When it comes to doomed and unmade Hollywood films, listicles and documentaries abound. There’s Alexandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune," Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” (now successfully filmed after 16 years!) and Tim Burton’s “Superman Lives.” Rarely mentioned is the single most extreme example of a Hollywood film doomed to never see the light of day: The White Rajah. First written in the 1930s during the infancy of talkies and Technicolor, it was destined to be one of the few big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas of its time. Instead, you’ve probably never heard of it. By the time that Warner Brothers gave up on making the film, they had already spent thirty years and a ridiculous amount of money trying to make it happen, all without seeing a single day of filming. Moreover, there are people who are still trying to produce it, eighty years later.
Upon returning to England, he was accused of unreasonable cruelty to the native population, but the charges were dismissed—and if 19th century Great Britain was concerned about cruelty to conquered people, then it had to be pretty bad. Brooke appointed his nephew as successor; rumor has it that he was unable to have children because of a shotgun injury to the genitals which he sustained in his early military career.
Warner Brothers enthusiastically bought the rights to the film, and it should have been a relatively simple endeavor from there. It probably would have been if not for the participation of Lady Sylvia Brooke, the Ranee (queen) of Sarawak. The Ranee corresponded regularly with the executives of Warner Brothers over the following five years, insisting that she should be made technical advisor on the film. On the various occasions that she felt slighted or ignored, she not-so-subtly threatened a slew of lawsuits for defamation and libel from various members of the family. Fearing catastrophic legal retribution, Warner Brothers acquiesced to her request and then attempted to buy the rights to every biography of the White Rajah—including one that was written by the Ranee herself. The Ranee demanded final say on the script to ensure “historical accuracy.” Warner Brothers weighed the risks and found themselves in a stalemate.
Lady Sylvia Brooke, Ranee of Sarawak
By 1941, Warner Brothers already began to realize that The White Rajah was more trouble than it was worth, and (almost) agreed to sell the rights to another company. That was until history intervened.
All films are reflective of the times that they were made. There are extreme examples, like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), which one might succinctly sum up as a superhero movie about the KKK. The White Rajah was not only reflective of history, but unwittingly in the middle of it.
Sarawak had the misfortune of being located squarely in the hot zone of the Pacific War during World War II. In 1941, Japan invaded Sarawak and slaughtered the majority of its inhabitants. This slight hiccup made Borneo a tough place to shoot a movie. Rajah Brooke retreated to Australia. After the war was over, the 72-year old Rajah voluntarily ceded the territory to the British Government. The Ranee Sylvia Brooke, on the other hand, refused to accept that she was no longer royalty.
In 1958, Milton Sperling of United States Pictures decided to resume production of The White Rajah as a Warner Brothers release. Several increasingly terrible versions of screenplays and treatments were written by various writers in an attempt to revamp the movie. Regardless, Jack L. Warner announced that The White Rajah was set to be released during the 1959-1960 program. In the middle of this overly optimistic and prolonged ordeal, the Ranee Sylvia caught wind of their intentions and promptly sent a passive aggressive letter to the producers to remind them that she still had her contract, and returned to her old strategy of subtly threatening legal action. Warner Brothers was still actively trying to make The White Rajah until at least 1963, according to an internal memo.
Warner Brothers finally gave up on The White Rajah when they sold the rights to United States productions in 1968. By the late ’60’s, films that glorified British colonial rule and subjugation of indigenous populations were considerably less fashionable than they had been in the 1930’s. Needless to say, United States Productions had no more success than Warner Brothers. As of May 2017, the film is in preproduction again, drawing on the old adage: Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. But who knows—it might happen this time.
Acknowledgments: I have my friend and occasional employer Barry Zellen to thank for sending me on an assignment to the Warner Brothers archive for his forthcoming work on the real White Rajahs, and particularly the Lady Sylvia. This was originally published on January 2016 on HistoryBuff.com, which has since sadly shut down.