Merian C. Cooper was so far ahead of his time that it blows my mind. Every time I hear about how cuts were made to King Kong or The Most Dangerous Game in order to fit the sensibilities of 1930s audiences, it makes me want to back in time and smack 1930s
audiences for being such a buzz-kill, and he was constantly pitching ideas that the studios turned down at the time that would seem like no-brainers today (King Kong vs. Tarzan would’ve been a prequel and a cinematic universe flick at the same time, how trendy would that be if he’d pitched it today?).
War Eagles was one such project, utterly derailed by the occurrence of the second world war (both because it would’ve been risky for the studio and because Cooper ran off to reenlist in the military), and frankly, the concept sounds like something that could have only come up in the 21st century. It’s about a test pilot who crashes on an uncharted island, where he joins a lost tribe of Norsemen who fight dinosaurs and ride giant eagles. Nazi forces set up camp on the island as well, and then take off to destroy New York with a new EMP-type weapon. The pilot persuades the Norsemen to go after the Nazis on eagleback, and they have a spectacular dogfight over New York. I repeat, this isn’t some postmodern parody like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Iron Sky, or Danger 5; this is an actual movie that could have been made in 1939…and very nearly was, considering that the sets were constructed and stop footage tests were underway when the movie was halted.
It’s really fun to imagine how the film would have played out with the technology of the time, and Ray Harryhausen was an advocate for getting a movie version off the ground until his last days (the original, obviously, would have had Willis O’Brien on special effects). The story did materialize in print form, if nothing else, as a 2008 novel written by Robotech producer Carl Macek, and it’s not a bad read…a few of the scenes, particularly our castaway protagonist taming his rare bird, had me wondering if the movie Avatar had a peek at the War Eagles script during production.
The concept of the film was first released to the public in 1977 via a Famous Monsters article, but the definitive source on the subject is David Conover’s book in the excellent Alternative History for Classic Film Monsters series, complete with the script (by Forbidden Planet‘s Cyril Hume) and numerous production images. It’s well worth checking out and imagining what could have been!