Orson Welles first script for HEART OF DARKNESS – Part II
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
--T. S. Eliot
I lost my battle to go to the swamps and do Heart of Darkness in a real place. That was at the height of the period when nobody left the studio. The studio had to have control, as it is called—the famous studio control—well, I was more a victim than an authoritative pro like (Howard) Hawks would have been, because I was the stage actor and director who didn’t know what he was doing. In other words, there was the theory that the cameraman himself and the unit manager on location couldn’t control things as well as in the studio. We had that terrible late 1930’s–1940’s look in which people kept riding by in front of painted backdrops. You know that scene in the westerns with the little gas fire burning away under the twigs when they’ve drawn the covered wagons around (the campfire) and all? I was shown that and told that nobody could tell the difference. I said, ‘I can tell the difference.’ That was regarded as very eccentric. That was a long and bitter fight. It was almost as definitive a reason why we didn’t do Heart of Darkness as the fact that we couldn’t get $50,000 to $75,000 off the budget. I claimed that the extra money came from the fact that we were going to do it in the studio.
Finally, I gave in and said, ‘All right, it’s going to have to be all trick shots.’ I wanted my kind of control. They didn’t understand that. There was no quarreling. 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 dumb-headedness.
—Orson Welles to Barbara Leaming
Reading Orson Welles screenplay for Heart of Darkness, written in 1939, several important scenes stand out today, mostly because it shows us just how far in advance Welles was, not only as an artist, but as a progressive thinker. This is demonstrated by several scenes, including a long voice-over narrative by Marlow right at the beginning of the script, where Marlow wonders about the first explorers who sailed into New York harbor over 400 years ago, noting that what basically happened in the conquest of the new world was genocide for most of the indigenous peoples:
I was thinking of very old times when our fathers first came here, four hundred years ago – the other day… Imagine the feelings of a skipper or a civilized man, four hundred years ago, hove to off the Battery here – at the very end of the world. Imagine the trip up this river. With death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here four hundred years ago. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery – all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. It has a fascination, too. The abomination – you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate. Maybe we wouldn’t feel like that. I don’t know. They were conquerors, of course, the men who first sailed into this harbor – They grabbed what they could get from the weak of what was to be got. It’s not a pretty thing when you look into it too much, the conquest of the earth which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion, or slightly different shaped noses than ourselves. What tries to redeem it is the idea at the back of it; sometimes it’s a sentimental pretense, something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.
*(Curiously, the last lines in this speech, coming after "What tries to redeem it is the idea at the back of it;" do not appear on page 4 of the on-line version of the screenplay. I felt that something was missing when I first read it and apparently something is, as James Naremore points out in his excellent article on Heart of Darkness HERE. Naremore cites the same November 30, 1939 script at the Lilly Library as his source for the extra line, so perhaps the online version is a re-typed copy of the script that may have simply left the line out, or else it came from one of Welles's earlier drafts of the script.)
Welles would have made Marlow's very long opening speech visually interesting by having it run over a series of 10 or more lap dissolves showing Manhattan at twilight, just as all the city lights begin to light up the night sky:
EXT. HARBOR – MARLOW’S BOAT – DUSK – (SET & PROCESS)
Marlow is leaning against the mast of his boat. Behind him can be seen Manhattan Island, its buildings lighting up in the deepening dusk.
Lap dissolves of:
The Bridges of both the Hudson and the East River
Snatches of music in Central Park (Jazz from radios)
The beginnings of night-life in the city
Dinner music in the restaurants of the big hotels
The gala noodling of big orchestras in concert halls and opera houses
The throb of tom-toms foreshadowing the jungle drums of the story to come...
At the end of the script, Welles expertly condenses this important passage from the book into a few concise words. Here is the text from the novel:
MARLOW: Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.
I was within a hair's-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up—he had judged. ‘The horror!' He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate. And it is not my own extremity I remember best—a vision of grayness without form filled with physical pain, and a careless contempt for the evanescence of all things—even of this pain itself. No! It is his extremity that I seem to have lived through.
True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible. Perhaps! I like to think my summing-up would not have been a word of careless contempt. Better his cry—much better. It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last, and even beyond, when a long time after I heard once more, not his own voice, but the echo of his magnificent eloquence thrown to me from a soul as translucently pure as a cliff of crystal.
Here is Welles's version of the above section as he has Marlow speak it in his screenplay:
They buried something in the river... and then they nearly buried me... I nearly died of fever myself... I nearly said my own last words there on the river, and I found that probably I'd have nothing to say! But Kurtz had something to say. He'd summed up -- he'd judged. 'The Horror!' True, he died and I lived. Maybe that's the whole difference; maybe all the wisdom and all truth are just compressed into that moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible. I saw him again. -- Months later, at the foot of the river -- I saw those eyes -- that wide immense stare condemning, loathing the whole universe -- piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness.