How Orson Welles Almost Made His Film Debut With an Innovative ‘Heart of Darkness’ Adaptation

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles, one of the cinema’s foremost artists — and one of its greatest tragedies, personifying as he does the industry’s predilection for chewing up great filmmakers and spitting them out, leaving them to scrounge for scraps. The tale of Welles’ post-Citizen Kane career has been told and told (his masterpiece debut all but blackballed by a bitter William Randolph Hearst and an indifferent industry, its follow-up massacred by a nervous studio, his remaining films scraped together on the cheap and treated poorly by studios, distributors and audiences), and these days, there’s nearly as much ink devoted to the films he didn’t make or complete — due to financial troubles, rights issues, and the like — as those he did. But for this fan, the most fascinating of the Welles movies that never happened would’ve been his first feature: an ambitious film adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, potentially as groundbreaking as Kane, the film he settled on when Darkness fell apart.

Welles was a hot commodity after the famed Halloween 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which his Mercury Theatre on the Air adapted into a series of modern-day news broadcasts, a faux-documentary fake-out style all but unheard of in radio circles (which consequently scared the bejesus out of a good portion of his audience). But he resisted the overtures of the studios, and benefited from playing hard to get: the two-picture deal he made with RKO Pictures granted the 24-year-old wunderkind complete creative control, a privilege granted to few if any filmmakers of the era (and certainly not to a first-timer). The RKO board, not unreasonably, wanted to capitalize on his notoriety by making his first movie a film version of War of the Worlds, but Welles resisted in favor of Heart of Darkness, another classic work of literature he’d previously performed on the air.

According to Simon Callow’s invaluable biography The Road to Xanadu, Welles assured RKO chief George Schaefer that the picture would be “distinctively Wellesian: flamboyant, ambitious, and controversial.” To the later promise, Welles wanted to update the timeframe and make it, as he later explained to Peter Bogdanovich, “a kind of parable of fascism. Remember the time I was working on that, 1939-1940. War hadn’t started, and facism was the big issue of the time. It was a very clear parable.”

Welles immersed himself in the production. To write the screenplay — his first — he pasted sections of the novel into large scrapbooks alongside notes and drawings, which he then adapted into screenplay format with the help of the studio’s continuity department. (“My script was terribly loyal to Conrad,” he told Bogdanovich.) He cast the film from his stage and radio troupes, and planned to play both the roles of Marlow and Kurtz himself (the latter under heavy makeup). He took a crash course in lenses, editing, and other filmmaking grammar, binge-watching films (particularly John Ford’s Stagecoach, which he ran repeatedly and considered a model of filmmaking efficiency). He commissioned research materials, including a study of tribal anthropology that clocked in at 3,000 pages. “I did a very elaborate preproduction for that, such as I’ve never done again — never could,” he said. “We designed every camera setup and everything else.” And much of that advance work was to achieve Welles’ startling notion for how to tell Conrad’s story visually.

Intro to Orson Welles' "Heart of Darkness" screenplay

Heart of Darkness “was going to be a film in the first person: the camera was going to be Marlow, which is ideal for that particular kind of story… It would have worked, I think.” The script began with an elaborate sequence in which Welles, appropriating the style and even some of the same language of his radio introductions (“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Orson Welles”) would introduce and explain the notion of the subjective camera, by which the audience would take on the POV of a canary in a cage, a convict going to the electric chair, and an unfortunate somebody on the business end of a gunshot. “You’re not going to see this picture — this picture is going to see you,” his narration promised, with the flamboyance typical of this quintessential showman.

Alas, such technical wizardry costs money — especially as Welles not only wanted to use the subjective camera technique, but to replicate the fluidity of human vision by using dollies and feather wiping to create a series of long takes that seemed to flow in and out of each other without interruption (paging Birdman). When all the costs were tallied — the camera tricks along with the production design, the costumes, the cast, and thousands of extras — Welles and RKO couldn’t get the budget below $1,057,761, which was more than twice the $500K ceiling afforded by his deal with the studio.

Pages from Orson Welles' 'Heart of Darkness' script

Welles suggested putting the project on hold so he could rework the script, reconfigure the special effects, and try to get it down to a more reasonable number; he even proposed making a thriller called The Smiler With a Knife, which could be done quickly and cheaply, in the interim. But that plan was ultimately dismissed, as RKO wanted Welles’ debut picture to be something big and impressive — something like Heart of Darkness, but, y’know, cheaper. In casting about for a suitable replacement picture while still wrestling with Heart, he started batting around ideas with Herman J. Mankiewicz, the gifted screenwriter who’d been picking up some extra coin banging out radio scripts for Welles. Together, they worked up the idea of, per Callow, “a film about some larger-than-life American figure ” —and with that vague notion of an almost-idea, Citizen Kane was born.

Heart of Darkness went on the RKO shelves, and stayed there. Aside from a streamlined 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, no filmmaker would successfully bring the book to the screen until 1979, when Francis Ford Coppola used Darkness as the loose inspiration for Apocalypse Now, a production even more challenging than Welles’ presumably would’ve been. As for the innovative “first person” technique, actor/director Robert Montgomery used a subjective camera (showing himself in mirror shots) to adapt Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake for the screen in 1947; more recent examples have included Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void and Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac remake (to say nothing of the variation seen in countless “found footage” movies). Leave it to Welles to devise a storytelling tool that would still be seen as innovative and groundbreaking, three-quarters of a century later.