Six Damn Fine Degrees #95: The Awesome Wells of Portugal and Spain

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Piece of evidence #1: Orson Welles as a deceptive conjurer in the awful comedy version of Casino Royale (1967) – or just deceptively conjured up himself?

The train has left the station. The literal one, no metaphors, no fakes: The blissful travels of my current teacher timeout have brought me across Spain all the way to Portugal within the past ten days. As I’m leaving Porto Campaña station en route to Lisbon, I marvel at Matt’s shocking revelation from last week about the impossibility of Orson Welles‘ existence. Could it really be true that one of the most famous directors was just a figment of our imagination, an image of one towering director to deceive us all?

Travelling naturally offers extra time for reflection – and research. So what will Google have to say about all this? If the real Welles never existed, would I find an unknown and forgotten doppelgänger somewhere else – potentially even track him down here, on the Iberian peninsula?

As the train winds its way along the Portuguese Atlantic coast, I’m of course reminded that somewhere out there lies Estoril, world-famous casino town of the post-World War II era, where celebrities, politicians and secret service agents came to mingle – and gamble. Author Ian Fleming is said to have based his fictitious casino of ‘Royale-les-Eaux’ for his first James Bond novel on Estoril and it even became a filming location for the opening scenes of Bond’s 1969 adventure On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (now to be retitled His should there ever be a remake – God save her soul).

But wait a second! There was an Orson Welles in all this! Just two years prior, an actor of the same name appeared in an awful comedy version of Fleming’s Casino Royale: As gambling gangster Le Chiffre, he battled Peter Sellers as James Bond (besides David Niven, Woody Allen and Ursula Andress, one of a many many others playing the part in this ludicrous disaster of a film). Welles played him as an over-the-top conjurer with dozens of tricks up his sleeve to ensure his continued lucky streaks at Baccarat. Sellers’ Bond understandably goes nuts within minutes but can at least avoid Le Chiffre’s torture (with a carpet beater!) thought up in Fleming’s novel. Welles and Sellers apparently hated each other’s guts so much that they filmed their takes separately from each other. So if not even a fake James Bond ever saw the real Welles, then who might have?

Piece of evidence #2: An eerie Orson Welles lookalike enjoying the Portuguese coast – or the director himself?!

The wells go deeper than this, though! Research reveals that a director by the name of Orson Welles actually visited Portugal on a number of occasions: An inconspicuous picture found on Google shows him half-smilingly enjoying the wild coast of Cascais, literally just next door to Estoril. If this doesn’t get us closer to the real Welles!

I’m on a roll now, and my train is picking up speed too, increasing pressure to pinpoint just how real Welles was – at least to this part of the world. Would I find sources to tell me the lesser known stories of the region, one where even our supposed director might feature? Speakingofspain does the trick and provides more evidence: A certain Orson Welles actually had a love affair in and with Spain!

Piece of evidence #3: Just a face in the crowd – or actually the director himself?

According to the site, as a teenager, Welles fell in love with Seville. Others claim it was his narration of Hemingway’s The Spanish Earth, a text in support of the Spanish Republicans fighting fascism that made him fall. Even though disliked and removed by Hemingway, Welles love of the country had become steadfast by then. So steadfast that he both tried to live and work there repeatedly if at times unsuccessfully.

Upon marrying Italian model Paola Mori in 1955, they chose a finca outside Ronda (north of Marbella) as their home. He immediately started work on adapting the ultimate Spanish work of literature too, Don Quixote, first as a faithful adaptation, then as a variation set on the moon and finally released in the 1990s and 2000s as a compilation of pieces. He apparently used his booming narration as well to tell stories of Spanish culture in several series for television (one episode from Around the World on Basque Country is still available).

There were apparently several other attempts at making Spain the location for his next projects: An adaptation of Treasure Island with Spanish director Emiliano Piedra never came through (even though Welles did play Long John Silver in the 1972 version by John Hough co-scripted by him and Wolf ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz). For his Chimes by Midnight (1965), an elaborate project combining no less than five kings from the works of Shakespeare, he did eventually secure both Piedra (alongside long-time Bond producer Harry Saltzman) and Spain as a location, filming both in Madrid and Basque Country. His Falstaff role along with the rest of the film have since only increased in appreciation among critics. Welles was more emphatic at the time: “It’s my favourite picture, yes.”

Piece of evidence #4: Orson Welles filming scenes as Falstaff in his Chimes by Midnight (1965) in Madrid, Spain.

So what more evidence do we need to root the real Orson Welles firmly in Iberian soil? Footprints in the sand, letters carved in stone, or ashes left in a well, perhaps? No need to venture further for me for now it seems: Welles and Paola Mori’s cremated remains were in fact dropped into the well outside their finca in Rondo. Welles became part of Spanish earth.

Welles in a well? The irony did not escape the writers of Speakingofspain either. Myself, now free from irony, I can report for a fact that whatever there ever was of the awesome Welles has now become one with Spain, the country he loved, even with a monument in his memory now decorating the local bullring. Orson was real, at least here.

The train is entering the station: Lisboa Santa Apolonia.

Pieces of evidence #5 and #6: A monument in Ronda, Spain – and a well containing what remains of Welles and Paola Mori.

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