The Marabar Caves

Graham Coster

Faking it is no good.

If you need caves, and there are no caves – if you’re shooting A Passage to India you need caves – then you need dynamite. If you need grass on the battlefield – in Heaven’s Gate there was to be grass on the battlefield, and at Kalispell, Montana there was no grass – then you need a comprehensive under-battlefield irrigation system. Raise the Titanic? You must raise a Titanic. To film it, you must film it.

This story is indeed true. It invented itself as it happened. The richest man; the biggest airplane; the greatest feat of construction; the tallest hangar; the longest delays; the bitterest government hearings; the narrowest escape from cancellation; the sheerest thrill on 2 November 1947 of the first flight, and the shortest, and last. This picture is the story of How Howard Hughes Built The Spruce Goose. It will be huge, How-weird-Huge. This film will gross.

The Director’s last has been massive. The next will be a cathedral to itself before which people will be quiet. His brief is unbounded. The Director envisions.

Solemn, rapt faces craned over drawing boards. A floor littered with curling blueprints of strange, multiple-fuselaged craft, bulbous and finny as if trawled from the deep sea. A complicit nodding coven around the sleek pencilled prototype. The corner of the frame peeling over into the next tableau. All this in silence.

And then the noise, so that the very grain of the film seems tremulous and dancing on the screen. The thundery clank of tackle traversing vast gantries. The soaring of saws. Dull, expanding thuds and detonations unlocatable in the hangar’s hovering shadows. Ant-men scurrying over the fuselage. A wing as wide as a road: close on a man working inside it – it is his own sloping-roofed attic, endlessly receding. In the cockpit a hundred needles quiver in a hundred dials. The crazed booming of the engines ...

But the Director is jumping ahead. This is what it is like, he says – I’ll tell you:

You are building a Boeing 747 out of plywood. (Why plywood? asks the film company executive.) Metal is rationed. All for fighters and bombers. 1942.

You make the wings a hundred feet wider still – use the wings off a B-52, if you like.

You take out the four RB-211 turbofans, and hope your eight propeller radials will get it up instead. (-----?) Unless you want to invent the jet engine as well!

You pull off the undercarriage, and you drop the Jumbo in the sea! That’s where it has to take off, and where it has to land again. (I hope the crew can swim, says the executive.) You make it, therefore, float. You have built a giant flying boat.

Put like that, says the executive, Put like that ... They can only have built it for someone to make a film about it!

They were going to build five hundred! says the Director. (Do this as Pathé News sub-titles over rapid succession of monochrome stills: ship blazing in a rose of fire against corrugated sea; ship canted over into the sluggish waves like a shoe lost in mud ...)

1941, and the German U-boats’ terrifying vendetta is at its height.

The American Merchant Navy is being decimated

Supplies are not getting through.

The war effort is sinking fast

At the eleventh hour a possible solution is hit upon – an idea audacious but breathtaking in its ambition

Quite simply: you cannot torpedo a plane.

A Merchant Air Force! (the executive) – sailing its cargo above the seas! A serene, whirring, sky-borne flotilla! Beautiful ponderous birds!

They made only one, says the Director. By the time they got started the U-boat threat was past anyway.

They should still have built them all, says the executive.

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