Orson Welles, The Immortal Story (1968), and Television

The Immortal Story (1968) directed by Orson Welles shown: Orson Welles

To view The Immortal Story click here.

In his conversations with Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles was often derisive towards television, or at least he was in the 1960s. Back then, television hadn’t reached the levels of sophistication it has today and someone like Welles couldn’t see how leaving film for TV could ever be a viable move. Of course, it should be noted that he and Bogdanovich also have a lengthy discussion about the only aspects of color film they like (how snow photographs being near the top) so it’s fair to say that no matter how inventive and ahead of the curve Welles was most of the time, there was clearly a limit to his vision. In 1968 he adapted Isaak Dineson’s The Immortal Story for French television and, clocking in at just 60 minutes, with an economy and efficiency of an expert old hand, shows that perhaps Welles and TV may have been the best match of all.

If you know the story itself, the immortal one that is, you know it’s about legend more than anything else. A man hears of a legend of a rich man who pays a sailor to impregnate his wife and Welles, in the character of Mr. Clay, a wealthy but old and tired man in 19th century Macau, wants to make the legend come true. Why? No reason outside of the fact that he finds it intriguing. He doesn’t even have a wife. For that, he has to hire someone, specifically the daughter of a former business partner. The daughter, Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) agrees as she hates Clay and feels like she can, I suppose, vicariously humiliate him through the exercise. Or purposely sabotage it.

The production itself was low on funding, as per any late Welles work, and thrown together piece by piece. Waiters from a local restaurant were borrowed to be extras, scenes were completed over the course of weeks from different locations due to financial troubles and the main set was actually Welles’s house. There was no makeup artist to speak of which may explain why Welles so heavily relies upon himself in applying generous layers of stage makeup which don’t exactly bear the mark of realism when subjected to the eye of a camera. Welles endured these kinds of hassles because he loved the cinema and financing and putting together a movie was hard work.  What he couldn’t understand at the time was what a great time he could have had in television.

I’m not trying to say he didn’t do a great job with practically every piece of film he made, though certainly there are exceptions. I’m just saying that I think someone like Welles, had he taken up the mantle of television exclusivity in the 1960s and 1970s, could have transformed the landscape long before cable came along and eventually did the job in the 21st century.

Having consumed every Welles biography I could get my hands on in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond, from Frank Brady to Simon Callow, one thing is perfectly clear: Welles loved Shakespeare and combined narratives. He loved a lot of other things, too, but it was his dual love of Shakespeare and combined narratives that brought about his massive work Five Kings, in which he combined elements from almost ten different Shakespearean plays (Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; Henry V; The Merry Wives of Windsor; Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3; Richard III) to make one all inclusive production covering the War of the Roses and running nearly six hours long on the stage. Years later, this would be cut down dramatically and condensed into the film we now know as Chimes at Midnight (1965).

Had Welles had the opportunities that television affords today, he could have made series from these works. Let’s face it, if the narrative structure of Citizen Kane (1941) doesn’t eerily predate what we now call “limited series” on HBO, Netflix, and Amazon, nothing does. Today, Citizen Kane would be a ten part series as well as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Welles, instead of being the ostracized wonder boy that everyone resented, might well be the King of the Small Screen.

Also consider that Welles planned to do a whole series of films based on Dinesen’s stories. And his It’s All True (1943) docudrama hybrid would surely be transformed today into an in-depth look at the underbelly of life in Brazil using the anthology series form.

Orson Welles, no stranger to serialized story telling from his earliest days in radio, would have been a natural match for the kind of television produced today. You can see it throughout his entire career and films like The Immortal Story and F for Fake (1973) are right at home in today’s cultural atmosphere. But the industry couldn’t see it and Welles either couldn’t or, more likely, didn’t want to bother blazing any new trails. He just wanted to keep making the movies he loved, no matter how difficult the process. It’s understandable, but what a great final chapter to his career if he started out in theater, moved to radio, conquered film and then, finally, reinvented television. He didn’t, but one can dream.

Greg Ferrara

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15 Responses Orson Welles, The Immortal Story (1968), and Television
Posted By kingrat : October 22, 2017 2:23 pm

Interesting thoughts about Welles and television, Greg. Welles’ Shakespeare on television would have worked.

I must admit I’m a huge fan of “The Immortal Story” as written by Isak Dinesen, but not a big fan of Welles’ film. I’d guess the actor who plays the sailor (actually the pivotal role) was cast because he looks like Terence Stamp in BILLY BUDD, not a bad idea, but Terence Stamp can act, and that does make a difference. Welles’ performance seems like a first rehearsal. The bedroom needs to be dark for it to be remotely plausible that Jeanne Moreau is seventeen, but it’s bright as noonday.

Really, everything good in the film comes from Dinesen, but Welles loses the impact of the punch line (the point of the whole story) because the scene isn’t filmed well and the sailor, who has the key line, can’t act.

Posted By Arthur : October 22, 2017 7:09 pm

Everything you say is true. And I love your last paragraph. But Welles did master theater, radio and film. Three out of our isn’t too bad. And he was 26 when he crafted a no-holds barred film about the biggest media giant of his time, and it almost never saw the light of day.

This. after frightening the nation to death in a simulated radio broadcast, after having numerous accomplishments on the stage.

A masterpiece is just that, a master piece. An master can only produce one. In this case, the film CITIZEN KANE, but then what about his WAR OF THE WORLDS on radio, and his staging of MACBETH in Harlem?

But back to film, there is also THE THIRD MAN. And he had a clause in the contract for CITIZEN KANE that it never be colorized, though colorization had yet to be invented!

Posted By AL : October 22, 2017 7:10 pm

Yes, in the 60″s Television was still sneered at, just as Hollywood was in the 30′s and 40′s. Katherine Hepburn, in an interview, cut off Dick Cavett with “No. Do not try to lure me into knocking Hollywood; they were brilliant people leading fascinating lives, but they were dumb enough to pass up TV and, as a result somebody else picked up the ball and the world changed.” Well, today the Pendulum has swung all the way to the other side: the best stuff is now on TV.

Posted By Doug : October 22, 2017 10:26 pm

Al said, “Well, today the Pendulum has swung all the way to the other side: the best stuff is now on TV.”
I don’t disagree, but that concept of TV may be meaningless to the next generation.
Right now our idea of TV is tied to what we have known of the medium throughout our lives.
Ditto the next G.
The ‘Television’ that they know isn’t tied to to concepts of ‘networks’ or Cable vs Satellite vs online providers.
Welles may have been capable of revolutionizing TV back in the back whens, but…no. He was too busy with the work of being THE Orson Welles.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 23, 2017 9:30 am

I agree with Kingrat about The Immortal Story which is why I only used it as a jump off point for tv. Unfortunately, Welles made a lot of his work on a piecemeal basis and it affected the final product. Some works, like Mr. Arkadin are all the more frustrating to me because I don’t they’re very good but show enormous potential. Mr. Arkadin, made with full studio support and crew, could have been great.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 23, 2017 9:31 am

Arthur, you can still hear a lot of Welles’ radio work. Some is online and others can be purchased on CD. I’ve listened to a lot of his SHADOW series and it’s great stuff.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 23, 2017 9:35 am

AL and Doug, so true that the medium of television 1) produces far more complex work today than it ever has and 2) is an almost meaningless designation at this point. I watch tv in exactly the same way I watch movies: I go into my screening room (that’s what we call it – home theater room in the basement with a 60 inch screen) pull up Amazon, Netflix, Filmstruck, Fandor, etc. on my Roku, pick a show or movie, and watch. There is no “flipping through the channels” anymore for me, or seeing commercials, or watching at the exact air time and date. TV and movies to me are now virtually one and the same.

Posted By Arthur : October 23, 2017 10:18 am

In the old days there was TV and the movies. TV had series with numerous episodes and movies were basically one shot deals. But then the two started moving into each other’s territory.

There were more and more sequels in film and TV began to have mini-series which today have morphed into cable channel multi-year series available to be screened from beginning to end in marathon stretches.

And the movie sequels have become never-ending “franchises.” The melding will doubtless continue. Until there is no difference between the two whatsoever?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 23, 2017 8:17 pm

I think eventually they will, essentially, become one. We have simultaneous release now where a movie is released to streaming the day it is released in the theaters and movies made for cable, Netflix, and Amazon compete at festivals. The one and most important thing separating the two at this point, and for the foreseeable future, is that movies premiere on big screens and tv shows do not. No matter how popular Game of Thrones is, it still isn’t shown at the local multiplex.

Posted By George : October 24, 2017 4:10 pm

I’m still a movie guy, not a TV guy. I’ve found that I’m unable to binge-watch TV shows. After two episodes in a row of even shows I really like, high quality shows, I’m bored. I want to put on a movie or read a book. Anything but sit through another TV episode.

But if the mood seizes me, I can sit through movie after movie on the DVD player. Yes, I still have DVDs. Because Netflix’s movie offerings are pathetic and getting skimpier each month. (The common belief that every movie ever made is available online is far from true.)

Posted By swac44 : November 6, 2017 3:21 pm

I’ve noticed that if it’s popular enough, a TV show’s season premier or finale will be shown at the local multiplex. I don’t know about Game of Thrones, but I know episodes of Doctor Who and the Netflix/Marvel series The Defenders have been shown in theatres locally. Usually you get some bonus material, like an extra scene or a “making-of” featurette to sweeten the deal for fans.

Posted By George : November 8, 2017 7:28 pm

Streamed programming may disappear forever:


“The truth is, no one really understands how today’s popular streaming-only shows will be preserved. The public has become accustomed to seeing content come and go from streaming platforms, but we tend to assume that it will always be available somewhere online. It’s that assumption that has essentially killed the market for high-quality commercially pressed DVDs and allowed some shows to be offered only in streaming form. …

“The only way for a Transparent fan to “own” a personal copy of the streaming-only show is via illegal downloading, which requires both tech know-how and a willingness to break the law.”

Long live physical media!

Posted By Dusty Ayres : November 8, 2017 9:22 pm

@swac44: I’ve noticed that, too-I saw The Inhumans firsts episodes in IMAX at a local theater here in Toronto a few months ago.

@George: Most streamed shows will still be available on DVD/Blu-Ray/4K in complete boxed sets eventually (that’s the plan for Star Trek: Discovery, if I’m not mistaken, and a few other streamed TV shows from other production companies.) So DVD/Blu-Ray/physical 4K isn’t dead yet.

The thing about physical media is, people like the staff at Slate and other left-wing publications have been complaining about the environmental impact of all of this media (tapes & discs) cluttering up landfills and adding to all of the waste that’s generated by human beings; one would think then, that the people at Slate and associated progressive media outlets would be cheering on this shift away from physical media instead of condemning it.

Posted By George : November 8, 2017 11:05 pm

I think you’ve being overly optimistic, swac. “Eventually” and “that’s the plan” doesn’t mean it will ever happen. There are still hundreds, probably thousands of feature films that have never been released on DVD. And as DVD/Blu-Ray winds down, the chances of them becoming available are dimming.

I don’t care what happens to Netflix’s original programming, because I have no interest in ever seeing it. I also have no interest in binging the ’80s and ’90s sitcoms that are replacing movies on streaming services (except for Filmstruck, of course).

BTW, I’d rather read Slate than listen to the right-wing wackos on Fox News and talk radio.

Posted By DR : December 10, 2017 12:25 am

Welles fans shouldn’t knock Netflix. His last, unreleased, completely filmed but mostly unedited movie–”The Other Side of the Wind”– is currently being completed (by Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich, and editor Bob Murawski) for release on Netflix next year.

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