From an early age, Orson Welles had an immense fascination with the works of William Shakespeare. Legend has it that a two-year-old Welles asked his mother to read him the unabridged plays of Shakespeare. Whether or not that particular story is true is immaterial. Before he was scaring countless Americans with his inventive radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, Welles gained a bit of notoriety for his adaptation of Macbeth, transposing the story to a Caribbean island and featuring an all-black cast. Later in his life, after his brief moment as a Hollywood darling had faded, Welles would helm a couple of Shakespeare adaptations – 1948’s Macbeth and 1952’s Othello – as well as a few adaptations that failed to gain traction. In 1965, Welles would embark on an ambitious adaptation of a number of Shakespeare plays, focusing solely on the bard’s recurring character of Sir John Falstaff. Chimes at Midnight presents Welles as ambitious as ever while operating as the culmination of Welles’ larger cinematic work.
In adapting parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Parts I and II, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and using narration from the Hollinshed Chronicles by Raphael Hollinshed, Welles focuses the story of Chimes at Midnight on Sir John Falstaff (Welles), a knight and all around unreliable narrator, and his relationship with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), heir to the throne held by his father King Henry IV (John Gielgud). As Falstaff neglects his debts for room and board while embellishing Prince Hal with stories of increasing grandeur and decreasing believability, Henry IV is facing dissent from the family of Edmund Mortimer, the true heir to the throne, led by Henry Percy (Norman Rodway), known as Hotspur. The forces clash at the Battle of Shrewsbury, with Henry IV’s army being victorious over the sympathizers of Mortimer. But Henry IV is ill, and when he passes Prince Hal takes his place upon the throne. Hearing that his friend is now king, Falstaff rushes to see Hal, who now goes by Henry V, only to be shunned. Heartbroken, not much time passes before Falstaff’s life expires.
Shakespearean themes run throughout Welles’ filmography, right down his legendary debut feature Citizen Kane. Another aspect that runs parallel to Welles’ Shakespearean aspects is a strong sense of autobiography, which also found its way into Kane. With Chimes at Midnight, Welles brings these two elements together as the story is based upon the works of Shakespeare but the character of Falstaff very much mirrors where Welles was at in 1965. This once valiant figure with boyish good looks and carte blanche in Hollywood slowly descended from golden boy to goat, his good looks ravaged by age and weight gain with a predilection for booze. The tragedy of Falstaff being shunned by the very person he entertained reflects his own professional struggles. One could almost see the Falstaff that was befriended by Prince Hal as Welles during Kane and his eventual discarding as the moment that The Magnificent Ambersons was butchered behind his back. He was a respected storyteller, a man revered for his abilities to embellish the facts with an unrivaled flair only to have those talents rejected by those who praised him. Perhaps the greatest Shakespearean character Welles ever played was himself.
Despite the financing issues that would plague Welles’ filmmaking career following The Lady From Shanghai, he never lost a step as a filmmaker. Chimes at Midnight features the stark black and white photography that became a trademark of Welles even after his collaborations with cinematographer Greg Toland ended. Wellesian flourishes of contrasting shadows and low angles remain firmly intact in the master’s late-period masterpiece.
The director claimed that when preparing Kane he watched John Ford’s Stagecoach in excess of 40 times. But while Kane never featured a frenzied action-packed climax like Ford’s legendary western, the lessons Welles took from the film are apparent in the stunning Battle of Shrewsbury. Like Ford’s film, Welles doesn’t bother adhering to the 180-degree rule of cinema. Action comes from all sides in a thrilling melee of medieval mayhem. As all the chaos unfolds, Welles’ Falstaff hides from the battle only to take credit upon his side’s victory. Again, paralleling one of the greatest battles of Welles’ life, as if he was on the sidelines, unable to fight when Ambersons, and thus his filmmaking career as it stood, was taken from him.
Chimes at Midnight represents the culmination of Orson Welles’ lifelong fascination with William Shakespeare, and is likely his finest adaptation of the bard’s work. Aside from F is for Fake, Chimes at Midnight is the crown jewel of Welles’ late-period filmmaking. The director himself held the film in high regard, and said of it, “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up.” While I may not personally agree with the legendary director’s assessment of his work, Chimes at Midnight is undoubtedly a deeply personal work from Welles, a cinematic cocktail of autobiography and tragic themes that run through his career. This is a singular work from a singular filmmaker.
The brand new restoration of Chimes at Midnight by Janus Films will play at New York City’s Film Forum from January 1st through January 12th and in Los Angeles at Cinefamily from January 1st through January 7th with a Blu-Ray to come from Criterion Collection later in the year.