This past weekend, the beloved Film Forum – one of New York City’s last revival houses – screened a restored version of “Chimes at Midnight,” Orson Welles’ 1965 underrated masterpiece in which he starred as, possibly, the definitive Falstaff.
Sadly, this movie hasn’t been seen in either general release or in video/dvd format for thirty years, which may have been one of the many reasons why the line outside the theater this weekend wound around the block. An astonishing amalgam of “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part I and 2, “Henry 5,” ‘the Merry Wives of Windsor,” it is glued together with scraps of Holingshed’s Chronicles narrated by Ralph Richardson. The viewer is taken into the filthy tavern of Mistress Quickly, the freezing halls of Westminster and the gritty battlefield of Shrewsbury while introducing us to some of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters: Hotspur, Justice Shallow, Silence, Poins, Pistol and Doll Tearsheet. I will not include Prince Hal because in Keith Baxter’s white lightening performance, he is a cold and calculating scapegrace who is not above trying on his father’s crown while he (John Gielgud) lies dying. Hal’s famous denunciation of Falstaff during his coronation (“I know thee not old man”) and Welles’ prideful and devastated expression hurl this movie into one of the greatest Shakespearean film adaptations. All this by a director who could not get funding from any Hollywood or British studio and was forced to partially back it with monies from a Spanish producer who was led into believing it was another film version of “Treasure Island” and Mr. Welles was actually Long John Silver.
Orson Welles was a student of Shakespeare and English medieval history and took the Yorkist side in the War of the Roses. He believed that the Plantagenets kept chivalry alive and that the Lancastrians and Tudors finished it off with simple brute force and rejection of the highest principles owed the people of England. This romantic notion is clearly seen in the film, particularly at the Battle of Shrewsbury where the Lancastrians are seen in dark armor (the film is in black and white) and Hotspur is arrayed in glorious light. Considered one of the finest battle scenes on film (Pauline Kael put it on the level of D.W. Griffith and Kurasawa), for an astonishing ten minutes we are forced to see Lancastrians butcher horses and men with long bows, roundels, battle axes and maces. And given what we now know of Richard the Third’s death, it is shocking to see one of the soldiers dragged off his slain steed, his chain mail black with blood, while soldiers viciously attack his helmeted head. As the scene degenerates into the usual melee, all we are left with is a living war memorial of legs and boots trapped in swirling mud (last photo). An image worthy of Matthew Brady!
In a later interview with Keith Baxter (Prince Hal), he relates that…”He (Welles) always saw the film as an elegy for ‘Merrie England.’ He felt that Shakespeare was looking back on the world of Richard II, that the age of chivalry died with the murder of Richard. Orson was so romantic about the Plantagenets, but he thought the Tudors and Lancastrians were terrible…when we finally finished the coronation speech, I said ‘I’d like to play Henry V.'” And he said, “Why would you want to do that? He’s a most awful sh*t.”**
Rumor has it that the Criterion Collection has shown interest in putting this out on dvd. For those who can’t wait and live near or around New York City, a screening has been added to the schedule for Saturday, February 7, at 4:45pm. Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston Street.
**Chimes at Midnight, edited by Bridget Gellert Lyons