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The Battle of Brazil, Jack Mathews, Applause, 1998, 338 pp. (originally published in 1987)

The sad fact of the whole matter is that Mathews has to admit that nothing changed.

The Battle of Brazil tells the story of the defiance on the part of one film-maker, Terry Gilliam, against interference from the studio, and specifically the Universal studio boss, Sid Sheinberg, on the editing of the movie Brazil. Against all odds, Gilliam succeeded in his battle, and the version that we can watch of Brazil today is (largely) what he wanted us to see. But the studio system hardly blinked at the matter, and the issue has become more serious than ever. A movie like Kundun can get cut off at the knees without much in the way of uproar in reaction, all because Disney wants the Chinese market. Gilliam did not fight in vain, as Brazil is with us, but what did the fight mean? What did it accomplish?

The story runs like this. Gilliam makes Time Bandits, which makes tons of money despite being rejected by every major studio and every major distributor. He has an idea for his next movie that he sells to a more independent producer, Milchan, who takes the project to Universal and Fox. Universal takes the American rights, and Fox everything else. Gilliam makes Brazil, and the movie is released in Europe and does moderately well. Universal runs some test screenings in America, and Sheinberg watches the film with some other movie moguls. Pressure starts to come down on Gilliam to edit the film to a shorter running length. A war of words ensues, and Sheinberg says the film will not be released (and he gets a team of editors working on a separate cut of the film). Among other things, Gilliam runs a full page ad in Variety that says: "Dear Sid Sheinberg. When are you going to release my film, 'Brazil'?" (96). The backroom maneuvering drags on for a while and the turning point happens when the L.A. Critics group gets together to decide their annual awards. Gilliam and his friends have been showing Brazil to these critics in clandestine screenings (Gilliam was not allowed to show the film in North America), and the critics decide to give Brazil three awards. Despite not being officially released in North America, Brazil wins best picture, best director and best script. Universal has the tradition of running a full page ad in Variety congratulating winners if the winning movies are their own -- this forces Sheinberg to capitulate. Gilliam wins, the movie goes to the theatres. But it only does moderately well, as Universal gave it next to no advertising in support, holding the big push for Out of Africa, which went on to win a number of Academy Awards.

The Battle of Brazil is short and has less substance than I was expecting. The story of the fight between Gilliam and Sheinberg is well-told and interesting, but it ends halfway through the 300 or so pages of the book. The bulk of The Battle of Brazil is made up of the screenplay for the movie. Some of Mathews' comments verge on the silly. For example, on the first mention of Mr. Helpmann, this is what Mathews writes in a little sidebar-type box: "Mr Helpmann is Gilliam's 'kindly uncle' figure. He has all the answers and charm and grace and power, but he is ultimately impotent. He also provides a gentler way of exposing the weaknesses of parents, a theme Gilliam underscored in Time Bandits by having the young hero's parents blow up at the end" (184). Perhaps he should stick to his reporting, which is much more astute.

However, Mathews reveals his own involvement in the story, which is more than could be considered comfortable. At the famous L.A. Critics meeting, he kept a scoop under wraps that might have changed the course of events. Mathews knew that Sheinberg was offering to release Brazil in 1986 -- whether Gilliam and Milchan would have accepted the offer at this point is an entirely different matter. He tries to rationalize his behaviour, but it's pretty clear that he was acting partially.

I liked this book, and I was happy to know the complete story of this particular incident, as I've always been half-aware of it from rumours and web sites. Despite Mathews' own bias, the facts come through, and Sheinberg is given a good deal of space to state his case. The fight between the suits and the talent is an old story, especially as both sides think the other side is unnecessary or ignorant. It's pretty crazy to put $50-60 million (the current average cost for Hollywood films -- Brazil cost in the neighbourhood of $11 million) in the sole responsibility of some wacked out artsy type. That kind of money comes from investors who are looking for a return. But what kind of movie guarantees a return? Probably a "good" movie, however that might be defined. And if the suits had figured out how to push a sure thing into the market, then all writers and directors would have gotten the boot a long time ago. During the fight over Brazil, Gilliam argued that he knew just as well or better than Sheinberg about how to create a successful movie. It's an old conflict, and one that has not gone away. Luckily we have the evidence in the form of Gilliam's cut of Brazil to judge the results for ourselves.

DVD Note: A video version of this book is available as part of the Criterion Collection release of Brazil. The second DVD of Criterion's 3 DVD set has a wealth of extras on it, including Jack Mathews' 60 minute documentary The Battle of Brazil: A Video History. About the only main player not shown in this documentary is Sid Sheinberg, and Mathews includes some audio interviews from Sheinberg from the time of the conflict. Fans of Brazil or this book should look for the Criterion set; even though it's expensive (like many of the Criterion releases), it's well worth the investment.


First posted: April 14, 2000; Last modified: January 20, 2003

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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