Orson Welles unfilmed script for Joseph Conrad’s “HEART OF DARKNESS”
ORSON WELLES: The Heart of Darkness could be described as a deliberate masterpiece or a downright incantation. A fine piece of prose work at the least; its best aspects are an artful compound of sympathy for humankind and a high tragical disgust. Its successful contrivance of mood hides its craft as an octopus hides in its own ink, and almost we are persuaded that there is something, after all -- Something essential waiting for all of us in the dark alleys of the world: Aboriginally loathsome, immeasurable and certainly nameless.
Orson Welles screenplay adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is now available to download at an excellent site for finding screenplays both new and old, MyPDFScripts.com. Many thanks to Sheridan for providing this valuable service for film lovers. Thanks also to Alan Tait for bringing this link to my attention in the first place!
Download the Heart of Darkness script HERE.
Heart of Darkness appears to be the very first screenplay Orson Welles ever wrote, making it especially invaluable for Welles scholars to study. Jonathan Rosebaum first discussed the script nearly 40 years ago in the November, 1972 issue of Film Comment, and his original article is reprinted in his recent book Discovering Orson Welles.
Other than the excerpts included with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article, I have never seen the script, so to finally be able to visualize it in my own mind was a great joy. The two key movies I immediately thought of while reading the script were RKO's production of King Kong, made six years earlier, and John Ford's adaptation of Eugene O' Neill one-act plays, The Long Voyage Home, made a year later and photographed in exactly the style I imagined Welles would have wanted for Heart of Darkness -- and by none other than that great cinematographer, Gregg Toland!
Needless to say, this is a completely fascinating and very unique script, since Welles was planning to shoot the film in about 165 long panning shots, representing the point of view of Conrad's main character, Captain Marlow as he journeys down a long meandering jungle river in central Africa on a battered old steamboat, attempting to find both Mr. Kurtz and some clue to the meaning of existence.
In the 10-page prologue to the script, Welles “instructs and acquaints the audience as amusingly as possible with the special technique” he planned to use in filming the Heart of Darkness. However, it’s quite probable that once Welles began shooting the film he might have realized the limitations he had imposed on himself were far too constricting, and in all likelihood, may have abandoned using Marlow’s POV throughout the entire length of the film. No doubt, he would still have used many long sequence shots, but already in the opening of the movie, and in several dramatic points later in the script, it seems evident that an objective camera would be far preferable to one with a purely subjective point of view.
Initially, Welles asked John Houseman to join him in story conferences to begin adapting the Conrad story, and in his autobiography Run Through, Houseman gives an excellent account of the problems that were inherent in turning Conrad’s poetic prose into visual poetry:
JOHN HOUSEMAN: Most of our time was spent at the studio, where we sat hour after hour in battered leather armchairs running one film after another. Like many young directors of that era it was from John Ford that Orson seemed to learn the most. Between films we wandered around the sound stages and talked about Heart of Darkness, which Orson had just announced—with considerable fanfare and without consulting me—as his first picture.
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.
The attractions were obvious; so were the difficulties. In this double quest—for the body of Kurtz rotting in the Congolese jungle and for the soul of Kurtz as he moved toward his final moral destruction at the heart of darkness—Joseph Conrad had used all sorts of subtle literary devices; the evil that destroyed him was suggested and implied but never shown. In the concrete medium of film no such evasion was possible. Kurtz's life and the actions that led to his downfall must be dramatized and shown on the screen.
Orson was aware of this, but he had not given it much thought. He had ideas about Kurtz as a young man rather like himself, with a fiancée who was rather like Virginia. And Dick Baer was sent down to the County Museum to make a survey of all the primitive races of the world—their customs, peculiarities and habits, with the idea of creating a "composite native." Beyond that, it was left to me to develop Welles's ideas into some kind of first-draft motion-picture script.
I was an editor and an adapter rather than a writer. On our radio show, over the past year, I had taken finished texts of varying qualities, condensed and translated them successfully into another medium: it had been one of my virtues as an adapter that I managed to retain much of the quality and texture of the original works—including Heart of Darkness. But in this new venture I was a failure. Frightened by the necessities of an unfamiliar medium, worried by the ambivalence of my own feelings for Orson and in my anxiety to give him what he wanted, I found myself unable to give him anything at all. And Orson, who was beginning to have his own doubts about the project, had the satisfaction of feeling that he had, once again, been betrayed.
Houseman goes on to chide Welles for not finishing a script that the Mercury actors could see, which is obviously untrue, although it was the long delay in getting a script to the actors that led to the fatal rupture in the Welles/Houseman relationship. In any event, the script Welles eventually did produce ran to a whopping 184-pages and given the complex special effects work it required, involving miniatures, process shots and matte paintings, as well as huge jungle sets that would have to be constructed on a studio backlot, it quickly became apparent that the film would far exceed the initial budget estimates and cost well over $1 million!
For such a dark and difficult story, RKO can hardly be blamed for pulling the plug, but just imagine if after the critical success of Citizen Kane RKO had given Welles the green light to make Heart of Darkness as his second film! With the experience of Kane behind him, Welles would have most likely re-thought his initial script and abandoned the whole concept of shooting it from Marlow’s point of view. And unlike The Magnificent Ambersons, which was set at the turn of the century, Heart of Darkness would clearly resonate with the times if it had been made and released in 1942 when the world was at war.
In any case, this initial script is incredibly detailed in terms of the actual POV camera moves, but strangely enough, that in no way hinders the actual reading of the screenplay. Welles also indicates precisely, down to the exact word, where he wanted overlapping dialogue to occur. Since this is in practically every scene where three or more characters appear, it does hinder reading the script somewhat, since it often breaks the natural flow of dialogue you get when reading a less detailed script. Ironically, when filmed it would produce exactly the opposite effect and greatly enhance the rhythm and flow of the scenes.
One of the major changes Welles made from the book was giving all the supporting characters specific names. In the novel, everyone besides Marlow and Kurtz remained vague or unnamed which clearly would not work very well for a movie. In addition, Welles gives nearly everyone Marlow meets from the Company a German name, making it quite clear that the Company should be equated with the politics of fascist Germany under the Nazi's.
Here is the list of the character names devised by Welles, along with the Mercury actors who would have played them. It also seems quite probable that several of the actors might easily have switched their scheduled parts before shooting began, as Welles was so often prone to do. He himself was planning to play both Marlow and Kurtz, but abandoned the thought of playing Kurtz right before the project was postponed. This musical chairs approach to casting can be demonstrated by comparing the Mercury actors who had roles in both the 1938 radio adaptation of Heart of Darkness and in Welles's planned movie version.
Character: - For the Radio Show - For the Movie
MARLOW: Ray Collins / Orson Welles
CO. MANAGER: George Coulouris / Ray Collins
ASSIST. MANAGER: Edgar Barrier / Everett Sloane
TCHIATOSOV/MEUSS: Frank Readick / Frank Readick
ACCOUNTANT/STRUNZ: Alfred Shirley / Edgar Barrier
KURTZ: Orson Welles / ??
HEART OF DARKNESS
A Mercury Production for RKO-Radio Pictures
Marlow ORSON WELLES
Elsa Gruner DITA PARLO
Blauer RAY COLLINS
Ernst Stitzer EVERETT SLOANE
Chlodowig Strunz EDGAR BARRIER
Butz NORMAN LLOYD
Luitpold de Tirpitz JOHN EMERY
Sebert Meuss FRANK READICK
Eddie Garriton ROBERT COOTE
Carbs de Arriaga GEORGE COULOURIS
Co. Doctor VLADIMIR SOKOLOFF
Schulman ERSKINE SANFORD
Adalbert Melchers GUS SCHILLING
M’Biri, steersman JACK CARTER