The Last Twentieth-Century Book Club: Orson Welles’ The Life of Christ

Orson Welles

Orson Welles

By Don Jolly

It’s 1945. He’s speaking on the radio. “Carnival isn’t a religious observance, but it is fundamentally the celebration of a religious people,” he says. That world-famous baritone.

“Wherever money changers have taken over, carnival is no more. Wherever work is so hard that a holiday means a rest instead of a good time, carnival is only a word for a tent show. You have to save up for carnival. You have to save something of yourself out of the business year. You have to play hard at carnival — not in contest with anybody, not for points in a score — carnival calls for the aimless exuberance of childhood. And if you never felt like dancing around and making a fool of yourself in a funny hat you won’t know what I’m talking about and you won’t care.”

“In carnival,” he concluded, “you don’t need liquor to help you forget you’re growing old. You’re too busy remembering what it was like when you were young.”

He’s thirty. America is almost through with him.

It’s 1942. March. The world is on fire, whole cities kindling the red disaster of the second world war. He is in Rio, lashing together an ambitious film about the carnival for RKO Pictures and The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, an outfit designed to counter fascist propaganda in Central and South America. Along with a ragtag Hollywood crew, he has been soaking up the heat of Brazil — the taste of it, the smell, the feel. The rhythm of the Samba. The derelict poetry of the favelas, where the lenses of his cameras linger uncomfortably on Rio’s castaways: the destitute, the derelict and the dark-skinned. One of his crewman is already grousing in private, corresponding with the studio back home. “Nobody wants to look at a bunch of niggers,” he says.

Orson Welles in Brazil

Orson Welles in Brazil

Things are beginning to break down. The footage from the carnival, captured by any means necessary throughout the four-day event, is a mess. Parts of it need to be re-staged. His other film at the time, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 chronicle of a once-wealthy mid-western family, is weeks away from a disastrous test screening. The audience will hate it. The studio will take control. His memos from South America, increasingly desperate, will be ignored. It is the beginning of the end for him in Hollywood. It has been less than a decade since he was the great white hope of the American stage, an audacious actor and director emboldened by new deal policies to construct a theater of the common man. On radio, he had a rare authority. When he claimed that men from mars had landed in New Jersey, America believed him.

Brazil. Alone, in some stolen moment, he puts two lines to paper: “Nothing has ever been too good for the public,” he writes. “Nothing has ever been good enough for the public.”


July, 1940. He is in Hollywood, meeting in secret with his cinematographer, Greg Toland, and a handful of actors. The studio wants to make a big to-do about the first day of shooting, set for August first, so he figures it’s best to get started early — and avoid any potential public embarrassment. At this point, he’s still a theater director, yet to make his mark in motion pictures. The scene is simple: a crowd of men, reporters, smoking in an unlit screening room. Behind them, the light of a projector strings white wires in the haze.

He pushes his actors hard, just as he had on stage. In the finished product, their lines lay atop each other, single threads emerging from a cacophony of voices: “That’s it… Well, seventy years in a man’s life… That’s a lot to try to get into a newsreel! It’s a good show, Thompson. But it needs an angle… Wait a minute! What were Kane’s last words? Do you remember, boys?”

It worked.

August. The shooting of Citizen Kane begins in earnest. There is much to do — too much. His cast needs their salaries settled, plus plane tickets and final schedules. Parts of the score have to be commissioned, recorded and approved. And there is, regrettably, “the Mankiewicz situation.” Herman Mankiewicz, his co-writer, is fuming about a quotation Louella Parsons has printed in her Hollywood gossip column, appearing in Hearst newspapers across the country. She makes it sound like Mankiewicz is being denied his proper credit. Handling the matter requires delicacy.

Then, there is film itself. He and Toland are shooting in a wholly new way, making up the rules as they go along, building hitherto unseen depth into the cinematic frame.

He is twenty-five. He barely sleeps.

August 30th. In the midst of the chaos, he writes a letter, and has it dispatched to a handful of America’s top churchmen. Copies are dispatched to a Methodist bishop and an Episcopalian reverend, both in New York. He hits the Northern Baptist Convention in Cadillac, Michigan, along with the Southern Baptists in Nashville. He reaches the Presbyterians in Philadelphia, and a Catholic philosopher in Washington D.C..

“I am planning a motion picture of the life of Christ,” he says. “And I take the liberty of asking you for advice.”

It is because I am strongly aware of my problem in handling this tremendous theme that I take the privilege of addressing you. I wish to do nothing which could incur the displeasure of any Christian church. In fact, I am convinced that a film which created controversy would not have the special validity I wish to achieve […] I would like to take the camera into a real pastoral American setting — to tell the story with simple American folk, not with actors.

My intention would be to present the story with no interpretation — with dialogue only as it occurs in the scriptures — not as any sort of stunt, or even as a paraphrase. The actual face of Christ would never be represented and the personality of Christ would remain, by the nature of the storytelling, unstated.

“The idea is only in the preliminary stages,” he concludes, to all of them at once. “You are the first to hear of it. I would greatly appreciate some indication of your attitude.”

“Sincerely Yours,

Orson Welles”


Orson Welles never finished his Life of Christ — or his Heart of Darkness, or his Don Quixote or his epic Brazilian film, It’s All True. Today, twenty-eight years after his death, Welles is remembered as much for his dreams and drafts as the movies, plays and radio programs he actually completed. He died fat and bleeding money, his final feature role a voiceover part in an animated Transformers movie co-starring Leonard Nimoy and Judd Nelson.

Religion, and Welles’ reverence for the story of Christ, never made it to the screen in an elaborate form. All that remains of it are a few puckish asides.

In his 1946 thriller The Stranger, Welles plays a Joseph Mengele-type named Franz Kindler; a devious Nazi hiding out as a teacher in a Connecticut prep school. In the film’s opening scenes, Kindler is tracked down by a former subordinate, who hopes to deliver a “message from the all-highest.”

“You mean —” Welles starts, eyes manic. Hitler?

“I mean God,” the lackey answers, his voice tremulous with conviction.

Kindler relaxes. Then, coldly, murders the little man.

Orson Welles in Brazil

Orson Welles in Brazil

In the 1949 British film The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, Welles plays the enigmatic arch-criminal Harry Lime, opposite his old friend Joseph Cotten, a veteran of Kane and Welles’ 1930s work with the Federal Theater Project, as the hero Holly Martins.

In one of film’s most arresting scenes, the two ride a Ferris wheel together, looking down on the people of Vienna as Lime preaches a satanic gospel, defending the act of stealing medical supplies for sale on the black market.

“You used to believe in God,” spits Holly.

“I still do believe in God, old man,” Lime answers, smoothly. “I believe in God and mercy and all that. But the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here.”

A pause to consider the crowd below. “Poor devils.”


In California, RKO has arranged a public screening of Welles’ follow-up to Kane, his mid-western period piece The Magnificent Ambersons. They place it at the back of a double-bill with the enthusiastic Naval-propaganda musical, The Fleet’s In!

It’s a cheap fix, designed to kill the picture and sever the studio’s relationship with Welles, the expensive, uncooperative “genius.” It works.

The audience’s comment cards are a record near-unanimous disdain. “It stinks,” one reads. “Too dark — too slow, and too mixed up.”

“We do not need trouble pictures, especially now. Make pictures to make us forget, not remember.”

“It should be shelved as a crime to take people’s well-earned money for such artistic trash.”

In Brazil, Welles is fleshing out another element of his picture, to run alongside the carnival. He is obsessed with the true story of the jangadeiros, four poor fishermen who sailed from Fortaleza to Rio in the fall of 1941 to protest their profession’s exploitation by ship owners and the government. Under the law, fishermen lacked the benefits granted to unionized professions, including pensions and social security. What’s more, their profits were heavily tithed by the owners of their sailing ships — called jangadas. As much as a half of fisherman’s daily catch would go to them.

The jangadeiros, led by a plainspoken fisherman called Jacaré, covered more than a thousand miles of water in two-months time, unaided by modern navigational equipment. They arrived in Rio in November, to a grand reception. Brazil’s President, Getúlio Vargas, reformed the fishing industry at their suggestion.

Orson Welles in Brazil

Orson Welles in Brazil

Welles had met the jangadeiros in person. His ambition was to recreate their journey on film, starring the real men involved. By June his relationship with RKO, strained and singed by events such as the Ambersons screening, had all but collapsed. Welles hardly notices. He is in Fortaleza, catching fishermen on film.

The director’s approach is methodical. He shoots the beaches. The waves. A wedding. The men and women at their daily work. He shoots baskets being woven. Boats being carried to the water by lithe, brown bodies. He catches resonant images of wide-skies and bright seas, blazing in thirty-five millimeter grey. Off camera, he talks openly of his faith in God. It’s the best footage of his career.

May, 1942. Welles is re-staging his version of the jangadeiros arrival in Rio. The sea is troubled. As the jaganda makes its way into the bay, a surge of water overturns it, and the fishermen are scattered. Jacaré, their leader, tries to swim for shore. He drowns.

In the next day’s issue of Aino De Noite, a Brazilian newspaper, Welles is all but accused of murder. “They should have stayed on their own sand dunes, in their small houses made of Carnauba straw,” reads the editorial. “They should have stayed there, far away, as jangadeiros, in the land of Itacema, without ever meeting Orson Welles.”


September, 1940. Responses start to arrive at Welles’ office from the churchmen.

E.J. Millington, writing from the Northern Baptist Convention, takes great pleasure in dismissing his idea. “My opinion of your proposition is definitely and I think unchangeably unfavorable,” he writes:

“The production of such a picture as you speak of would require a delicacy of taste and a depth of understanding which are not ordinarily associated with the motion picture industry and its actors… Your suggestion, therefor, is distinctly unwelcome to me and I should be very happy if the idea were allowed to die before it is full born.”

William Barrow Pugh, writing from the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, is star-struck. “It would seem to me that if any one could do what you set forth in your letter, it would be yourself,” he says, to Welles.

The Episcopalians are optimistic, the Southern Baptists supportive, the Lutherans skeptical. “I am very far from any anti-Semitic thoughts in my own heart,” writes F. H. Knubel, on United Lutheran Church letterhead. Still, “in the moving picture King of Kings the high priest uttered a startling statement that he alone of his people was responsible for the death of Jesus… This was naturally introduced so that there would be no objection from the Jewish sources of the present day, but this introduction of an unjustifiable sentence destroyed for me the value of the picture.”

The longest response comes courtesy of Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen, at the Catholic University in Washington. Sheen is also a radio personality. He hosts a program called The Catholic Hour, and will continue to do so for the next decade, before moving on to television. The only way Welles would “incur the displeasure of the Church,” he writes, “is by presenting Christ in any other way than what He is, namely, the Son of God.”

There are several other “difficulties” in Welles’ project, Sheen says. The divinity of Christ would, of course, be difficult to capture on film — “though I can see how the new technique of photography might make some compensations.”

Welles proposed “pastoral” setting is, in the Monsignor’s opinion, too strange. It threatens to make the life of Christ “unreal.” What’s more, “the Jewish background of Christ” cannot be avoided. “There is no escape from the historical fact that the Gospels do represent him as being rejected by his people,” argues Sheen.

October 3rd, 1940. Welles pens his response to the Catholic. It is lengthy, an uncharacteristically humble. “I hasten to assure you that I have never conceived of this project in other terms than as a perpetuation of Christ as true God and true Man,” writes Welles.

“From the artist’s point of view (from mine, at least, speaking as an artist) there is no purpose in attempting the story of Christ unless Christ is presented as God, and unless his miracles are as an intrinsic a part of the story as they are in the Bible. The transference to an unremote period does not infer the reinterpretation of the story, the modernization of the theme nor the elimination of miraculous events…

A miracle was no less miraculous in Galilee than it is in Texas but centuries (at least for many of us who contemplate his story) have invested the world in which Christ lived with the gauzy unreality of a fable… Even the humblest figures in a modern representation of the story of Christ seems god-like and hopelessly mythological…

Welles thanks Sheen profusely for his comments, and expresses a desire that their conversation continue. He struggles with his thoughts, apologizing for their lack of specificity. “I want to make a motion picture of the Story of Christ for everybody,” he says. “Not just those who know it to be true.”


Isaac Woodard

Isaac Woodard

It is February, 1946. A young, black man named Isaac Woodard, hours after being honorably discharged from the United States Army, is beaten in Aiken, South Carolina for mildly offending the driver of Greyhound bus. One officer in particular whips him about the head with a billy club so savagely that when Woodward awakens the next morning, in jail, he discovers that he cannot see.

The cops hit him up for money, and then drop him at veteran’s hospital, where his story elicits little sympathy. He is advised to join a blind school. Later, he takes his case to the NAACP, who do everything they can to publicize the matter. They want the officer responsible for Woodard’s blinding found, and charged.

A few months later, Orson Welles, then trying his luck at political commentary for radio, comes on the air in a somber mood. He reads from Woodard’s affidavit on the beating. Then he tells a story — a joke he claims to have been told that morning at a twenty-four hour diner. “I’m going to repeat it, but not for your amusement,” he says, to the airwaves. “I earnestly hope that nobody listening will laugh.”

The joke concerns a white traveler who finds himself in a southern town where all the hotels are full. “In desperation,” says Welles, “he applied at a negro hotel where he was accepted with the proviso that he had to share a double room with another guest.” The night passed, and the man woke in the morning and attempted to board his train, only to find himself rudely directed to the “Jim Crow car.”

Looking at himself in train’s bathroom mirror, the white man discovers he has become black, an “even hue of black.”

“‘I know what’s happened,’ are the next words of the man,” Welles reports. “It’s very simple —They woke up the wrong man!”

The police officer who tore away Isaac Woodard’s sight with a billy club, continues Welles, has not been named. “For just now, let’s call the policeman Officer X. He might be listening to this — I hope so. Officer X, I’m talking to you… They woke up the wrong man!”

Welles’ voice expands, ignites. It wrings color from the eardrums:

“That somebody else, that man sleeping there, is you — the you that God brought into the world all innocent of hate, a paid-up member of the brotherhood of man. Yes, believe or not, that’s you, Officer X, still asleep. That you could have been anything — it could have gone to the White House when it grew up, it could have gone to heaven when it died. But they woke up the wrong man!”

There is no justice possible in this case, Welles says. Even if Officer X is tried and jailed, as he should be, Woodard’s mutilation will remain. Still, the broadcaster continues, he is interested in the policeman’s fate:

“Your welfare is a measure of the welfare of my country. I cannot call it your country. How long will you get on in these United States? Which of the states will still consent to get along with you? Where stands the sun of common fellowship? When will it rise over your dark country? When will it be noon in Georgia?”

October 2nd, that year. Officer X is named and indicted in South Carolina, following a national outrage propelled, in large part, by Orson Welles’ blistering commentary. The culprit, as it turns out, is the local Chief of Police, Linwood Shull.

November 5th, 1946. After half an hour’s deliberation, Shull is cleared of all charges by a white jury.


On a movie screen, ten years can pass in a moment. A boy becomes a man in the flicker of a cut. A man dies, grows old, is young again — all in seventy minutes. Welles mastered the technique, in Kane.

It is September, 1992. Isaac Woodard is dying a Bronx Veteran’s Hospital.

It is May 19th, 1942. Jacaré is drowning in the waters off of Rio, while Welles watches through a camera lens.

It is August 1940, and Kane is underway. Welles is imagining Jesus Christ in American drag. Miracles from the desert, Parables from the breadlines. Death and resurrection in overalls.

It is 1997, a few days after Christmas, and Officer X is dead, aged ninety-five.

It is 2014. The money-changers are in charge. Carnival is a word for a tent show. We cannot rest, even on our holidays. Funny hats are serious business. Christ on film is a matter for people like Mark Burnett, the producer of Survivor.

The public failed Orson Welles. He failed them right back.


By the end of the 1940s, Orson Welles’ career in America was all but exhausted. He spent the rest of his life primarily in Europe, where his works for stage, screen, and radio remained inconsistent, only occasionally materializing in finished form. What he managed to produce was a catalogue of despair, horror, crime and paranoia: stories of bad people in dark places, their pains reflected and multiplied by a reality where truth seems constantly withheld.

There are hints, just beneath the surface, of a direct, credulous Christianity in all this. A conviction that, at some level, all men are endowed with a dignity that transcends the messy particulars of their time and place. He imagined Christ in Texas — but it was never filmed. He saw, in the fishers of Brazil, some flash of deep eternity — but it was never edited together.

The fate of a twentieth century artist. He wanted Jesus Christ, but he gave us Harry Lime.

In The Third Man, at the foot of the Ferris wheel, Welles turns to his co-star and smiles roguishly. “Don’t be so gloomy,” he says. “After all, it’s not that awful.”

“Remember what the fellow said — In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.”

He’s supposed to have come up with that bit on his own.


Special thanks for this column are due the staff of the Lily Library at Indiana University, where Welles’ correspondence from the early 1940s is capably archived. A heavy debt is also owed to Simon Callow, the author of The Road to Xanadu and Hello Americans, the first two volumes of a proposed biographical trilogy on the subject of Welles.  A third volume is expected next year.

The calendar says this is the holiday season. I suspect, however, that nobody reading this feels quite like celebrating. Although the brief account contained above elides their participation, the NAACP was instrumental is publicizing Isaac Woodard’s case and agitating both the state of South Carolina and the federal government on his behalf. Their legal defense fund is in constant need of donations.

In his “Wrong Man” commentary, Welles makes the essential point that no crime can be truly corrected. Criminals may be jailed, or hurt, but there is no turning back time — and no true reversal of injustice. The closest we can come, he says, is by attempting to smother each brutality in the annals of our nation with an equal or greater degree of gentleness, enacted through whatever meager instruments fall within our personal command.  In other words, much older:  “where there is hatred, let me sow love.”

Which is as good a sentiment to take into the new year as any.

A final thanks are due to my editor at The Revealer, Kali Handelman, who has tolerated much on my behalf over the last twelve months, and done so gracefully.



Dark Dungeons (Dungeons & Dragons, Part II)

Deities and Demigods (Dungeons & Dragons, Part 1)

Sulamith Ish-Kishor

Salem Kirban, Part 2

Guide to Survival (Salem Kirban, Part 1)

Monster in My Pocket

The Power of Source 

Carman, Part 2


Speak Out!

Fear of Death Removed

Good Ol’ Job


Don Jolly looks human but isn’t. His work has appeared on Boing Boing, the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Ampersand Review.

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