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The Curse Of The Yellow Jersey – The Cycling Film Hollywood Loved But Could Never Make

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With Stephen Frears's much-delayed Lance Armstrong biopic The Program finally getting a release, we look back to the story of the cycling film Hollywood couldn't make.

Dustin Hoffman
Dustin Hoffman
Rich Polk/Getty Images

The French have been making feature films set in or around the Tour de France for the thick end of a century by now. Their glory days were between the 1920s and 1940s - from Maurice Champreux's Le Roi de la Pédale (1925) through to Jacques Tati's Jour de Fête (1949). Such was the popularity of Tour films that some - such as Le Facteur du Tour de France (1934) and Jean Stelli's Pour le Maillot Jaune (1938) - were shot partially on location at the Tour, while Stelli's Cinq Tulipes Rouges (1949), a crime-caper set during the 1949 Tour, was even able to crowd-source its dénouement from readers of L'Intransigeant. In more recent years there's been schlock-horror offerings such as Philippe Grandrieux's Sombre (1998) through the animated gem that is Sylvain Chomet's Les Triplettes de Belleville (2003) and on to the coming-of-age drama that is Laurent Tuel's La Grande Boucle (2013).

When it comes to English-speaking feature films set in or around the Tour, little has been offered. But it is not for the want of trying, as the story of attempts in the 1970s and 1980s to make a film about the Tour show. That film was to have been based on Ralph Hurne's novel The Yellow Jersey.

Published in 1973 Hurne's novel tells the story of a retired English pro who's managing a young star and gets sucked out of retirement in order to help said star at the Tour de France. A handful of riders get disqualified for doping and the old pro somehow ends up wearing the yellow jersey, with the former young vedette now his domestique. Behind all this is a complicated love triangle which involves the fiancée of the young pro who happens to be the daughter of the aging pro's fiancée.

In November 1973 a relatively unknown producer called Gary Mehlman acquired the film rights to Hurne's novel. In April of the following year he got Columbia on board with a development deal and immediately set to work turning the novel into a film.

"It sure looked easy then," Mehlman told Jack Matthews of the Los Angeles Times in 1986. "I couldn't believe it. I made a deal on Monday, and on Wednesday I was on the plane. I had money in my pocket, we had a writer and we were negotiating with a director. I was gone, gone!"

In 1975 the director Michael Cimino was brought on board and visited the Tour for the first time, researching the film. Cimino at this stage was a rising star of Hollywood: he'd scripted one of the Dirty Harry films and directed Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

Over the next decade, the project went through the usual Hollywood hell. Columbia lost interest. A French studio - the Nice-based Victorine Studios - came on board. They dropped it and it went back to Hollywood, this time to Universal. They dropped it and it got picked up in the UK by Lew Grade's ITC, of Raise the Titanic fame. They dropped it and eventually it bounced back into the lap of Columbia in 1983.

By now the film had Carl Foreman on board as producer (alongside Mehlman), Colin Welland as scriptwriter (with Foreman) and Dustin Hoffman as star (over the years the lead had been turned down by everyone from Steve McQueen to Sylvester Stallone). That's the package that seemed to interest Columbia, three men with plenty of hits behind them (Foreman - High Noon; Welland - Chariots of Fire; Hoffman - Tootise).

"Dustin was passionate about doing it, and that was the first time I was in a position to make some really good money with it," Mehlman told Matthews in 1986. "He had a deal with Columbia and it was right after Tootsie, so it would have gone [into production] the moment he was ready."

Cimino, he was still down to direct. By now he'd gone from rising star to super star to fallen star: he'd wowed the world with The Deer Hunter and then shocked Hollywood when Heaven's Gate ran massively over budget and flopped on release, which fact is linked to the collapse of a studio, United Artists.

The Danish film-maker Jørgen Leth was also on board at this stage, as adviser, Welland having brought The Perfect Human director onboard in 1979. It's unlikely many in Hollywood knew - or cared - who Leth was or that he'd already delivered three cycling documentaries: one on the Hour (The Impossible Hour), one on the Giro (Stars and Watercarriers) and a third on Paris-Roubaix (A Sunday in Hell), as well as a short film made for TV, Eddy Merckx in the Vicinity of a Cup of Coffee, which included footage from the 1970 Tour de France.

Mehlman had, since 1974, held the rights to shoot a feature film at the Tour, having hit it off with the race's co-director and the man in charge of finances, Félix Lévitan (Lévitan was even then interested in expanding the Tour's financial base and knew American sponsors were important). Shooting at the Tour was first slated to start in 1980 but didn't happen. Each time a new studio came on board shooting was again slated to start, but each time was postponed. Lévitan was generous in the rights granted to Mehlman but even he drew the line when Cimino requested that Hoffman be allowed infiltrate himself into the actual race in order to shoot some racing scenes. As a compromise, Lévitan did agree that Mehlman could bring his own peloton of extras - which was to include a number of pros passed over for Tour selection by their teams - and they'd have access to the Tour's route two hours ahead of the race.

In 1984 Mehlman, Leth, Cimino, Welland and Hoffman went to the Tour, for yet more research. Welland was still working on the script and hoped to have a draft by October of that year. The first meeting between Leth and Hoffman was recalled by the former in one of his memoirs: "Hoffman made me very happy when, at our first meeting at a dinner in Bordeaux, he said that he'd learned everything he knew about professional cycling from watching A Sunday in Hell."

Dustin Hoffman
Hoffman at the 1984 Tour

Speaking to the press about their source material, Hurne's novel, Hoffman and Welland were quite scathing about The Yellow Jersey. "They say, the better the book, the worse the film; the worse the novel, the better the film," offered Hoffman, while Welland was even more blunt: "I cannot say I am impressed by the book but we won't know what we have until I finish the first draft." You imagine all anyone in Hollywood saw in the novel was a title and the basic plot idea. And they'd probably have changed the plot. And the title.

His misgivings about the source material aside, the forty-something Hoffman was positive about the film itself and was looking forward to getting into shape, as he explained to Sam Abt: "The first thing I've got to do is to get a cycling coach. The book is about the last moment of your youth and I think that's the way I feel now about myself. Actors say 'If I'm going to die, let it be on stage.' This guy says 'If I'm going to die, let it be while trying to make this curve.' I think I can relate to that.''

In March 1986 Columbia, for the second time, said no to Mehlman, with around $1.5m in pre-production expenses already on the clock. Foreman had died. Cimino had exited the project. Hoffman had followed, Mehlman having failed to find a suitable replacement for Cimino (Hoffman nixed all of Mehlman's suggestions and none of his suggested directors were available). All the project now had was Welland's script. And any new director and star would change that.

Mehlman hocked the film round - sans star, sans director - and got lucky with Menahem Golan's Cannon Pictures who came on board in April 1986, after having paid $1m to Columbia, ITC, Universal and the other studios who'd racked up expenses on the film over the years. That Cannon Pictures were mostly responsible for instantly forgettable low-rent films didn't matter to Mehlman at this stage. They were willing to put a budget of $10m-$15m behind the project. Golan talked of Harrison Ford or Robert de Niro starring. Hollywood producers always talk of that day's Harrison Ford or Robert de Niro starring.

By 1986 Lévitan had grown tired of Hollywood's foot-dragging where a Tour film was concerned and Mehlman's right to film at the race was about to expire. "This was the last year we could do that," Mehlman told the Los Angeles Times that year, "I have had the rights to shoot the Tour since 1974. The man who runs it has become almost a part of my family and he's let me keep the rights. But he said this would be the last year, there was too much pressure on him from other people wanting the rights."

Despite having no star and no director, Cannon's cameras finally started rolling at the 1986 Tour de France, a second unit setting out to collect background footage, directed by Leth. The Dane couldn't have been happier with the facilities made available to him: "I got a team with several excellent cinematographers, as well as all the equipment I could wish for, motorcycles, a helicopter and a specially-built car that - most likely because of the money paid to Lévitan openly or in secret - was allowed to move in the race and around the peloton without any restrictions." Leth's second unit shot some 200,000 feet of film (something like 35 hours of background footage) at a cost of about $1m.

Principal photography was scheduled to take place in the Autumn of 1986. Then the Spring of 1987. Then the Summer of 1987. Then the Spring of 1988. Then...it never happened: the project had no star (by now Mickey Rourke had signed on only to sign off two days later - Rourke's agent claimed the star had been promised creative and technical approval, but that that had failed to materialise - and Golan was talking of Christopher Lambert starring) and no director (Golan suggested he himself might take that seat - in 1986 he directed Sly Stallone in Over the Top and followed that with Chuck Norris's Delta Force - then Jerry Schatzberg's name was linked to it).

By 1988 Cannon was in financial trouble and Golan got bailed out by an Italian financier, Giancarlo Parretti, who turned out to be a fraudster. Somewhat ironically, he funded the deal with money borrowed from Crédit Lyonnaise, who by then had become directly involved with the Tour, putting their name on the yellow jersey and giving out their cuddly lions on the podium. All ended in tears with Cannon going belly up and - for reasons not fully clear - the 200,000 feet of film shot by Leth effectively disappearing in a legal quagmire, with Leth saying that all he was left with was a bad video of a trailer comprising edited background footage.

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The project didn't quite die there. John Veitch, a former studio executive who had been involved with the project since its earliest days at Columbia, vowed to carry on with it as an independent production. In the Summer of 1989 he was talking up Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise as possible stars and saying that he hoped shooting would take place at the Tour in 1990. As before, hopes failed to become reality. Even into the new millennium a script for The Yellow Jersey was still being hawked around Hollywood. But when even Lance Armstrong couldn't get Hollywood to film his life story, what hope was there for a film based on a shit novel? Anyway, anyone making films at the Tour by then seemed to prefer documentaries - Hell on Wheels, Overcoming - the race itself having become too much of a fiction. Then, of course, Armstrong fell, and as well as the rush-released documentaries there was the race to film the story of his rise and fall. Stephen Frears was first out of the blocks there with his adaptation of David Walsh's Seven Deadly Sins which - after a year and a half in post-production purgatory as Frears attempted to cleanse the film of its faults - finally reached the screen in the second half of 2015. And finally allowed Dustin Hoffman to close off the circle he started in the 1980s with The Yellow Jersey and star in a Tour film, Hoffman featuring in The Program as SCA-boss Bob Hamman.