The film, Citizen Kane, is generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. The film’s writer, director, and lead actor, Orson Welles, was a man who was able to make an intensely complex film centered around an intensely complex character, Charles Foster Kane.
The film is very overt about its heavy ideological subject matter. What is much more difficult to figure out in this film, however, is where it stands in regards to ideological values. In the end, the film seems to be pointing to one particular aspect of the left wing moderate ideology. Perhaps the best way to understand exactly what Welles was attempting to say in this film regarding ideologies is to see how he used his main character, Kane, to make his point.
Citizen Kane is a complex story to interpret from the very beginning. It is apparent that someone who lives in a very enormous and lonely house has died after speaking the word, “Rosebud.” After this sequence, the viewer is thrust into a news reel explaining the life of Charles Foster Kane. Once the news reel is over, the news men who have been watching the reel, decide that it is simply not good enough. The reel most certainly portrayed all that Kane did in his life but it did not capture who he was. They decide to focus on Kane’s enigmatic last word. The rest of the film is told through the eyes of the reporter who is sent to figure out exactly what “Rosebud” meant. The viewer at this point essentially becomes the eyes and ears of the reporter learning small facts in pieces from the people who knew Kane. It is through these accounts that the puzzle pieces that make up Charlie Kane start to come together.
We first learn that Kane is from humble beginnings. He is a boy who is most certainly not wealthy by any means, but is happy playing in the snow. When his mother comes into a vast fortune, the bank assumes control over Kane until he is an adult and can oversee his own affairs. The first instance that we see Kane as an adult he is running a newspaper printing whatever he wants to no matter the effect it has on the wealthy. He appears to be dedicated to the working man and sees it as his right to speak for them since he has money and property and many of them do not. At this point in the film, Kane is almost a poster child for a left wing moderate mindset. He is focused on sympathy for disadvantaged marginal groups, he is much more concerned with the future than what has been done in the past, and he believes strongly in a democracy. This is the viewers first reference point to the character of Charles Foster Kane. It is not so easy to place him firmly in this box, however, since even he admits that he is essentially two people simultaneously. On one side he is fighting for the down trodden and forgotten, yet on the other he is a primary stockholder in the types of companies that seek to oppress the same people he is trying to protect. It seems that even Kane, himself, realizes that he is somewhat of a contradiction. In order to maintain his wealth and power that he is using to benefit the working people of the city, he must be part of the group that is seeking to exploit them. The peculiar thing is that Kane seems very comfortable with the two sides of his character seemingly being at odds. While he does allude to this contradiction, most of Kane’s actions at this point in his life appear to be strongly associated with the left wing ideology. As his life progresses, however, Kane seems to be shifting ever more to the right.
There are several instances that allude to Kane’s transition. One of the more poignant moments is in an argument between Kane and his long tim friend Jed Leland in which Leland points out to Kane that once the lower class can speak for themselves, they’ll realize they do not need him anymore. At that point Kane will have to shift to exploit someone else. This implication that Kane has been exploiting those he appeared to be championing is another indication of Kane’s supposedly contradictory nature. Leland throughout the film represents the true left wing moderate. He is right beside Kane every step of the way at the underdog newspaper. As the paper grows and Kane’s motives seem to be shifting, however, Leland moves further and further away from Kane, eventually being fired by Kane. Leland is one character who seems to be able to eventually see through Kane’s exterior, which sheds more and more as Kane moves through life. This disintegration of Kane and Leland’s relationship helps illustrate Kane’s ideological movement from the left to the right.
If Leland is the representation of the left wing ideology in Citizen Kane, then the character of Thatcher, Kane’s substitute parental father, most closely represents the ideology of the right wing. Thatcher is a man who seems to be concerned with only money. In doing so he shows no concern or sympathy whatsoever for marginal groups as well as being a very elitist type of individual. Although Thatcher becomes an absent character later in Kane’s life, Kane, himself, replaces Thatcher’s character as the film progresses becoming more and more like his father figure, whom he admits to hating in the beginning of the film. Kane slowly begins to shut himself off to the world outside being secluded in his mansion. Once his wife, Susan, leaves him, he becomes enraptured with his past, longingly carrying around a snow globe closely resembling the shot of Kane as a child playing in the snow. It is the point where he sees this globe that he first utters the words, “Rosebud.” The globe and the word are with him from that moment until his dying breath.
The ending to Citizen Kane is one that proves the reporters near the beginning of the film as right when they state that it was possible that Kane told everything about himself on his death bed. It is at the end that we see that Kane has been on the left side fighting for the underprivileged and speaking for those who have no voice. When that did not provide what he was seeking he moved further and further to the right becoming depressed elitist shut up in his own castle as if it were a prison obsessing over his past. When it comes down to it, neither ideology could bring Kane happiness in the end. His future seemed to have been doomed to sadness from the second he left his home with Thatcher. It appears that Kane’s mother and Thatcher are to blame for Kane’s misgivings. It is in this way that Welles could possibly be pointing out what happens to those caught up in the world of the right wing. Kane is most certainly ushered into the life of an elitist rebel kid getting thrown out of schools across the country.
It appears that Welles is possibly pointing to the truth of one particular aspect of the left wing moderate ideology; the fact that one’s character and identity is not shaped by genes but by one’s environment. Even the character of Kane states that he might have been a good man had he not been rich. The life that his mother forced him into despite his father’s disagreements and his own wishes, is, in fact, what caused him to lead such an empty life. The very fact that he was taken away seems to imply that Thatcher and Kane’s mother believed that one’s surroundings determined one’s identity and character. It seems to be the one fact that both Kane and Thatcher agree on when Kane is a youth. At the end of his life, Charles Foster Kane only wished to be transported back to his childhood home as a small boy playing in the snow with his sled.