Nostromo by Robert Bolt and David Lean
Sir David Lean is rightly celebrated as one of British cinema’s greatest ever directors, the creator of, among others, Lawrence of Arabia, Great Expectations and The Bridge on the River Kwai. And yet little is known of his final project, Nostromo, which proved to be one of the biggest epics never to see the light of day and which caused the downfall of a tormented genius.
Based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, written in 1904, the project took five years of work, involving four different scriptwriters and some of the most celebrated names in cinematic history, including Steven Spielberg, Alec Guinness, Marlon Brando and Peter O’Toole. But the effort involved proved too much for the director, whose mental and physical health declined dramatically during the course of the project and, ultimately, led to his death on 16 April 1991 at the age of 83 – six weeks before the film was set to shoot. Now 20 years on, the trials and tribulations of the film have come to light in scripts, notes and correspondence between the different parties involved, which have been donated by the David Lean Foundation to the British Film Institute. Report by Chris Evans.
(NOTE: Script for educational purposes only)
“…perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible.”
The Heart of Darkness could be described as a deliberate masterpiece or a downright incantation. A fine piece of prose work at the least; its best aspects are an artful compound of sympathy for humankind and a high tragical disgust. Its successful contrivance of mood hides its craft as an octopus hides in its own ink, and almost we are persuaded that there is something, after all — Something essential waiting for all of us in the dark alleys of the world: Aboriginally loathsome, immeasurable and certainly nameless. —Orson Welles
Download the Heart of Darkness script HERE.
Heart of Darkness appears to be the very first screenplay Orson Welles ever wrote, making it especially invaluable for Welles scholars to study. Jonathan Rosebaum first discussed the script nearly 40 years ago in the November, 1972 issue of Film Comment, and his original article is reprinted in his recent book Discovering Orson Welles.
Other than the excerpts included with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article, I have never seen the script, so to finally be able to visualize it in my own mind was a great joy. The two key movies I immediately thought of while reading the script were RKO’s production of King Kong, made six years earlier, and John Ford’s adaptation of Eugene O’ Neill one-act plays, The Long Voyage Home, made a year later and photographed in exactly the style I imagined Welles would have wanted for Heart of Darkness — and by none other than that great cinematographer, Gregg Toland!
Needless to say, this is a completely fascinating and very unique script, since Welles was planning to shoot the film in about 165 long panning shots, representing the point of view of Conrad’s main character, Captain Marlow as he journeys down a long meandering jungle river in central Africa on a battered old steamboat, attempting to find both Mr. Kurtz and some clue to the meaning of existence.
In the 10-page prologue to the script, Welles “instructs and acquaints the audience as amusingly as possible with the special technique” he planned to use in filming the Heart of Darkness. However, it’s quite probable that once Welles began shooting the film he might have realized the limitations he had imposed on himself were far too constricting, and in all likelihood, may have abandoned using Marlow’s POV throughout the entire length of the film. No doubt, he would still have used many long sequence shots, but already in the opening of the movie, and in several dramatic points later in the script, it seems evident that an objective camera would be far preferable to one with a purely subjective point of view.
Initially, Welles asked John Houseman to join him in story conferences to begin adapting the Conrad story, and in his autobiography Run Through, Houseman gives an excellent account of the problems that were inherent in turning Conrad’s poetic prose into visual poetry.