As Tom Berenger lounged on a twelfth-floor hotel patio, smoking a cigarette, he talked about two recent difficult experiences. A resident of South Carolina, he was among those forced to flee from Hurricance Floyd. “I was in that evacuation of three million people, the largest evacuation in the history of the United States. I drove up to the mountains of North Carolina. It would have taken five hours ordinarily, but it took fifteen. On these little back state roads, there was a traffic jam that looked like Los Angeles, all the way from Charleston to the middle of the state.”
But the natural disaster seems positively reasonable compared to the actor’s struggle over the release of his new film, “One Man’s Hero,” an historical epic in which he plays the John Riley, the leader of the St. Patrick Brigade, a group of Irish immigrant deserters from the U.S. army who fought on the Mexican side during the war of 1845-47. The picture was actually shot in the fall of 1997, and even then, as Berenger remarks, “I was kind of tired, because I had kind of worked on producing the thing for three years.” Apart from some difficult Mexican locations, the shoot was marred by the accidental death of a member of the crew, an electrician perched atop a huge crane that collapsed on the penultimate night of filming. It was obvious that Berenger was still shaken by the incident.
But the making of the picture was only the beginning. “This was an Orion film,” Berenger explained, “and actually while we were shooting Orion got bought and merged with MGM. A tragedy–another studio gone, you know. And I don’t know where MGM is–I didn’t know where they were before, when I did two movies with them and they just dumped them. And I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m back with them again.'”
Berenger’s fears proved well-grounded. MGM has kept “One Man’s Hero” on the shelf for nearly two years, and now is giving it only a token release in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. “Our premiere out there [in Los Angeles] is being paid for by the Catholic Church and the Mexican consulate,” Berenger noted. “The Vatican’s seen the film. I don’t know how they heard about it, but they did, and they asked if they could have a copy of it to see. But we couldn’t get the money from MGM to do the premiere–I don’t know if they’ve ever even seen it! You know, a new regime comes in, or somebody else’s logo is on it, and they go, ‘Eh.’ With ‘Someone To Watch Over Me,’ when they fired David Puttnam, they killed that movie. It’s the only business I’ve ever seen do that–kill inventory. If Ford bought Chrysler, would they destroy
all those cars sitting out in the lot, the inventory? No, they’d sell them. You sell them, you don’t send them to the trash heap. That’s the situation we’re in.” Luckily demands by Berenger’s fans–as he described it, “a grass-roots campaign, like a prairie fire, on the Internet”–eventually moved the studio to reconsider and give the picture a limited release, which could be expanded if the numbers warrant.
“One Man’s Hero” certainly has an interesting pedigree. Berenger was actually looking for a script on the San Patricios for some time as a producer, when his agent learned from producer-director Lance Hool’s counterpart that the filmmaker had one on hand. Berenger said: “I got the script from Lance and said, ‘Yeah, this is the one.’ I’d read a couple of others I wasn’t crazy about. Then I found out that the script is thirty-five years old. The writer, Milton Gelman, has just died a couple of months before we got started on it. His family is just totally dumbfounded that it’s been made.
“Lance Hool had gotten the script because he’s half-Mexican and had grown up in Mexico, and as a young mn he got to know John Huston, who loved to shoot down there [in Mexico] and wanted to do this story,” Berenger continued. “I was telling Charlton Heston about it when we worked together, and he said, ‘No kidding, you’re going to do that? Huston wanted me to do that!’ Then Peckinpah was going to do it with Paul Newman, but he died of a heart attack. Lance ended up getting the script from Huston, who said, ‘Here, kid, you take it. I’m not going to be around much longer. You take it; maybe you can do something with it. I wish I could have done it.'”
And so after three and a half decades, the script was filmed, and after two years of sitting on the shelf, the film’s been released. Now audiences will decide whether it was worth the wait.