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Chimes at Midnight

chimes 2chimes 3chimes 4This 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

Saving The Prince of Wales

henry the fifthbradmore's extractorOne of the most intriguing stories of the English medieval ages – and like most good stories this one is upfront and personal – involves Prince Hal (the future Henry the Fifth) and the Battle of Shrewbury that took place on July 21, 1403.  For whatever reason, this particular story is overlooked in Shakespeare and completely ignored in the poet Robert Nye’s great novel “Falstaff.”  The tale involves a highly bloody battle fought by King Henry IV against the legendary rebel Henry “Hotspur” Percy and the usual warlike nobles and the brave sixteen year old Prince of Wales.  The main instrument of destruction in the battle was the vicious long bow that caused soldiers to “fall like leaves in autumn” and “so fast and thick that it seemed to the beholders like a thick cloud, for the sun, which at that time was bright and clear then lost its brightness so thick were the arrows.”  So thick in fact, that later on in this brutal episode, Hotspur was killed by merely thrusting back his visor for a moment and took a direct hit to his face.  This was the bloody act which led to the end of the battle and victory for Henry IV.  The estimates were that 3,200 men died and 3,000 more were injured.

Prince Hal was luckier than Hotspur – although, he too, took an arrow to the face.  The arrow, called a bod or bodkin, was designed to penetrate mail and armor.  Happily, it was a narrower type of weapon than the broadmore which was a far more destructive arrow.  The bodkin struck Prince Hal on the left side of his face, next to his nose, boring into the back bone of his skull six inches deep.  With typical English bravado that always seemed to reach magical proportions in medieval wartime, Prince Hal determined to continue fighting, despite the long wood shaft protruding from his face.  It is possible that this particular arrow ricocheted and its speed was cut considerably.  In any case, The Prince, or someone else, pulled out the wooden shaft but the wound made by the lodged arrowhead began to fester and he was eventually evacuated to Kenilworth Castle.  Barber surgeons tried various methods but could not help the young man.

It was from there that a message was sent to the surgeon/metal worker and jeweler, John Bradmore, who was currently imprisoned in the county of Oxford on a charge of counterfeiting coin.  Many surgeons at this time were metalworkers, trained to make their own medical instruments.  Dr. Bradmore also seemed have run a side line in jewelry-making and perhaps counterfeiting the King’s treasury.  In any case, he was soon released from prison and dispatched to Kenilworth to see the young Prince.

It is then that Dr. Bradmore’s medical book “Philomena,” written in Latin and eventually translated into Middle English later in the 15th century, takes over the story.  Once arriving at the castle, the good doctor examined the patient and proceeded to create an instrument for removing the arrowhead.  (This can be seen in the recreation at the top of the page.)

“First, I made small probes from the pith of an elder, well-dried and well-stitched in purified linen.  These probes were infused with rose honey and after that, I made larger and longer probes and so continued to always enlarge these probes until I had the width and depth of the wound as I wished it.  And after the wound was enlarged and deep enough so that the probes reached the bottom of the wound, I prepared some little tongs, small and hollow, and with the width of an arrow.  A screw ran through the middle of the tongs, whose ends were well-rounded both on the inside and outside and even the end of the screw which was entered into the middle was well-rounded overall in the way of a screw, so that it should grip better and more strongly.  I put these tongs in at an angle in the same way as the arrow had first entered, then placed the screw in the centre and finally the tongs entered the socket of the arrowhead.  Then by moving it to and fro, little by little (with the help of God) I extracted the arrowhead.  Many gentlemen and servants of the aforesaid prince were standing by and all gave thanks to God.  And then I cleansed the wound with a syringe (squirtillo) full of white wine and then placed in new probes made of wads of flax soaked in a cleansing ointment.”

The cleansing ointment appeared to be made of flour, barley, honey and flax.  This procedure was repeated for the next twenty days.  Each time, the probe became smaller and smaller until the wound naturally closed.  Prince Hal’s recovery period took perhaps a year and we do not know whether any opiate was given to the young man.  Some historians place this incident in the life of the King as a turning point that changed a young wastrel given to wine, women and bad companions to a cold, aloof King, who although seriously pious, was ruthless towards his enemies.  Some writers question whether this personality change could have been caused by an impairment of his temporal lobe due to his battlefield injury.  Another outcome of this terrible wound is that Henry would never have a portrait painted in anything but profile – the left side of his face being badly disfigured by scarring.

For his unique services, Bradmore was paid an annuity of ten sovereigns a year and continued in the King’s service (such as devising and delivering medication) while also covering other duties for the Kingdom.  If indeed he was guilty of counterfeiting, let’s hope that his annuity was sufficient to cure him of this small failing on his part!

Many thanks to the following articles:

“Prince Hal’s Head-Wound:  Cause and Effect” by Michael Livingston; Medievalist.Net.

Bows, Blades and Battles – Another Arrow Which Changed History? By Ken Goodman

Infospigot: The Chronicles “Further Inquiries into the Process of Extraction.”

Brevity is not just the Soul of Lingerie

lingerieI’ve recently been walking along de Nile and happened into a hot, sandy tent full of Cairo Dwellers who, at least, initially, have given me a polite “hi!” sign.  And for that I thank them.  I felt comfortable enough to scroll down their papyrus scrolls to see what gives and discovered they are importing satirical essays that sometimes reached one thousand words!  Take that you miserable slackers:  Dorothy Parker, Woody Allen and P.G. Wodehouse.

The satires follow along lines such as these:  Did Elizabeth Woodville have Richard’s love child, was Richard a Siamese Twin and could Edward the Fifth have been a transgender?  There was a little debate about that Siamese Twin thing but one of the Dwellers pointed out that that was…satire.

Now, I, like the fine American playwright George S. Kaufman, believe that “satire is what closes on Saturday night” but I stayed with several of the essays hopefully digging for a nugget of funning.

I’m still digging but that’s for another thousand-word essay.

Of All Sad Words of Tongue and Pen–

courtLast month, Freda Warrington’s 2003 novel “In the Court of the Midnight King” was reissued and is available in paperback and Kindle.  It would be my hope that people who enjoy the Murrey and Blue blog would run out and order this lush, grand book of alternate history.  It features Richard the Third, The War of the Roses and the intriguing story of the passing away of an ancient, elemental religion to the, perhaps, harder medicine of medieval Christianity.  This matriarchal religion is beautifully explored through the extremely appealing sorcerous-heroine, Lady Kate, whom the Duke of Gloucester stumbles upon in his youth (and knowingly calls “Morgana”) and spends the rest of his life either fleeing her or depending upon her for the good sense and healing powers she possesses.  Typical male!

The Richard the Third evoked here is everything a Ricardian and Ricardian-newbie would appreciate.  Foremost, his ruthlessness, his regal power and his strong sense of duty is never shirked or sugar-coated but factually based on his violent childhood, his knightly upbringing and his need to prove himself a better prince for England than either his brother the King or his foolish sibling, George, the Duke of Clarence.  That he possesses fine traits as well will be of no surprise to Ricardians but, perhaps, educational to those who know nothing about him but enjoy alternate history novels.

The most intriguing and hair-raising event of the book is the brilliant twist on the old saw of Richard, his “withered arm” and his claims of witchcraft against Jane Shore.  Never in modern times, has this wild tale been told with such drama and imagination.

The novel is a poignant reminder of what might have been and will surely send the Cairo Dwellers growling and chewing carpet and returning to their Henry VII romance novels.  For everyone else, it’s an entertaining and absorbing read.

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