Falstaff: Chimes At Midnight – Orson Welles (1965)

Like most films by Orson Welles, Chimes At Midnight (1965) sits uncomfortably in the shadow of his debut film; Citizen Kane.  However this is a view often dismissed by viewers that actually take the time out to watch the rest of the Welles canon and a viewing of any number of his films will quash the ridiculous criticism of achieving success too early on.

Chimes At Midnight is an amalgamation of a number of plays by Shakespeare.  Welles has a special relationship with the Bard, making some the most innovative and experimental adaptations of his work both on stage and on film.  This included the famous stage adaptation of Macbeth with an all black cast at a time when race was the taboo subject in the states and also innovative film adaptations of Othello and Macbeth.

Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight as the full title calls it, mixes up the narratives of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2Richard IIHenry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Scholarly criticism on the side of the original tomes may perhaps see this film as a hyper version of Shakespeare’s long and detailed work that doesn’t do the characters justice.  This however is not a view shared by the film community and Welles went on record as defining the necessary differences between mediums; an argument entirely justified and one that helps the film no end (a film of all the plays put together would no doubt run for days).

At the heart of this film is Falstaff, perhaps the most timeless of Shakespeare’s characters; one whose flaws are as everyday as that of Homer Simpson.  A man of large waist and even larger heart, Falstaff is no doubt an extension of Welles’ own persona.  A character gradually being left behind by the times and by his good friends.  Prince Hal, played marvellously by Keith Baxter, starts the film as his best friend but sacrifices all of this eventually in respect towards his duty as future king.  Again Welles’ own life can be read into this character journey with him quoted as saying “I passionately hate the idea of being with it; I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time”.

The film is based on Welles’ original stage adaptation of his former amalgamation, Five Kings.  The film mixes its natural theatricality with a stunning eye for composition and an epic battle sequence where Falstaff comically avoids fighting but takes credit for the death of the enemy commander.  The comical sight of such a big man running in full armour as chaos ensues around him is both humorous and sad.  As Prince Hal starts to grow more mature, the world seems to be far crueler to the character in the same way the studio system treated Welles after Kane.

It stands high in the world of adaptations, easily on par with Olivier’s Henry V, his Hamlet and Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.  Welles’ cast (which include Shakespearian thesps, John Gielgud and Margaret Rutherford) speak the Bard’s words with a natural rhythm often associated with Olivier.  The natural folk element of the tale is brought to the fore and allows the film to capture both the feel of Shakespeare and the tone of drama in the mid 1960s.

Falstaff’s world goes from chanting his name to losing his friend to duty becoming the most powerful in the kingdom leading to him casting him aside.  As King Henry V states in front of the whole congregation, “I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers!  How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!”  Falstaff’s heart breaks, as does the viewer’s.  A character so loveable a rogue is heartbreaking to watch fall apart and even when his coffin that claims his eternal company in the end is presented on screen, there’s still a moment to crack a smile at the absurdity of the character as leaves this world.  However even with the tone of sadness that runs throughout the film, it’s still a fun affair that means it’ll be easy to associate Welles as that loveable misleader of youth for a long time to come.

Adam Scovell.

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