The Bootleg Files: Orson Welles’ Moby Dick

BOOTLEG FILES 714: “Moby Dick” (Orson Welles’ unfinished 1971 project).

LAST SEEN: Three brief clips are on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Sometimes, the only way to enjoy Welles’ work is via bootleg video.


Orson Welles had a lifelong fascination with Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and pursued adaptations of this epic novel interpretation throughout his career. He produced radio versions of the tale in 1938 and 1946, taking on the role of Captain Ahab. John Huston wanted Welles to play Ahab in his 1956 film version, but Warner Bros. insisted on a star with a bigger box office draw, so Gregory Peck was recruited to play Ahab while Welles had a showy supporting part as Father Mapple.

Welles created an avant-garde theatrical work titled “Moby Dick – Rehearsed” and staged it at London’s Duke of York Theatre between June 16 and July 9, 1955. In this endeavor, Melville’s story was being presented by a 19th century travelling theater group. The actors and their director bicker and joke among themselves before settling into the well-worn tale of the fatal pursuit of the elusive white whale. Working on a bare stage, with unlikely props employed to suggest the ill-fated voyage of the Pequod – broomsticks were used for oars, a table became a longboat, a tangle of ropes doubled for soaring ship masts while a telescope was suggested by a mere stick. Welles created an imaginatively stripped-down production that relied heavily on the enthusiasm of its actors and the imagination of its audience to float the show.

Welles played the double role of the theater company’s director/producer and Captain Ahab. Since the star’s considerable heft prevented him from balancing on Ahab’s peg-leg, he hobbled on a cane to offer an approximation of the mariner’s startling disability. But to the surprise of many, Welles cast the role of the black slave boy Pip with a young white woman – a then-unknown Joan Plowright, later to become the wife of Laurence Olivier and a theater and film star in her own right.

Welles opted to bring “Moby Dick – Rehearsed” to the screen in a self-financed film that was shot in London with the play’s cast including Plowright and other up-and-coming performers including Christopher Lee, Patrick McGoohan, Gordon Jackson and Kenneth Williams. Realizing that he could not compete against Huston’s big-screen production, Welles reportedly planned to sell the U.S. rights for his new film to “Omnibus,” a U.S. television series that previously hosted Welles in a small-screen adaptation of “King Lear.”

Details on the film version of “Moby Dick – Rehearsed” are sketchy. No production photos are known to exist, so we are clueless regarding its visual style. Welles’ biographer Joseph McBride claimed that at least 75 minutes’ worth of footage was shot, but that Welles shut down the production because he felt his work was unsatisfactory. The footage was never screened and is considered lost – the last confirmed sighting was in the late 1960 cans containing the film were delivered to Associated Diffusion Television in London, which had produced the short-lived series “Around the World with Orson Welles” for British television in 1955. The company would not accept delivery because it came from outside of Britain and a hefty customs payment was demanded. The film cans were probably sent back to the customs office and their fate is unknown.

In 1971, Welles revisited the Melville work while he was in Strasbourg, France, as an actor in the Claude Chabrol film “Ten Days Wonder.” During his time away from the Chabrol set, Welles had cinematographer Gary Graver shoot 16mm film of him reciting passages from the celebrated book.

Welles intended his new “Moby Dick” to have a one-hour running length, but the project was never completed. In 1999, 22 minutes of surviving footage were tied together by the Munich Film Museum, which offered the footage to several film festivals. Bits of this footage turned up in the documentary “Orson Welles: One Man Band” and three brief clips videotaped off Italian television (complete with Italian subtitles) have turned up on YouTube.

Graver shot the first clip of Welles in tight close-up, with only the top of his black-coated shoulders and black shirt visible. (This was during a period when Welles dressed almost always in black and preferred himself to be framed in a manner that blocked out his obesity.) An aquamarine background and light glistening from beneath the star gives a minimalist consideration of an oceanic setting. His recitation of the novel’s opening is crisp and clear, if somewhat anodyne – in this presentation, Welles presents Ishmael’s introductory narration with more intellect than emotion. And while his peerless diction carries Melville’s prose, it never truly embraces the beauty of the writing.

A second clip has Welles operating a clapper board with one hand while balancing a large book in another. The lighting quickly fades to black, and Welles pauses before saying, “Okay.” An off-screen voice (most likely Graver’s) responds with “Now.” The light returns to Welles’ face and he turns a page in the book, saying “Scene: The Afterdeck.” He reads a section from Chapter 132 of the book, looking up occasionally to the camera – the background is neutral, and vaguely resembles the backdrop used for graduation or corporate portraiture. This goes on for a minute before Welles says “Cut” and the scene ends. As with the first clip, Welles never invests any great emotion into his recitation.

The third clip, however, is far more dramatic. Welles snaps the clapper board while Graver yells off-screen, “Moby Dick, Take Six.” This clip comes from Chapter 135 of the book and the lighting is far more dramatic – one can imagine a dark and stormy night at sea – as Welles staggers from below frame to the center of the screen. In this clip, Welles puts in a performance as an agitated Ahab who believes the white whale is now pursuing him. Alas, this clip is cut off in midstream, so the full fury of Welles’ emoting cannot be appreciated.

Graver would later recall the ingenious effect that Welles devised to give the impression of an oceanic setting in these clips.

“Orson took a hammer and shattered a mirror into hundreds of tiny pieces,” Graver would recall in his 2008 autobiography. “He then placed these face up in a pan full of water. Then, as he recited Melville’s prose, the glass would be shifted, giving the appearance that he was standing over a shimmering body of water. This was an inexpensive effect, and it looked stunning.”

Just what Welles intended to do with this version of “Moby Dick” is unknown – he abandoned the project to focus on “The Other Side of the Wind,” which would also remain unfinished at the time of his death in 1985. To date, unfortunately, the entire “Moby Dick” footage has never been made available on DVD or Blu-ray.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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