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Germans Storm Romanian Passes

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 254th installment in the series. 

October 25, 1916: Germans Storm Romanian Passes

Following its invasion of Austria-Hungary in August 1916 the tides of war turned against Romania all too swiftly. With the arrival of the newly-formed German Ninth Army under Erich von Falkenhayn in late September, the combined forces of the Central Powers sent the Romanians reeling back to the mountain passes of the southern Carpathians (also known as the Transylvanian Alps). Meanwhile Bulgarian forces under the German commander August von Mackensen invaded Romania from the south, capturing the chief port, Constanta, by October 22. 

Then in late October and November defeat turned to debacle, as Romanian defenses crumbled before the German onslaught, allowing the enemy to pour through the mountain passes into the plains of Wallachia. Although the Romanians managed to halt them temporarily here, this advance set the stage for them to outflank all the Romanian armies to the east, clearing the way for a drive on the capital, Bucharest, in late November. Remarkably all this happened in just a few weeks, and indeed the German storming of the Romanian passes is remembered as one of the most impressive military achievements of the war. 

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In the right circumstances these high, narrow valleys cutting the Carpathians – from west to east the Vulcan, Szurduk, and Turnu Roşu (Red Tower) – should have been nearly impenetrable, with primitive wagon roads or goat paths broken by rough terrain and dominated by strong defensive positions. 

However circumstances were far from right for the Romanians, whose hasty retreat from Hungary left them little time to dig in, and who had scant experience with trench warfare to begin with. Their dire supply situation had hardly improved, due to continuing shortages as well as the general incompetence of Romanian logistics officers. Perhaps worst of all, they were facing elite mountain troops in the German Alpenkorps, supported by superior mountain artillery. 

The result was a crushing defeat, although ordinary Romanian soldiers fought bravely and tenaciously, exacting a heavy toll on the attacking Germans (above, Romanian infantry on the march). From October 25-November 15, 1916, the Germans battered the divisions of the Romanian First Army, separated by mountain ranges and thus unable to come to each other’s aid, back through the passes amid rapidly worsening conditions. The Romanians could at least draw cold comfort (literally) from the fact that the harsh weather in the mountains affected the Germans as much as them. One German infantry officer, first lieutenant Erwin Rommel, recalled his company’s nighttime ascent into the Szurdok Pass:

It began to rain as we started to climb without benefit of a guide. The rain grew heavier as night began to fall and it was soon pitch black. The cold rain turned into a cloudburst and soaked us to the skin. Further progress on the steep and rocky slope was impossible, and we bivouacked on either side of the mule path at an altitude of about 4950 feet. In our soaked condition it was impossible to lie down and as it was still raining, all attempts to kindle a fire of dwarf pine failed. We crouched close together, wrapped in blankets and shelter halves and shivered from the cold.

Battling up the narrow passes, the Germans faced Romanian defenders taking cover in forests and behind ridges, from which they frequently attempted ambushes, sometimes with considerable success (below, Romanian soldiers dug in in the snow). However the Germans for their part enjoyed a major advantage in their mountain artillery, which could be brought up with relative speed to lay down withering fire across valleys and over hills. 

Another German officer, captain Gerhard Friedrich Dose, remembered a battle where the German mountain artillery proved decisive, wiping out an entire enemy unit in dramatic fashion: 

The undergrowth closed behind us as we hurried down the hill as fast as our equipment and the terrain would allow. We went toward where we thought our company was, down into the valley. Behind us someone started shooting but it soon stopped. The noise moved down into the valley. From a favorable position I could see the Romanians far below on the right wing of our front. They began to advance downwards the mountain… A short while later we recognized Romanians in the trees. They had put on German helmets and were firing from behind trees. The branches moving gave away their movements… Suddenly we heard a storm roar through the air, it steadily increased in volume… Rounds flew by and slammed with incredible power in the area of the mountain crest. The roar of the rocks and earth falling back to the ground sounded like galloping cavalry. It must have been a very heavy artillery gun doing the shooting. It was exactly what was needed to destroy the crest. We advanced further and further. 

Of course, even relatively small engagements were fateful for the ordinary soldiers doing the fighting, and the prospect of being wounded was even more frightening given the primitive conditions and distance to the nearest casualty clearing stations, all of which meant wounded soldiers might die before they could receive medical care (below, an exhausted German soldier resting in the Red Tower Pass).

For the grievously wounded, who all too often found themselves left behind by comrades during chaotic battles in the passes, there was nothing to do but lie out in the open, exposed to the elements, and wait for the end. Hans Carossa, a medic in the Romanian Army Medical Corps, remembered stumbling across one man in his final moments, and doing what little he could for him: 

A Roumanian stretched between two birch trunks lay across my path; I thought he was dead and was stepping over him, when I heard a groan and felt a feeble but perceptible tug at my cloak. Turning around, I looked down on the dying face of a man of about thirty; his eyes were closed, his mouth terribly twisted with pain. His fingers still clutched the fast hem of my cloak. Through a grey cape which covered his breast a slight vapour was rising. R. threw it back; under his torn ribs his lungs and heart lay exposed, the heart beating sluggishly. A number of silver and copper medals of saints, which he had been wearing on a black ribbon round his neck, were driven deep into his flesh, some of them much bent. We covered him up again. The man half-opened his eyes, his lips moved. Simply for the sake of doing something I filled my morphia syringe, and then I saw that this was what he seemed to want: he pushed the cloak aside and tried to stretch out his arm to me in readiness… 

Wounded Romanian soldiers lucky enough to be evacuated to the rear for medical care endured conditions that were shocking even by the very low standards of the First World War. Casualty clearing stations were often open to the elements, while hospitals were often little more than hastily renovated sheds. Doctors and surgeons, many of them foreign volunteers, were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of casualties, which included thousands of victims of frostbite as the winter wore on. As in neighboring Serbia and the nearby Salonika front, disease was epidemic, with cholera, dysentery, and typhus killing thousands of soldiers and civilians alike. 

In her diary Lady Kennard, an English noblewoman volunteering as a nurse with the Romanian Army, described the struggle to treat an unending flow of wounded amid mounting anxiety about their own circumstances in Bucharest (not assuaged by the belated arrival of an Allied military mission): “The arrival of a French command may still save the capital, but one doubts it, for the passes are obviously falling with incredible rapidity, and the wounded are coming in hundreds. We now have thirty-five cases in each of our wards, planned to hold fifteen. They are packed like herrings, poor wretches, and lying two in a bed.”

These men were lucky, as at least they had beds in a real hospital in the capital; the plight of wounded soldiers being treated out in the countryside, behind the front, was even worse. Yvonne Fitzroy, another British volunteer nurse serving on the southern front where the Romanians were fighting the Bulgarians, described conditions there in early October: “In the Russian Red Cross Hospital next door two and three men were shoved on a single mattress just as they came in, the dead and the living sometimes lying side by side for hours.” 

And still the German invaders continued pounding through the northern passes, finally reaching the Wallachian plains by mid-November. Rommel recalled his company’s descent from the valley into more open country, where the fighting continued amid scattered peasant farmhouses and small villages, including a violent, confusing encounter on November 12, 1916: 

The fog swirled hither and yon and the visibility varied between a hundred and three hundred feet. Shortly before the head of the column reached the south end of the village, it ran into a close column of advancing Rumanians. In a few seconds we were engaged in a violent fire fight at fifty yards range. Our opening volley was delivered from a standing position and then we hit the dirt and looked for cover from the heavy enemy fire.

The odds looked unfavorable for Rommel’s unit, to say the least, and the Germans were forced into a temporary retreat by fierce Romanian counterattacks, as often happened during this period: 

The Rumanians outnumbered us at least ten to one. Rapid fire pinned them down, but a new enemy loomed on both flanks. He was creeping up behind bushes and hedges and firing as he approached. The advance guard was getting into a dangerous situation… I ordered the advance guard to hold the farmhouse for an additional five minutes, and then to retire on the right side of the road through the farms… 

However Rommel’s famous levelheadedness, combined with German training and firepower, helped stem the Romanian tide, providing yet another example of the power of machine guns against even vastly superior numbers in the First World War:

Soon Rumanian skirmish lines reappeared in the south and approached our position. They were still over two thousand yards away, I have the signal to fire at will. This stopped the attack cold and we suffered no losses in the ensuing fire fight. The heavy machine guns had many excellent targets. As night fell the enemy retreated… We were sad about the losses in the company which totaled seventeen wounded and three dead… On the Rumanian side hundreds of dead covered the field including a Rumanian divisional commander. 

Elsewhere, however, the Germans found themselves bogged down in heavy fighting near the southern mouths of the passes, made even more miserable by heavy winter storms. Dose recalled conditions in the eastern Predeal Pass in mid-November: 

Our exhausted troops dug rifle pits and covered them with their shelters but the weight of the snow collapsed them again and again…  Numerous soldiers had fingers and toes frozen… The wounded could only be brought down much later because there were so few people available for that purpose. Four people were required per litter. It took almost twelve hours to make the trip. 

On the other side, in mid-November Kennard recorded worsening conditions in Bucharest, as thousands of wounded piled up outside the train station: 

The men lay on the ground, which was covered with wooden boards. Some shared a mattress with four or five others, the rest lay without even a pillow to their heads… I passed the station, where a trainload of them had just come in. They lay out in the waste ground behind the building, in full sunlight, pitiful in their helplessness. They had no water and no food, just a few cigarettes, and I did not hear one single moan or complaints.

Even more alarming, as the Germans approached from the west Kennard was informed that she should be ready to evacuate the capital at any time: “It sounds impossible, but I was told to-day that we shall probably have to pack up and leave in forty-eight hours’ time, to spend the winter in – well, we don’t know where, but in the snow, anyway!” Later she recorded a social encounter which did little to allay her fears: “A Roumanian general came to tea and said: ‘We shall leave by night.’ I said: ‘Where to?’ He answered: ‘God knows!’ – which was encouraging!” 

Meanwhile to the south Mackensen’s drive into Dobruja at the head of the Danube Army sent waves of refugees fleeing into the interior. In late October Fitzroy recorded the classic scenes – now all too familiar from previous mass retreats in Belgium, northern France, Poland and Serbia – of peasant families trudging along with all their belongings: 

The whole country is in retreat… Behind we could see the shells exploding, and the sky was alight with the glow of burning villages. On our right a bigger glow showed the fate of Constanza, which fell to-day. The road was indescribably dilapidated, and crammed with refugees, troops, and transport… Ponies and oxens are harnessed into their little springless carts, all their household goods are packed inside, and they are followed by terrified flocks of sheep, pigs, and cattle. The peasants trudge along, going – one wonders where? 

French Retake Fort Douaumont 

Verdun was supposed to be the place of decision, where Germany would “bleed France white” and end the war. Instead it was simply a charnel house, where the initial German onslaught devolved into a bloody battle of mutual attrition, the attackers suffering almost as many casualties as the defenders.

At the beginning of September 1916 the new German chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg visited Verdun with his collaborator Erich Ludendorff; shocked at what they saw, they immediately called off the offensive. But the tide was already turning, as the French gradually pushed the Germans back a few meters at a time, paying a heavy price to liberate their ruined land. The most humiliating setback for the Germans so far came on October 24, 1916, when the French finally recaptured Fort Douaumont – the strategic key to the battlefield and the object of several earlier failed counter-attacks. 

The French were aided by the delivery of two massive new howitzers, the 400-millimeter St. Chamond railway guns, so called because they were mounted on custom designed flatbeds pulled by steam engines – the only practical way to move the 140-ton behemoths. Although this obviously limited their deployment, with a range of ten miles the monstrous artillery pieces could easily drop 1,400-pound high explosive shells on German positions outside Verdun from specially built rail spurs well to the south. 

The French offensive also benefited from a huge accumulation of other types of artillery drawn from all over the Western Front, plus a stockpile of 15,000 tons of shells. The French troops in the three frontline divisions had trained for weeks, rehearsing their assault on a full-size reproduction of the position. Last but not least the French commander in charge of the counter-attack, the artillery officer General Robert Nivelle, had new tactics – and a trick up his sleeve.

The counter-attack began on October in typical fashion on October 19, with a punishing bombardment by the “regular” French artillery, which as before seemed to make little impression on Fort Douaumont, but pulverized the German trenches blocking the approaches to the fort (above, the fort before the war; below, on October 10, 1916). As casualties mounted many German units sensibly withdrew to the protection of the fort itself, while the well-hidden German artillery held its fire, waiting for the French infantry attack before revealing its own positions. 

On October 22, the French artillery suddenly stopped firing and a huge cheer went up from the French lines, indicating that the French infantry attack was imminent, and the German artillery finally unleashed its own bombardment against the French trenches, supposedly now full of assault troops – but no one was there. In a clever piece of deception, Nivelle had tricked the Germans into giving away the positions of their own artillery, allowing the French guns to target them before the French infantry went over the top (below, French infantry in a trench near Fort Douaumont). 

After another day of shelling, during which the French managed to wipe out about half the German artillery positions around Fort Douamount, the Germans were still in firm possession of the fort itself – but now the hammer came down. On October 23 at 12:30 p.m. a massive explosion shook the center of the fort, as the first of the 400-mm shells plunged with remarkable precision into the bowels of the structure, killing 50 patients and medical staff in the infirmary. Ten minutes later brought another shuddering impact, followed by another, and another, as the two railway guns fired in tandem. The fort had finally been breached. 

With fires burning inside the fort, the German commander had little choice but to order his men to withdraw on the evening of October 23, leaving it undefended – or rather, almost undefended. In a typical mix-up resulting from virtually nonexistent communication on the battlefield, that evening a German captain in charge of a signaling unit returned to the fort to find it abandoned. With the fires mostly extinguished, showing admirable initiative he hurriedly scraped together whatever troops he could find to hold the fort. 

Thus only a handful of ill-equipped defenders were holding the fort when the French attacked on the morning of October 24, 1916, meaning that Fort Douaumont, one of the strongest fortifications in Europe, was hardly defended at all both when it fell to the Germans in February 1916, and then again when the French liberated it exactly eight months later. In fact, ironically the French faced much stiffer resistance from German defenders in trenches and bunkers outside the fort – but once again Nivelle’s tactics delivered a startling success. 

Nivelle’s second innovation was the double creeping barrage, in which French artillery laid down a wall of fire just in front of the advancing infantry, shielding them from German counter-attacks, obliterating recently dug German trenches and fortifications, and forcing German defenders to take shelter in deep dugouts while the French advanced. The tactic was particularly effective because it was actually composed of two barrages advancing in sequence: the first by heavy artillery to take out major strongholds, followed by the second by field artillery, to keep German troops pinned down. 

As the double creeping barrage scoured the fog-covered battlefield, three French divisions surged forward with a speed that took the demoralized and distraught German defenders by surprise. Taking thousands of prisoners, the French bypassed the few remaining German strongholds, leaving these to the five reserve divisions following close on their heels, while they raced ahead to the abandoned fort looming out of the clouds. One French officer recalled the dramatic scene: 

Through my artillery glasses I could count the shell holes. They are all full of water. What a time our men must have had if they went through there! The landscape is not dead. Over there on the slopes of Douaumont earth-colored men are moving about. To the left and to the right they are marching in Indian [single] file. They are advancing, climbing, and gradually getting nearer their objective. As last there is one whose silhouette stands out upon the sky as clearly as if a shadow show. Others are going down a gorge. They are going to be seen. They will be mown down. Don’t show yourself like that. It is crazy… I want to shout. I must have shouted, but I did not hear the sound of my own voice in the noise of bursting shells… Douaumont is ours. The formidable Douaumont, which dominates with its mass, its observation points, the two shores of the Meuse, is again French.

Fort Douaumont, the strategic key to the entire Verdun battlefield, was once again in French hands – or rather, what was left of it. Another French officer described the battered fort, whose upper levels had been largely destroyed, but whose lower levels were still mostly intact, a tribute to superb French pre-war engineering (above, the roof of the fort today):

One can clearly make out the site of ditches whose sides and bottom are in shocking condition; the masonry has almost entirely collapsed, the slopes are destroyed, and the grating of the escarp no longer exist. The wire network is demolished. Some blocks of concrete are still to be found, with fragments of iron stakes, these having formed part of the battlements… All the basement rooms are in perfect condition, except the last one to the east, in which was a store of bombs that has been blown up.

The liberation of Fort Douaumont was hailed across France as the greatest French victory (or as some cynics may have observed, the only victory) since the Miracle on the Marne. In addition to decisively demonstrating the failure of the German offensive at Verdun, the victory had special personal meaning for some of the troops who took part. Masserigne Soumare, a Senegalese soldier in the French Army who took part in the battle, remembered that in a time of endemic racism their success helped change the attitudes of ordinary French people towards black Africans, and no one was prouder than the colonial troops’ white officers (above, Senegalese troops with a banner recognizing their service at Douaumont, a rare honor): 

We felt very proud after the attack because the French had tried many times to retake the fort, but finally, we [were the ones] that took it… And when we were leaving the fort, our officers told us not to wash our uniforms even though they were very dirty and covered with mud. But we were told: “Don’t wash your uniforms. Cross the country as you are so that everyone who meets you will know that you made the attack on Fort Douaumont.” And we took the train [and traveled] for three days between Douaumont and St. Raphäel. And in every town we crossed, the French were clapping their hands and shouting: “Vive les tirailleurs sénégalais!

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11 Things You Didn't Know About Dolly Parton
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Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. YOU WON'T FIND HER ON A DOLLYWOOD ROLLER COASTER.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. SHE ENTERED A DOLLY PARTON LOOK-A-LIKE CONTEST—AND LOST.


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Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. SHE SPENT A FORTUNE TO RECREATE HER CHILDHOOD HOME.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. SHE WON'T APOLOGIZE FOR RHINESTONE.


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Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. SHE IS MILEY CYRUS'S GODMOTHER, SORT OF.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. SHE RECEIVED DEATH THREATS FROM THE KU KLUX KLAN.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
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In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBT members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted, "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. TO PROMOTE LITERACY, SHE STARTED HER OWN "LIBRARY."

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. PARTON'S HOMETOWN HAS A STATUE IN HER HONOR.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. THE CLONED SHEEP DOLLY WAS NAMED AFTER PARTON.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. SHE TURNED DOWN ELVIS.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. SHE JUST EARNED TWO GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

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15 Fascinating Facts About Blood Simple
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Ethan and Joel Coen hadn’t made a feature film of their own until they set out to write, direct, produce, and edit Blood Simple, a bloody Texas-set noir about a cuckold husband named Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) who hires a private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to murder his cheating wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). The filmmakers wanted a small budget like a horror film, but preferred making an entertaining B-film. Before production started, the Coens created a two-minute trailer and showed it to investors, which allowed them to raise an impressive $750,000 (which was half of the final budget).

In January of 1985, the movie was released in theaters and grossed $2,150,000. In its 2000 theatrical re-release, the movie added another $1.7 million to its box office haul. The low-budget film set the standard for the wave of American indie films to come, and it established the Coens as two of the most important voices in cinema. It also launched the careers of Frances McDormand and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (who would later turn to directing).

Here are 15 facts about the noir thriller, which arrived in theaters on this day in 1985.

1. ITS TITLE WAS INSPIRED BY DASHIELL HAMMETT’S RED HARVEST.

“It’s an expression he used to describe what happens to somebody psychologically once they’ve committed murder,” Joel Coen told Time Out. “They go ‘blood simple’ in the slang sense of ‘simple,’ meaning crazy. But it’s left up to the audience to ponder the implications; they’re never spelled out in the film itself.”

2. THE COENS SPECIFICALLY WROTE THE PART OF LOREN VISSER FOR M. EMMET WALSH.

Blood Simple started something else that we’ve done pretty much on every subsequent movie, which was that we’ve always written parts for specific actors,” Joel Coen said in the book My First Movie. The brothers knew Walsh from the film Straight Time, in which he played a sleazy character. “Actually, it was a more interesting character than what we came up with in Blood Simple inasmuch as it was more ambiguous,” Joel said. They offered him the part without having him audition, but ran into a dilemma. “All I remember is we didn’t know what the hell to call him,” Ethan said. “I mean, what the hell do you call him when you meet him? M?”

3. THE COENS—AND MANY OF THE CAST AND CREW—HAD NEVER BEEN ON A FILM SET BEFORE.

Joel Coen admitted in My First Movie, “The first day of shooting on Blood Simple was the first time I’d ever been on a feature movie set in any capacity, even as a visitor.” Coen had previously worked as an assistant editor on horror films, including 1981’s The Evil Dead. Coen mentioned how Sonnenfeld would throw up after looking at the dailies, because he was so nervous working on the film. “Everyone was in the same boat,” Joel said. “The gaffer had never gaffered a feature. The sound guy, the mixer on the set, had never mixed a feature.”

4. THE COENS CHOSE TO MAKE A FILM NOIR BECAUSE OF THE GENRE’S PRACTICALITY.

Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh in 'Blood Simple' (1984)
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The Coens liked hard-boiled fiction authors James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, and used them to their advantage in writing the script. “It’s certainly a genre that is entertaining, and we also picked it for very practical reasons,” Ethan said. “We knew we weren’t going to have a big budget. The financing would not allow it. We could build something on the genre and the appeal it has.”

“It’s also a genre that allows you to get by rather modestly in some ways,” Joel added. “You can limit the number of characters, put them into a confined set. There’s no need to go for large-scale effects or scatter them through the film, and those cost a lot of money. So it was a pragmatic decision that determined what film we would make.”

5. BUT THEY DIDN’T WANT TO PARODY FILM NOIR.

In a 1985 interview, featured in the book The Coen Brothers: Interviews, Ethan said, “When people call Blood Simple a film noir, they’re correct to the extent that we like the same kind of stories that the people who made those movies like. We tried to emulate the source that those movies came from rather than the movies themselves.” They didn’t want to make “a venetian blind movie,” but movies like The Conformist and The Third Man inspired the look of Blood Simple.

Because of the comedic elements in the film, some people might think the movie is trying to parody the thriller genre. “On one hand, it is a thriller, and, on the other, it is funny,” Ethan said. “But certainly the film is supposed to work as a thriller and I don’t think it would work as both at once.”

6. THEY BORROWED AN INVESTMENT TACTIC FROM SAM RAIMI.

Their friend Sam Raimi had shot a trailer for his film The Evil Dead and raised $60,000 toward the budget after showing it to investors. “He financed the movie using a common thing that people making exploitation movies had used, which was a limited partnership,” Joel said in My First Movie. “What we also borrowed from Sam and the other models was that I presented more of an action exploitation type movie than it ended up being, and in fact than we knew it would be.”

The Coens didn’t know many people, so they decided to take a projector and the trailer to entrepreneurs’ homes in New York, Texas, and Minnesota. “If you call people up and say, ‘Can you give me 10 minutes so I can present an opportunity to invest in a movie?’ They’re going to say, ‘No, I don’t need this,’ and hang up the phone,” Joel said in My First Movie. “But it’s slightly different if you call and say, ‘Can I come over and take 10 minutes and show you a piece of film?’ All of a sudden that intrigues them and gets your foot in the door.” Eventually, all 65 investors made a profit from their investment.

The investor trailer finally surfaced online and features Bruce Campbell in the Dan Hedaya role.

7. NONE OF THE MAJOR STUDIOS WANTED TO DISTRIBUTE IT.

The Coens took time editing the film, and started shopping the movie around in 1984. Warner Bros. rejected it, but an indie company agreed to distribute it with a slight change. “We took it to Crown International Pictures and the guy would say, ‘If you have some nudity you can put in there maybe we can distribute it,’” Joel said in My First Movie. “We saw everybody from the studios to the lowliest sleaze-bucket distributors in L.A. And they all said no.” Circle Films picked up the movie after seeing a screening of it at the Toronto Film Festival. When the movie came out with good reviews, Warner tried to buy it from Circle to no avail.

8. M. EMMET WALSH COULDN’T BLOW SMOKE RINGS.

At first the actor was skeptical of starring in a movie where he probably wouldn’t make any money, but he gave the Coens a chance. Joel asked Walsh if he could blow a smoke ring from cigarette smoke and he said he would try. “I just couldn’t do it,” Walsh said. “I worked and worked on it, but I started to make myself sick.” The Coens brought in a smoke machine to make the smoke rings but the machine broke during filming. “The script gal says, ‘Give me a damn cigar. I grew up with five brothers smoking behind a barn,’” Walsh said. “So they give her a cigar and she starts making these incredible smoke rings. I said to myself, ‘My God, this is how you make a movie!’ Later on, I went outside and saw her puking her brains out. That was Blood Simple.”

9. THE COENS HAD AN INCIDENT WITH ONE OF THEIR POTENTIAL INVESTORS.

“There was one investor we went to and we hit his car, parking,” Ethan said in My First Movie. “And we had this big debate out on the driveway [about] whether we should tell him we hit his car before the sales pitch or after the sales pitch. We decided that we wouldn’t tell him until we showed him the movie and made the sales pitch.” The investor decided against investing in the film.

10. FRANCES MCDORMAND REFUSED TO BE “THEATRICAL” IN THE MOVIE.

John Getz and Frances McDorman in 'Blood Simple' (1984)
Janus Films

Up until she starred in Blood Simple, the future Oscar-winner had mainly done theater and some TV. In an interview with William Dafoe for Bomb Magazine, she told him her approach to playing Abby Marty. “The only choice I made was not to be theatrical,” she said. “I never moved my face and my mouth’s always open like I’m terrified—I was a lot of the time. I just did whatever they told me to do, which was perfect for the character, but it’s not like I made that decision as a character choice. It was from not knowing what to do.”

11. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND WITH LITERATURE.

Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

12. THE COENS RELEASED A SHORTER VERSION OF THE FILM.

Blood Simple got the Director’s Cut treatment in 2001, but instead of adding material to the re-release of the movie, the Coens removed a few minutes from it. “We always thought it was rather kind of clumsy, the editing,” Joel told Hollywood.com. “It was interesting to go in and try to tighten the movie up.” “Before, the original version was like an old lady with a walker, and now it just has a cane,” Ethan said. The newer version also brought back the Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song,” which had been in the original theatrical release but had been replaced with Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” in the VHS release.

13. THE COENS THINK THE MOVIE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

A scene from 'Blood Simple' (1984)
Janus Films

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature, in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

14. ZHANG YIMOU REMADE THE FILM.

Director Zhang Yimou—who directed House of Flying Daggers and Heroremade Blood Simple in 2009 as A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop. The move is set in a Chinese noodle shop in a desert, and in similar fashion, the plot centers on a man trying to kill his wife and her lover.

15. BLOOD SIMPLE BEGAT RAISING ARIZONA AND FARGO.

Two years after Blood Simple was released, the Coens wrote-directed their follow-up, Raising Arizona, which wasn’t anything like Blood Simple. “In essence, after having completed Blood Simple, we wanted to make something completely different,” Ethan said. “We didn’t know what, but we wanted it to be something funny that had a very quick rhythm. We also wanted to use Holly Hunter, who has been a friend of ours for a long time. So it really wasn’t the story that was the origin of the project, but Holly Hunter, her personality and, by extension, the character we had conceived for her to play. In contrast, Blood Simple took shape from an idea for a screenplay.” It should be noted Hunter provided her voice on an answering machine in Blood Simple.

More than a decade after Blood Simple came out, the Coens released Fargo. The Coens’ dealings with investors for Blood Simple inspired the film’s businessmen. “It was raising money for Blood Simple that we met all of these business guys who could wear the suits, get bundled up in the park and slog out in the snow and meet us in these, like, coffee shops,” Joel said in My First Movie. “We came back to that whole thing in Fargo: the car salesman, the guy who owns the bowling alley, you know, whatever.”

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