Buried deep among the hundreds of old scripts in RKO Pictures’ archives was a 1941 melodramatic gem about an amnesia-stricken man who wakes up in the middle of a revolution in Mexico. Never produced, the screenplay for “The Way to Santiago” is credited to Orson Welles. A quick look at the text leaves no doubt it was the work of the “Citizen Kane” filmmaker when he was at the peak of his arrogant brilliance. The script begins: “My face fills the frame.”
Abandoned by RKO after Welles’ epic fall from grace, “The Way to Santiago” has finally gotten the green light nearly six decades later and is being produced by a rejuvenated RKO. “This script caught everything about Welles,” said RKO Chairman and CEO Ted Hartley, citing the screenplay’s action, suspense and jungle romance. “It reflected his greatness in storytelling.” The Welles script was known to film historians for years, but it wasn’t easy to find. (NOTE: For educational purposes only)
“Santiago” tells the story of a man who wakes up in Mexico with no idea of who he is or how he got there. The twist is that he has an uncanny resemblance to a notorious figure. The story follows the man’s search for his own identity while evil forces try to kill him. Welles intended to direct and star in the film, as he had done in “Kane,” so the name of the main character is simply “Me” in the script. In a letter on file in RKO’s archives, Welles writes from New York to studio production head George Schaeffer on Feb. 2, 1941 that he’s eager to get started, assuring Schaeffer “we are going to successfully avoid a lot of the things that cost us time and money in the making of ‘Kane.’” “The only way to achieve the results we all urgently want is for those in responsibility to understand, finally, that even if they don’t like my way of doing things, they must do it my way just the same… (and most important) without making an effort to prove in the process that my way is wrong,” Welles wrote. The “Kane” problems were obviously weighing on Welles. “I am sorry not to be in Hollywood only because I know that apologists for our difficulties in ‘Kane’ will get your ear with a plausibility they never could manage were I not away,” he said.
The studio appeared very interested in “The Way to Santiago.” In a 1941 memo, a studio executive described the “Mexican Melodrama” script as “enormously interesting” and “exciting” with a good start, lots of suspense, though it “lets down a bit in the middle portion.” “With Welles’ flair for casting, his fast-moving direction and his amazing, if recently acquired, knowledge of what can be done with a camera, I should be tempted to let him work out his own problems on this one,” the memo said. The studio did express some concern about relations with the Mexican government over the subject matter of the film. This was at a time when RKO was co-owned by Nelson Rockefeller, who had oil holdings in Latin America. But “The Way to Santiago” never got made because of a corporate shakeup that cost Welles his main supporter, Rockefeller; problems with Welles’ second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons”; and Welles’ own self-destructive behavior. The script was filed away until the new RKO found it and gave it a second look. And while Hartley hails the script, he says it isn’t without flaws. The search is on for a script doctor unafraid to take on a Welles screenplay. “It needs some work,” Hartley said. “Among other things, it kind of drifted off near the end.” —Meet a hot new Hollywood writer: Orson Welles