Unseen for many years due to rights issues, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965) turned out to be another masterpiece from the legendary director and actor. The result of a lifelong obsession with the roguish Sir John Falstaff, a side character in Shakespeare’s plays Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2, Welles’ aim was to combine text from the two plays, along with The Merry Wives of Windsor and a bit of Henry V and Richard II, to tell Falstaff’s own story.
The result features excellent acting, notably by Welles as Falstaff and John Gielgud as Henry IV, a beautifully adapted version of the texts, and a grand battle scene, to provide proof, if any were still needed, that Welles was indeed the greatest American filmmaker of all time.
Falstaff is an unusual character to become obsessed with. He’s a drunk, a thief, a liar and a scoundrel, yet he commands the affection of his followers with a seductive wit and charm, and a natural presumption of superiority. In the Henry plays, Falstaff is the character who leads Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, astray – Hal prefers to spend his time drinking and womanising with Falstaff rather than learning kingly ways from his father. The film shows how Hal adopts Falstaff as a surrogate father, before betraying his friendship when he becomes king.
Chimes at Midnight begins with Hal (Keith Baxter) living inside a tavern with Falstaff, outside the walls of his father’s castle. Henry IV has usurped the crown, an act that leads to a civil war, the War of the Roses. The conflict makes Hal aware of the responsibilities he must shoulder in the future, and he begins to withdraw from his manipulative mentor. But Falstaff, who has invested his future in the next king, refuses to accept the prince is abandoning him.
Actors usually play Falstaff as a comical buffoon, but Welles regarded him as a tragic character. “The closer I thought I was getting to Falstaff, the less funny he seemed to be. When I’d played him in the theatre, he seemed more witty than comical. And in bringing him to the screen, I found him only occasionally, and then deliberately, a clown,” Welles told critic and director Peter Bogdanovich.
The roots of Chimes at Midnight date back to 1938, when Welles was 23, before he directed Citizen Kane, which is often described as the best film ever made. Welles produced a play called Five Kings, which combined the text in the same way as the film. But the production involved a revolving stage that was beset with technical problems, and the show was not a success. The play lingered in Welles’ thoughts, however, and was finally made manifest, in all its majesty, in Chimes at Midnight.
Chimes at Midnight will be screened on November 11 and December 2 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, in Wan Chai, as part of the Cine Fan programme.