Orson Welles Turns Heart of Darkness Into a Radio Drama, and Almost His First Great Film

There’s some­thing about cin­e­mat­ic mas­ter­pieces that were nev­er made that tan­ta­lize the imag­i­na­tion of film geeks every­where. What would the world look like if Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky actu­al­ly man­aged to make his ver­sion of Dune, com­plete with Pink Floyd score and Moe­bius designed sets? How would have Stan­ley Kubrick’s career evolved if he got Napoleon to the screen? And would a col­lab­o­ra­tion between David Lynch and Den­nis Pot­ter, which almost hap­pened with The White Hotel, be as com­plete­ly amaz­ing as I imag­ine?

Of all these ill-fat­ed projects, the one that per­haps casts the biggest shad­ow over cin­e­ma is Orson Welles’s attempt to adapt Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Dark­ness. (Find Con­rad’s orig­i­nal text in our col­lec­tion of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks.) In 1939, Welles went to Hol­ly­wood, look­ing to con­quer film in the same way that he con­quered radio and the stage. By that time, he was already famous for his trail­blaz­ing Broad­way pro­duc­tion of Julius Cae­sar, his pop­u­lar Mer­cury The­ater radio pro­gram and for scar­ing the liv­ing crap out of the nation with his noto­ri­ous ver­sion of The War of the Worlds. So he pre­sent­ed RKO stu­dio with an auda­cious, grandiose 174-page script for Heart of Dark­ness but, after a cou­ple months of wran­gling, it proved to be just too auda­cious and grandiose for the execs. So then Welles pitched them Cit­i­zen Kane. That’s right, the film that would go down as the great­est film of all time was a plan B.

If you look at Welles’s script for Dark­ness, you can see why Hol­ly­wood might have thought twice about the project. Welles, who at that point hadn’t actu­al­ly made a movie, was propos­ing to rad­i­cal­ly shake up the gram­mar of Hol­ly­wood sto­ry­telling. For instance, the movie was to be shot in the first per­son, where what the book’s protagonist/narrator Mar­low sees is what the audi­ence sees. Robert Mont­gomery tried the same gim­mick a few years lat­er in the adap­ta­tion of Ray­mond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake with mixed results.

Hol­ly­wood’s peren­ni­al ner­vous­ness about movies with overt polit­i­cal over­tones is anoth­er rea­son why the movie got scotched. As with his mod­ern rework­ing of Julius Cae­sar (find it here), Welles took a strong stance against the rise of fas­cism in Europe. “You feel that if this film had been made, Hol­ly­wood might have been a dif­fer­ent place,” said artist Fiona Ban­ner in an inter­view with The Dai­ly Tele­graph. In 2012, she staged the first ever pub­lic read­ing of the script star­ring actor Bri­an Cox. “When [Welles] start­ed writ­ing it, fas­cism wasn’t such a big sto­ry in Hol­ly­wood, but by the time he fin­ished it, in 1939, it must have been some­thing of a hot pota­to. That was prob­a­bly the main rea­son it didn’t get made. The more I’ve looked into it, the more I’ve realised how close he is to the stuff in Europe, and not just in the obvi­ous ways of giv­ing all these com­pa­ny men that Mar­low meets Ger­man names. It’s cen­tral to the tale.”

Conrad’s sto­ry clear­ly fas­ci­nat­ed Welles. As you can see above, he adapt­ed the novel­la for his radio show in 1938. His pro­duc­ing part­ner, and leg­endary actor in his own right, John House­man spec­u­lat­ed why the direc­tor was so tak­en with Dark­ness.

We had done this Con­rad sto­ry with only mod­er­ate suc­cess on the Mer­cury The­atre of the Air, and while it was a won­der­ful title, I nev­er quite under­stood why Orson had cho­sen such a dif­fuse and dif­fi­cult sub­ject for his first film. I think, in part, he was attract­ed by the sense of cor­rod­ing evil, the slow, per­va­sive dete­ri­o­ra­tion through which the dark con­ti­nent destroys its con­queror and exploiter—Western Man in the per­son of Kurtz. But, main­ly, as we dis­cussed it, I found that he was excit­ed by the device—not an entire­ly orig­i­nal one—of the Cam­era Eye. Like many of Orson­’s cre­ative notions, it revolved around him­self in the dou­ble role of direc­tor and actor. As Mar­low, Con­rad’s nar­ra­tor and moral rep­re­sen­ta­tive, invis­i­ble but ever-present, Orson would have a chance to con­vey the mys­te­ri­ous cur­rents that run under the sur­face of the nar­ra­tive; as Kurtz, he would be play­ing the char­ac­ter about whom, as nar­ra­tor, he was weav­ing this web of con­jec­ture and mys­tery.

Years lat­er, Welles summed up why Heart of Dark­ness nev­er got made in an inter­view with Bar­bara Leam­ing. “I want­ed my kind of con­trol. They did­n’t under­stand that. There was no quar­relling. It was just two dif­fer­ent points of view, absolute­ly oppo­site each oth­er. Mine was tak­en to be igno­rance, and I read their posi­tion as estab­lished dumb­head­ed­ness.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Lis­ten to Eight Inter­views of Orson Welles by Film­mak­er Peter Bog­danovich (1969–1972)

Watch Orson Welles’ The Stranger Free Online, Where 1940s Film Noir Meets Real Hor­rors of WWII

The Hearts of Age: Orson Welles’ Sur­re­al­ist First Film (1934)

Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrowAnd check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing one new draw­ing of a vice pres­i­dent with an octo­pus on his head dai­ly. 

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