Sunday, March 7, 2010

Why Brazilians Hate Orson Welles

 Remember Orson Welles?
Remember his 1939 classic, Citizen Kane, a film that often heads the list of the 10 best ever made?
Brazilians do too.

But they also remember him for a film he shot in their country and never finished, for contributing to the death of one of their national heroes, and for trashing the Copacabana Palace Hotel.
The film he never finished is It’s All True. He visualized it as a series of three vignettes about Latin America. One of the three, entitled Four Men on a Raft, had been inspired by an article Welles read in the December 8, 1941, issue of Time Magazine.

It told the story of four fishermen who set out from Fortaleza , the capital of the northern state of Ceará, to file a grievance with the President of Brazil.  The distance by sea was 1,650 miles. Their craft was a jangada they’d named after Saint Peter, the fisherman.  

Jangadas, still widely used today, are little more than rafts with sails, tiny vessels with virtually no freeboard. They are made for the calm seas of Brazil’s northeast and are totally unsuitable for the rougher waters further south.After 61 days at sea, navigating without instruments, without a motor, without even running lights, the San Pedro’s captain, Manoel Olímpio Meira, nicknamed Jacaré (alligator) brought them safely to Rio de Janeiro.
By the time he sailed into the harbor, he was already a national hero.Gitúlio Vargas, the president (and virtual dictator) of Brazil, was so impressed that he granted the fishermen’s petitions. They and their colleagues were awarded the same benefits enjoyed by unionized industrial workers – retirement funds, pensions for widows and children, housing, education and medical care.Welles decided to re-enact their epic voyage and make it the centerpiece of It’s All True.

He hired the four fishermen to play themselves and leased their jangada. Then, on a blustery day in the (southern hemisphere) fall of 1942, he bade them set sail for the open sea. The conditions that day suited his purposes admirably. He wanted to show how difficult the voyage would have been, how the decks of a jangada would run awash in heavy weather.

Jacaré demurred, told him it was too dangerous. Welles offered him more money. Again, Jacaré refused. So Welles offered him still more. The man was a poor fisherman. The amount he could earn would have fed his family for a year. He decided to take the risk.They’d hardly cleared the embracing arms of the harbor when they were struck by a towering wave. Jacaré was swept overboard and disappeared in the heavy seas. His decomposing head was later found in a huge shark caught a few miles down the coast off the Barra da Tijuca. 

The Brazilian newspapers made much of the disaster. Welles was blamed. The studio management didn’t like the bad publicity, and they particularly disliked the fact that Welles was spending too much of their money. The project was re-evaluated.Welles was ordered to complete Four Men on a Raft with a minimal budget, and a minimum crew, and return to Hollywood.
He threw a hissy fit.

What furniture he didn’t cast out of his windows at the Copacabana Palace, he smashed. More bad publicity. RKO cancelled his contract. The project was abandoned. As for Welles, his career, from then on, was all downhill.He tried to get other studios to back him, but by then word of the enfant terrible’s comportment had gotten around. He wasn’t “serious”. He was unstable. He was (worst of all) a risk. And no one wanted to gamble.He then decided he’d finish the film on his own, and eventually, he managed to purchase some of the footage he’d shot. But the project ended in failure when he was forced to give up ownership because he could no longer pay storage costs for the negative.A few years went by. RKO, having need of space in their vaults, dumped the vast majority of Welles’ footage into the Pacific Ocean.

Fortunately, not all. In 1985, 43 years after shooting ended, some 300 cans turned up in a corner of the old RKO vault. They became the seminal material for a documentary released by Canal Plus in 1993.

Canal Plus is a French pay television channel. The French love Orson Welles. They were also behind a lovely film that he starred in back in 1968, the only one he ever directed in color. 

It’s called Une Histoire Immortelle, and it’s a magnificent piece of work.If you ever get a chance, see both the documentary and Immortal Story. They’re both magnificent.

Leighton – Monday


  1. On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles broadcast an adaptation of H.G.Wells, WAR OF THE WORLDS. Welles made a significant change to the play; he presented it to the listeners as news bulletins of a real event - the Martians had landed in New Jersey. Welles had explained what he was doing at the beginning of the broadcast but people weren't paying much attention. Another disclaimer was inserted into the program but that came 40 minutes later and by that time a significant portion of people on the east coast really believed the Martians had landed.

    Welles got into some trouble over his "recklessness" but he must have been beside himself with excitement at what he had pulled off. He was 23.

    A year later, he made CITIZEN KANE . It was an amazing accomplishment. Welles was producer, director, head writer, and the lead. The entire movie had Orson Welles fingerprints all over it. It was his movie and his legacy.

    It is unfortunate that Welles became so famous when he was so young. Being brilliant must be tough because even brilliant people aren't successful in every endeavor.

    He had done the famous radio broadcast his way. CITIZEN KANE was certainly done his way. But both came out of studios where everything could be controlled. When Welles insisted that the fisherman go out in rough seas so he could recreate the event according to his artistic vision, he didn't have the maturity to understand that controlling a movie set doesn't translate to controlling nature, the real sea, not the big tub of water with fans blowing to create waves.

    Welles deserved to be blamed for the disaster. A man died for a scene in a movie. Welles is made to look slightly more humane when compared to the studio who ordered the movie to be stopped because it was costing too much money. Welles reaction to not getting what he wanted, destroying his hotel room, was the tantrum of a man/child who had been thwarted.

    All the promise of his early 20's was gone by his late 20's. For the rest of his life he was a victim of his own excesses. The wunderkind never stopped, emotionally, being a kind.

  2. Hi Leighton,

    I don't blame Brazil for not liking the guy.
    It's terrible to take advantage of people and tempt them into a life threatening situation.

    Are you still planning on writing a story about black magic in Brazil?

  3. As Yrsa mentioned, we're always glad to get suggestions from readers.
    So I will, indeed, write about black magic in Brazil.
    Not in my very next post, but probably in the one after that.

  4. Welles, it has been said to have been a contrariwise person and twisted personality: started great and slowly dwindled to a mere Gallo wine ad-man, just before his death.
    This said, let me tell you that Brazilians hardly know him: only film-educated people, a minority, has heard of his name. I asure you, we neither love or hate him, believe me.
    He was a man of his time and my personal Brazilian opinion over him is that he was and is, mostly misunderstood in his own country, let alone elsewhere.
    No need to cite examples, they are abundant in his own OW folklore.
    Let alone his last ad-days words on wine, if I may recall precisely: "It's only drunk when its (or it's) the right time..." or something close to that. Please check it.
    Mr Gage, I hope that you engage in something worth your time. "Black magic" as you call it, whatever it may be, for us means something else than that of which you may ever start thinking.
    Do refine your creative cognitive criteria, if there is any, if you so please. It may enhance your writings considerably, I dare say.
    Geraldo A. Lobato Franco.

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  6. I was less than amused, Geraldo, by your attempt to play the highbrow and contribute a comment.

    But your phraseology betrayed your true colors.

    Are you truly unaware that much of what you wrote is quite incomprehensible?

    Come to think of it, maybe that was it.

    Maybe it was your poor command of English that caused you to miss the merit in the post.

    Or maybe you're just mean-spirited.

    I haven't quite figured it out.

    Please feel free, if you write again, to express yourself in Portuguese. Then, at least, I won't keep scratching my head in an attempt to decipher your meaning.

    I concede that I took literary license in expressing Brazilian disdain for Welles in the present tense.

    OF COURSE that isn't true.
    It was, Geraldo, never meant to be taken literally.

    And anyone with any sense, and a good command of the English language, would have seen that immediately.

    Welles, except for a generation above fifty (and film buffs), is largely forgotten.

    But back then it was different.
    And, as the title of the film says, "it's all true", those things he did.
    As was the response, in those days, of the Brazilian press.

    The line you were groping for was "We will sell no wine before its time."

    I had the honor to know Welles personally.
    I lunched with him several times during the last years of his life in Spain.

    And worked with him, once, in London.

    Anyone who knows anything at all about cinema knows that he was far more, in his age, than a "mere Gallo wine ad man."

    He was a towering genius as "Une Histoire Immortelle" quite conclusively proves.

    And I take exception to the fact that you, in your ignorance, have belittled him.

    One thing more: you need give me no lessons about "black magic".

    As it happens, I probably know as much about macumba as you do.

    After almost 40 years in Brazil, I should, don't you think?

    Boy, am I glad you aren't a book critic.
    "As I dare say" (taking a page from your book) you'd be a rotten one.

  7. Still Geraldo's English and choice of words is superior to most Americans born during and after the Reagan years.

  8. I don't know much about Welles, but I do live among jangada fishermen on the NE coast of Rio Grande do Norte and Orson's portrayal of these men and their environment is full of pathos, respect and deference. I wish one Brazilian today would have the interest and half the artistry demonstrated in Welles' work

  9. Welles asked the 4 fishermen to ride in the motorboat that was pulling the jangada to the filming location, but they refused and stood on their boat. A wave turned the jangada over and the fishermen fell in; Jacare didn't come up. The story of his head being found in a shark is pure myth. Jacare's body was found in a few hours. Welles was horrified at what had happened, but was encouraged by the Brazilians to finish the movie, as a tribute to Jacare. Catherine Benamou wrote a scrupulously written book on the Brazilian part of Welles's life called "It's All True. Next time you write a column, try doing some research.

    1. Leighton passed away several years ago. May I suggest that if you actually want a substantive response from one with a differing opinion than your own that you first try doing some research. :)

    2. Jeffrey Siger, you mean before Anonymous replies to someone, they should research if the person is still alive?