As William Shakespeare was to lesser writers and works, so was Orson Welles to The Bard’s lesser works. In his 1965 film, Falstaff (Chimes At Midnight), made in Spain, via a Spanish and Swiss co-production, Welles showed that he was still a great filmmaker, despite severe budget restriction, subpar equipment, and assorted other problems with technical issues, and it was these issues, alone, which possibly and arguably take the film down from an unquestionably great work to a merely nearly great one. Welles shows how adept he was at adaptation in his screenplay by sewing together the historical accounts of Raphael Holinshed with five of Shakespeare’s lesser works, the four histories that feature the titular character, John Falstaff- Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V, and Richard II, as well as one of his generally abysmal comedies- The Merry Wives Of Windsor. Actor Ralph Richardson narrates the Holinshed material.
Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s attempts at a comedic character that, in the plays, falls flat, and mires in caricature and silliness- as he is a fat, gluttonous coward lacking scruples, despite being a knight. But, a great actor like Welles, inhabits and expands the character, who is a supporting character in Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, merely mentioned in Henry V, and briefly appears in The Merry Wives Of Windsor, by expanding the role with his own words, and centering the film upon this otherwise forgettable ‘background character.’ The material from Richard II is featured in non-Falstaff scenes.
The film starts with Falstaff and Justice Shallow walking through the snow, to reminisce at a tavern. We then get the bulk of the film as a flashback, beginning with the Holinshed narration that King Henry IV of England (John Gielgud) has killed Richard II, whose heir, Edmund Mortimer, is a prisoner in Wales, and whose cousins- Northumberland, Worcester and Northumberland’s son, Hotspur plot a coup d’etat. Henry’s son, Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), debauches his life away with Falstaff at the tavern where the film opened. Falstaff sees his sway over Hal as his in to upper society, but Hal tells him that, one day, he will leave Falstaff behind. Falstaff and his men, along with Hal, commit petty crimes in disguise, and their friendship grows. Falstaff believes a life of ease awaits him, although, given his obvious gluttony, he has not done badly in the life of ease department so far. Hal’s father tries to talk sense into Hal, to drop Falstaff, who is a bad influence, and also how his relatives plot against them. Hal vows to redeem himself and protect his father’s crown.
Hal leads his father’s army, including Falstaff, off to war, after Henry’s enemies reject an amnesty offer. The armies clash at the Battle of Shrewsbury- in a very good action scene that is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s climax in Seven Samurai. That a low budget film got so much right, technically (including a great scene of heavy knights hoisted by ropes onto horses- and where fat Falstaff’s rope breaks), is evidence of Welles’ utter mastery of film. Hotspur and Hal meet duel to the death, with Hal as victor. Falstaff fakes his death, then claims he killed Hotspur, which eventually aids hal’s rejection of him, as a faux father figure. After the war, King Henry falls ill, and Hal vows to finally reject Falstaff and his wayward youth. Upon his death, Prince Hal declares himself King Henry V.
The flashback portion of the film has now caught up to the film’s start, and Falstaff, Shallow, and others receive news of Henry IV’s death and that Hal's coronation will be held that morning. Falstaff thinks his time has come, and goes to the castle, thinking that he will get all he deserves. Unfortunately, that is exactly what he receives, as Hal makes good on his earlier promise to leave Falstaff behind, and banishes his old friend, who, brokenheartedly, dies at the tavern, that night. The film ends with the claim that Henry V was a famed and noble king.
Given that the film was budgeted well under a million dollars, its achievement is astounding, for the black and white cinematography equals that of the great Greek tragic films of Michael Cacoyannis, as the use of canted angles, the use of sun and shadow in a de facto Medieval film noir, the use of real locations, and the cold breaths the actors exhale as punctuations in some scenes, the framing of scenes and characters within them, and the use of the sky, forests, castles, and Spanish countryside- so radically different from England’s (especially in the coeval spaghetti westerns filmed in color in the same locations), yet well used within, shows what a visionary like Welles could do with a journeyman cinematographer like Edmond Richard, whom he also employed on his film version of The Trial. Welles’ use of deep closeups on some of the lesser characters, like a stutterer, prefigured Sergio Leone’s exploration of facial terra just a year or two later. The film’s scoring, by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, is subtle and apt- never intruding the way most Hollywood productions would, and the editing, by Fritz Muller, meshes well with the cinematography, in several key scenes- especially the Battle of Shrewsbury.
But, most of all, the acting dominates. Welles give yet another magisterial performance, in a career laced with them, making the otherwise forgettable Falstaff into a real and actually likable character that viewers laugh with, not at. Yet, as great as Welles is, the revelation is Keith Baxter, as Prince Hal. The lifelong stage actor starred in the role, with Welles, on Broadway, and is spectacular as a rapscallion, debauchee, letch, then warrior, killer, and reluctant king-cum-leader of men. Gielgud, one of the most noted Shakespearean actors of all time, is wholly believable and humanly lonely as Henry IV, even though Shakespeare’s written version of the character is rather shallow and pallid. Jeanne Moreau, the fine French actress, is miscast in a minor role as Falstaff’s favorite prostitute, Doll Tearsheet, while Margaret Rutherford shows pathos and humor as the tavern’s owner, Mistress Quickly. All the other acting is quite good, and, as a whole, this may be the most ‘realistic’ and ‘human’ Shakespeare film ever made, as Chimes At Midnight is leagues better than any of its source material.
At the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, Chimes At Midnight won the 20th Anniversary and the Technical Grand Prizes, but it was savaged in America, by critics, because of subpar prints that had many technical and audio difficulties. Of course, there was always just plain old stupidity to deal with, as in this review, by the New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther:
Evidently Mr. Welles’s reading of Falstaff ranges between a farcical concept of him and a mawkish, sentimental attitude. He makes the old pot-bellied rascal an armor-plated buffoon in the midst of a wild and brutal Battle of Shrewsbury, in which Prince Hal slays the brave Henry (Hotspur) Percy (for which Falstaff claims credit, of course).
He makes him a sort of Jackie Gleason getting off one of his homilies when he gives the great apostrophe to Honor, much of which I simply couldn’t understand. And he chokes up like a soap-opera grandma when he is suddenly banished by the new Henry V, giving out with the cruel ‘I-know-thee-not-old-man’ speech. Mr. Welles runs the gamut, as they say.
But his is still an inarticulate Flastaff. It is a big, squashy, tatterdemalion show, and it has no business intruding so brashly in the serious Shakespearean affairs of the Lancasters, the Percies and the Mortimers, which Mr. Welles does get to from time to time in this freely selected composite of scenes from Shakespeare, as it were.
This is a perfect example of a critic NOT reviewing what is before him, but comparing it to the source plays, and finding it wanting. Of course, this sort of stolidity is vintage Crowther.
I watched the film, which has no official American DVD version released, nor is it available anywhere, save for bootleg copies online, on Youtube, in a quite well rendered version which, save for a dozen or so rebuffering pauses, was worth the waits. All in all, despite the difficulties, I think Falstaff (Chimes At Midnight) passes the bar for greatness, and, oddly enough, given that such a film would never have been greenlighted and left untampered with by the Hollywood system, a good argument can be made that Welles’ plethora of post-Hollywood excellence was actually a creative boon to a mind like Welles’. Had he been able to take the easy way out, would this film, or The Trial, or Touch Of Evil, or Mr. Arkadin or F For Fake ever been made? Or would we have gotten Wellesian bastardies like his version of Cleopatra, From Here To Eternity, or some godforsaken musical? Those things will never be known, but Falstaff (Chimes At Midnight)’s excellence is obvious. Do what is needed to see it.