A SEQUEL.

While all of the main, original cast members reprised their roles for Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (with Columbus again directing a script by Hughes), the success of the original led to a full-on franchise, complete with four sequels, three video games, two board games, a novelization, and other kid-friendly merchandise (including the Talkboy). 

8. POLAND LOVES THE MCCALLISTERS.

Showings of Home Alone have become a Christmas tradition in Poland, where the film has aired on national television since the early 1990s. And its popularity has only increased. In 2011 more than five million people tuned in to watch it, making it the most watched show to air during the season. 

9. THE MCCALLISTER HOME HAS BECOME A MAJOR TOURIST ATTRACTION.


A Syn via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Located at 671 Lincoln Avenue in Winnetka, Illinois, the kitchen, main staircase, and ground-floor landing seen in the film were all shot in this five-bedroom residence. (The dining room and all other first-floor rooms, with the exception of the kitchen, were shot on a soundstage.) In 2012, John and Cynthia Abendshien, who owned the home when it was used as one of the film’s locations, sold the property for $1.585 million.

10. KEVIN’S TREE HOUSE WAS NOT PART OF THE DEAL.

Kevin’s backyard tree house was not originally part of the property. It was constructed specifically for the movie and demolished once filming ended. 

11. ALL OF THE FILM WAS SHOT IN THE CHICAGO AREA.

Though the main plot point is that that McCallister family is in Paris while Kevin’s back home in Illinois, the production was shot entirely within the Chicago area. The scenes supposedly set at Paris-Orly Airport were shot at O’Hare International Airport. And those luxurious business class seats they’re taking to Paris? Those were built on the basketball court of a local high school—the same school where the scene in which Kevin is running through a flooded basement was filmed (the “basement” in question was actually the school’s swimming pool). 

12. ROBERT DE NIRO TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF HARRY LIME.


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As did Jon Lovitz. Then Joe Pesci swept in and made the part his own. Bonus fun fact: The character is a slight homage to Orson Welles. (It was the name of Welles’ character in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.) 

13. JOE PESCI GOT ALL METHOD ON MACAULAY CULKIN.

In order to get the most authentic performance possible, Joe Pesci did his best to avoid Macaulay Culkin on the set so that the young actor would indeed be afraid of him. And no one would blame the young actor for being a bit petrified, as he still bears the physical scar from one accidental altercation. “In the first Home Alone, they hung me up on a coat hook, and Pesci says, ‘I’m gonna bite all your fingers off, one at a time,’” Culkin recalled to Rule Forty Two. “And during one of the rehearsals, he bit me, and it broke the skin.” 

14. PESCI WASN’T USED TO THE WHOLE “FAMILY-FRIENDLY” THING.

Considering that Pesci’s best known for playing the heavy in movies like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, it’s understandable that he wasn’t quite used to the whole family-friendly atmosphere on the set of Home Alone—and dropped a few f-bombs as a result of that. Columbus tried to curb Pesci’s four-letter-word tendency by suggesting he use the word “fridge” instead. 

15. DANIEL STERN HAD A FOUR-LETTER WORD SLIP-UP, TOO.


20th Century Fox

And it wasn’t cut out of the film. He utters the word “s***” when attempting to retrieve his shoe through the doggie door (look for it at the 55:27 mark on the DVD). 

16. IN REAL LIFE, HARRY AND MARV MAY NOT HAVE SURVIVED KEVIN’S ATTACK.

BB gun shots to the forehead and groin? A steaming hot iron and can of paint to the face? A flaming blowtorch to the scalp? The Wet Bandits endure an awful lot of violence at the hands of a single eight-year-old. So much so that neither one of them should have been walking—let alone conscious—by the end of the night. In 2012, Dr. Ryan St. Clair diagnosed the likely outcome of their injuries at The Week. While a read-through of the entire article is well worth your time, here are a few of the highlights: That iron should have caused a “blowout fracture,” leading to “serious disfigurement and debilitating double vision if not repaired properly.” And the blowtorch? According to Dr. St. Clair, “The skin and bone tissue on Harry's skull will be so damaged and rotted that his skull bone is essentially dying and will likely require a transplant.” 

17. THE ORNAMENTS THAT MARV STEPS ON WOULD CAUSE THE LEAST AMOUNT OF DAMAGE.

"Walking on ornaments seems pretty insignificant compared to everything else we've seen so far,” said Dr. St. Clair. “If I was Marv, I'd be more concerned about my facial fractures.” Fortunately, the "glass" ornaments in question were actually made of candy. (But just to be on the safe side, Stern wore rubber feet for his barefoot scenes.)

18. THE TARANTULA ON STERN’S FACE? YEP, THAT WAS REAL.


20th Century Fox

At one point, Kevin places a tarantula on Marv’s face. And it was indeed a real spider (Daniel Stern agreed to let it happen—but he’d only allow for one take). What wasn’t real? That blood-curdling scream. In order to not frighten the spider, Stern had to mime the scream and have the sound dubbed in later.

19. JOHN CANDY WRAPPED IN ONE DAY.

But what a long day it was: Twenty-three hours to be exact. Candy was a regular in many of John Hughes’ movies, and Gus Polinski—the polka-playing nice guy he plays in Home Alone—was inspired by his character in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. 

20. KEVIN’S OLDER SISTER IS A JUDO CHAMP.

Two years after appearing in Home Alone, Hillary Wolf—who played Kevin’s older sister Megan—landed the lead in Joan Micklin Silver’s Big Girls Don’t Cry… They Get Even. She also appeared in Home Alone 2, but hasn’t been seen on the big screen since. But there’s a good reason for her absence: In 1996 and 2000, she was a member of the Summer Olympic Judo team for the U.S.

21. DON’T BOTHER TRYING TO FIND ANGELS WITH FILTHY SOULS.

The Jimmy Cagney-like gangster movie that Kevin channels as his inspiration throughout Home Alone? Don’t bother searching for it on eBay. It’s not real. Nor is its sequel, Angels With Even Filthier Souls, which is featured in Home Alone 2. 

22. OLD MAN MARLEY WASN'T IN THE ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY.

Kevin’s allegedly scary neighbor, who eventually teaches him the importance of family, wasn’t a character in the original script. He was added at the suggestion of Columbus, who thought the film could do with a stronger dose of sentimentality.

23. THE LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO BENEFITED FROM THE MOVIE’S SNOWFALL.

When filming of Home Alone wrapped, the production donated some of the artificial snow they had created (the stuff made from wax and plastic) to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It has since been used in a number of their productions.

24. MARV WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE GOTTEN A SPINOFF.

Greg Beeman’s 1995 film Bushwhacked, which stars Daniel Stern as a delivery guy on the run after being framed for murder, was originally intended to be a spinoff of Home Alone. The storyline would have been essentially the same: After giving up a life of crime, Marv would have been framed for the same murder.

25. IF YOU BELIEVE THAT ELVIS IS STILL ALIVE, THEN YOU MIGHT BELIEVE THAT HE IS IN HOME ALONE.

No hit movie would be complete without a great little conspiracy theory. And in the case of Home Alone, it’s that Elvis Presley—who (allegedly?) died in 1977—makes a cameo in the film. Yes, that’s right. The King is alive and well. And making a living as a Hollywood extra.

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