You have to hand it to Orson Welles – he had the power to shock and surprise right to the end of his life. Granted he made some shocking movies along the way – even the mighty fail occasionally – but there are very few filmmakers credited with the greatest film of all time. After Citizen Kane, which itself attracted much controversy due to its satire on William Randolph Hearst, his career was marked by conflict with his financiers, including the permanent hacking by the studio of his masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons.
True, he made some astonishing films along the way (I love A Touch Of Evil), but by 1965 almost everyone thought his movie career was washed up, and indeed this illustrious actor, director and producer went on to spend this twilight years making sherry commercials, which is how I remember him in the 70s. Certainly no studio was going to give him unlimited budget and unfettered artistic control ever again, despite his evident genius.
I’ve never seen Chimes at Midnight, a Spanish-Swiss coproduction in English since Hollywood would not touch Welles with a barge pole, before now. Perhaps I assumed it to be just another vehicle for Welles to earn a small living well within his capabilities by hacking Shakespeare, but it was Simon Callow who recently put me right during an excellent talk on Welles, about whom he has written three volumes of biography. Au contraire, it seems not only did Welles consider this film his masterpiece, but Callow himself found this an achingly moving film, sadly neglected and only recently restored to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Certainly Welles attracted a fine international cast of classical actors, with John Gielgud as Henry IV, Ralph Richardson narrating, Margaret Rutherford as a sharp-tongued Mistress Quickly, Fernando Rey as Worcester (albeit dubbed), Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet, Andrew Faulds as Westmoreland, Keith Baxter as Prince Hal and Norman Rodway as Hotspur, to name but a few. He also scored a hit by bringing in French cinematographer Edmond Richard to film in monochrome with glorious contrast, which seems so right in many ways.
The essence of this movie is to fillet dialogue from the historical plays of our illustrious bard (Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard II), chronologically rearranged and stitched together to tell the story of the tragicomic anti-hero Falstaff, a much loved character whose role and reputation have been re-evaluated on stage in recent years by a succession of very fine actors, and who also appears in at least three operas!
Apart from possessing something close to the figure for Falstaff, Welles demonstrates that his is a worthy addition to the names interpreting this inspired character. Falstaff is a rogue and a knight, more given to wenching, drinking sack and getting up to mischief. He is a coward, for whom fighting for his king is a duty but only to be served without endangering his own life.
However, Falstaff talks up his own bravado, none more so than when Hal, who thinks Falstaff is dead, kills the valiant Hotspur in battle, only for Fat Jack later to claim they fought on and that he struck the fatal blow. The knockabout comedy contrasts sharply with the sober realities of life in court, where Hal knows from his father only too well that he must give up associating with a fat rogue and assume the serious mantle of monarchy.
The film emphasises both the comedy and the pathos of Falstaff’s role, albeit in a more traditional setting than typically employed in stage productions. Most noticeable is how Welles plays up the farce of Falstaff’s band and followers (Pistol, Shallow, Bardolph), but underplays Falstaff in a way that demonstrates the underlying tragedy of the role. The effect is electric later in the film, notably the coronation scene where Falstaff seeks out the newly crowned Henry V, only to be told, “I know thee not, old man.” Falstaff looks back uncomprehendingly, but we can see this to be the end of Falstaff’s life in more ways than one.
The contrast between jovial scenes in the Boar’s Head Tavern and the more formal affairs of state is marked with the Battle of Shrewsbury.According to Callow, when the cameraman suffered a seizure, Welles picked up the camera himself and carried on filming with an intensity rarely mirrored in any movie. These scenes are truly startling and innovative, even now. It is frenzied, vicious, barbaric – remembering there was no CGI to depict the horrors of battle in the way that Game of Thrones has achieved, for example.
This is an astonishing achievement, one for which Welles was justly proud – but it is to the shame of the movie industry that he had to beg, borrow and steal what he could to finance this epic, as he did throughout his entire career. Who knows what Welles might have made, had he not earned a reputation as a dangerous maverick?
(c) Andy Millward, 2016