The film adaptation of Roger Zelazny's epic Lord of Light is one of the great sci-fi flicks that never was. The production, featuring designs by comic book legend Jack Kirby, died in development hell, but before it did, it played a pivotal role in a daring CIA rescue mission to smuggle six Americans out of Iran in 1980.
On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian militants and protesters stormed the U.S. embassy, taking most of its occupants—including all three of the CIA's operatives in Iran—hostage. The 52 embassy hostages would remain in captivity for more than a year.
But six Americans managed to escape during the embassy takeover and found themselves in the care of Canadian diplomats. As militants closed in on their whereabouts, the CIA had to find a way to get them out. The assignment fell to Tony Mendez, a former head of the agency's Disguise Section. (Yeah, they have a section just for disguises. How cool is that?) After a few false starts, he found the angle he needed.
Mendez opted to transform himself into a film producer working on a big-budget Hollywood production. He would set up a fake production company, find a fake film, fly into Iran under the guise of location scouting and smuggle the six Americans back out again as members of his production team.
To help make the ruse convincing, Mendez contacted Academy Award-winning special effects artist John Chambers of Planet of the Apes fame. Mendez needed a film with a solid backstory so if anyone decided to check, the cover would be there. Chambers had just the thing.
Months before, he had received a call from a would-be producer named Barry Geller. Geller had purchased the rights to Zelazny's science fiction novel Lord of Light, written his own treatment, raised a few million dollars in starting capital from wealthy investors, and hired Jack Kirby, the famous comic book artist who (among many other things) co-created X-Men, to do concept drawings. Along the way, Geller imagined a Colorado theme park based on Kirby's set designs that would be called Science Fiction Land; it would include a 300-foot-tall Ferris wheel, voice-operated mag-lev cars, a "planetary control room" staffed by robots and a heated dome almost twice as tall as the Empire State Building. Geller had announced his grand plan in November at a press conference attended by Jack Kirby, former football star and prospective cast member Rosey Grier and several people dressed as visitors from the future. Shortly thereafter, Geller's second-in-command was arrested for embezzling production funds, and the Lord of Light film project evaporated.
So the film was dead for all practical purposes, but Chambers still had a Lord of Light script and Kirby's drawings. The film's locations matched well with Iran's environment, and there was even a massive Iranian bazaar that matched a setting in the script. It was perfect.
Mendez changed the script's title to Argo, started a fake production company dubbed "Studio Six" (for the six Americans he was out to rescue), moved into office space at Columbia Pictures and even took out ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter advertising the film. Then, with a portfolio containing Kirby's drawings, he flew to Iran.
Mendez landed in Iran on Jan. 25, 1980. Back home, his team was fielding calls from Hollywood journalists about the film, and a few stories even made their way into newspapers suggesting that the movie was actually being made. The six Americans, disguised as a Hollywood production team, flew out of Iran on Jan. 28, with Canadian documentation provided by the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor.
The incident has since been dubbed the "Canadian caper" because of Taylor's involvement in harboring and then helping to smuggle out the hostages. But it could just as easily be the "Kirby caper," because without that convincing sci-fi movie ruse, it might never have happened.
Check out the clip of Mendez discussing the operation on an episode of Errol Morris' First Person.