by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Last night I ran Charles a movie I’d somehow missed seeing all these years that turned out to be one of the greatest I’ve seen in quite a while: Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’ 1965 Spanish production based on the first four plays in Shakespeare’s history cycle (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V), with special emphasis on the character of Sir John Falstaff, in which Welles cast himself and whom he made the central focus of the story by slicing and dicing Shakespeare’s text into a new dramatic design even though both the overall plot and the dialogue are Shakespeare’s own (and, working in Europe in the mid-1960’s, he was able to keep some of the Bard’s bawdier lines previous filmmakers had had to cut).
Chimes at Midnight was the fulfillment of a dream Welles had had for a quarter-century, ever since his Mercury Theatre had teamed up with the Theatre Guild in 1939 for a grandiose spectacle called Five Kings, in which Welles proposed to edit all eight plays of the Shakespeare cycle on 15th Century British history into two mega-plays to be performed on successive nights. He only got as far as the first four and only as far as an out-of-town tryout in Boston; the production was plagued by so many problems — including a revolving turntable that was supposed to help represent the characters in battle but also was difficult for the actors to stand on and maintain their balance, and at one point threatened bodily harm to the audience (a group of supers representing soldiers at the Battle of Shrewsbury were obliged to fire real arrows from real bows into an off-stage target that was supposed to absorb them harmlessly; instead the turntable rotated them into the wrong position and, not noticing, they fired straight into the paying customers; miraculously, no one was hurt) — it never opened on Broadway, and Welles, who’d previously dodged all offers from Hollywood, signed a movie contract with RKO just because he needed RKO’s advance to keep Five Kings going. Part of the production that was retained in later versions was a narration derived not from Shakespeare but from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, the book of British history that had been Shakespeare’s primary source for the factual basis of his plays.
Welles nursed this as a dream project through the ups and downs of his career for the next two decades, and in 1960 in Belfast he presented a shortened version of Five Kings called Chimes at Midnight, which he got a chance to film five years later when a Spanish producer signed him for two films, Chimes and an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (a story Welles had done on his radio show in 1938). As things turned out Welles appeared in both movies but had to give up the directorial reins on Treasure Island because post-production on Chimes took too long — but at least, for the first time in his directorial career outside the U.S., he was working for one producer (Emiliano Piedra), shooting in one continuous stretch of production time and not frantically looking for new investors all the time or having to scale back the production he originally envisioned when the “producers” he’d recruited turned out to have less money than he’d expected, or none at all.
What’s more, he had an excellent cast: himself as Falstaff (the part he’d played in Five Kings as well), John Gielgud as King Henry IV, Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly and Jeanne Moreau (in her second of three films for Welles, after The Trial and before The Immortal Story) as Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s mistress (though her blonde locks were hidden under a stringy black wig and her French accent sounded oddly anachronistic coming from a low-class English wench). Chimes was Welles’ favorite of his own films as director, and while the critical consensus is that Citizen Kane was Welles’ best movie and he only went downhill from there, Chimes seems to me — now that I’ve finally seen it (and in a version with clear visuals and good sound — people who saw it on first release claimed the muddy sound recording rendered a lot of Shakespeare’s dialogue unintelligible) — his finest film since Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
Basically, Welles’ remodeling of Shakespeare presents Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) as torn between two father figures: his biological father, Henry IV, and his surrogate father, Falstaff. The intercutting between the historical plot — the rebellion against Henry IV’s rule, led by his old friend the Earl of Northumberland (José Nieto) and his son Harry Percy, a.k.a. Hotspur (Norman Rodway), ending at the Battle of Shrewsbury with Hal killing Hotspur in combat — and the one Shakespeare invented as comic relief (set largely in an incarnation of the Boar’s Head Tavern that looks less like a pub and more like an inn — it's a bit disorienting but may well be historically more accurate) takes on a more serious and somber tone in Welles’ Falstaff-centric version, and by splicing together scenes from Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V Welles has his film climax with a dual death scene: Henry IV and Falstaff die almost simultaneously; and Welles is a lot more condemnatory of Hal for his rejection of Falstaff than Shakespeare.
Where Shakespeare saw it as Hal putting away his childish things and accepting the mantle of kingship and the accompanying adult responsibility, Welles saw Hal as putting aside the kinder, gentler side of his nature and becoming a grim fanatic. The closing scene, in which Henry V is about to embark on his invasion of France and he calls out to his assembled army and court, “Not King of England, if not King of France!,” isn’t the fulfillment of an heroic destiny as Shakespeare (and Holinshed, whose commentary on the subject is read beforehand as a bit of narration by Ralph Richardson) saw it; rather it’s a surprisingly direct visual cop from Triumph of the Will that’s obviously intended for us to see Henry V as a prototype of Hitler, a man who is going to inflict his own “will” on the people of other countries no matter how many have to die in the process.
Chimes at Midnight is an endlessly fascinating film that upends a lot of our expectations of what a “Shakespeare movie” ought to be even though it’s faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare if not necessarily to his letter. Welles solves the problem of what to do with all those long, talky dialogue scenes by keeping his camera in almost constant motion, shooting chiaroscuro scenes with stark contrasts, high depth-of-field (Charles wondered if he’d shot it with the Garutso balanced lens, or something similar, equipment which promised a 3-D illusion without the rigmarole of double cameras and glasses for the audience, but depth-of-field had been a Wellesian directorial trademark since Citizen Kane) and oblique camera angles, always to keep a sense of swirling energy in the action. He begins the film with a scene that actually appears fairly late in Henry IV, Part 2 in which Falstaff and Justice Shallow (Alan Webb) are bemoaning the passing of years — “we have seen the chimes at midnight” is Shakespeare’s way of saying, “We’re old and pretty soon we’re going to die” — and at times the film seems like Welles’ own meditation on death and loss, especially his own.
In 1933 British music critic (and future record producer) Walter Legge wrote, “There is in the last works of nearly every great artist a strangely luminous quality, as if the creative mind had already seen the world beyond death and were conscious of things infinitely greater than the emotional experiences of this world” — and he mentioned Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the late Beethoven string quartets, Brahms’ Four Serious Songs and Wagner’s Parsifal as examples. Ironically, he was writing in the context of a review of a Parsifal production conducted by Richard Strauss, whom he accused of ignoring that quality and zipping through the score “like an American tourist ‘doing’ a picture gallery in record time, glancing at everything, seeing, but feeling nothing” — but when Strauss himself was facing imminent mortality, he wrote the Four Last Songs, which have the “strangely luminous quality” Legge was writing about.
So does Chimes at Midnight — even though, not only is it based on scripts Shakespeare wrote relatively early in his career rather than a late play like The Tempest, but Welles still had 20 years left to live when he made it and had no way of knowing it would be his last chance to direct a major film. (His only subsequent directorial credits were The Immortal Story, an hour-long film for French TV; and F for Fake, a documentary mash-up about art forger Elmyr de Hory, his biographer Clifford Irving and Irving’s famous forgery of his own, the “autobiography” of Howard Hughes.) Though I can’t watch anybody as Falstaff and not rue that W. C. Fields never played the part — Fields’ comic character was Falstaff and it’s one of the great cultural tragedies of the 20th century that no enterprising producer saw that and put the two together — Welles is very good and gives Falstaff a unique poignancy that seems to come more than anything from his own experience.
Welles’ first films as director, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, seem ahead of their time in their almost clinical detachment from their characters, Welles’ stubborn refusal to give the audience anyone to identify with (which probably helped lead to Kane’s box-office failure and the evisceration of Ambersons in RKO’s cutting rooms after a series of disastrous previews), but as he got older and his life ran on this peculiar downward spiral that seemed to fritter away the promise of his early years, Welles began to play characters on film that resembled himself. In Chimes one can’t listen to the lines in which Falstaff reminisces about how he was once a great and respected man (there is that “Sir” at the start of his name, after all, a tantalizing hint of his backstory both Shakespeare and Welles leave as nothing more than a hint) until he got fat, bloated and addicted to drink, and not connect that to Welles’ own documented transformation from beefy but still relatively hunky leading man to bloated apparition — more bloated than he was for real since in Chimes, as in Touch of Evil, he wore body padding, apparently having decided from some imp of the perverse that now that he could no longer slim down enough to play the romantic leading man he would go whole-hog the other way and render himself not only fat, but grotesquely obese.
Though Welles includes some scenes cribbed from other directors in Chimes — he borrows Laurence Olivier’s gag in his own Henry V film of showing the heavily armored knights being lifted by pulleys and set down on their horses because the armor weighed so much they couldn’t mount normally (and Welles goes one better by showing several knights going through this, with one of them being dropped accidentally and falling — off-screen, but with a hideous clattering crash on the soundtrack to let us know what happened), and the Battle of Shrewsbury is staged strikingly like a U.S. Cavalry charge against the Indians in a John Ford Western (Welles once said his three greatest influences as a director were “John Ford, John Ford and John Ford,” and though I’ve always discounted that notion — frankly, I’d have found him more believable if he’d said “Fritz Lang, Fritz Lang and Fritz Lang” — Chimes at Midnight is one Welles movie that does show Ford’s influence) as well as one borrowing from himself, a weirdly barred window design he’d previously used in Macbeth — it’s an intensely personal film, filled with intimations of death and loss. Though his Falstaff gets laughs, he’s mostly a tragic figure; when Hal says at the end, “How ill white hairs become a fool and jester,” we hate him for saying it but we also know he’s right. (Welles’ next film, The Immortal Story, also seems to me to have elements of autobiography; it’s impossible to watch Welles as Mr. Clay, a once-rich merchant begging potential backers for money with which to finance his business ventures, without thinking of all the fruitless “pitch meetings” in which Welles pathetically begged would-be investors and performers for the money to make one of his many unproduced scripts.)
Chimes at Midnight is an amazing movie despite two surprisingly weak players in principal roles — something I was all too aware of making the inevitable comparisons between this and the episodes of the 1960 BBC-TV series An Age of Kings, their cycle of the Shakespeare history plays, in which the parts of Prince Hal and Hotspur are both more strongly cast than they are in Welles’ film. Keith Baxter is a good Hal but he doesn’t have the almost preternatural charisma of Robert Hardy (when An Age of Kings premiered in the U.S. my mother was convinced it would be Robert Hardy, not Sean Connery, who would emerge from its cast into superstardom!) — though maybe Welles, with his darker view of Hal than Shakespeare’s, wouldn’t have wanted someone as good as Hardy at making the character lovable — and Norman Rodway is adequate as Hotspur but no more, a bit too beefy and hardly in the same league as Connery (one can’t watch An Age of Kings and Chimes at Midnight back-to-back and not wish Connery had got to repeat the role of Hotspur under Welles’ direction!).
Still, Chimes is a first-rate movie, proof that all those years in which he had shrunk from theatrical colossus to celebrity buffoon hadn’t affected Welles’ directorial chops any — given a fine story and normal professional production conditions, he was still capable of turning out a great film in 1965 — and a masterpiece worthy to stand alongside Kane and Ambersons at the peak of Welles’ accomplishments on film.