It’s entirely safe and appropriate to say that Orson Welles did not get on with film producers. Ever the auteur who wanted it his way or no way, his style of doing things differently was often was at odds with the people financing his films who felt like they probably got a say in how things were done too. The producers won the majority of the time, and Welles had to go to Europe to keep making films and even then they were plagued by setbacks, rights disputes, and after-the-fact cutting. One of these embattled movies is his 1966 film Chimes at Midnight, which until very recently was all but impossible to get in this country legally. It’s been restored by Janus Films and the Criterion Collection and is making a theatrical run beginning New Year’s Day.
I’d never seen Chimes at Midnight prior to this release, preferring not to watch a Welles film the first time via bad bootleg or YouTube rip. Now having seen it fully restored and looking amazing, I can’t imagine having watched it any other way. One of Welles’ last major works, it’s also one of his most ambitious, an historical epic and adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters. It continues the highly stylized and expressionistic visual style he used in his previous three films, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, and especially The Trial, which shared cinematography by Edmond Richard with Chimes. It feels much more like an experimental film than it does a typical Shakespeare adaptations.
Welles himself adapted the film from five different Shakespeare plays, chiefly Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, but also Richard II, Henry V, and some dialogue from The Merry Wives of Windsor. There is also narration adapted from Holinshed’s Chronicles by Raphael Holinshed, which was a chronicle of English history that directly tied in to many of Shakespeare’s historical plays. There’s a LOT of material here to comb through, which is especially impressive given that Welles cast himself as Sir John Falstaff, the portly, jovial, and cowardly knight who is the film’s central figure.
Sir John Gielgud plays King Henry IV, the power-hungry cousin of the true heir to the late Richard II who took the throne with Richard’s son Edmund Mortimer imprisoned in Wales. Three cousins who want Henry to rescue Mortimer begin to plot to overthrow Henry IV. Meanwhile, the new king’s son, Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), spends most of his time gallivanting around the Boar’s Head Tavern with Falstaff, in whom Hal has a father figure in a way he never has with his own father. When the time comes to go to war with the usurpers, Hal fights bravely while Falstaff, in full armor, hides and later tries to take credit for killing Hotspur, one of the chief orchestrators of the rebellion, whom Hal has actually killed. As Henry lay dying, Hal decides to finally accept his royal blood, which means leaving childish things, and people like Falstaff, behind.
As with Welles’ earlier adaptations of Macbeth and Othello, the filmmaker puts himself right at the center of things, but unlike those, he’s not the play’s main character, even if he’s the film’s. The tragedy of Falstaff is not that his hubris causes his downfall, but that his ways are not the ways of princes and kings. Getting drunk and fraternizing in taverns does not become someone in line for the crown, so it’s the dissolution of the friendship between Falstaff and Hal that the film’s story hinges upon. Welles is wonderful in this role, a mixture of jocularity and melancholy.
This may be a Shakespearean piece, and the dialogue is certainly not changed much from that vernacular, but it’s an historical epic as well, and the film’s central battle scene between Henry’s knights and those loyal to the Earl of Worcester (Fernando Rey) is nothing short of intense and exciting. Being a fairly modest production, the battle scenes were staged by re-dressing a small group of extras and horsemen several times and shooting them from different angles in the intentionally-misty field. It sure works, and Welles and Richard shoot it mainly handheld and up close in the thick of things to ensure maximum effect.
If you like the films of Orson Welles or just want to watch a wonderful adaptation of the Bard, then Chimes at Midnight is well worth seeking out in its repertory circuit around the country in 2016. There will at some point be a Blu-ray release from Criterion, but if you can see it on the big screen, I’d recommend it. It’s crisp and the monochrome is rich, and the sound, even though a lot of it was done post-synced, is clear and booming. Welles was an often misunderstood and under-appreciated genius in his lifetime but with restorations like this, we’ve been able to give the master his due.
Image: Janus Films
Kyle Anderson is a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Talk about movies to him on Twitter!