Agamemnon Films, founded by Fraser and Charlton Heston, will explore the mysterious 1960s death of a member of one of the most powerful families in American history.
Fraser Heston and his Agamemnon Films have developed a feature film about Michael Rockefeller, a member of one of the most powerful families in U.S. history whose disappearance off the coast of New Guinea in 1961 triggered a media firestorm.
Heston, the son of film legend Charlton Heston, has been fascinated with the death of Rockefeller – perhaps by drowning or maybe something far more sinister and primitive – for several years and, in fact, has already produced a documentary on the subject. Rockefeller, the son of Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York at the time who later became U.S vice president, was a collector of rare artifacts who was visiting the Asmat tribe in what was then Netherlands New Guinea when his canoe overturned more than five decades ago.
After the accident, two local guides successfully swam more than three miles to shore while 23-year-old Rockefeller and his companion, anthropologist Rene’ Wassing, remained with the capsized boat. Eventually, Rockefeller also attempted the swim but was never seen again, while Wassing was rescued the next day. After what some historians call the most intensive land-air search in the history of the South Pacific, it was presumed that Rockefeller either drowned or was eaten by sharks or saltwater crocodiles.
A banner headline in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 20, 1961 read: “Gov. Rockefeller Son Lost In Guinea Wilds,” with the subhead, “Cannibals Reported Inhabiting Area; Father Flies There.” While he was declared legally dead in 1964, suspicions about his disappearance lived on, fueled in part by journalist Milt Machlin, who set out for New Guinea to solve the mystery in 1969 and, upon his return, wrote the book, The Search for Michael Rockefeller, which contained evidence that the Harvard-educated adventurist completed the treacherous swim only to be eaten by cannibals.
Heston was researching the subject in 2008 when he learned that Machlin, now deceased, had some 15 reels of 16 mm film from his trip to New Guinea that was gathering dust in a vault. Heston’s documentary, also called The Search for Michael Rockefeller, is based on the book and features some of the now-retrieved film that Machlin and his crew shot.
“We came across the shot of a naked white man paddling a canoe full of Asmat warriors in 1969 who looked suspiciously like Michael,” says Heston. “He might have chosen to forsake his life as a scion of one of the world’s wealthiest families to stay with his friends the Asmats. It sounds far-fetched, but that’s the stuff legends and great stories are made of.”
One theory about Rockefeller’s fate is that he survived the swim but was very soon killed and eaten by Asmats, given they were ritualistic headhunters and cannibals living in a culture that required payback when attacked, no matter how long it might take. In Rockefeller’s case, they may have sacrificed him because they needed a white victim to avenge some Asmats who were killed by a Dutch gunboat patrol in 1958. Another theory holds that after swimming ashore Rockefeller lived for several years with the Asmats, but that eventually they still ate him in order to avenge the gunboat episode.
Heston’s feature film will be told from the perspective of Machlin and his search for the truth about Rockefeller’s demise. Plans are for filming to begin in Australia next year with Queensland doubling for New Guinea, which is still too precarious a place for shooting a movie, says Heston, who co-wrote the script with his writing partner, Heather McAdams. Agamemnon has partnered with Ploughed Field Prods. in Australia and that company’s executive producer, Robin James. A production budget is still being worked out. “We want to make something with a little dark humor that has a solution to the mystery,” Heston says. “We’ll take pains to get the architecture of the villages correct, the canoes and especially the artwork, since Michael went there to collect art.”
Agamemnon Films is an independent studio founded in 1981 by Fraser and Charlton Heston. The rights to much of its library, including The Search for Michael Rockefeller, Antony and Cleopatra, Mother Lode, The Proud Men and Charlton Heston Presents the Bible, was acquired this week by Outsider Pictures while Cinedigm holds the subscription VOD rights to the Rockefeller documentary. Email: Paul.Bond@THR.com