So much has been written on the films of Orson Welles, finished and unfinished, that it hardly seems necessary to contribute to that discussion at all. But having revisited It’s All True: Based On An Unfinished Film By Orson Welles (1993), a few observations struck me as fairly obvious that were nonetheless relatively ignored by the authors of the film; Bill Krohn, Myron Meisel, and Richard Wilson. Yet it is possible that the motives for avoiding a confrontation with the aesthetic of Welles’ footage derives from Wilson himself. Having, for many years, served as an assistant to Welles and Mercury, Wilson perhaps thought it best to continue to preserve with a certain fervor the image of Welles as a staunch patriot, and reinforce the rhetoric of blind admiration that has come to encompass Welles as a filmmaker since the advent of New Hollywood in the mid-sixties.
The primary concern of this piece is not with the majority of It’s All True, which in my opinion is a fine documentary that presents a well detailed account of Welles’ production and initial concept for the film. Rather, the concerns of this short essay remain distinctly with the filmmaker’s “reconstruction” of the last episode in Welles’ film, Four Men On A Raft.
Four Men On A Raft is concerned with two thematic elements. The first is the simple narrative that begins with a love affair between a fisherman and a woman. Shortly after the fisherman and the woman marry, the fisherman dies. At which point four fisherman determine that they must bring their grievances to the capitol in Rio with the hope that changes will be made to the conditions of their everyday working life. Narratively speaking the film begins with a fiction that metamorphoses into a re-enactment of historical fact (the journey to Rio). The second thematic concern is a visual one. Like Dovzhenko and Eisenstein, Welles presents the inhabitants of his narrative as a mass. Individuality, or a breaking off from the mass, is only achieved when the hero (or heroes in this case) have determined to take matters into their own hands. Even in Welles’ presentation of the mass there is a clear Socialist Realist influence, particularly in the long funeral procession. When this visual mechanism is then applied to Welles’ narrative structure it becomes clear where the allegations of communism were coming from. Four Men On A Raft is indeed a beautiful film, but it is far more political than its re-constructors would have the viewer believe.
Prior to the reconstruction, It’s All True goes to great lengths to present Welles’ project as a kind of humanitarian effort, which is clear. However, in aligning himself with the collective working classes of Brazil in his films, and in his effort to present them sympathetically to an international viewing public, it becomes almost necessary for Welles to adopt the vernacular of Social Realism. The fault in the presentation of the reconstruction is that the filmmakers do not explore Welles’ relationship with Social Realism as a cinematic aesthetic. Instead, it’s ignored for reasons, one would assume, that have to do with allegations that Orson Welles was a communist. Welles was not. Any biography could tell you that. But since Richard Wilson died before It’s All True was released it is unlikely that another film will ever be able to illuminate nor articulate Welles’ debt to the influence of Soviet filmmakers.