The Inside Story of the Film Orson Welles called “Il Mio Bambino”
By Audrey Stainton
Sight and Sound - Autumn 1988
This loose-page method of his exceeded all limits on David and Goliath. Ignoring the Italian screenplay, he just picked up the Bible, had me type out episodes concerning Saul and turned them into scenes–which he refused to hand over to the crew, either before, during, or after shooting. The assistant director was in despair at being left in the dark and, seeing his point, I finally yielded to his entreaties and took to making extra copies of those Top Secret pages of pure Bible and furtively handing them over, like a Russian spy in Berlin.
One night Welles caught me doing this and was enraged–as well he might be, I admit, for his scenes made mincemeat of the plot. He had killed off a character who was alive in the final scene (which had already been shot) and made another character turn up alive after he was dead. He had turned a deaf ear when I tried to point this out. Nor did he care if an Italian actor had been hired to play Samuel and had already shot some scenes. The part of Samuel was ideal for his friend Hilton Edwards, and by bringing him over and making Mimmo Salvi pay him a salary, he was not only giving Hilton some help with his disastrous financial situation, but also giving himself the combined pleasures of Hilton’s witty, convivial company and dependably fine performance, together with a chance to discuss their plans for a production at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin of what was to become the stage version of his Chimes at Midnight. How many birds can you kill with one stone–and all at Mimmo Salvi’s expense? Later he had an idea: to let Francisco Reiguera earn some money by playing the Witch of Endor, a brainwave that wreaked havoc on Salvi’s budget and shooting schedule and compelled him to build an entirely new set in another studio (the De Paolis), since there was no room for it at the Safa Palatino Studio, where the rest of the film was being shot.
Poor Mimmo Salvi was no match for Welles, who took the attitude that anyone who dares involve a genius in a piece of trash can expect to be punished for his impudence. And punished Mimmo Salvi was, with a vengeance. I don’t think Welles considered David and Goliath a film at all, only a source of finance for Don Quixote, and as such to be pumped dry without a qualm in the name of true creativity.
I never saw David and Goliath after it was finished, but I understand they somehow managed to make sense of it by cutting and changing the dialogue and reducing it all to the lowest common denominator. On this level it was released, in second and third run cinemas, like any other undistinguished Italian epic. No one pounced on it as a curio. No one appeared to be startled by the effect of routine historical stodge amazingly interspersed, whenever Saul appeared on the scene, with snatches of biblical poetry and low angle photography in the inimitable style of Orson Welles.
But some of it must have been striking, because at first, for a while, Welles gave in to his irresistible urge to do all things well and seemed to forget that he was filming anything other than a deep psychological study of the character of Saul. For several nights he was all smiles; he charmed the crew. They kept on saying to me, “But he’s so nice! What’s all this talk of him being a monster?” Indeed, when he wanted to be nice, no one could be nicer. But he soon became bored and his boredom increased his behavior got worse and worse.
He was also making unreasonable demands on his exceptional stamina, shooting Don Quixote out in the country every day from 6 am to 4 pm and then driving straight into Rome to shoot David and Goliath from 5 pm until 2 in the morning. It then took him forty minutes to reach his home. The fact that this crazy schedule left him with only one or two hours sleep did not, on the face of it, seem to bother him much. In the daytime he was never tired, so driven was he by his love for Don Quixote. But those long nights playing Saul were heavy going. To help himself through, he drank a whole bottle of brandy each night, and as the level of the liquor went down, his temper flared up. He would lash out at the slightest provocation, such as when the wardrobe assistant handed him a moonstone ring to wear. “Don’t you know moonstone brings bad luck?” he screamed, hurling the ring to the far end of the stage and terrifying the culprit out of his wits. At other times, he would sink into glowering taciturnity and the venom in his eyes would be more frightening than his screams.
Towards the end, he was loathing every moment of what had become a self-imposed ordeal. At the same time, he was intent on dragging it out. He adopted all kinds of ruses to slow up the shooting, because the more nights it lasted, the more days he could afford to go on shooting Don Quixote, thanks to Mimmo Salvi’s incautious agreement to pay him five million lire per night, without limitation. He would excogitate complicated set-ups that took two hours to prepare, such as a great tower of scaffolding by virtue of which, while David was playing his harp, he and Saul were inexplicably perched high up in the air instead of on the ground. This had everyone baffled, but the whole crew kept a straight face until Paola Welles came breezing in and said, “What are you doing up there?” and just for once Welles looked like a little boy caught stealing the jam.
But if he was momentarily fazed by Paola’s candour, this did not deter him from having the scaffolding shifted to the far end of the floor for the next set-up. This gave him another two hours with Akim Tamiroff, who used to spend his nights out there in his Sancho Panza costume, sitting hunched up on a table with a blanket over his head, waiting for Welles to pop out and shoot a few close-ups whenever he could snatch the time.
...and blest are those whose blood and judgment are so well commingled, that they are not a pipe for fortune's finger to sound what stop she please. Give me that man that is not passion's slave, and I will wear him in my heart's core...