He's a man of revision

Special to The Times

On a recent bright, muggy morning in Manhattan, the screenwriter David Franzoni was reclining in a low-slung chair in the tapestry-strewn barroom at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, across from Central Park, talking about history. Franzoni, who writes big clanging period pictures like "Gladiator" and "Amistad," was wearing jeans, an open-collared shirt and a loose jacket, and waving about a mop of thick black-gray hair (the last time he seems to have put a comb to it was when he accepted the Oscar for "Gladiator").

He was cursing copiously. Reverence was nowhere in sight. Everything was up for revision.

Franzoni on former presidents: "Jefferson -- what a jerk that guy was. Jefferson was an animal." Years ago Franzoni wrote a biopic of George Washington in which he dismantles the third president.

Franzoni on famous battles of yore: "So I'm beginning to think maybe Scipio actually got the crap kicked out of him at Carthage." He is working on a script about the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who is commonly thought to have lost to Scipio.

On the Greatest Generation: "I can't find any stories I like in World War II." And Camelot: "These guys were the Wild Bunch, not some shiny little cans of metal cruising around the countryside rescuing bored housewives from distress. These guys were killers."

Franzoni, who is 55, was especially animated on this last topic. He was in New York for the premiere of "King Arthur," his latest film, a $100-million-plus Jerry Bruckheimer-produced retelling of the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Lerner & Loewe this is not: "I like to think about these knights as guys who came back from 'Nam. My description to Jerry was 'The fall of Saigon, the last chopper's on top of the embassy and they have to go, and these guys can't get out. They have to go up to the DMZ for one more run. Merlin's Ho Chi Minh, up there with his Viet Cong. We don't have him flying through the air talking to chipmunks.' "

Living the paradox of Hollywood's muckety-muck screenwriters, Franzoni, for all his clout, has seen his name in the credits of only a few films over his 25-year career, so premieres are always exciting for him. He'd brought along his wife and son, with whom he lives in Malibu.

Still, he was bothered. Disney had just cut "Arthur" to get a PG-13 rating, and he had no idea what the new print looked like. "Here's what [ticks] me off about PG-13 -- you don't see the blood. You have people dying like in old Ronald Reagan movies again -- gloriously. PG-13 is like this '50s lobotimization of kids again. So a kid is from Iraq, and his family's been killed and he's lost a leg -- can he see an R-rated film?"

Lost legs -- this is how Franzoni sees history. His characters, when they're not busy being shackled in chains or declaiming on the rights of man, are usually dismembering each other. Franzoni believes that Arthur, for instance, was not a chivalrous medieval king but rather a tragic Roman mercenary with a weakness for humanist philosophy whose lot it was to be stuck in Britain while his empire fell around him. Assorted British cultural groups are objecting to the portrayal, as are some historians.

"The Celts despise our theory. We have a Celtic advisor on board, and he's always under fire." Franzoni was taking it in stride. "Historians -- they're just drunk idiots in tweed." He likes to take a fatalist's view. In his eyes, America, like the Rome of "Gladiator," is an empire in decline. "Ultimately we're going to fall," he said. "This Patriot Act is the tenuous beginnings of the erosion of free speech. Rome fell -- it took a long time. We're going there, but it's a slow process. CNN was taken over by the Caesars a long time ago. You're not getting anything out of these people."

Franzoni may get his fascination with war from his father, a veteran who owned several companies, a gun maker among them, in Vermont, where Franzoni grew up. As a kid, he watched John Ford and Roger Corman movies. "One night I stayed up really late, and 'All Quiet on the Western Front' was on. And I remember it was like I was hit with a hammer."

He studied paleontology at the University of Vermont and after college traveled to Germany, where he bought a cheap motorcycle. He rode it across Europe and western Asia. In Baghdad, he traded a book on the Irish Revolution with a traveling companion in return for "Those About to Die," a book about the Roman games. He was in thrall. "The Romans had this unique vision of themselves -- they were born monsters and proud of it.

"Somewhere in India I decided I wanted to be a screenwriter," he added.

In his late 20s, Franzoni moved to Los Angeles, with ideas for several movies in his head. He spent whole days in the library, and there came upon a graduate student dissertation that set out to prove the Roman origins of the Arthur legend. Like the gladiator idea, he stowed it away. After the obligatory years of deprivation and angst, he sold a dark techno-thriller that would, in inscrutable Hollywood fashion, be rewritten and turned into the Whoopi Goldberg comedy "Jumpin' Jack Flash." (He still shakes his head in disbelief at this.) After that he was hot for a time, and then, of course, not hot for a time.

He got his mojo back in 1991, when HBO produced "Citizen Cohn," his biopic on Sen. Joseph McCarthy's lawyer, and Oliver Stone commissioned him to write "The Mayor of Castro Street," about assassinated San Francisco Councilman Harvey Milk. "After that, for a while, I was real hot -- like glow-in-the-dark hot," he said.

He became The Biopic Guy. He wrote a script about Shakespeare, one about George Washington and was approached to do Ralph Nader's life story. "I did research and came out and said, 'This guy's a crank. Do you want me to bust him for what he really is?' And they said, 'No, we don't want you to write that.' And I said, 'On top of that, the Corvair was a good car.' Let's go back and be honest about the world."

Then came "Amistad." Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie was neither a large commercial nor critical success and was attacked for its historical inaccuracies (the New Yorker's Simon Schama went so far as to write an extended screed on the characters' anachronistic facial hair and diction), but Franzoni's script was praised for its facile, if occasionally ham-handed, synthesis of historical sources, and for its unflinching description of the horrors of the slave trade.

Though he insisted that he's proud of all his films, Franzoni admitted they never turn out as he would like. "Once it leaves my hands, I can't be responsible for what people do. It's a collaborative medium."

It was "Gladiator," however, released in the summer of 2000, that lent the name "Franzoni" major resonance. Here is how he recalls the pitch process: "I get a call from Steven's office. 'You got two days to come up with the pitch.' I walk in and Steven goes, 'David, you want to do a gladiator movie [for Spielberg co-owned DreamWorks]?' 'Yeah.' 'Ancient gladiators?' 'Yeah.' 'In Rome, ancient Rome?' 'Yeah.' 'In the Colosseum?' 'Yeah.' 'OK,' he says. That was it. I said 'yeah' four times. That was it." When it came out, the movie seemed to touch a national nerve. In those heady, rah-rah days before Sept. 11, the sight of Russell Crowe in a sleeveless tunic, a sweaty man-cocktail equal parts Sam Peckinpah and Ayn Rand, proved endlessly potable. This was no surprise to Franzoni: All of his films, he's often said, are really about contemporary America.

"I said, 'Steven, this is us.' It's Dodger Stadium with swords. That's the world we have to write. I modeled Proximo after Michael Ovitz. Ted Turner was Commodus. The World Wrestling Federation was at the premiere. People were going, 'Why are they here?' Are you kidding? Why is anybody else here? It's about them. They got it."

Certain critics and viewers were offended by what they perceived to be an almost fascistic aesthetic in the film. Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer came up. Franzoni had this to say on the subject: "It was supposed to look like a Nazi propaganda film -- I wrote that into the script. I wanted a universal feel. I wanted it to be about the 20th century world. That's why we had a gladiator agent -- God knows if those people really existed. Look, we were trying to get at a truth about Rome and about us. If forgoing literal accuracy is better for conveying the truth, I'll do that any day. If bringing in fascist iconography helps me do that and reminds us of who we may be, of course I'm going to incorporate it. Why wouldn't I?" Having perhaps caught on, journalists have been asking Franzoni if his Arthur tale can be seen as an allegory for the war in Iraq.

"I say, 'Well, obviously no, but obviously yes," he said. "In a naturalistic sense it is. Here's a group of GIs in a place where they're hated, killing to stay alive, probably not liking what they're doing." Such is the plight of Franzoni's men. Maximus from "Gladiator," Cinque from "Amistad," Arthur, even Roy Cohn, the least likable of his protagonists -- they are all warriors and yet slaves, bloodied moralists living in immoral times, men whose "worlds are their nightmares," as Franzoni put it. He likes to think of them as modern, yes, but also without epoch. "They're temporary and ancient, eternal bastards with eternal bravery and eternal cowardice."

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