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Second Battle of Artois

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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 182nd installment in the series.

May 9-15, 1915: Second Battle of Artois, Aubers Ridge and Festubert 

The Second Battle of Artois, which took place from May 9-June 18, 1915, marked a new extremity of savage and ultimately futile violence on the Western Front. Undaunted by a series of costly failures, including major French attacks rebuffed in Champagne and St. Mihiel and the British Pyrrhic gains at Neuve Chapelle, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre ordered the biggest Allied offensive yet, in yet another attempt to cut off enemy forces in the huge salient bulging into northern France. Despite huge commitments of manpower and ammunition, however, the multi-phased and multi-pronged attack failed under the weight of its own complexity – and once again ordinary soldiers on both sides paid a terrible price. 

Amidst the continuing German onslaught at the Second Battle of Ypres, Joffre hoped that an Allied attack on the German Sixth Army under Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht in Artois would allow the Allies to sever enemy supply lines and maybe even threaten German armies to the south with encirclement, forcing them to retreat. The French Tenth Army had already launched an attack in this area as part of the first Champagne offensive in December 1914, but made virtually no gains at a very steep cost. Nonetheless Joffre, encouraged by the transfer of eight German divisions to the Eastern Front, believed a breakthrough was still possible provided there was sufficient preparation in the form of massive artillery bombardments. 


The new plan consisted of two phases, with an initial attack in mid-May targeting the strategic position at Vimy Ridge, setting the stage for a broader offensive to follow in June. This ambitious strategy depended on British support: according to the plan agreed by British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French, the British First Army under Douglas Haig would mount attacks further north at Aubers Ridge around May 7 and Festubert around a week later, tying down German forces so the French Tenth Army under Victor d’Urbal could carry out the first phase of the offensive, also beginning May 9, to clear the German mini-salient north of Arras and seize Vimy Ridge. 

Aubers Ridge 

Although the British tried to paint it as a success, by any objective measure the attack on Aubers Ridge was a complete debacle, failing to achieve its goal of tying down German forces at the cost of huge losses, with over 11,000 British casualties on May 9 alone, versus approximately 1,000 for the Germans.

Located a few miles northeast of Neuve Chapelle, the village of Aubers is located on the western slope of a low ridge that rises gradually from a marshy, low-lying plain dotted with small forests and crisscrossed by drainage canals (below). Although the ridge is no more than 70 feet tall, this was enough to give the Germans an important advantage in observing British movements and directing artillery fire to counter them; conversely, British possession the ridge would open German positions to the same threat. 

The frontline here straddled a deep manmade canal, Layes Brook, running diagonally southwest-northeast just west of the village; the British attack would basically consist of two thrusts starting from near the canal – a southern thrust heading east, by the 1st Division and Indian Meerut Division, and a northern thrust heading south, by the 8th Division and West Ridding Divisions with the 7th Division in reserve. Together, it was hoped, the two attacks would form a pincer to capture the ridge.

The British opened the attack with two huge explosive mines tunneled under the German trenches (no easy feat in the waterlogged soil; above, German soldiers pose in one of the craters), along with a brief artillery bombardment, shortened due to continuing shell shortages. Unfortunately they failed to reckon with reinforced enemy defenses: following the fleeting British breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle in March the Germans had added new barbed wire entanglements, beefed up the earthworks in front of trenches, built concrete shelters, and created a whole new secondary line of fortified machine gun posts around half a mile behind the frontline. 

The result was disastrous. After the artillery bombardment began at 5am, to the south troops from the 1st Division and Meerut Division tried to advance into no-man’s-land, but many failed were hit before they even left their trenches, as German machine guns swept the parapets. The men who did make it out found that in most places the brief artillery barrage had failed to cut the German barbed wire entanglements, forcing them to dig in or shelter in shell craters. Renewed bombardments in the morning again failed to clear the German defenses, especially since the gunners were now constrained by the presence hundreds of British soldiers trapped in no-man’s-land.

That afternoon the British began yet another bombardment at 3:20pm and just before 4pm fresh British units entered the fray behind the barrage, some making it as far as the German frontlines. But once again German machine guns and massed rifle fire crushed the British assault, leaving survivors desperately looking for shelter in craters. Lionel Sotheby, an officer with the Scottish Black Watch regiment, described the experience in a letter to his mother: 

The Germans… were sniping from loop holes near the base of the parapet. They sniped at anything that moved, wounded and all. Thus we few that were left dug ourselves as low as possible. I was wedged in between two dead men… never shall I forget that awful experience. For four hours (4 p.m. to 8 p.m.) I lay there cramped up and never moved once. 

To the north infantry in the second pincer ran into the same wall of fire, and the initial advance was completely bogged down by 6:10 am. Despite this, some troops managed to press ahead in short runs by leaping from crater to crater, and even reached the German lines in places. Amid the confusion, a small number of German prisoners being sent to the British trenches were mistaken for a German counterattack, leaving them – like the British facing the other direction – helpless in no-man’s-land until night fell, when they returned to their own lines. One of the prisoners, Engelbert Niederhofer, a German solider serving in the List Regiment with Adolf Hitler, recalled this harrowing ordeal: 

Now the three of us lay still on our stomachs in the hole. After approximately half an hour, my mate to the right of me moved. Immediately a fatal shot hit him in the head, another hit me in my left buttock. When after approximately two hours my other mate lifted his head slightly, he was shot too and instantly killed: all shots came from injured Englishmen who lay about 5 metres away… I remained lying on the ground as if dead for the entire day. At night, around midnight I removed my coat and crawled through the [position] past the injured and the dead… around 1 a.m. I reached the German position. 

Faced with the failure of both wings of the attack, and with artillery shells running short (not to mention disturbing reports that many field artillery shells were defective), that evening Haig wisely threw in the towel and called off the offensive. This allowed the Germans to transfer two divisions further south to meet the main French attack unfolding north of Arras. 

French Attack 

The French push to capture Vimy Ridge began an hour after the British attack on Aubers Ridge, at 6am, and included attacks on German positions near a number of villages including Notre Dame de Lorette, La Targette, Carency, and Neuville St .Vaast. Unlike the British the French had stockpiled plenty of artillery shells for their preparatory bombardment and laid down a ferocious barrage on the German trenches, followed by an infantry advance beginning around 10am. The effect of the shelling was dramatic, to say the least. Russell Kelly, an American volunteer with the French Foreign Legion, recalled occupying the German trenches a few days later: 

Our bombardment before the attack on May 9th had played havoc with the German trenches; a great number of the roofs on the huts had fallen during the cannonading burying alive all the occupants. Around these places the stench was horrible… at intervals, arms and legs projected from the walls and floor of the trenches, and all in all it was a pretty gruesome journey. 

However the artillery bombardment failed to clear all the defensive positions and the advancing infantry found itself up against sweeping machine gun fire near Notre Dame de Lorette in the northern sector of the battlefield; nonetheless they succeeded in capturing several stretches of German trench. One officer, Christian Mallet, described the advance near Loos:

Now, with our heads down, we entered the zone of Hell. There is no word, sound, or colour that can give an idea of it… We went through sheaves of fire, from which burst forth percussion and time shells at such short intervals that the soil opened every moment under our feet. I saw, as in a dream, tiny silhouettes, drunk with battle, charging through the smoke… Shells had made ravages in the ranks. I saw groups of five or six crushed and mown down. 

In the face of an unrelenting fusillade from the German trenches Mallet’s men finally reached their objective, just as Mallet himself was felled by a bullet: 

My section and I kept pressing on, and we were now within a few metres of the last of the German lines. At every step grey uniforms now surged. I discharged my revolver to right and left. Cries and moans rose and fell in the infernal din of that struggle… I put my foot on the parapet and cried, “Forward, lads, here we are!” then I felt as though someone had suddenly given me a brutal blow in the back with the butt-end of a rifle… I was hit!

In the center the advance on Carency went somewhat better, as the artillery cut the barbed wire entanglements and highly mobile Moroccan shock troops managed to take the Germans by surprise and overrun their trenches in several spots. By mid-day the French lead units had advanced over two miles and begun digging in near Vimy Ridge, the objective of the battle, but the German artillery barrage made it very difficult to bring up reinforcements as planned. Progress in the southern sector was also limited, with a few footholds gained in the face of intense German resistance centered on a complex of trenches and tunnels called “the Labyrinth.” 

Overall, by the end of May 9 the French had made substantial advances in several places across the front, but came up short of their objectives. The following day Joffre committed reinforcements in the form of cavalry divisions (fighting on foot), but the French artillery was hampered by uncertainty over the location of French troops in the battlefield, while German counterattacks recovered some of the captured trenches east of Carency. By May 11 the Moroccan Division, still holding advanced positions without reinforcements, had lost almost half its strength, with over 5,000 casualties. 

Over the next few days the D’Urbal ordered continuing attacks that once again gradually forced the Germans out of their frontline positions in some places, but progress was slow. Meanwhile the Germans were able to bring up reinforcements of their own, thanks in part to the failure of the British attack at Aubers Ridge. A new push on May 15 also failed, and at the end of the week Vimy Ridge remained in German hands. 

The cost was enormous: over the length of the battle, which continued into mid-June, the French suffered 102,500 casualties, including killed, wounded, missing and taken prisoner, and expended 2.2 million shells. By this point in the war death had become commonplace. Louis Barthas, a reservist from southern France, visited the rapidly expanding village cemetery at Noeux and witnessed a burial on May 16, 1915: 

It was vast, big enough to bury two or three generations of inhabitants. But it was going to have to be enlarged very soon, because it was filling up every day with poor little soldiers dying at the first-aid station before they could be evacuated. In this season of offensives, five or six came to the cemetery each day. I attended the burial of this day’s batch. It was quickly done, like a boring chore. Territorials whom the war had turned into grave diggers excavated a long ditch and put the coffins in, right next to each other for best use of space, shoveled dirt on top, a little cross with a name and a number, and that was it. 

Festubert 

The Battle of Festubert, from May 15-25, was the second main British contribution to the Allied offensive during the Second Battle of Artois. Once again, the British attack against German positions near the village of Festubert (top, Festubert after the battle) was intended to tie down enemy troops so they couldn’t be used to defend against the renewed French attack on May 15 – and once again it came rather short of expectations. 

This time the British were more liberal with their artillery, firing 100,000 shells over a two-day period from May 13-15, but unfortunately this failed to have much of an effect on the recently strengthened German defenses. Unusually, the main battle opened with a night attack led by Indian troops, as advance platoons from the Indian Meerut Division, 2nd Division, and 7th Division left the trenches and began crossing no-man’s-land at 11:30 pm. At first the attack made rapid progress as the Indians succeeded in seizing the German frontline trenches, but they suffered heavy losses from German machine gun fire, as well as friendly fire as artillery shells fell short. 

The British continued attacking through the night and through May 16, making progress across a broad front, but the Germans defensive line reformed closer to Festubert, requiring renewed bombardments and more costly infantry attacks. By May 18 the supply of artillery shells was perilously low, and the following day the battered 2nd and 7th Divisions had to be withdrawn. The Canadian 1st Division, resting in reserve since its brutal mauling at the Second Battle of Ypres, resumed the attack on May 18 along with the 51st Division (also called the Highland Division), and the village of Festubert was captured on May 24 – but once again the British had failed to tie down substantial German forces, contributing to the failure of the main French attack. 

At Festubert the British suffered 16,648 casualties including killed, wounded, missing and taken prisoner, in exchange for an advance of just under two miles along a three-mile front. The Germans recorded a mere 5,000 casualties, once again reflecting the enormous advantage enjoyed by defenders in trench warfare. 

Second Ypres: Battle of Frezenberg Ridge 

Further north, the Second Battle of Ypres continued with the Battle of Frezenberg Ridge, yet another all-out German attack against the shortened British lines outside Ypres, from May 8-13, 1915. After a furious artillery bombardment the Germans sent three waves of infantry against the British trenches, finally breaking through on the morning of May 8. However Canadian troops saved the day again, as Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry mounted desperate counter-attacks to fill the 2-mile-wide gap. 

This valiant defense took place amid scenes of shocking devastation. John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer who wrote the iconic poem of the Great War, “In Flanders Fields,” described the Second Battle of Ypres on May 10:

The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds… At one time we were down to seven guns, but these guns were smoking at every joint, the gunners using cloth to handle the breech levers because of the heat… Our casualties were half the number of men in the firing line.

Edward Roe, a British private, described nauseating conditions near Ypres on May 9: 

Our new line trenches stench abominably. One encounters or feels a springy feeling underneath the feet when walking along the trench floor. Of course, we are walking on the bodies of men who have been buried there at an earlier date. Patches of field grey (German), khaki (British) and horizon blue (French) cloth show, or appear behind a thin film of clay, on the trench parapet and parados. The ground in front and rear of our trenches is seared with shell craters of huge dimensions… Broken rifles, bayonets, and equipment strew the ground everywhere.  

On May 10, Sarah Macnaughtan, a British volunteer nurse working in Flanders, wrote in her diary: “Strong healthy men lie inert in these hospitals. Many of them have face and head wounds. I saw one splendid young fellow, with a beautiful face, and straight clear eyes of a sort of forget-me-not blue. He won't be able to speak again, as his jaw is shot away. The man next him was being fed through the nose.” In this context it’s hardly surprising some soldiers did everything they could to get out of the trenches, including self-inflicted wounds, while others warned their loved ones to stay out of it as long as possible. On May 20, 1915, a British Indian soldier, Havildar Abdul Rahman, wrote to a Punjabi friend (below, a wounded Punjabi soldier): 

For God’s sake don’t come, don’t come, don’t come to this war in Europe… I am in a state of great anxiety; and tell my brother Muhammad Yakub Khan for God’s sake not to enlist. If you have any relatives, my advice is don’t let them enlist…. Cannons, machine guns, rifles and bombs are going day and night, just like the rains in the month of Sawan [July-August, monsoon season]. Those who have escaped so far are like the few grains left uncooked in a pot.

Meanwhile the forlorn town of Ypres was still in flames, having burned for three weeks straight. William Boyd, an American volunteering with the British field ambulance service at Ypres, climbed a hill with some fellow ambulance drivers to see the spectacle on May 12, 1915. Their eyes met a surreal and haunting vision: 

The scene that met our eyes was so solemn, so awe-inspiring that all conversation between us ceased. For at our feet lay Ypres, burning furiously. The great cloud that hung above it was now glowing as if some vast furnace were burning in its midst, but the cloud itself appeared to be absolutely motionless. Now and then great tongues of flame would leap up from the doomed town… We felt that we were looking at some painted scene, or watching a vast stage where some lurid Mephistophelian drama was being enacted. Here and there along the line a star-shell would go up, and, bursting, light the landscape with a garish flare. Overhead were the quiet stars. Nothing broke the great silence, save now and then the deep, rich, solemn b-o-o-m of a big gun far away up north, with, perhaps, an occasional crackle of rifles near at hand.  But, as we sat, the stillness of the night was broken by the song of a bird, faint and hesitating at first, but gradually gathering volume, till the whole air was throbbing with the melody. It was a nightingale singing in the wood below. We sat on, and on, and on. The whole town was glowing like the mouth of hell. Now and again some roof would apparently fall in, and the great hungry tongues of fire would lick the sky, but at our distance no sound broke the awesome stillness – only the song of the nightingale and the booming of guns. 

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30 Facts About Your Favorite Martin Scorsese Movies
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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.


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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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