Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Modesty Blaise probably not coming to a screen near you

Occasionally I encounter a concept which to me simply screams out to be made into a blockbuster movie. Two of the concepts that have stayed with me the longest are George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman books (one of them was actually made into a film, although it wasn't that well received. I may do more on that in another post one day) and the other is Peter O'Donnell's former criminal mastermind, turned part time spy; Modesty Blaise.

For those that aren't aware or have never heard of Modesty she began in this way.


Peter O'Donnell was a successful writer of comic strips for daily newspapers. He'd written an adaptation of the James Bond adventure Dr No (this was the Ian Fleming novel, not the movie version that opened the long running franchise. I believe the Dr No of the title was the villain's pet monkey in the book, not the villain himself), written long running adventure serials Garth and Romeo Brown (the latter began O'Donnell's association with artist Jim Holdaway, who also drew Modesty Blaise until his death in 1970). In 1963 he was asked to come up with something new and that something new was Modesty Blaise. By this stage Peter O'Donnell had a good 7 or so years of solid work behind him.

The writer actually drew on personal experience to create Modesty. He remembered an encounter that his army unit had experienced with a half wild child when they were stationed in the Middle East in 1943/44. That brief encounter was what gave him the idea for Modesty Blaise and became part of her origin really.


Modesty Blaise used to appear in a daily newspaper here; The Sun (it's the Herald Sun these days), but I never really read it. I wasn't a big fan of what I referred to as the 'talkie strips'. I preferred the funny ones like Hagar the Horrible or Snake Tales. Part of the problem for me with strips like Modesty Blaise was that they were a continuing story and told in little bite sized pieces, so if you missed a few or even one you then missed part of the story and could get hopelessly confused. We never had the paper delivered, so I had to rely on Dad remembering to bring it home from work.

My first proper exposure to Modesty Blaise came when I was about 13, and I picked up a cheap paperback collection with two complete adventures in it. As a bonus it contained her origin story and I think that was what hooked me.


Modesty's story begins in the latter stages of WW II, somewhere on the border between Greece and Turkey. She's estimated to be anywhere from 4 - 6 years old. The hand that she's clung to for a lifetime of horror and fear goes cold and she's left on her own in the world. It was never explained or revealed exactly who that hand belonged to. It may have been a female relative (mother, aunt, sister, cousin), a friend or neighbour, possibly even a kindly stranger who took care of the orphaned war child.

Modesty survives for the next 7 - 9 years by doing what she can to get by. She roams all over Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. She forages for food, begs, picks up menial labour (herding goats or sheep), steals if she has to and wanders from refugee camp to refugee camp.

One day when she's 13 and in a camp in Persia (modern day Iran) she sees a gang of kids about her age rob an old man of his food ration. Without even knowing why she's doing it, Modesty fights the kids and retrieves the ration which she gives back to the old man.

The two of them form a friendship. The old man's name is Lob and before the war he was a professor in Hungary (I don't know if it was ever revealed what subject he taught, but I have a feeling it was philosophy). Modesty and Lob leave the camp together.

That first night on the road as they prepare for sleep and Modesty calmly and unselfconsciously disrobes in front of him he christens her Modesty and chuckles as he does so. Prior to that the war child did not have a name.

Lob teaches his young protege how to read and write, she takes her surname of Blaise from one of the stories Lob teaches her. Blaise was the name of Merlin's tutor. He also gives her a personal philosophy. As Modesty grows and matures Lob realises that she can't just keep wandering around with him, she has to make a life for herself somewhere, so they decide to head for Tangier. Unfortunately Lob doesn't make it. He dies on the way. Modesty buries him and grieves briefly then goes to Tangier on her own.

In Tangier Modesty became a cigarette girl in a casino owned by a local mob boss. In short order the ambitious girl moved up the ranks becoming a croupier and the girlfriend of the boss. With Modesty by his side he increased his own smallish holdings and when he was killed by rivals, Modesty stepped in to take the reins.

At the tender age of 21 Modesty was running a global crime organisation known as The Network. On a trip to Thailand to inspect her organisations holdings there she spotted a British mercenary by the name of Willie Garvin in a Muay Thai boxing match. She thought he would make useful muscle. He was cooling his heels in a Thai jail when Modesty came looking for him and to the dazed and confused young Englishman she was a saviour and from that day on he called her Princess and woe betide anyone who didn't show her the correct respect.

Willie proved to be more than just muscle, he was despite the rough exterior, intelligent, resourceful and charming. Before long he was Modesty's right hand man and The Network's 2IC. It should be noted here that Modesty and Willie's relationship is strictly platonic and should never be interpreted as anything else. If anything they're more brother and sister than girlfriend and boyfriend.

Once the two have made enough they quit their life of crime and retire to England at relatively young ages (I don't know that their ages are ever stated, but I always see Modesty as in her late 20's and Willie in his mid to late 30's) to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Modesty had gained British citizenship some years earlier by marrying and divorcing an Englishman in Beirut. She gets herself a penthouse and enjoys her passions of gemstone collecting and philanthropy. Willie achieves his lifelong dream of owning and running a pub in the Midlands.

It's too good to last. Before long they're bored by lives that aren't filled with adventure and danger, so when British Secret Service official Sir Gerald Tarrant asks for some off the book assistance the duo are ripe for the picking. Tarrant didn't really want Willie, but as Modesty explains early on, they're a package deal. You don't get one without the other.

That's where the stories really start.


The cinematic potential was realised as early as the mid 60's. British Lion Films announced that they had a film written, however it was never made.

A film called Modesty Blaise was released in 1966. The rights were acquired by Mim Scala and the idea was to cast Barbara Steele as Modesty (I haven't ever seen Steele act, but she did have the right look) and Michael Caine as Willie (oh why didn't this happen?). However Scala sold the rights to Joseph Losey and that's where things went wrong.

Initially Losey made the right moves, he hired O'Donnell to write the screenplay and cast Terrence Stamp as Willie. Stamp, while he had dark hair, had the presence and rough edges needed for the street smart Willie Garvin, for some reason they made him wear this horrible blonde wig in the film. Couldn't they have just dyed his hair? O'Donnell's screen play was extensively rewritten, to the extent that O'Donnell later remarked that only one of his original lines survived (he later adapted it into a novel and continued to write Modesty Blaise novels that performed well critically and commercially for some years after). Then they cast Monica Vitti.

This isn't a slur on the actress, but she simply wasn't right for Modesty. Modesty Blaise is a slender, dark haired woman with Mediterranean (Greek) features and colouring. Monica Vitti was a curvy, blonde, fair skinned Italian.

The film itself was very campy, and is regarded as a camp classic these days. It even included a musical number and a lot of it was played for laughs.

The cardinal sin among many fans was having Modesty and Willie's relationship turned into a romantic one. They actually kissed. This is so against canon that fans couldn't accept it. It was moderately successful, but not what anyone had hoped for and it looked like the end for Modesty as far as films or even small screen was concerned.


In 1982 American TV network ABC made a one-hour pilot for a planned series called Modesty Blaise.

Although both characters had O'Donnell's back stories they had American accents and operated out of Los Angeles. They were more like PI's, than spies. The plot sounded like the plots of plenty of American 80's, 90's and even 00's and beyond hero for hire shows (The A-Team, MacGyver, Burn Notice, etc...).

Despite relatively decent reviews and doing well enough with test audiences the pilot wasn't picked up and the series never eventuated.


That may have been it, but for a scene in the Quentin Tarantino 1994 classic Pulp Fiction. When John Travolta's unflappable, heroin addicted hit man Vinnie Vega is surprised in the bathroom by on the run boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) and shot to death he was reading a Modesty Blaise comic collection at the time. People picked up on that and it turned out that the book was actually Tarantino's and he was a fan.

In an effort to keep him happy and on the off chance that he may actually want to make a Modesty Blaise film at some point, Miramax bought the rights.

Their option was running out by the early 2000's, so they hired Tarantino devotee Scott Spiegel to direct a direct to video production called My Name is Modesty.


My Name is Modesty came out in 2003 and while it's lack of production values are clearly on display I think it gets a bad rap.

It's a prequel. It's largely Modesty's origin, and it was designed as background for Tarantino to come in and make the real film, the big budget, blockbuster. By the time something happened with the property Tarantino was busy working on Kill Bill and then Inglourious Bastards.

The start of it was an updated version of what Peter O'Donnell experienced in the Middle East during WW II with the feral girl. This time it was a group of British soldiers in the Balkans who encountered the half wild child.

The story is set during Modesty's time in Tangier, running her boyfriend's casino. The casino is overrun by a gang of criminals and Modesty plays their leader (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, now known for his work as Jaime Lannister in HBO's Game of Thrones. Interestingly enough he'd make quite a good Willie Garvin, although at 44 he's getting a bit old) for the right to let some of her people go. If he wins she gives him some of her story and if she wins he lets a hostage go.

So this way viewers see Modesty's story, which does largely follow O'Donnell's idea. She meets Lob in a refugee camp in Iran. He's a professor of philosophy I think, but he's not as old as he was in the strip. In addition to reading, writing and philosophy he also teaches Modesty how to fight, which was not something the original Lob could ever have done, nor did he need to. Modesty could fight for herself thank you very much! He became collateral damage in a terrorist attack in Algiers and then Modesty made it to Tangier and the casino and wound up where she was in the film.

Fans didn't really like it. Plenty jumped on Alexandra Staden as Modesty, saying she didn't look right, but I thought she did a good job, especially when you consider that in the film she's possibly in her late teens, so would look and act younger than the Modesty in her 20's does in the strip and the books. The real problem for most of them seemed to be that this was a prequel so therefore no Willie. Willie has a huge fan base out there, he's possibly more popular than Modesty herself.

After this third attempt Peter O'Donnell had become completely disillusioned with the film and TV industry's attempts to turn his creation into one of theirs and he requested that no further attempts be made to film Modesty Blaise.


Peter O'Donnell died in 2010, and I assume his literary estate passed to his family and it remains to be seen whether or not they'll honour his wishes in regards to filming. I still think if done right it would make a cracking film.

I first thought about it's cinematic potential in the late 80's. I was watching a Bond film and I started to wonder if there was a female equivalent who could be successful with film audiences and then I remembered Modesty Blaise.

I followed possible cinematic developments with interest and it may have been why I wasn't that down on My Name is Modesty, of course it did also tell the story that originally interested me in the character.

I have to admit that I suck at fantasy casting, although I did get the role of Galen right in The Hunger Games when I fantasised about it being filmed after reading the 3rd book and reviewing it as if it were a new film release.

For years I had issues with Willie. I just couldn't find a blonde British actor of the right age who worked for me. Now it's Modesty. Over the years I've thought of people like Angelina Jolie and Eliza Dushku, even Morena Baccarin. Now I come up blank, although despite it being rather obvious, and her not being quite right physically I think Scarlett Johansson could have a pretty good run at it after her turn as The Black Widow. If Marvel/Disney won't give her a film of her own, maybe whoever makes Modesty Blaise would.

Willie Garvin in recent times seems to be coming out of the woodwork. At one time I thought Daniel Craig, but he's far too identified with Bond now. There's Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who I mentioned earlier and the other two standouts for me are: Phillip Winchester (he plays Michael Stonebridge in the TV show Strike Back, mind you if and when Daniel Craig chucks it in I think he'd make a great Bond) and Charlie Hunnam. Both Winchester and Hunnam are in their early 30's (Winchester is 33 and Hunnam 34).

I'm pretty sure eyebrows rose at the the naming of Charlie Hunnam. Despite being best known for playing the American bikie club leader Jax Teller on AMC's Sons of Anarchy, Hunnam is actually British. If you cut the hair and shave off the facial hair he would make a good Willie. Better than Winchester, who due to his height tends to stand out and he's a little clean cut, British public school boy to successfully sell Willie.

I don't know a lot about directing, but I can see three possibilities there. Quentin Tarantino, as he was the reason fuss started again in the 90's, plus he knows and is familiar with the material. I also think he has the right touch for it. He's probably cooled on it since he was originally attached to the concept, and that sort of thing may leave a bit of a bad taste in his mouth after his hissy fit about the Bond reboot Casino Royale, which he claimed was his idea.

Speaking of Casino Royale, I have to name Martin Campbell. If we can forget about Green Lantern, the Kiwi director has a very good action pedigree, having also directed Goldeneye and the two Antonio Banderas/Catherine Zeta Jones (another possibility for Modesty in days gone by) Zorro films.

My third choice would be Joss Whedon. Joss likes to work with strong female characters and while he's never said it, I think he'd be a Modesty Blaise fan. However he likes to have a lot of creative control and may not want to work to canon. He has however worked with 3 of my picks (Morena Baccarin at 35 a little older than I'd like, Eliza Dushku, also outside my ideal age range now and Scarlett Johansson) in the past successfully. He may be too busy with the ever expanding Avengers franchise, though.


Now if someone would just listen to me and make this happen. I think we could have the next long running, big action franchise on our hands.

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