Orson Welles Picks Up a Paycheck for the Apocalypse

On the eightieth anniversary of Welles’s “War of the Worlds” we revisit Mark Jacobson’s 1979 review of the great auteur’s role in another End-Times production


Former Village Voice staff writer Mark Jacobson recently released Pale Horse Rider, a biography of conspiracy theorist William Cooper, whose self-published polemic, Behold a Pale Horse, Jacobson describes as “one of the most-read books in the prison system during the 1990s and in the early 2000s.”

Conspiracy theories often promote apocalypse as their end game, so it is no surprise that back in the January 29, 1979, issue of the Voice, Jacobson zeroed in on a recently released film version of Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth, which predicted that biblical holocaust was just around the corner. The filmmakers had recruited famed director-writer-actor Orson Welles, who was four decades past his triumphant radio production of Jules Verne’s War of the Worlds — which, when it was broadcast eighty years ago today, caused a panic among listeners who thought the attacking Martians were real — to narrate the movie with his stentorian pipes.

Jacobson’s typically rollicking prose wrangles numerous references, including the Son of Sam serial killer (who apparently worshipped Lindsey’s book, telling co-workers that “Everything is in it”), Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and Joachim of Fiore, whose centuries-old tome Expositio in Apocalypsim “predicted the imminent destruction of the planet, [and] is chock-full of snake-headed diagrams and talk of the Antichrist.”

Back in 1979 Jacobson pointed out that the director of Citizen Kane, always on the lookout for ways to finance his personal projects, had been reduced to making commercials for Vivitar cameras: “What better way for the filmmaker to come to grips with the basic tools of his trade than by convincing others to buy them?” But if many in Hollywood in those days considered Welles (1915–1985) a joke because he appeared with the guffawing drunks populating the dais of Dean Martin’s celebrity roast programs, Jacobson felt the auteur was not simply a case of “a great artist publicly humiliating himself, as with Truman Capote, Eddie Fisher, and Elizabeth Taylor. Here Welles was standing firm, peering into the single unwavering red beady eye of the TV camera, and measuring himself in terms of modern times.”

Nowadays, with Trump’s vengeful demagoguery conjuring all manner of End-Times, Lindsey’s potboiler seems almost quaint, a notion Jacobson divined at the time, since he focuses more on Welles than on prophesy. The Voice writer gave the great man his due, despite the many critics back then who “discount[ed] all of Welles’s recent work as a sellout by a burnt-out. But I believe that if an artist is a true auteur, as Welles undoubtably is, his entire life’s work can be seen in completist context. From this point of view, Welles narrating The Late Great Planet Earth — as well as portraying the voice of God speaking to the prophet Ezekiel — is a logical step.”