Everyone knows that the only great film Orson Welles ever made was CITIZEN KANE (1941), right? Everyone knows that Welles blamed the studios for what happened to THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), THE STRANGER (1946), THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947) and TOUCH OF EVIL (1958): they tore the films to pieces in the editing suite, but come on: the man took a month to edit together five minutes of film, so no one can ever confirm his grandiose claims about what those films were supposed to look like and besides, how many times can the same shit really happen to the same guy? Everyone knows that Herbert Mankiewicz wrote CITIZEN KANE anyway.
From the death of the Old West to the death of Merrie Olde England. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is an amalgamation of the Shakespeare plays ‘Richard II’, ‘Henry IV’ (Parts I & II), ‘Henry V’, and, to a lesser extent, ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. It originated as an arse-numbing Welles stage production called ‘Five Kings’, during which Welles developed a particular affiliation for the part of Sir John Falstaff, who he described as “the only good man in all of Shakespeare”. It became one of his life’s ambition to play Falstaff on film, and unlike his other life’s ambitions of making Don Quixote and Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ into motion pictures, this one was actually realised, although in a final irony it’s currently impossible to purchase the film legally on home video in America and the UK. Falstaff, cited by some critics as the greatest of the bard’s creations after Hamlet, is a corpulent, boastful yet cowardly knight who becomes a kind of surrogate father figure to the Prince of Wales, the future Henry V played here by the marvellous Keith Baxter who covorts around like Ringo Starr in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964), complete with entourage, flagons of ale and, of course, strumpets (Welles’s first words to Baxter were that Prince Hal was to be “a most awful shit”). His father the King, played in typically masterful style by John Gielgud, disapproves of the company his son is keeping, and herein lies the dilemma: Henry IV, the adventurer and usurper of the throne, now believes absolutely in the sanctity and power of the crown, whereas Falstaff, a chivalrous and gallant individual despite all his myriad failings, is a deviant to be avoided at all costs. Falstaff represents an “Olde England” that never really existed: as Welles said, a false past that Englanders were reminiscing about even in Chaucer’s time. The towering castle chambers of the King, piercing shafts of light diffused by incense beaming down on his throne, contrast with the low ceilings and even lower women of the taverns where Falstaff and Prince Hal make their sport. Making parallels with Welles’s other films is irresistible, especially THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, wherein the great pretender in the form of Joseph Cotten arrives to usher in the new age of the automobile.
Having been stung once too often by the Hollywood system, or simply not permitted to make films there anymore, Welles secured the agreement to make CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT in Europe with Spanish producer Emiliano Piedra. According to some sources this was on the promise that he would begin production on a film version of ‘Treasure Island’ at the same time, which ultimately never materialised. Some of the sets were even said to have been built for the more populist project. Welles had worked in Europe before, but he had been enticed back to Hollywood to make TOUCH OF EVIL (1958). It was to be his last American film after the studios again wrenched responsibility for the editing of the film from Welles. He refused to ever make the same mistake again.
The great irony of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is that the centre-piece, the battle of Shrewsbury, is a masterpiece of editing, not direction. Horses run towards each other and collide violently, the lateral movement across the frame along with the smoke and dirt are strongly redolent of the battle scenes in Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). But it’s the increasingly rapid cuts until the screen becomes a tangle of clashing limbs that transforms the whole scene into an image of no man’s land during the battle of the Somme. This sequence shows what Welles was capable of when the studios just left him the hell alone, one of the rare occasions when he was allowed to raise film editing to an art form. And throughout all this, the film’s focal point, the stout Falstaff, is hiding being a bush. For further evidence of Welles’s mastery, see the scene following the battle where Falstaff claims to have slain the traitor Hotspur, when in fact it was the Prince. No words are spoken, this is not in Shakespeare’s play: there’s simply a glance between Gielgud and Baxter that expresses all the disappointments of the father at the company his unthrifty son is keeping.
Ultimately, Welles shifted the focus of Shakespeare’s plays from the Royal family to Falstaff. The scene where Prince Hal is crowned King and Falstaff runs to his protegé is one of the most heart-breaking in all Welles’s pictures, imbued with even more poignancy than the relationship had time to acquire in Shakespeare’s play.
My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!
KING HENRY V
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is a masterpiece in the true sense of the word. Not only is it amongst Welles’s finest films, it is one of the finest Shakespeare adaptations ever committed to film. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is literally the closest thing we have today to a follow-up to CITIZEN KANE: it is a complete Orson Welles vision, for better or for worse, imprinted on film. It has been, and remains, absolutely criminal that audiences in Britain and the US cannot view this film legally.