Ian Fleming's last story
/ A CommanderBond.net Special Feature /
Ian Fleming’s Last Story
The Poppy Is
Also A Flower
Originally written by Charles Helfenstein on 22 May, 2008, republished August 2010
Since the debut of Colonel Sun in 1968, James Bond continuation authors have put their own stamp on the character, while maintaining varying degrees of fidelity to Ian Fleming’s ideas.
While Kingsley Amis was flattered that many readers wrote to him assuming that Colonel Sun originated as a story snippet or outline by Ian Fleming, Amis always denied that any of the creative components of the story came from James Bond’s creator.
The centenary James Bond continuation novel Devil May Care, however, with a plot involving the heroin trade and a girl named Poppy, shares a number of similar elements with an obscure story outline about drug smuggling Ian Fleming worked on with Terence Young for the United Nations in the final months of his life.
In April 1964, United Nations Development Fund manager Paul Hoffman announced an ambitious project to produce six 90-minute TV movies with $4 million in funding provided by the Xerox Corporation. The films would promote the various missions of the U.N., and story ideas would come from their files. ABC would air 4 of the broadcasts while NBC would air the other two.
An impressive roster of talent signed on initially for the series, including Stanley Kubrick, Otto Preminger, Joseph L. Mankowicz, and Peter Glenville, with others to follow. All the participants agreed to work for scale or even less. The U.N. then set up a non-profit organization, the Telsun Foundation, to coordinate the productions. According to Telsun Foundation Executive manager Edgar Rosenberg “The major producers, directors, writers and composers we approached were eager to participate. Ideas for subjects for the plays came right out of United Nations’ files. The producer-directors chose their subjects and selected writers.”
At some point in mid-1964, Bond veteran Terence Young was approached to participate as a producer-director. Young chose drugs as his subject matter—the UN’s Permanent Central Opium Board and Drug Supervisory Body published reports and tracked the increasing problem of drug addiction. Young then discussed the project with Ian Fleming, and sought producing help from Cubby Broccoli’s Warwick Films protégé, Euan Lloyd.
Ian Fleming had written about the narcotics trade in Goldfinger, For Your Eyes Only, and Thunderball and about illicit smuggling networks in Diamonds are Forever and The Diamond Smugglers. Although his exact contributions are open to conjecture, Fleming’s story outline apparently dealt with tracing opium production from the poppy fields of the Middle East and through the heroin pushers in Europe (France, Italy) and America (New York).
Young’s approach for Fleming’s help came at an opportune moment. That March, Fleming had written from Goldeneye to his publishers at Jonathan Cape about producing a reference work on narcotic flora. Fleming had references on birds (where he famously borrowed James Bond’s name), fish, and shells, but none on Jamaica’s notorious ganja or other narcotic plants. Fleming felt that a lushly illustrated work was a “brilliant notion”, but Cape did not agree.
Ian Fleming had a lifelong fascination with flowers. His first and only poetry collection, privately printed in 1928, was titled The Black Daffodil. Unfortunately no copies exist because Fleming rounded up every copy and burned them. Flowers also adorn a number of Fleming’s collaborations with dust jacket artist Richard Chopping.
Ian Fleming passed away before his name was publicly linked to the UN production. In October 1964, while filming Moll Flanders at Shepperton Studios, director Terence Young promoted the upcoming anti-drug drama, and discussed his ambition to move the production from TV to film. He planned to have a censored version for television, and a more adult version for the cinema.
“Of course there’ll be sex in it,” said Young. “Even when Fleming wrote a book on motor cars, there was sex in it. A marvelous, charming man, Ian, but a bit of a lunatic. On the day he died he swam in his pool, against doctor’s orders. He swam the full length of the pool, under water.”
Producer Euan Lloyd recalled in a 2005 interview with Cinema Retro magazine that Young’s theatrical ambitions for the production meant lining up more talent, which would in turn bring more financing.
Young wasn’t afraid to aim high, so he went after the biggest box-office star at the time: Sean Connery. In October 1965 Young claimed in an interview with Showtime magazine that Connery would be one of 10 stars headlining the still unnamed production, along with such stars as Claudia Cardinale, Kim Novak, Romy Schneider, Sidney Poitier, Richard Widmark, Richard Johnson, William Holden, Stephen Boyd, and Yul Brynner. Each of the stars would be making only $100 a day, and Young emphasized that Connery would not be playing a secret agent—but Richard Johnson would.
At what point Connery and most of the others dropped out isn’t clear, but of those 10 stars Young mentioned, only Boyd and Brynner actually appear in the film.
Lloyd remembered the difficulty in getting stars to donate their time after the proposed salaries were dropped even further to match what he and Young were accepting as payment: a single dollar for the entire 12 week shooting schedule.
Thankfully United Nations Ambassador Adali Stevenson’s involvement convinced a number of stars to consider offering their services, and once E.G. Marshall and Trevor Howard signed on, others quickly followed.
As Young was spending more time, effort, and focus on his anti-drug film, he abandoned his directorial duties on Eon’s biggest production to date, Thunderball, before filming was complete. He also took Continuity girl Joan Davis along with him. Editor Peter Hunt was left to bring order to the multi-unit chaos.
By December 1965, the film finally had a title; The Poppy is Also A Flower and more stars were touted who would not actually be involved including Frank Sinatra and Alec Guiness. However, other acting heavyweights such as Omar Sharif, Rita Hayworth, Jack Hawkins, and Marcello Mastroianni had signed on and were filming their scenes. Screenwriter Jo Eisinger had been brought in to craft a screenplay from Fleming’s outline.
Eisinger was an interesting choice for the project—Cubby Broccoli had sued him when both men had developed competing Oscar Wilde film projects and released them on the same day in May 1960. The lawsuit went nowhere, but it’s interesting to note that Eisinger’s Wilde production was directed by Gregory Ratoff, the man who bought the film rights to Casino Royale in 1954, while Broccoli’s Wilde production was directed by Ken Hughes, who would go on to direct the Berlin scenes of Casino Royale in 1967.
To help promote the film, Eisinger gave an in depth interview to UPI where he laid out the purpose of the film and his involvement with Fleming’s work:
“This is not a documentary. It’s a dramatic story about the tracking down of the financiers behind a shipment of opium and morphine. All the stars I’ve mentioned and many more are working simply for expenses because they agree with the U.N. that this is an evil we must stamp out.
Since Fleming’s story dealt with the diversion of opium grown in the Middle East from medical to illicit channels it was suggested I make a tour of the areas involved.
So, for the sake of the story, I set out along the route a narcotics agent would travel. The first stop was the U.N. narcotics headquarters in the Palais des Nations in Geneva. They showed me how they can pinpoint the country and even the exact area in which a seized shipment of opium was grown. This enables agents on the spot to bottle up the leak.”
Eisinger’s research tour continued into a surprisingly cooperative Iran (thanks to the Shah), where he had a strange experience:
“I began to wonder whether I was James Bond and Fleming had written the script for what was happening to me. I went out on the desert close to the eastern borders of Iran where the camel patrols operate. Now this is a little known fact but they lose 15 to 20 men every month in border skirmishes with smugglers, usually nomadic tribes. The tribes come in waves carrying opium.”
Once his fact-finding tour was over, Eisigner returned to London where he told the interviewer he was done playing spy: “I must say the whole thing had quite an effect on me. I found myself drinking vodka martinis, shaken instead of stirred, the way Bond ordered them. I hate vodka. And I hate martinis. Now that I’ve finished standing in for Fleming I’m going back to Bloody Marys.”
A few days after Christmas 1965, Yul Brynner, who played an Iranian army colonel in the film, recalled how pleasantly surprised he was that the Iranian deserts resembled ones were he had filmed westerns in Utah and California. He was also impressed with Iranian cooperation—the army provided 800 troops for him to command in his scenes, along with mobile field hospitals and 2 airplanes to fly film rushes out and food in to the desert for the cast and crew.
Originally it was planned that the Shah of Iran would introduce the telefilm, but that idea was dropped when Princess Grace of Monaco was coaxed out of retirement to film a brief introduction.
The Poppy is Also A Flower debuted on US television on April 22, 1966, and in the pre-airing publicity, Terence Young touted that the film was equal to his Bond work: “I believe The Poppy is Also A Flower will compare in thrills and excitement to any James Bond film, but will be even more exciting because it is based on fact.”
The plot involved narcotics bureau agents, played by Trevor Howard and E.G. Marshall, who investigate the death of a colleague in Iran. Enlisting the help of an Iranian army colonel (Yul Brynner) they decide to track an opium crop by irradiating it. Using Geiger counters, they trace the crop’s progress from Iran to Italy and it’s final destination in France. Female leads included Angie Dickinson as a mysterious widow, and Rita Hayworth as an unfortunate addict. Villains were played by Gilbert Roland, Harold Sakata, and Eli Wallach.
Most reviews praised the ideals and goals of Poppy but panned the execution. The New York Times protested that the dialog was more appropriate for the “Batman” TV series. The parade of 22 guest stars overloaded the production, and while some of the locations were spectacular, the limited budget showed. One major highlight was the train fight in the animal compartment between E.G. Marshall and Harold Sakata which producer Lloyd acknowledged was a homage to the one in From Russia With Love.
Soon after the television debut, Poppy was released theatrically in Europe, debuting out of competition at the Venice Film Festival. It contained approximately 10 minutes of extra footage, but left out Princess Grace’s television introduction.
By late 1966 and through mid-1967, Poppy was released theatrically in the United States, and the marketing heavily touted the Bond connections. “Excitement from the James Bond director… Terence Young—Suspense from the creator of 007… Ian Fleming.” Sakata was also heavily featured on the posters and ads, though for some reason a few ads referred to him as “Iron Hat” or “Iron Derby” instead of Odd Job.
Reviews for the theatrical version were even less kind, with Time magazine stating “The Poppy Is Also a Flower is another James Bond movie made without James Bond, and many will wish it had been filmed without film.”
In March 1967 the film was finally released in England and Australia with the more Flemingesque title Danger Grows Wild. The marketing material once again focused on the James Bond elements—Ian Fleming, Terence Young, and Harold Sakata were all given prominence.
In June 1967 Poppy garnered some positive press—Eli Wallach won an ‘Actor in a Supporting Role’ Emmy for his performance in the TV broadcast of Poppy the year before. Wallach recalled in his autobiography that he stumbled upon the production while it was filming in the south of France. Terence Young begged the actor for a cameo, paid him with 6 dress shirts, and had him back on a plane to Paris after shooting his scenes.
Ian Fleming’s creative output was in high demand in 1967, with 3 Fleming films in theatres (Casino Royale, You Only Live Twice, The Poppy is Also a Flower), and 2 Fleming characters in their own TV shows, Napoleon Solo in “The Man From UNCLE”, and April Dancer in “The Girl from UNCLE”.
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Although Terence Young would never make another Bond film, some of the Poppy crew would be involved in future 007 film efforts. Peter Hunt hired Continuity girl Joan Davis for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969. Poppy editor Henry Richardson would go on to edit Octopussy in 1983 and assist in the editing of A View to a Kill in 1985.
As years passed, Poppy fell into obscurity. Facts became muddled and misinformation started appearing. Some references bizarrely claimed that Jo Eisinger (a New York journalist who moved to England) was Terence Young’s wife. John Pearson’s biography of Ian Fleming did not mention Poppy at all, and Andrew Lycett’s Fleming biography devotes a single paragraph to the production, but misspells Eisinger’s name and falsely states that Terence Stamp is the star of the film (Stamp did not even make a cameo, much less star).
When Poppy finally made it to video in the 1980s, it was released under a number of titles besides its original name including The Opium Connection and various translations of the title for French, German, and Spanish speaking markets.
The Poppy is also a Flower sadly did not have a discernable impact on the drug problem it was created to fight. Today the United Nations estimates that over 15 million people abuse opiate drugs created from poppies. Sounds like a problem for James Bond…