Harrow Alley, A Film That Never Was

Harrow Alley (1880, Gustave Dore)

Originally, I was thinking that, since it’s April Fools Day, I would write a 2,000-word review of an “obscure” Italian horror film and then, after I gotten everyone all enthused about tracking down this masterpiece, I would go “April Fools!”

But you know what?

I freaking hate it when people do stuff like that.  Seriously, that’s a really awful way to treat your loyal readers.  If any of the blogs that you follow pull anything like that on you today, I suggest you unfollow them and instead, switch your allegiance over to us.  We love you.

But anyway!  Since I won’t be writing about a fictional film, I thought I might take this opportunity  to tell you about Harrow Alley, a screenplay that has frequently been described as the best script to never be produced.

(Now, I should admit that one of the people who said that was a writer for The Huffington Post and usually, disagreeing with The Huffington Post is point of honor for me.  But, seriously, Harrow Alley sounds so intriguing that I’m willing to make an exception to this rule.)

Harrow Alley was written, in 1970, by a screenwriter named Walter Brown Newman.  It’s a historical film, one that is set in the 17th century.  The Bubonic Plague is ravaging London but the citizens of the Harrow Alley neighborhood are simply trying to survive from day-to-day without sacrificing their humanity.  Harry is a well-meaning alderman who, after every other official flees the city, finds himself as the unofficial leader of Harrow Alley.  He’s an optimist who provides strength to the entire neighborhood but the demands of being positive in the face of death start to wear on him.  His wife is pregnant and, much like Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, he has to wonder whether it’s right to bring a child into this Hellish world.  As the film progresses, he watches as his friends and neighbors die of the plague.  He’s even forced to kill his beloved dog.

Harry befriends Ratsey, a thief who survived the plague when he was a child.  With everyone wrongly convinced that Ratsey is now immune to the plague, the former thief becomes one of the most respected men in the neighborhood.  (Because of his “immunity,” he is also one of the few people who can help dispose of the dead.)  With Harry as his mentor, Ratsey becomes respectable.  Ratsey starts out as a cynical opportunist but, in the middle of the Great Plague of London, he discovers his humanity.  Even when Ratsey learns that no one is immune to the plague, even if they’ve had it before, he does not flee.  He continues to help dispose of the dead.

But even as Ratsey becomes stronger, Harry grows weaker.  When his wife and child die, Harry vanishes.  Ratsey steps into his place.  Ratsey becomes the new leader of Harrow Alley.  And, months later, when Ratsey arrests a beggar who has just killed a man, he is shocked to discover that the beggar is Harry.

And so the film ends.

Sounds like a really happy movie, doesn’t it?

And did I mention that the script is apparently 180 pages, which would translate to three hours of screen time?

It’s easy to see why Harrow Alley has never been produced.  Can you imagine being the advertising genius who has to make a three-hour film about the Bubonic Plague into a box office success?  That said, the film still sounds incredibly intriguing to me.  Maybe it’s because I’m a history nerd, but the story just fascinates me.  From what I’ve heard, this is a script that literally has everything: tragedy, romance, and even a little dark comedy.

Interestingly enough, Harrow Alley apparently came close to being produced in the 80s.  In this projected version, Harry would have been played by George C. Scott while a young Mel Gibson would have played Ratsey.  It sounds like brilliant casting to me.



If they produced the film today, I could just easily imagine Gibson in the role of Harry and maybe Tom Hardy as Ratsey.

(Bring the Mad Maxes together!)



Though Walter Brown Newman died in 1993, his script is still out there.  Maybe, someday, it will be produced.  If it is, I’ll definitely be there to watch it.

All three hours of it.

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