Perhaps the chief reason fans of Orson Welles continue to hope (and why not?) missing footage from The Magnificent Ambersons [M] may yet turn up is the discovery of surviving material from It’s All True, the aborted documentary project begun as a goodwill gesture to South America which, even in Welles’ own eyes, marked the ruining of his reputation as a reliable filmmaker within the studio system.
After Citizen Kane (1941) had been completed, Welles moved on to not one but two productions: Ambersons and Journey Into Fear – writing, producing, and directing the former, and acting and producing the latter simultaneously. Once the last of the two, Ambersons, had been edited into a rough cut, Welles caved to pressure from RKO’s executives and agreed to fly to South America to produce and direct what was eventually planned as a three-part promo film / documentary thing.
Journey director Norman Foster started helming “My Friend Bonito,” based on a story by famous documentarian Robert Flaherty (Man of Aran, Louisiana Story), and Welles decided to shoot two tales: “The Story of Samba,” capturing the roots of Brazil’s native dance, journeying with the voodoo priests from the mountains to the massive street carnival in Rio; and “Four Men on a Raft,” re-enacting the long and dangerous sea trek of four poor fishermen as they sailed from their small seaside village to Brazil’s leader to plead their case for pension benefits so widows and their families didn’t starve in the event of a fisherman’s death.
As Welles’ two segments were being filmed in Technicolor, production stopped after the fishermen’s leader and folk hero Jacare drowned during a freak wave assault. Welles pleaded with RKO to continue funding the $300,000 production, but their compromise of $30,000 to finish the “Raft” segment - enough to cover black & white film and a skeleton crew - seemed like a clever executive set-up for instant failure rather than some pitiful act of corporate generosity.
During principle photography, Welles had to rely on cables to supervise the editing of Ambersons after a disastrous preview in California, and a change in executives at the studio yielded a new regime bent on curtailing the career of cinema’s newest wonder boy; with a pittance to finish a segment which studio had no interest in releasing whatsoever, Welles’ hope of coming back to America with a film to prove his worth as a filmmaker was, in fact, futile.
It was a small miracle that he managed to deliver edited footage for the “Raft” segment at all, but by the time he was back at RKO, the new regime had generously bad-mouthed Welles as a wasteful, indulgent prima donna, terminated his contract, and booted his Mercury Theatre company off the lot.
Years afterward, Welles took acting roles to buy back the footage, but he never managed to fulfill the dream of completing the project, and what followed was a lifelong pattern of acting to earn money to fund idiosyncratic, sometimes visionary works with heavy production problems, many of which were never completed.
For decades, historians believed the footage from the Brazil project was lost forever – mythic rumours include RKO dumping the footage into the ocean – so it was a complete shock when a Paramount executive investigating the contents of a vault in 1985 found a set of cans labeled “Bonito” and “Brazil.”
Richard Wilson, who was part of the original production team from the aborted project, eventually managed to sell a docu / restoration project to several production arms, and although he died in 1992, his vision was completed and released in 1993.
“Based on an Unfinished Film”
With reportedly 300 cans of footage lying in the Paramount vault, newbie director Bill Krohn, documentarian Myron Meisel (I’m a Stranger Here Myself [M]), director Richard Wilson (The Big Boodle, Al Capone, Invitation to a Gunfighter), and editor Ed Marx (Jeepers Creepers II, Frozen [M]) had a unique set of problems: how to tackle footage of the aborted “Bonito” and “Samba” segments, and the edited B&W “Raft” sequence which lacked narration, intertitles, and sound.
In the case of “Bonito,” the footage appears to have been already edited into several brief sequences, and what survives is excerpted in Unfinished with music and basic sound effects. Flaherty’s story is essentially a snapshot tale of a Mexican village where baby livestock are blessed en mass by the local church. Central to the story is a Mexican boy (Jesus Vasquez) who brings along his little bull, and it was filmed by longtime Flaherty’s cinematographer on Tabu (1931), Floyd Crosby. Because Welles had to hurry to Brazil and shoot the carnival, the filming of “Bonito” was frozen, and what remains is a sampling of the incomplete segment.
It’s hard to tell whether the Technicolor material from “Samba” and “Raft” were ever edited into a narrative because the doc uses them as lead-ins and bookend material to the presentation of the B&W “Raft” segment, but the filmmakers did interview some of the participants and descendants of the aborted shorts (both fishermen, actors, and musicians) who provide some background on what Welles was trying to accomplish after he had figured out a framework for the film, particularly the conceptual “Samba.”
Intercut are archival interviews of Welles who is quite lucid on his brief tenure at RKO, and once he hits the topic of Ambersons he’s easily filled with sadness. From these clips alone cineastes will have to weigh whether Welles is the oft-cited genius, soon to be perpetually pilloried by Hollywood’s establishment for being too independent, talented, and ahead of his time; or an arrogant profligate who should’ve learned how to work the system for his own benefit instead of going beyond its tolerance levels.
As for the edited B&W segment “Raft,” it’s a unique experiment in which Welles applied not only his own visual style to a docu-drama tale – low angles, massive two- and three-face close-ups, brilliant establishing shots with huge cloudy skies reminiscent of the ceilings of interior sets in Kane and Ambersons – but it also seems to show influences from Flaherty, particularly Man of Aran.
It’s not coincidental that “Raft” also focuses on the hard lives of fishermen struggling against the elements to survive. In Welles’ variation, he applies the local colour – the sewing of nets, building of boats, fishing montages – at the beginning to show daily routines, and he mirrors Flaherty’s focus on the physical struggle of men when they’re on the sea or maneuvering around the rocky coastal outcroppings.
The second half of “Raft” shows the men venturing out to sea where they follow the coastline, heading to Brazil’s capital, but stopping off in towns to gather local and spiritual support before their meeting with the country’s leader. These scenes are as remarkable as the fishing montages because they were filmed in striking towns and villages with partially ruined churches, cathedrals perched at the top of a sloping town, and the rich textures of the roughly-hewn bricks and shingles which make up the tightly compacted alleys.
The short ends when the four men are greeted in the harbor by boats and cheering locals, and a plane that performs fly-bys prior the raft being winched up onto a doc. The last material is two text captions by Welles meant to close the short – the only instance the director’s thoughts appear onscreen.
Although limited by less film stock and a new cinematographer (Hungarian-born George Fanto, who would also film Welles’ The Miracle of St. Anne and Othello), the two men filmed a visually rich short that’s arguably on par with Flaherty’s own work; although based on a Time magazine article, it’s perhaps looser in story and structure, but like Flaherty’s Moana (1926), Welles spent time with the locals, absorbing aspects of their culture before crafting his narrative.
The finale of “Raft”, however, is only coherent if one knows the backstory; without the explanation in the doc’s first third, the fishermen’s trek to Brazil’s capital can only be explained via some narration or intertitles – of which, in the current edit, there are none. The pacing also seems to slow down around the midpoint, as the short’s dramatic beats feel off-centre without any verbal signposts to indicate the reason the men leave their village.
Additionally, the largely orchestral score by Jorge Arriagada (Mysteries of Lisbon [M]) provides momentum, but it’s perhaps too clean and contemporary; there’s never any doubt the themes and orchestrations are being filtered through 1993 sensibilities.
Unfinished closes with a quick wrap-up that includes additional Technicolor carnival footage featuring locals in their brilliantly coloured costumed during the day, and a final (and rather vague) audio quote by Welles before the end credits.
It’s a miracle that any footage managed to survive, and co-producer / co-writer Wilson deserves immense credit for persevering and wandering through complex rights issues to get at least one of the shorts restored to a viewable state. Unfinished, however, was released on VHS in 1998 and on DVD in a bare bones edition way back in 2004, and what’s necessary at this stage is an HD remaster which features not only Williams’ doc, but special features that include new interviews, related ephemera chronicling the doc’s making, and more importantly, a gallery of rare footage. The carnival material – both day and nighttime footage – looks sumptuous, and the “Bonito” segment ought to be archived with any surviving intertitles or scene sketches to reconstruct the short’s original storyline.
One would’ve hoped Unfinished ignited a new attention towards Welles’ canon and in particular the numerous incomplete films that remain unseen, but with family members and other parties still fighting over rights and (likely) remuneration, there’s a vast trove of work that has yet to enjoy any substantive reconstruction or preservation. Former Welles associates will continue to expire, footage will age and potentially disintegrate, and the fan base will likely dwindle, making it harder for the dedicated historians and associates to plead their case to financiers in order to bring his unseen works (namely The Other Side of the Wind, The Deep, and Don Quixote) into commercial distribution. Nearly 30 years after his death in 1984, Welles’ affairs remain a grotesque mess.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan