By P.H.I.Berroll

ORSON WELLES WAS A GREAT STORYTELLER – not only on film, but in life. One of his greatest creations was his public persona: a visionary artist martyred by philistines too crass and ignorant to appreciate his genius. This image took hold in the imagination of critics and the public, and was for the most part unchallenged until his death.

In the three decades since, a more nuanced portrait of Welles has emerged, as a man who for all his incomparable talents could often be his own worst enemy. Yet as we mark the 100th anniversary of his birth on May 6th – the date on which his last film, The Other Side of the Wind, finally arrives in theatres after years of legal battles – a key aspect of his life has been largely ignored.

In addition to his numerous other achievements, Welles was a skilled professional magician. Many people think of Welles the filmmaker in the same way: as a master of screen magic whose amazing innovations revolutionized the language of cinema. This is true, of course. But it is not the whole truth.

For there was much more to Welles’ films than aesthetic wizardry, dazzling though it might be. He did not simply seek to impress his audiences with a bag of cinematic tricks; rather, he sought to find unique, original ways to tell compelling stories on the big screen. And the stories he told in Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Trial, Mr. Arkadin and other films reflected both his own experience and the times in which he lived. For at the height of his fame, Welles was deeply involved in the political issues of the day – so much so that he actually considered leaving the movie business to run for elective office – and the experience deeply influenced his art. Without this part of the story, no account of his life is complete.

Welles’ politicization was a gradual process. As a stage and radio wunderkind in the early 1930’s, he had little interest in anything outside the theatre world (and his own overweening ambition). But his involvement with left-leaning artists like John Houseman and Marc Blitzstein expanded his perspective. So did his work with the Federal Theatre Project, the New Deal program which provided employment for struggling theatre folk. Under its auspices, Welles staged Macbeth with an all-black cast at a Harlem theater and directed Blitzstein’s pro-labor opera The Cradle Will Rock.

These experiences made Welles more aware of the critical issues of his time – racism, economic justice, the rise of fascism in Europe – and his work continued to reflect those concerns. Several months after Cradle, Welles and Houseman formed the legendary Mercury Theatre company; their first production was a modern-dress Julius Caesar presented explicitly as allegory of fascism. Four years later, Welles directed a Broadway adaptation of Richard Wright’s searing antiracist novel Native Son.

But it was not until he had experienced both dizzying success and catastrophic failure as a filmmaker – all within a few years – that Welles moved from political art to politics itself.

Welles was still savoring the artistic triumph of Citizen Kane when he was contacted by Nelson Rockefeller, then a State Department official. America had recently entered World War II, and Rockefeller had been charged with strengthening the ties between the U.S. and South America. The future New York governor asked Welles to undertake a goodwill mission to the continent in which he would give a series of lectures in Brazil while making a film centered on Rio de Janeiro’s famed Carnival. Rockefeller had conceived the project as a way to counter the growing influence of Axis propaganda in South America; for Welles, whose assorted medical issues had kept him out of military service, it was a chance to fight fascism by other means.

But the mission ended in artistic and professional disaster: Welles’ Brazil film, It’s All True, was ultimately shut down in a morass of cost overruns and production issues, while The Magnificent Ambersons, which he had finished shooting prior to his departure, was taken over by his bosses at RKO and drastically re-edited. These twin debacles drove Welles to despair over his future in the film industry. He began to wonder if there might not be a better way to convey his ideas to the public (contrary to another common myth, Welles did not aspire to be an art-house or cult favorite; he craved the acceptance of the mass audience – as long as it was on his terms). At the same time, with the war raging and the outcome still in doubt, he could not help but think that his “entertainment” activities were a frivolous waste of his energy.

So for the next five years, it could truly be said that Welles was an activist first and an artist second. Even as he directed his fourth film, The Stranger, and acted in several others, most of his prodigious energy was given to politics. During the 1944 campaign, he crisscrossed the country to give speeches on behalf of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, then running for a fourth term – becoming a kind of liaison between Hollywood liberals and FDR, whose performance skills Welles greatly admired. Welles’ efforts climaxed in a speech to a rally at a packed Madison Square Garden in September; other speakers included Sinclair Lewis and Helen Keller.

He also became deeply involved in the “free world” or “internationalist” movement, a group of progressive politicians, intellectuals and activists working to ensure that the war’s end would not mean a return to American isolationism, and that the ideals behind the Allied war effort would continue to inform international relations after the final surrender. For Welles, first among those ideals was an end to racism in all its forms.

More than many of his countrymen, Welles saw the hypocrisy of America’s going to war against racist ideologues while ignoring pervasive racial bigotry at home. He wrote a tract on behalf of the Chicano youths who had been wrongly arrested in the notorious Sleepy Lagoon murder case. He befriended and promoted African-American artists like Duke Ellington and Eartha Kitt. He crusaded for justice for Isaac Woodard Jr., a decorated black veteran who upon his return to the States was beaten by a South Carolina state trooper, so savagely that he was left blind. Welles had a series of radio programs throughout the Forties, and he used this platform to the fullest. “I was born a white man,” he thundered during one broadcast, “and until a colored man is a full citizen like me, I haven’t the leisure to enjoy the freedom that colored man risked his life to maintain for me. I don’t own what I have until he owns an equal share of it.”

Welles’ efforts angered conservatives in Congress and the media, who frequently attacked him as a Communist or Communist sympathizer; indeed, had he stayed in the U.S. in the early 1950’s rather than going to Europe, he might very well have been blacklisted. But he became a hero to many liberals, some of whom urged him to take the logical next step and seek public office. Welles took the idea quite seriously. (In 1946, he considered running for the Senate as a Democrat in his home state of Wisconsin; the Republican candidate was an obscure judge named Joseph McCarthy.)

Ultimately, however, the pull of the arts proved too strong, though Welles would continue to support progressive causes throughout his life. And on more than one occasion, he looked back on his choice with some regret. As Welles told his biographer Barbara Leaming near the end of his life, he thought of his might-have-been political career as “a great missed boat.”


What impact did his activism have on his films? We can see it in the issues woven into their plots – tabloid “yellow journalism” in Kane, class conflicts in Ambersons, racism and police brutality in Touch of Evil. However, there was also a larger political theme that resonated in much of Welles’ work: power, and its attendant, perhaps inevitable abuse.

Welles lived in an age where millions of people lived (and died) under dictatorships of the left and the right. Closer to home, he had dealings with numerous powerful men: William Randolph Hearst, FDR, Rockefeller and of course, imperious studio chiefs like Darryl Zanuck and Harry Cohn. He might have been impressed by their absolute control over their domains – so unlike Welles himself, whose power was frequently “usurped” when it came to editing and distributing his films. But with the exception of Roosevelt, he was repelled by how they used it.

This sentiment found its way into his art. Most of his films deal with the abuse of power – whether by the police, the media or the judiciary, whether in Dark Ages Scotland or modern-day California. Often the greatest abuser is played by Welles himself, his gargantuan frame exaggerated further by low angles and extreme close-ups so that at times he literally fills the entire screen.

This figure – dynamic, commanding, frightening – is a man who brooks neither opposition nor criticism, and expects his commands to be carried out without question. The very model of a modern totalitarian despot, he tries to bend reality itself to his will. Charles Foster Kane assumes he can foist whatever he wants on his readers, from war with Spain to his no-talent mistress’ opera career. The title character in Mr. Arkadin (a.k.a. Confidential Report) thinks he can wipe away his criminal past. In Touch of Evil, police captain Hank Quinlan is certain that he can administer “justice” with no need for legal niceties. (Not to mention Welles’ screen adaptation of Macbeth, in which a powerful man believes he can literally get away with murder.)

Other films provide a view from the opposite end of the totem pole, so to speak – focusing on poor saps who become the victims of unchecked power.

In his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, Welles has a small but pivotal role as the judge who assures Joseph K (Anthony Perkins) that he is certainly guilty of something, even if Joseph will never learn what it is. In The Lady from Shanghai, the director plays Irish sailor Michael O’Hara, whose attraction to Elsa Bannister (his then-wife Rita Hayworth) draws him into the orbit of her sinister husband, a wealthy, politically connected lawyer. Michael is torn between his passion for Elsa and his disgust at the Bannisters’ louche, decadent lifestyle, which he likens to a group of sharks feeding upon each other. Only much later does he realize that the “sharks” have been manipulating him to their own ends.

Welles’ political stance in Shanghai is not subtle. At one point, Bannister’s partner, Grisby, mocks Michael for fighting against the Franco dictatorship in the Spanish Civil War: “I was on a pro-Franco committee,” he sneers. “Would you kill me if I gave you the chance? …I may give you the chance.” (Welles let it be known that he based the character of Grisby on Nelson Rockefeller.) But Welles had seen tyrants of all political stripes, and the ideology of his villains is ultimately beside the point. What matters is the way that power perverts and consumes them. The fact that in the end (spoiler alert!) it destroys them is a rather small comfort.

We don’t come away from these films wanting to storm the barricades. Welles does not provide us with romantic revolutionary heroes, only with average Joes, like Kane’s Jed Leland, whose sense of personal honor and integrity demands that they stand up to the tyrant – often at a heavy cost, and not before countless other victims have been crushed. A pessimistic point of view, perhaps… or realistic, given what Welles had seen and experienced. He did not live to see the end of the mass-dictatorship era, and his films reflect this.

So it is in his last film projects. The Other Side of the Wind deals with power politics in Hollywood (and their effect on a director very much like Welles); and his final script, The Big Brass Ring – which was not brought to the screen until 14 years after his death – is a twisted tale of ambition, manipulation and revenge that takes place entirely in the political arena. That film opens with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “It is common enough that we triumph under adversity, but if you truly wish to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Not as memorable as “Rosebud,” perhaps, but quite fitting. For Welles had spent much of his career dramatizing Lincoln’s “test.” Beyond their cinematic brilliance, this is another reason why his films speak to us today as strongly as when he created them.