Orson Welles waiting on the set
CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (Campanadas a Medianoche) A
France Spain Switzerland (119 mi) 1966 d: Orson Welles
There live not three good men unhanged in England;
And one of them is fat and grows old.
—Falstaff, from Act II, Henry IV Part 1
Welles’s quintessential work, a consolidation of 5 Shakespearian plays, including all references to Falstaff, Welles’s favorite literary character, from Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Richard II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, all somehow held together by narrated excerpts from Holinshed’s Chronicles, a comprehensive description of British history that was first published in 1577. If ever there were a character Orson Welles was born to play, it is Shakespeare’s big, bold and bawdy rogue, Falstaff, a lover of wine, women, and song (“Come, sing me a bawdy song!”), also of spinning yarns of such exaggerated proportions into spontaneous works of art, while he was a jolly, fat old man, “a fool and a jester,” with a wit and gargantuan spirit that all but overshadowed his true cowardice. He was the Prince of Wales’s drinking companion in bawdy houses until the prince would become a king, at which time Falstaff was banished from the kingdom, causing him to die of heartbreak right there on the spot. His love interest was played by none other than Jeanne Moreau. Chimes is notable for its famous Battle of Shrewsbury sequence, which combines extraordinary realism with humor, as Falstaff himself is hiding behind trees or wandering aimlessly alone in the middle of the battlefield which lays strewn with corpses, all the while taking credit for the dead, also for the beauty of its language, allowing John Gielgud as King Henry IV to rival Welles’s Falstaff for legendary monologues, also for a truly remarkable Mistress Quickly, the innkeeper, by Dame Margaret Rutherford, who despite being the butt of all his jokes, loves Falstaff as a kind of human wonderment, dazzled by his every living breath. The film’s flaws, especially the poor sound synchronization, due to lack of funds, are among the worst ever experienced and remain intact even after a digital restoration (though archivists are at work in a full preservation and 4K restoration that could take years), and while irritatingly noticeable throughout, are overcome by the breadth of this film’s achievements, which finds Welles most at ease in any of his roles, by the extraordinary mix of sound and music with spectacular sets, superb imagery, and by the magnificence of the actor’s command of the language. At times hilarious, breathtaking, and heartbreaking, it’s ultimately a tragic work that is one of the least seen in the Welles repertoire due to copyright issues and the shoddy quality of the prints available through the years. However, it belongs in the pantheon as one of cinema’s crowning achievements.
While Welles was fascinated by Shakespeare from an early age, playing Richard III in his own three and a half hour production of an amalgam of Shakespeare’s historical plays in high school, calling it The Winter of Our Discontent, playing Tybalt in a Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet at age 19, and he was hailed as a theatrical prodigy at the age of 20 with his all-black production of Macbeth in Harlem, which became known as Voodoo Macbeth, while at the same time adapting and performing Hamlet on CBS Radio’s Columbia Workshop, yet at age 22 he also directed, starred and produced his own adaptation of Julius Caesar that broke all Broadway performance records for the play. At 23 his career was jump-started by the panic, controversy, and overall hysteria generated from his infamous Mercury Theatre radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, where many listeners mistook the theatrics of radio theater for a real live alien invasion taking place in their midst, but the extent of the widespread panic was largely fabricated or greatly exaggerated, either way confirming his celebrity status. By the time he was 25, he produced a Broadway stage adaptation of nine Shakespeare plays called Five Kings, though it was something of a flop, where according to the Welles biographer Charles Highman, Five Kings | Orson Welles, Welles was drinking heavily while also balancing his sexual exploits, opening without ever successfully completing a dress rehearsal. As might be expected, the play was “long and unwieldy,” with Welles insisting upon two intermissions, so the three and a half hour play didn’t end until 1 am, well past the endurable limits of most patrons. More than two decades later in 1960, Welles revived this play in Ireland, where it was his final onstage performance. Playing Falstaff was not only his lifelong ambition (among so many other projects), so was turning this play into a film, writing an extraordinary screenplay, something of a major achievement by itself, taking sixteen hours of stage time and turning it into two hours of cinema, radically reinterpreting the source material by altering the time lines, shortening the scenes, and restructuring the plays, borrowing lines from different plays and placing them side by side, offering an entirely different context by thoroughly examining the plays through the perspective of a secondary character, Sir John “Jack” Falstaff, creating what is essentially a new story, one that is similar yet never existed in the annals of Shakespeare. While struggling to get financing for the film, which was made for about $800,000, he lied to Spanish producer Emiliano Piedra, claiming they were instead shooting Robert Louis Stevenson’s action adventure Treasure Island in various Spanish locations throughout Spain in 1964-65, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966, where a jury led by Sophia Loren awarded a shared Grand Prize to Pietro Germi’s Italian sex comedy SIGNORE & SIGNORI and Claude Lelouche’s lushly photographed romance A MAN AND A WOMAN, handing Welles’s film two awards, a 20th Anniversary Prize and a Technical Grand Prize.
Shallow: Jesus, the days that we have seen. Ha, Sir John? Said I well?
Falstaff: We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Robert Shallow.
Shallow: That we have, that we have, that we have. In faith, Sir John, we have. Jesus, the days we have seen.
—opening dialogue, Chimes at Midnight - Page 32 - Google Books Result
With this opening prelude, Falstaff (Orson Welles) and his friend Justice Shallow (the high pitched voice of Alan Webb) make their way through a snowy landscape, arriving at the Boar’s Head Tavern where they warm themselves to a glowing fire and recount the tales of their lives (a scene that repeats itself later in the film, chatting about friends who are old or dead), leading into an unforgettable title sequence, with returning foot soldiers solemnly making their way back from distant battlefields in a long disheveled line, given an especially austere look, with an ill wind blowing the helmet off one soldier, revealing a chilling image of soldiers staring straight at the camera, bending over and laying down their weapons, while behind them hanged men dangle in the background on scaffolds built especially for the occasion. This searing image speaks volumes, as public hangings are a cold reminder of the harsh consequences of the law under King Henry IV, where England is a police state ruled by terror, sending the military into foreign lands to levy justice, while quelling any unrest by summary executions. Following the image of a towering castle, a narrator, none other than Sir Ralph Richardson (who was himself a legend at playing Falstaff onstage), concisely summarizes how we got to this point using Holinshed’s Chronicles, explaining Henry IV is a usurper who seized the throne, succeeding the reign of Richard II, who was murdered in the year 1400, while Richard’s rightful heir to the throne, Edmund Mortimer, was kidnapped and remains imprisoned by Welsh rebels. Seeking immediate remedy, Mortimer’s cousins, Northumberland (José Nieto), Northumberland’s son Henry Percy, also known as Hotspur (Norman Rodway), and Worcester (Fernando Rey) call upon the king to have Mortimer released, where only Hotspur dares to raise his voice to King Henry IV (John Gielgud), seen sitting high atop the throne a good twenty feet above his subjects, with soldiers lining the walls in a cavernous, stone cathedral-like setting with light streaming through the windows illuminating the king, but they are instead callously turned away. In anger at their rebuke, the three embark upon a plot to overthrow the king. Given the circumstances described by the narrator, the viewer is quick to mistrust the actions of the king, placing a heavy burden of doubt on the legitimacy of Henry’s rule, setting the tone by providing a moral vacuum for everything that follows. Who better to fill that void than Falstaff, who is quickly seen entertaining the drunken rabble at Boar’s Head, where the King’s son, Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), heir to the throne, spends his time under Falstaff’s patriarchal tutelage carousing with prostitutes, petty thieves, beggars, and other ne’er do wells, much to the dismay of the king.
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The knight’s unfettered indulgence in sensual pleasures, his exuberant mendacity, and his love of his own ease, are purged of offence by his colossal wit and jollity, while the contrast between his old age and his unreverend way of life supplies that tinge of melancholy which is unseparable from the highest manifestations of humour. The Elizabethan public recognised the triumphant success of the effort, and many of Falstaff’s telling phrases, with the names of his foils, Justice Shallow and Silence, at once took root in popular speech. Shakespeare’s purely comic power culminated in Falstaff; he may be claimed as the most humorous figure in literature.
No other literary figure provokes as much emotional range as Falstaff (whose only rival in Shakespeare is the much younger and more melancholic Hamlet), from his male bluster and moral transgressions to his comic wit, buffoonish pride, mastery of language, passion for living, displaying a cheerfulness that is endlessly contagious, where his one man theatrical show is endlessly engaging throughout the ages, never allowing himself to be outsmarted in verbal sparring, yet ultimately he becomes such a tragic figure. To that end, a rotund and oversized Welles has a field day with this larger than life character, immortalized by his performance on celluloid, where every line is heavily saturated with comic satire, much of it spoken at breakneck speed, where the man rises to every insult and comic jab, never losing faith in either himself or his prowess for language, becoming a legendary figure before our appreciative eyes, where we can’t wait to hear what he says next. Surrounding himself with a ragtag group of outcasts and moral derelicts, the leader of a dissolute crew, he is the king of his own castle at telling tall tales with hilarious barroom exaggerations that grow even greater after every drink, always crying poverty to Mistress Quickly (Dame Margaret Rutherford), while she continually reminds him of his outstanding debt before pouring him another round. Prince Hal, on the other hand, is a magnificent straight man, matching him drink for drink, feeding him endless possibilities to outwit the rank and file, whose level-headed assuredness in himself is not lost to either Falstaff or the audience, as his dexterity with the English language shows supreme confidence in himself. Considering the times, Falstaff was like a walking professor, as he was consumed by the barbarous treachery that exists in nobility, making a mockery of it whenever he could, where clearly virtue was a concept in name only, as there was none to be seen in British royalty. Falstaff preferred the more commonplace pleasures of eating, sleeping, drinking, and fornication, along with any other indulgences to be found, where moral excess was his middle name. Falstaff considered himself a free man, and was certainly able to speak freely, yet his real thrill was liberating himself from the wretched society of the times, the nobility from which Prince Hal was spawned. Both despised the pretense and moral hypocrisy of the royal court, taking the high ground while undercutting any opposition at the knees, yet as we come to learn, Falstaff’s freedom was not absolute. While he revels in his marvelous ability to hold Prince Hal’s rapt attention, loving him as he would his own son, he’s the real deal as a progenitor of ideas and knowledge, not an ounce of counterfeit, where he thrives on his grandiose personality, yet Hal remains a mirror image in concept only, as he warns Falstaff of what awaits him, that he will have to reject him and his lifestyle one day, as he is, after all, the prince in waiting, “I know you all, and will awhile uphold / The unyoked humor of your idleness.” But these thoughts fall on deaf ears, producing only a sad smile from Falstaff, and not one of awareness or recognition, yet somehow we know these two are bound together, no matter what fate has in store for them.
The film’s central dynamic is Falstaff’s relationship with Hal, who avoids service to his king by keeping company with Falstaff, who clearly loves him and lavishes him with affection, accepting him as he is, something his own father is incapable of doing. Nonetheless this friendship will be challenged, as Hal seems incapable of reciprocating in kind, remaining non-committal, where a good deal of the early horseplay in the tavern is at the expense of Falstaff, playing jokes on him while eagerly waiting for his exaggerated reaction. While there are moments of delightful comedy, there is also an undertone of cruelty behind much of the humor, making the aging and oversized Falstaff an easy target. Insults are hurled at him not to elicit audience sympathy, but rather to have a laugh at Falstaff’s expense. When they agree to disguise themselves to rob a group of traveling pilgrims known to be carrying cash in the nearby forest, Hal plays a trick on Falstaff and steals the loot from him in yet another disguise, causing him to run away in a panic. But to hear Falstaff boast of his heroics in the tavern afterwards, supposedly fending off a handful of scoundrels with his sword, with the number growing by the minute, with Hal ultimately exposing his fabrication as a pathetic ruse, there’s a building feeling of making fun of the fat guy, where it’s easy to laugh at fools who have been stripped of all dignity and any ounce of self respect, and while there’s a lighthearted tone about it, there’s also something deeply flawed and tragic about the character that must have drawn Welles to playing this role, adding a kind of childlike innocence to his mirth. While Falstaff cheats nearly everyone he encounters, offering bluff and bravado as a means of garnering his way into our hearts, yet there’s an inherent good nature behind his acts, as perhaps friendship, having a drink and a good laugh, was all he ever desired. Unlike Hal, he never had designs on becoming a king. Hal, on the other hand, leads a dual life, one drinking and carousing with Falstaff and his merry men, and another under the scathing watch of his father, the king, who continually chastises him for wasting his youth with villainous company. The height of the comic fervor takes place when Falstaff and Hal engage in a bit of roleplaying, each one absurdly playing the king, creating a mad flourish of a play within a play, with Falstaff, wearing a pot on his head as the crown, lecturing Hal as only a father can, bringing the house down in laughter before ruminating on the many virtues of that fine fellow, Falstaff. Yet when Hal assumes the role of king, he berates Falstaff, describing him as “That villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan,” accusing him of iniquities, even threatening him with banishment, with Falstaff (as Hal) pleading for his defense, suggesting he could get rid of anyone else but Falstaff, “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” At some point, the laughs subside and seriousness takes hold, where the play stops being a play and becomes something else in earnest, as in this story, Falstaff, in all his enormity, is the entire universe, where he is a stand-in for all of humanity.
The appeal of Falstaff is described by English literary scholar A. C. Bradley, from Harold Bloom’s book William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare - Page 142 - Google Books Result
The bliss of freedom gained in humour is the essence of Falstaff. His humour is not directed only or chiefly against obvious absurdities; he is the enemy of everything that would interfere with his ease, and therefore of anything serious, and especially of everything respectable and moral. For these things impose limits and obligations, and make us the subjects of old father antic the law, and the categorical imperative, and our station and its duties, and conscience, and reputation, and other people's opinions, and all sorts of nuisances. I say he is therefore their enemy; but I do him wrong; to say that he is their enemy implies that he regards them as serious and recognizes their power, when in truth he refuses to recognize them at all. They are to him absurd; and to reduce a thing ad absurdam is to reduce it to nothing and to walk about free and rejoicing. This is what Falstaff does with all the would-be serious things of life, sometimes only by his words, sometimes by his actions too. He will make truth appear absurd by solemn statements, which he utters with perfect gravity and which he expects nobody to believe; and honor, by demonstrating that it cannot set a leg, and that neither the living nor the dead can possess it; and law, by evading all the attacks of its highest representative and almost forcing him to laugh at his own defeat; and patriotism, by filling his pockets with the bribes offered by competent soldiers who want to escape service, while he takes in their stead the halt and maimed and jailbirds; and duty, by showing how he labours in his vocation—of thieving; and courage, alike by mocking at his own capture of Colevile and gravely claiming to have killed Hotspur; and war, by offering the Prince his bottle of sack when he is asked for a sword; and religion, by amusing himself with remorse at odd times when he has nothing else to do, and the fear of death, by maintaining perfectly untouched, in the face of imminent peril and even while he feels the fear of death, the very same power of dissolving it in persiflage that he shows when he sits at ease in his inn. These are the wonderful achievements which he performs, not with the sourness of a cynic, but with the gaiety of a boy. And, therefore, we praise him, we laud him, for he offends none but the virtuous and denies that life is real or life is earnest, and delivers us from the oppression of such nightmares, and lifts us into the atmosphere of perfect freedom.
The centerpiece, however, and the turning point in the film, is the Battle of Shrewsbury, the only battle sequence ever staged by Welles throughout his entire career, and the moment when Henry and Hotspur’s quarrel comes to a head. Though it starts out amusingly enough, with pomp and a parade of soldiers marched through the middle of town, including Falstaff, who is bid a tearful farewell from Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau) waving from the window, as they round up all able-bodied men ready for war, with Falstaff immediately securing bribes from draft dodgers, where knights clad in armor are lowered by ropes from tree branches and placed directly onto horses, except for Falstaff, who is too heavy, despite a team of men pulling on the ropes, and unfortunately crashes to the ground, content apparently to walk into battle, seen raising his sword in the direction of the enemy. The prelude to battle is given an ominous tone, where there is an exchange of last minute demands that are angrily refused, with two sides at opposite ends of a barren field with hovering fog looming between them. Technically innovative and brilliantly edited, arguably the greatest sequence he ever filmed, rousing music plays as troops charge at one another, where there is a combination of archers, knights on horseback, and warriors on foot all clashing at once, where the moment blows are exchanged, the thundering sound of hooves give way to the brutal sounds of clanking armor, with men being pulled off their horses and bludgeoned, with spears flying through the air continually targeting enemy foes, where it’s impossible to tell one side from the other, as the result is utter chaos. Placed directly into the center of the carnage, with a soundtrack turned mournful and elegiac, with the cries of men contrasted against a wailing woman’s chorus, Welles produces a six-minute sequence of tracking shots, quick cuts, and hand-held cameras as the warring armies tumble over one another in the mud, relentlessly beating and stabbing one another, slowed to slow motion, where we see legs and boots sunk in the mire along with countless bodies strewn along the wayside. Throughout it all Falstaff is seen aimlessly running from side to side, avoiding all contact, always scurrying to find refuge behind available shrubbery, where he witnesses the climactic swordfight between Hal and Hotspur, a valiant duel where Hal redeems himself with his courage on the battlefield, where the battle ends with the death of Hotspur, so shocked at the result that he can’t even finish his final speech before he dies. True to his character, a lying Falstaff takes credit for slaying Hotspur, and doing so before the king, no less, stealing the young prince’s moment of glory, creating resentment by leaving lingering doubts about his son’s valor in the mind of the king. This intentional deception, added to the senseless brutality of war, have a way of overshadowing any notion of supposed honor, leaving us to ponder the level of gravity of each offense. While there are a series of eloquent speeches at the end, with Gielgud rivalling Welles at every turn, the king’s health deteriorates, bringing about a last minute father and son reconciliation before he passes the crown to Henry V, but instead of that jubilant moment Falstaff always hoped and dreamed for with Hal suddenly anointed king, the severity with which he cuts his ties with Falstaff is quick and decisive, ultimately becoming a sad tale of rejection and betrayal, leaving him alone to wander the wastelands. Heartbroke and losing all will to live, Falstaff fades away overnight, leaving his young page (played by none other than his own daughter Beatrice Welles) to announce his death, where in a remarkably grim final shot, his coffin is pushed back out into that barren wasteland.