Calling It’s All True a documentary is really a bit wide of the mark, since the centerpiece of the film is an assemblage of the extant footage of the Four Men on a Raft section of the aborted 1941 Orson Welles’ project, It’s All True, but I’m not really sure what else to call this.
The film is a collection of Welles interview footage from different eras, newer interviews with others involved in the ill-fated endeavor, and a large selection of the various unfinished parts of project — culminating in the construction of the one completely filmed, but never edited, episode. To really follow the events of the film, it’s necessary to understand both Welles’ history and the history of the project.
After Citizen Kane, Welles shot The Magnificent Ambersons while simultaneously supervising and acting in Norman Foster’s Journey Into Fear. Just as these projects finished shooting, he was dispatched to Brazil to shoot a documentary slated to be called It’s All True. The project was the brainchild of Nelson Rockefeller and the studio, and the idea was to goose the United States’ “Good Neighbor Policy” toward South American countries, which was designed to prevent those countries from lining up with the Nazis. From any rational standpoint, the project frankly seems a bit screwy.
Welles had no script and only the vaguest idea what to do, and originally he wasn’t all that keen on the idea. And in many ways, the venture proved to be his undoing. Not only was the plug eventually pulled on the project, but while he was making it, the studio recut Ambersons and Journey Into Fear, damaging his artistic standing while stigmatizing him as a profligate spender who had to be fired from It’s All True in the bargain.
For years the footage of the project was thought lost, only to be discovered shortly after Welles’ death and subsequently crafted into this film. The results are fascinating, but not as compelling as might be hoped. The movie is a little too in love with Welles for his own sake, and it minimizes the work of Norman Foster on Journey Into Fear and one section of It’s All True. This flies in the face of Welles’ own statements and ignores Foster’s not inconsiderable earlier accomplishments on Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies.
More damaging is the sense that the assembled Four Men on a Raft episode is just too determined to preserve every bit of footage that Welles shot, making for a gorgeous-looking but somewhat sluggish exercise in filmmaking. It’s hard not to feel that Welles would have significantly tightened the film, had he cut it. Yet, this is interesting stuff, not in the least because it resembles Sergei Eistenstein’s similarly ill-fated Que Viva Mexico as much as it does Welles’ work. Is this really a “lost masterpiece”? I doubt it, but it’s still and important missing piece in the story of one of the true giants of filmmaking.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of It's All True at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 12, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to Lake Point Landing entrance and park in lot at left.)]