Orson Welles’ ambitious movie version of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness could have been the greatest American film never made
Orson Welles’ artistic ambitions were as large as his appetites for wine, women and food. Though he left behind some monumental work as a director, screenwriter and actor—CitizenKane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Third Man—his career is equally notable for missteps and outright failures. One of his most disappointing failures was Heart of Darkness, a film project based on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella that was slated to be his Hollywood debut in 1940.
Before Francis Ford Coppola made Apocalypse Now—its plot built around Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, though set in the Vietnam War—Welles had his own plans for filming an epic journey up a river, one that ends in madness, mayhem and mass murder. Welles’ project got much further along than simply an idea being kicked around the front offices of Hollywood studios.
This story began in the spring of 1939. Storm clouds were forming in Europe but America was living inside its isolationist bubble, exhausted by the Great Depression and distracted by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals and Busby Berkeley swim-a-ramas. Orson Welles, a young theater director and actor, was drawing raves for his innovative productions of Shakespeare on New York stages and his live radio dramas with his Mercury Theatre Company. The year before, he had shaken the nation with a radio program based on H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds that was convincing enough to drive Americans into a panic over an imminent Martian invasion. On the strength of that and several other radio-plays, Welles was chosen as “Outstanding New Radio Star of the Year” by Scripps-Howard.
History now knows, and appreciates, the genius of Orson Welles. But, in 1939, he had never made a film. Despite that, he had been extended a lucrative contract by RKO Studio to infuse new life into the Hollywood studio. He had several strikes against him in the eyes of Hollywood. For starters, he was too young to be so accomplished (all of 24). He was the smartest person in any room into which he walked, and his outsized personality and oversized ego could not disguise this obvious fact. Secondly, he came straight from a medium that people in Hollywood held in barely concealed contempt (radio). And their contempt for radio was surpassed only by the contempt they held toward Welles’ most notable skeleton: serious live theater. (The contempt by serious theater people for Hollywood was, of course, mutual).
Last but not least, Welles came to Hollywood from back East—the reverse of New York City’s elitist snob syndrome. Therefore, the hardest part of this pending project for Welles was that he had to tread a fine line between high-minded artist and a maker of commercial “product”. After all, no one in Hollywood has ever made a movie, no matter how great or “classic,” with the intention of losing money. Live theater is a gamble, too, but the stakes are not as high.
He was the smartest person in any room into which he walked, and his outsized personality and oversized ego could not disguise this obvious fact.
Welles was intimately familiar with his material, however. Not long after his War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, he had presented a live radio production of Heart of Darkness. In it, he was both the narrator and Kurtz, the mysterious figure at the heart of Conrad’s darkness. The low-fi sound effects included foghorns, tom tom drums, water splashes and eerie incantations, especially as they journey deeper into the “dark continent”.
This is a recording of Welles’ presentation of Heart of Darkness. Static drowns out some of the narration and, given that it’s only 20 minutes long (included with another short radio play), whole chunks of Conrad’s novella are simply excised from the plot.
Even with all these odds stacked against him, Welles’ Heart of Darkness came damn close to being one of the great American films. How close? RKO Pictures had approved the project. RKO was one of the so-called “big five” of Hollywood’s studios, having made bank in the previous decade from its popular Astaire-Rogers extravaganzas. Welles had, in other words, cleared the biggest hurdle facing any Hollywood filmmaker—money.
Indeed, by late summer 1939, Welles had chosen the entire cast for Heart of Darkness and he had begun rehearsals in October. All but one of the roles would be played by his friends and comrades from the Mercury Company in New York—the people who’d stood with him during his rise in the theater and radio worlds. All of these actors were given contracts and put on the RKO payroll. He had also called for 3,000 African American “extras” (though only 1,000 black extras lived in the LA area). After much negotiations, he settled on “only” 800 black extras, each to be paid $8.25 per day of filming. Welles himself would play two roles—Kurtz (of course!) and Marlow.
The only role he still needed to cast was Kurtz’s fiancée, Elsa. Elsa was barely mentioned in Conrad’s novella, the person to whom Marlow makes his final report at the end. But, for Hollywood, the love interest was essential to any film, so Elsa’s role was expanded to co-star status and she was placed on the boat going up the river with Marlow. It is she who finds the demented, ailing Kurtz, and by then he is shacked up with a native woman (“a real black type,” Welles noted in his script). Welles wanted Ingrid Bergman to play Elsa but her asking price was too high. He approached Carole Lombard but she said no. He finally settled on Dita Parlo, who he’d been impressed with in Jean Renoir’s Le Grand Illusion and two other French films.
How much closer to finishing? Welles had completed a rough draft of a script that ran to 800 double-spaced pages (his revised script, completed in late November, ran to 184 pages). Bernard Hermann expressed interest in creating the musical score for this brash young director’s film—Hermann would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most celebrated film composers, working on projects as diverse as Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver, and most of Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers.
Welles had also hired an artist to create a book of rough sketches—like miniature storyboards. He’d scouted locations in Louisiana and South America for the proper swampy look, though the studio shot down that idea. Since he was denied the chance to film in a real jungle, Welles demanded that miniatures of the jungle be created and filmed. And some sets were even constructed—they can be seen in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, about Francis Ford Coppola’s disaster-prone shooting of Apocalypse Now (which uses Orson Welles’ original radio play narration as an ongoing voiceover).
The trailer for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
In his script, Welles wanted things to get increasingly uncivilized the further up the river the boat traveled. By journey’s end, hysteria was to reign, along with a huge fire at Kurtz’s compound, a violent storm and hundreds of natives stampeding in terror. In short, Welles was behaving in real life like the fictional Kurtz. He was obsessed with this project and was creating his own psychological compound in the heart of Hollywood’s darkness.
The ultimate thematic twist—another liberty taken with Conrad—was to have Kurtz embody the fascist ascendancy in Europe. Indeed, Welles made this explicit in his script, all but naming Adolf Hitler when he has Kurtz tell Marlow, “Everything I’ve done up here has been done according to the method of my government. Everything. There’s a man now in Europe trying to do what I’ve done in the jungle. He will fail. In his madness he thinks he can’t fail…but he will.”
Welles also had his eye on technical innovations. He harbored elaborate ideas about breaking conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. These began with his planned opening for Heart of Darkness. The film would open with a totally black screen, with his War of the Worlds-like voiceover: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Orson Welles…Don’t worry, there’s just nothing to look at for a while. You can close your eyes if you want to, but—please open them when I tell you to.”
By doing this, he was subtly unveiling his “secret” weapon—the Subjective Camera. [or, “The camera is an I (eye)”]. After that attention-grabbing opening, he would directly face the camera, filling the screen with that princely mug before a gun would appear on screen aimed at the audience seated in the darkened movie theater. The gun would be fired and the screen would fade to black again, followed by footage of a prisoner being led to an electric chair. A blur, fade to black again, suggesting the pull of the switch to send the juice through the prisoner’s body.
Then that now familiar Welles voice would take over: “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no cause for alarm…This is only a motion picture.” It was War of the Worlds all over again!
Further along, Welles would explain to the audience, “You’re not going to see this picture—this picture is going to see you.” An image of human eyeball would then fill the screen, cut to clouds moving slowly across the sky, then to a person hitting a golf ball. The section would close with Welles saying, “I hope you get the idea.”
Then, and only then, would Heart of Darkness begin.
Welles’ biographer Simon Callow wrote, “Welles was simultaneously trying to reinvent the camera, do justice to a great story, make a film that was highly entertaining and politically provocative, and provide himself with several interesting roles. So much artistic ambition is astonishing. Certainly no one else in Hollywood was capable of a tenth as much.”
All this from a 24-year-old who had never operated a movie camera or been on a film set.
Further along, Welles would explain to the audience, “You’re not going to see this picture—this picture is going to see you.”
The only two things that stood between Welles and Heart of Darkness were money and world events. And, in the end, both of these reality checks overtook his art. On Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. England and France were suddenly at war with Germany. This meant that distribution to European theaters was drastically cut, and RKO would not recoup its investment without the more sophisticated European moviegoers. But this may have been a convenient excuse to simply kill the project over fears about Welles’ overtly political message. America was officially “neutral” in the European war (though FDR was funneling funds and equipment to Britain through the Lend-Lease Act).
Even after RKO cut the budget of the picture in half (from $1 million to $500,000), Welles pressed on, finishing the final draft of the script on Nov. 19, 1939. He also got the approval of Hollywood’s censorship officials in the Hays office, with minor changes (no gun pointed at audience, no miscegenation, no bare breasts). Shooting was to begin March 1940.
To help pay the extra costs for Heart of Darkness, Welles agreed to direct the filming of The Smiler With a Knife, a cloak-and-dagger based on an imagined coup attempt by the British Nazi Party, for no salary, only a percentage of the box office.
Alas, the money spigot went completely dry before any of this could be done. True, that has been the coda on many great films that were never made. But none carried the promise of Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness.
Because of the failure of Heart of Darkness, Citizen Kane became Welles’ debut Hollywood film the following year. It is generally regarded as one of the greatest American films. Still, some of Heart of Darkness splashed over into Citizen Kane. Both films were told through the eyes of narrators trying to solve a mystery—Marlow in Heart of Darkness, who is never actually seen on screen in Welles’ version, and Jerry Thompson, a reporter tracking down clues about Kane.
Both films were about obsessive men of means and business (Kurtz ran a successful ivory station in the jungle; Kane was a media mogul) whose one-syllable names began with “K”. Both of these men had isolated themselves deep in their own fantasy worlds (Kurtz in his jungle compound, Kane at “Xanadu”), with their servants terrified of them and their significant others out of the picture. Both men had stared into the darkest abyss of the human soul. And, of course, both men died with enigmatic utterances on their lips. Kurtz said, “The horror! The horror!” and Kane said “Rosebud.”
Thousands of college dissertations were launched by both of these utterances.