The Late Great Orson Welles

“Like the Big O says in the The Late Great Planet Earth, '70 per cent of biblical prophecy has already come true. The remaining 30 per cent will come true in our lifetime.' ”


Apocalypse, Nu?

When the cops broke into David Berkowitz’s Yonkers apartment upstairs from Craig who was “Craig” and around the corner from Sam’s barking black dog, they found a very small library. Young David, it seems, was a much more avid writer than reader. One of the few volumes in his otherworld-charm bachelor pad was a well-thumbed copy of The Late Great Planet Earth, a “theoretical” work by one Hal Lindsey that seeks to explain how and why Old Testament apocalyptic prophesy will come true in our lifetime. According to several of Berkowitz’s co-letter-throwers at the post office, the .44-caliber killer swore by the book, often re­marking, “Everything is in it.”

This being the case, you’ve got to feel sorry for Pacific In­ternational Enterprises, the distributors of the current four-walling movie version of The Late Great Planet Earth. An ad reading “EVERYTHING IS IN IT — David Berkowitz, Son of Sam” would really keep those shopping-mall and drive-in theatre turnstiles whizzing. Even better than “RATH­ER COMPELLING — Stuart Klein.” Too bad. Pull quotes from mass murderers are sadly out of the question. Still, anyone who knows that “cats are cats” cannot be totally without critical perspective so, on David Berkowitz’s recommendation, I went to Broadway to check out The Late Great Planet Earth.

David Berkowitz and Orson Welles. Many so-called “auteurists” believe that Welles’s career has essentially been in eclipse since Falstaff. These “critics” discount all of Welles’s recent work as a sellout by a burnt­out. 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.

For the better part of this decade, although he has made no major films, Welles has con­sistently been gaining in weighty seriousness. His early ’70s Dean Martin-Johnny Carson period simultaneously displayed the great di­rector at his most frivolous and his most despairing. Often, in the midst of Kane-like (and, one might add, Colonel Haki-like) dancing bouts with the Golddiggers, Welles allowed himself to degenerate into what ap­peared to be self-mockery. He repeatedly assumed, the role of the art-loving, museum­-going “intellectual,” making himself the butt and fodder of many boozy Martin guffaws. But, clearly, as we see now, this was not sim­ply the 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.

This self-analysis has continued with Welles’s recent series of Vivitar-camera commercials. What better way for the filmmaker to come to grips with the basic tools of his trade than by convincing others to buy them? Much the same process is apparent in Welles’s stunning voice-over for Perrier. The schizophrenia inherent in Welles’s European culture lust (expressed in the Shakespeare films and most prominently in The Trial) has long clashed with his rambunctious Americanism (as Colonel Amberson began to un­derstand, one never really leaves Wisconsin). Again, what better way to reconcile these op­posing factors than to make a European product accessible to an American audience?

As for Welles’s participation in The Late Great Planet Earth, should the creator of The War of the Worlds be any less interested in the demise of terra firma just because 40 years have elapsed? This film fits his oeuvre like a fat-fingered glove. In the first scene, a man in biblical garb is chased and killed by a mob of angry Hebrews. Then, in the very next sequence, Welles appears, carrying a skull. In his booming voice, he informs us that the man killed in the earlier scene was a false prophet and the skull he holds once be­longed to the charlatan. Then Welles tosses the head around in his ample hands. This scene is quite obviously a direct allusion to the glass-ball opening sequence of Kane.

But enough. The Late Great Planet Earth has a co-auteur, the aforementioned “theore­tician,” Hal Lindsey, who shares the film’s narration. Lindsey plays off the Big O’s brimstone quite nicely. He wears a dungaree suit, turquoise rings, and has hair that swoops like a flume ride in a theme park. All in all, Mr. Lindsey looks like a reformed smoker who was in the middle of teaching his weekly Evelyn Wood course the night he saw the flying saucers land on the Interstate. At­tempting to get some bio info on Mr. Lind­sey, I searched for a copy of The Late Great…  Booksellers on 8th Street said they were sorry, they had been expecting a slew of …Planet Earths to coincide with the movie opening but the huge snowfalls in the Midwest had fouled things up. I do not know whether this delay pleases Mr. Lindsey or not, inasmuch as it keeps him from making a lot of money but supports some of his theo­ries about the coming ice age.

In lieu of Mr. Lindsey’s book, a friend gave me a copy of The Figurae of Joachim of Fiore, a 1000-year-old Expositio in Apocaly­sim. This volume, which also predicted the imminent destruction of the planet, is chock­-full of snake-headed diagrams and talk of the Antichrist. Joachim, however, did not have juicy stuff like the A-bomb and mercury-­infested fish to throw in the face of the impla­cable progression of time. Much of Joachim’s antecedent philosophy was similar to Lindsey’s however. Both take on faith that the an­cient Israeli prophets — most prominently Isaiah, Zechariah, and Ezekiel — saw visions of the “end days,” a time in which the world would burn in fire. They wrote these visions into the Bible, and since then a large portion of their prophesies have come true. Like the Big O says in the narration, “70 per cent of biblical prophecy has already come true. The remaining 30 per cent will come true in our lifetime.”

It is this 30 per cent that occupies the bulk of The Late Great Planet Earth and, needless to say, it figures to light your ass up. Accord­ing to Lindsey, it has taken 2000 years of “civilization” for us to fully realize what the prophets’ vision meant. Lindsey interprets the Prophet John’s vision of blinding lightn­ing to “actually be a very beautiful descrip­tion of the exchange of intercontinental bal­listic missiles.” Of Zechariah’s statements about men’s flesh being “consumed before they fall” and eyes being “consumed by fire in their sockets,” Lindsey says, “this could only happen in nuclear war.”

I couldn’t catch it all, but before the big bang, there will be a bunch of serious inter­national politicking, all of it predicted thou­sands of years ago. Orson says the Bible said the “end days” would commence as soon as the Jews returned to the Holy Land and rebuilt the Temple of Solomon. So, now that the State of Israel has been established and the Jews are in possession of the Wailing Wall, it’s just a matter of time. The battle over the Middle East, supposedly predicted by the prophets, will escalate. Soon “the kings of the North” ( obviously the Russians, says Welles) will begin to move their armies. “The kings of the East” (Orson says, “The Bible says they will come with an army of 200,000,000 … right now the People’s Army is estimated at 200,000,000”) will counter their northern enemies. Then, from the west will come another force. This “10-nation confederacy” risen “from the ruins of Rome” (The Common Market has nine members, dig) will be led by the Antichrist. And under his conniving leadership these three forces will meet in the Valley of Decision.

The Antichrist is a man who at first ap­pears to be the saviour of the world but really is a cat playing a riff to send humanity down for the count. As the Big O portended some stuff about the number 666, clips of Nixon, Ted Kennedy, Brown, and various “failed” antichrists like Hitler were shown. But since the Antichrist will first appear to die, and then rise up, I kept picturing John Wayne.

The rotten part of The Late Great Planet Earth was its laborious “proof” section. I can understand the rationale behind trotting out whole platoons of “scientists,” like Desmond Morris — guys who are to Einstein as Herbie Mann is to Charlie Parker — to say “it’s later than you think.” For a ’70s pseudo-science like running or astrology, you’ve got to have pseudo-scientists. But Planet Earth‘s guys shed no light.

One “scientist” had a nifty modernistic rap about how when “replacement body parts became widespread the entire popula­tion will undergo a massive identity crisis.” But the rest was the typical hippie dreck about the ozone layer being brown.

Therein lies the major fault of The Late Great Planet Earth. To me, the Apocalypse is an intensely personal thing. I really don’t need some self-help creep handing out a cov­er version. Every thinking human can and should conjure up his own vision of doom, just like the graybeards in the Bible did. Screw ecologists. I stand with Carl Sand­burg — a factory is as beautiful as a tree. Nu­clear power doesn’t scare me either. Not at all. I like watching slow-motion films of mushroom clouds; they have a restful, nar­cotic effect on me. Some day I hope to watch a four-hour VTR tape of A-bomb explosions on a seven-foot TV screen as I drink beer. In fact, I think it’s fair to say I have a love-hate relationship with nuclear holocaust.

I remember the only time doomsday got me scared. I was doing a story on reggae sing­er Jimmy Cliff, who was doing his best to avoid me. Determined, I went to Randall’s Island, where Cliff was scheduled to perform at a Black Muslim “Family Day.” Cliff was to go on right after the keynote speaker, Minister Louis B. Farrakhan, a fiery preacher of inordinate persuasiveness. Farrakhan was only supposed to speak for 15 minutes, but as he entered his third hour at the podium he launched into a sublecture on the apocalypse. Waving his white-jacketed arms above his bubble sunglasses, Farrakhan invoked num­erous images of Ezekiel seeing “blood-red seas.” As he spoke of “the hand of Allah be­ing set,” I tried to get real small. Which wasn’t easy since I was sitting in the first row, the only visible white in a rally of 20,000.

So I did not shudder one bit when Welles spoke The Late Great Planet Earth‘s final line, a quote from Isaiah, “even as the earth shall pass away, my Words will not pass away.” The only shiver I got was knowing that very same voice once ended a film by saying, “I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles.” But as the lights went on, I was snapped from this sentimen­tality. Behind me was a regular-looking guy in a white Banlon shirt. He seemed normal enough, but he had a strange vacant smile. His eyes were wet, like he had been crying during the film. I wondered why anyone would cry during a movie like The Late Great Planet Earth when this guy turned to me and said, “It’s all true, you know. Every word of it. True. We don’t have a chance. Every single thing is true.” I didn’t wait around to ask him if “cats are cats.” ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 27, 2020