By Arthur Flynn
The Leopard was hailed by the critics as Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece and took many years to bring to the screen.
In the early stages of casting Luchino Visconti initially planned to cast Nikolia Cherkasov, a favourite of Sergi Eisenstein in the leading role of Prince Don Fabrizio. Commercial interests intervened as Cherkasov was not known outside Italy and would not sell the film. Next they considered some Russian actors but it did not materialise. Laurence Olivier was considered but he was too busy. Many other leading stars including Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and Spencer Tracey were considered for the important role.
Finally the producers chose Burt Lancaster without informing Visconti. To many Italians it was insulting to have a former circus performer and Elmer Gantry presiding over Italy’s noble past was an insult. Reluctantly Visconti had to accept the decision but dismissed the star foisted on him as ‘an American gangster.’
Alain Delon who was cast as Tancredi, the second leading role received more privileges including his own dressing room. Lancaster had to sweat in the sun.
Soon the other leading roles were filled by Claudia Cardinale as Angelica Sedara, Rena Morelli as Maria Stella and Paolo Stoppa as Don Calogero Sedara.
Along with Visconti there were four other screenwriters adapting the novel II Gallopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa for the screen. Giuseppe Rotunno was director of photography and musical director was Nino Rota.
The story was laid out in a relaxed fashion and the original running time was 205 minutes. It was later cut to 195 minutes and later 185 minutes.
The story chronicles the fortunes of aging Prince Fabrizio Salina and his family during the unification of Italy in the 1860s. He looks back with nostalgic regret at the decline of his class. The story opens as Salina learns that Garibaldi’s troops have embarked in Sicily. The focal point is Garibaldi’s expedition to unite Sicily with Italy by deposing King Francis II. Salina is hurt by the fact that his son is to marry a parvenu, a daughter of the local mayor. He sees change and decay all around him with the end of the aristocrats and the rise of the masses. The spectacular climax is the marriage ball, at which for the first time the classes mingle freely.
Many critics failed to accept Burt Lancaster as an Italian prince. Some stated that he could not be a prince as he was better known as a cowboy. Gradually Lancaster and Visconti drew closer as the director came to understand the American actor’s commitment to the role and his mastery of the film business. Later Lancaster admitted that The Leopard was the best work of his career.
The film was shot in Sicily over eleven of the hottest weeks of the year. Towards the end of the schedule, Lancaster took time off to collect his Best Actor Prize for his magnificent performance in The Birdman of Alcatraz at the Venice Film Festival.
On its origin release the film was panned by the critics. Time Magazine praised the character of the titular Leopard as solid and controversial.
In 1963 The Leopard was an amazing hit at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Palme D’Or. Not surprisingly the film was not such a hit in the United States. The painful study of Lancaster’s fading prince in 1860’s Sicily and the epic battle scenes reminded Italian audiences of an Italian version of Gone with the Wind. Instead American audiences flocked to see Cleopatra.
The Leopard was nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar for Piero Tosi.
The failure of the American version was not helped when Fox complicated matters by not releasing it in Technicolor like the Italian version, but in the inferior, but cheaper, Deluxe colour process.
Despite early critics and audience’s reactions in America the film received outstanding reviews. They included: ‘Is this the most beautiful film ever made?’ ‘A magnificent film munificently outfitted and splendidly acted by a large cast dominated by Lancaster’s standout stint in the title role.’ ‘Stately, elegiac, ruminative, the film truly does now feel seamlessly all of a piece – and looks glorious.’ ‘The film is one of the most sumptuous ever made in Europe.’
The director Martin Scorsese considered it as one of the greatest films ever made.