Last week, It’s All True (1993), a documentary about Orson Welles’ “failed” 1942 documentary of the same name, was released on DVD. On the heels of filming his second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, 26-year-old Welles was asked by the State Department to film a Technicolor documentary in South America in the hopes of strengthening international relations and deflecting potential Nazi influence in the Southern Hemisphere. (“It was never meant to be a commercial venture,” Welles’ co-producer Richard Wilson states, “more a cultural exchange.”) Welles’ studio, RKO, promised to send him editing equipment so he could finish Ambersons in Rio de Janeiro, but that film became one of the most famous lost films in history when RKO simply decided to re-edit the picture in his absence, re-shoot key scenes, and destroy the original negative. Welles’ documentary didn’t fare any better–when RKO underwent studio reorganization, replacing its president, the new regime cancelled his budget midway through the shoot. (In the newer film’s prologue, Welles recounts the story to the camera and wryly notes, “That sort of thing happens with South American governments but it also happens with film studios.”)
Wilson, along with Welles scholars Bill Krohn and Myron Meisel, were the key creative forces behind It’s All True, making their documentary from Welles’ footage that was discovered in Paramount’s vaults in the early ’90s. (One is always amazed to hear of such finds, as it further solidifies the image of film studio archives as dark, dank dungeons of forgotten art rather than the organized, creative holdings they should be.) They have supplemented the footage with interviews with production survivors and their relatives, as well as snippets of Welles himself.
Welles planned to make three short films in total, My Friend Bonito in Mexico (actually directed by Norman Foster), and The Story of Samba and Four Men On a Raft in Rio. The latter was nearly completed by Welles, re-creating a dramatic, 1,650-mile sea voyage by poor fisherman making a political protest to the government of Brazil demanding economic justice. Krohn, Meisel, and Wilson assemble Welles’ silent footage into a cohesive piece, augmenting it with ambient sound effects and music.
And what footage it is. Replete with Welles’ trademark low angles and deep-focus compositions, but set in beautiful exterior locations rather than studio sets, the film at once seems like a visually dynamic conflation of a Robert J. Flaherty film (the father of the documentary genre actually contributed the story for My Friend Bonito) and a proto-neorealist fable comprised of photogenic locals and working class heroics.
Welles is so often described as a “genius” that it’s easy to forget the propensity he had for unabashed eye candy: a montage of workmen sawing and hammering rafts together on a windy beach shaded by swaying palms; sailboats clustered on glittering waves; a stream of mourners crossing the horizon in a funeral procession; and the weary and beautiful faces of Brazil’s villagers, many of whom had never seen a movie before–all shot in high-contrast, carefully-framed black-and-white.
“The Blessing of the Animals” segment of the Mexican chapter, which was purportedly personally overseen by Welles, is almost absurdly rousing in its depiction of villagers rounding up sheep, cows, chickens, and various fauna to the sounds of a ringing church bell and the ritualistic pronouncements of the village priest. As sheep leap through the air and the high camera angles cause the streams of people and animals to resemble the comprehensive sweep of a Brueghel painting, Jorge Arriaga’s quasi-Western-themed music gracefully underscores the visual excitement.
But Four Men on a Raft is the high point of It’s All True, incorporating some of the most beautiful seaside imagery since Murnau’s Tabu with sensitive and well-mixed sound effects and a score that oscillates between samba-inspired rhythms and lyrical orchestral arrangements. A wordless film enveloped in sound, the filmmakers’ breath new life into Welles’ almost-lost compositions; it’s a deeply felt and deeply appreciated preservation–and expansion–of film history.