‘Heart of Darkness’ in ‘Citizen Kane’
On the 1st of May 1941, the American drama film Citizen Kane, had its premiere in New York City. The film co-written, directed, produced by, and starring Orson Welles, has been considered by many of the fans and film critics one of the best, if not the best, motion pictures of all time. The day after its premiere, The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in his review that Citizen Kane “…comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.” Therefore, it seems rather surprising that, despite being nominated for nine Academy Awards, it received only one, for best original screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles.
The main plot of the film is built around the life of Charles Foster Kane, a multimillionaire newspaper tycoon, whose enigmatic last word ‘Rosebud’ sets the action of the film back to his early childhood. Intrigued by and aspiring to decipher the meaning of Kane’s last word, journalist Jerry Thompson interviews friends and associates of the man in question, and Kane’s story unfolds as a series of flashbacks. He discovers evidence of a child separated from his family, who then, after getting hold of a vast fortune at the early age of twenty five, becomes the owner of a newspaper. Together with his friend Jedediah Leland, Kane enters the newspaper business with sensationalized yellow journalism. He ends up marrying the niece of the future President of the United States, and gradually assumes more and more power while successively losing touch with those around him. He eventually dies old and alone in his Florida-based palatial estate Xanadu, whispering the famous last word.
It is believed that the story line of Citizen Kane had been significantly inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was supposedly Welles’ next planned project after the huge success of his 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. Apparently, after being offered a contract with RKO Pictures, Welles came to Hollywood with the intention of turning the novella into a full-length film. Conrad’s story opens and closes with a narrator speaking in the first person, but the storytelling is soon taken over by another first-person narrator, Marlow. And so, the film was meant to be told in the first person, with hand-held cameras acting as Marlow’s eyes. Welles was prepared to play both leading roles – the invisible narrator Marlow and the mysterious, self-proclaimed idealist Kurtz. With a high starting budget of $50,000, which eventually grew to, in those times astronomical $1,100,000, Heart of Darkness was due to roll on the 10th of October 1939. However, the outbreak of war in Europe affected the film industry to the point that RKO had to eventually withdraw the whole project. That is why early in 1940, Welles, Houseman, and Herman Mankiewicz started working on a script to a new film entitled American, which was the first draft of Citizen Kane. It seemed that Welles’ fascination with Heart of Darkness left a visible mark on this new project.
“Both Welles’s film and Conrad’s story are about the deaths of men who have turned themselves into kings, into self-proclaimed gods. …Kane and Kurtz are both men of limitless but frustrated potential. Kane has infinite promise, ambition and richness that refuse to work for him or satisfy him; Kurtz could have been a great writer, politician, philosopher. Both men are disappointed with the world they find and compensate by building their own isolated monarchies. Both are damned or deified according to the point of view of the person who is speaking, the multiplicity of voices and narrators on the subject of the main character being a feature of both works (in Conrad’s novella, we have interpretations of Kurtz from Marlow, the Harlequin, Kurtz’s fiancée, among others; in Welles’s film, Kane is seen through the eyes of Bernstein, Thatcher, Leland, Susan Alexander). Both works are dominated by the meaning of the dying god’s last words, which are felt to hold the key to their existence. In Heart of Darkness, they are ‘the horror, the horror’; in Citizen Kane, it is ‘Rosebud’.” (Neil Sinyard, Filming Literature: The Art of Screen Adaptation)
Furthermore, “the structure of both works is remarkably similar. Both are built around the concept of interior journeys. The search for Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is also a search for understanding Kurtz, bringing enlightenment out of the jungle. The search for ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane is also a search for the explanation of Kane’s character, bringing truth from out of the shadows. In both cases, these become metaphysical journeys, a movement away from realism and towards myth – towards Kurtz as the savage god who must be sacrificed; towards Kane as Kubla Khan in his own Xanadu.” (Sinyard)
Whilst knowing of Welles’ interest in filming Heart of Darkness and the possible influence he and his script may have had on the conception, writing, and shooting of Citizen Kane, the parallels must be considered carefully. Whether the process of influence was conscious or more likely unconscious, or, a mixture of both, the probability seems high that Citizen Kane would not be the film it is without Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.