Written, edited, produced, starring, and directed by Orson Welles, “Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight)” is an adaption of several plays by William Shakespeare regarding Henry the IV, Henry the V, and notably Sir John Falstaff, knight of mischief. My relationship with Shakespeare has been an evolving one since having to read through several of his most famous plays in High School. I’ve never much cared for “Romeo and Juliet” or even “Macbeth” for that matter, but I’ve come to greatly admire the plays concerning the ruling hand of England, academically called the “Henriad” plays, meaning four to eight (depending on who you ask) of his works dealing with Historical figures and events (though my favorite piece by Shakespeare is “King Lear”). Orson Welles took the comic side character of John Falstaff and decided to tell a story that focused more on the relationship between Hal (Keith Baxter), or Henry the V, and his two father figures in Falstaff and Henry the IV (John Gielgud).
More than that however, the film seems to be intently focused on the changing of the times, going from a more “Arthurian” romanticized and nostalgic past, versus the new, cold, modern age. The first act is full of playful scenes full of movement amongst Hal and Falstaff and company that is perfectly juxtaposed against the later scenes in the film concerning Henry the IV and the colder, harsher, future. The scenes in the Castle are rigid, somber, with architecture filling the frame rather than the first half of the film which focused more intimately on the faces and action of Hal and his companions. Welles’ blocking and cutting on movement greatly assist in the pace and kinetic energy of the story as it’s being told. Which, I must say, helped to keep me personally invested in the film. While, yes, the langauage is old and a bit difficult to understand at times, the actors all emote so effectively that you get the general idea of what’s happening and how the story is moving. I found this film to be far more approachable than Laurence Olivier’s adaption of “Henry V” for example. That film had few camera movements and felt as though it were itself a stageplay and didn’t quite use the medium of film to its advantage.
After the mesmerizingly well executed battle sequence halfway through the movie (more on that in just a bit), you may begin to have an inkling that this story, or at least this version of the story, isn’t one that may end in joyous good fortune, but rather, one of tragedy. It’s as much Orson Welles’ longing for a good pair of rose-colored glasses as it is for the simplicity of easier times gone by, and Falstaff embodies that wholeheartedly. The character is one of charming ego and pathetic lies, conjured from exaggeration and jovial, bawdy, good times. Which, in the light of modernity, cannot exist side by side such a serious and brutal world. That brutality is borne out in the expertly crafted war scenes in the middle of the film, which were particularly exciting. The whole sequence felt surprisingly modern in its depiction. Quick cuts with the editing amid the dirty, chaotic, action with many men dying in the mud felt revelatory for its time. The battle feels appropriately frantic with handheld shots and close ups of horrified faces, especially when you compare it to the earlier scene in which Falstaff and Hal commit a small scale robbery in the woods, filmed on gliding dolly shots set against a beautiful forest with a very playful mood. When you focus on how Falstaff is depicted during the battle, it’s as if the two time periods of England are merging. Falstaff running around cowardly in his huge armor and hiding from the fight- while intercut with rapid shots of men dying awful deaths, most of which is indescernable when trying to figure out who’s who on the battlefield. In this beginning of the new era, Falstaff is out of place. He does not fit in this violent and serious world of conflict. I must also take a moment to point out that though rotund and portly, Welles was shockingly nimble and quick on his feet in several scenes throughout the film. I did not expect that.
This film was far more complex and fascinating than I expected going in. It’s actually quite funny too. There’s a scene early on when Hal and Poins (Tony Beckley) turn Falstaff’s cheeky robbery on him by spooking him into running off, which turns into a great bit when they hear him greatly exaggerating his pursuers and his bravery in fending them off. I highly recommend this one, and if you can get past the archaic language barrier you’ll find a satisfying and endearing story. Orson Welles himself cites this as his favorite film to have worked on and completed, despite it being a financial failure. Check it out!
Final Score: 12 Chimes
Orson Welles on “Chimes at Midnight”: