It was the one that got away. Heart of Darkness was meant to have been Orson Welles’s first film: a monumentally ambitious, technically innovative adaptation with which he hoped to shake up the industry.
Hollywood took one look at it – and baulked. Written in the late Thirties, Welles’s 174-page reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella was considered too expensive, too challenging, and the theme of lust for power made the moguls uneasy. So he abandoned the project and embarked on Plan B, a little film called Citizen Kane.
Rejected by RKO’s sceptical president, George Schaefer, and bound up in rights issues with the Welles estate since his death, the Heart of Darkness script has never once been performed – until now.
On Saturday afternoon (31 March), a one-off production is being staged by the Turner Prize nominated artist Fiona Banner and live-streamed around the world from the most apt setting imaginable: a riverboat installation modelled on the Roi des Belges, the vessel Conrad captained on his journey up the Congo in 1890. Scottish actor Brian Cox will play – as Welles intended – both Marlow, the narrator-protagonist, and Captain Kurtz, the despotic ivory trader he seeks.
Over the entire event hang titanic spectres of hubris and defeat – both Welles’s own and those described in the story. This is what fascinated Banner. “It seemed to embody so much failure to me,” she says. “Or so much disappointment – the disappointment at the heart of Conrad’s story, the hopes and aspirations of all of us, and how they co-exist with impossibility. I think disappointment’s underrated, and such a rich part of life.
“Also the myth of the hero is so powerful in that tale. If you superimpose the heroic figure of Welles, he and Kurtz, and, in a way, all of the great Conrad characters sort of mingle together into one.”
Banner’s three-way obsession with Welles, Conrad and Heart of Darkness
came out of an earlier project, The Nam
, in which she confronted Hollywood’s mythologising of the Vietnam War. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now
, the most famous Heart of Darkness
adaptation, is a movie with its own parallel set of myths, a grandiose near-failure. Time and again, it seems, the strange power of Conrad’s text – “the dark cloud of genius”, as Banner puts it – has tempted film-makers up river and run them aground.
“The reasons Welles didn’t get [the film made] are interesting,” adds Banner. “When he 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.”
The political subtext of Welles’s script can’t have been the only thing that made Schaefer and his underlings quiver with uncertainty. The screenplay begins with an on-camera “screen test” in which he asks the audience to assume the role of a caged canary. There’s another prologue, utterly unrelated to Conrad, that places the viewer in an electric chair. All this is by way of establishing a radically new grammar of film-making, in which the camera’s eye is the same as our own. Welles visualises Marlow’s voyage as an implicating, first-person journey of discovery.
“I’ve never seen a script that dedicates so much space to camera,” says Banner. “You feel that if this film had been made, Hollywood might have been a different place.”
There’s no doubt that Welles’s innovations were ahead of their time: eight years after he had the idea, the you-are-the-camera gimmick was used in a Hollywood production – Robert Montgomery’s noir adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake
(1947). The sense that Welles was pushing at the boundaries of what was possible within the studio system, but still failing to get most of his ideas off the ground, is precisely what makes his career such an endless source of fascination.
“He didn’t fulfil his potential – he ended up making frozen peas adverts and stuff,” Banner says. “But all through his life he’d go off and make these extraordinary things. He’d fund them himself, and some of them were never shown.”
The variety of techniques flaunted in the script pose mind-spinning challenges for Banner and her cameraman, Hugo Glendinning, whose images will be beamed down live across the internet. She’s guarding the exact details of how the production will work, practically speaking, but the aims are clear. “It will appear as if Cox is talking to himself, so this idea of duality, of one man’s vision challenging his intellectual condition, will be evident in the performance.
“Plus, Cox has the aura of a lead guy, but he doesn’t do many leads. So I like the idea of his being a kind of triple lead here – he’s channelling Welles, he’s channelling the allure of Kurtz and the almost moderate Marlow.”
It could make for a backward-looking exercise, an archaeological game with old-hat material, were it not for the curious relevance of Conrad’s work – and Welles’s – to what Banner calls “systems of control” that have lingered in their wake. “It does feel like a relevant text for today,” says Banner. “It’s about greed and lust for power. If you want to look globally, the tragedy is that the situation in the Congo is really no better now than it was then.” Heart of Darkness will be streamed live from 5.30pm tomorrow online at aroomforlondon.co.uk and in the Purcell Room, London SE1