Orson Welles at the Todd School

Orson Welles as a student at The Todd School, circa 1930

Among the many misconceptions about Orson Welles—e.g., that none of his films made money, that all his protégés betrayed him—one that has garnered curious, unfounded support is that he was apolitical. Perhaps his imperious manner suggests ivory-tower detachment from issues on the ground; maybe his connection to Shakespeare links him more to statecraft of centuries past. Either way, it’s a false assumption to make of the man who produced radical plays for the Federal Theatre Project, spoke fervidly in support of the New Deal and against racism, wrote a newspaper column on political affairs in the 1940s, and considered running for Senate on behalf of Wisconsin (a seat which instead went to Joseph McCarthy).

Most intriguingly of all, he served as technical advisor on the first anti-nuke propaganda film on record.

Rip Van Winkle Renascent is a screenplay written by faculty members of The Todd School, a preparatory academy in Woodstock, Illinois that Welles had attended between ages 11 and 16. Among the script’s authors was headmaster Roger Hill, Welles’s mentor, described in a New Yorker profile of Welles as “a slim, white-haired, tweed-bearing man, who looks as if he had been cast for his role by a motion-picture director, [and] has never let the traditional preparatory-school curriculum stand in the way of creative work.” Hill indoctrinated Welles into the world of the theater, collaborating with him on many projects including Marching Song, a 1932 script about abolitionist John Brown. Welles would always cite The Todd School as what he thought of when he imagined “home,” and it was while his daughter Christopher “Chrissie” Welles was attending Todd that the staff was moved to respond to the recent bombings of Japan.

Roger Hill and Orson Welles 1978

Roger Hill and Orson Welles in 1978

Hill and fellow educators Pat Armstrong, Sandy Smith, and Hascy Tarbox adapted Washington Irving’s 1819 tale of Rip Van Winkle—a complacent villager who sleeps for 20 years and misses the American Revolution—into a barbed musical satire. Instead of awakening to find the colonies newly minted states, Rip continues slumbering for a century and a half, roused briefly by historic events only to be lulled back to sleep by gremlins—taking the form of ambassadors and senators—who would prefer he leave world affairs to them. Music director Carl Hendrickson contributed songs, such as this verse intoned by the gremlins in their guise as government ministers, before eventually revealing themselves as war gods:

We are diplomatic boys and we love a lot of noise
But you mustn't think we mean to do you harm.
Though we deal in bombs and treaties
We devour bowls of wheaties
And that's the major reason for our charm.
Though we often times have friction
We've a common predilection
And on one thing we are all of us agree,
It's our solemn, bounded duty
To steal any kind of booty
Such as oil or any bases that we need.

(Now they go into a dance with the bombs they carry. These are the old fashion kind, basketball size, with sputtering fuses. As they dance, the Diplomats continue their song:)

You no doubt are all agog—in a sort of mental fog
As to why we carry these about with us.
They're the symbols of our trade,
Knowing that they may be sprayed
The other side is not so apt to fuss.

(Their song is over but their dance continues to a climax when one Diplomat rolls his bomb up the ravine. At the top it explodes into a huge cloud of smoke. When this clears, we find ourselves in a cave labeled Headquarters of Mars. Here three weird puppets go into their own gleeful dance and sing their song:)

We're Immortal gods of war.
We are Wotan, Mars and Thor
And we love to see the humans
Play their games.
Once they used just sticks and stones.
Even then they piled up bones
But now they fight with lovely
Gorgeous flames.

(Another explosion and another smoke dissolve and the song is over…)

Finally the nuclear age arrives and Rip can sleep no more. Inspired by oratory from his friend, schoolmaster Derrick Van Bummel, Rip strikes down Mars and reads words of peace from one of Van Bummel’s books. As in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the ending is a plea for engagement and tolerance, lest the world extinguish itself.

Rita Hayworth, Christopher Welles, and Orson in 1945

Rita Hayworth, Christopher Welles, and Orson Welles in 1945

Busy making films at the time, Welles did not contribute to the Van Winkle script, but he visited the school twice while it was being filmed and volunteered his technical expertise. As Hill recounts in his production manual:

To show a Senate Committee marching out of our Capitol, [Welles] had us paint the Washington building on beaverboard close to the camera and have actors do their march on a platform far away. The platform must be just below camera range while the feet are seen. To get the required depth of focus, an outdoor shot on a sunny day is needed. In the same way we show diplomats marching out of a castle and up into the mountains. As for mountain-climbing shots, a large gravel pit and trick camera angles accomplished the effects. Instant transformations of little Gnomes into villains out of history were simple lap-dissolves. Actors in the midst of blazing atomic fire was just double exposure.

Speaking of Gnomes, one of them was played by 9-year-old Chrissie Welles, the only girl ever to attend the school.

The resulting 45-minute film, hailed as “the first atomic bomb peace picture,” opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, playing to an audience of international dignitaries. A British MP requested a print, making it the first film ever exhibited in the Houses of Parliament. Perhaps most notably, Eleanor Roosevelt convinced UNESCO to purchase 20 prints and exhibit them around the world. It’s barely known today, let alone screened, but it preceded Dr. Strangelove by nearly two decades as a biting example of anti-nuclear satire—a fascinating Welles footnote, emerging as it did between Kane and Lime, two men with their fingers on the button.