Here stands a rebuke to the idea that in the digitized world everything is available. Well, if you strain a bit you can get this notoriously out of print movie. The Brazilian version of the semi-legal Chimes at Midnight aka Falstaff aka Campanadas a Medianoche can be bought for a cool $40, and all you do is turn off the Portuguese subtitles. However, thanks to the poor sound of this masterpiece, English subtitles might be necessary. The entire film was post-synced: "not a word in direct sound," said the co-star Keith Baxter, who played Prince Hal. Led by the obtuse Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, critics of 1967 put their finger on this very obvious button. Few of them considered how few viewers come out of a movie saying, "Boy, the picture, the script and the acting sucked, but wasn't the sound great?"
Last Sunday, the local film archive showed Chimes at Midnight; me and 100 other people turned our back on a sunny afternoon, and treated ourselves to a rare 16mm screening of one of the most imaginative, stirring and beautifully composed Shakespeare films ever made. I mentioned it to Cinematical's Jeffrey Anderson and he pronounced Chimes at Midnight a better film than Citizen Kane. I don't have that kind of enthusiasm (Citizen Kane changes lives, and Chimes is a rougher sell). And still, everyone will tell you about Citizen Kane, whereas Chimes is not just a gem but a half-buried one. The weakling King Richard II of England is dead, killed on Valentine's Day 1400. The new king Henry IV (John Gielgud) has a bad conscience; he got his crown through usurpation, and now there are rebels in the north who want the throne. The heir apparent, his son Prince Hal, later the hero Henry V, is uninterested in politics or valor.
Hal is a wastrel, a tavernaut lounging in the presence of the sardonic old knight Sir John Falstaff (Welles) a fat lord of misrule. He is a robber and a drunk, but a poet mostly, a "whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch" who knows the Biblical wisdom that it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion. Falstaff has ladies on his side, too; a sad-faced wench called Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau), and his exasperated landlady Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford).
The great friendship starts to fray in time of war. The kingdom is in revolt, led by a dangerous lord called Harry Percy, known as Hotspur (Norman Rodway). Hal meets his rival in battle. The fight is the lynchpin of the play, the place where Falstaff overreaches himself. Hal begins to rise even as Falstaff begins to sink into disease and death. The film is, as one scholar called it, a long goodbye; the parting of these two friends is a comedy that turns into silence and tragedy. Welles said, "Falstaff is a man who is defending a force-the old England-which is going down."
How Welles made this film defies the studios' favorite legend about how a prodigy made Citizen Kane and was then reduced to nothingness by ego and weight-gain. The Welles-libel is used to keep filmmakers in their place, and to frighten them into thinking they're nothing without the studio system. But then Welles shows how it's done with plain ingenuity.
Using about a million dollars got under false pretext (a producer wanted a version of Treasure Island) Welles made his adaptation of bits of five Shakespeare plays. He hangs it together by passages of the same history Shakepeare used, Holinshed's Chronicles. The passages are read in narration by Ralph Richardson who, Welles once said, played an even better Falstaff on stage than Welles did.
The film is set in half-abandoned castles, with clouds of incense for mists, actors borrowed for a week or two in between shows, and cardboard silhouettes for long shots when he didn't have actors. When Rodway, the actor who played brave Hotspur, turned out to be shy of horses, Welles had him raised on the shoulders of two extras to make it look as if Rodway were high in the saddle.
Welles filmed a battle of Shrewsbury that defied decades of cinematic ideas of medieval glory, and which has been a regular source of inspiration for war-film directors since. The battle has the sounds of a wrecker's yard, with the clunk of maces and clubs against armor; the blowing dust gives way to a churned, muddy scrimmage. This vision of the clumsiness of battle has all the freshness of silent film. And it has comedy too, as our hero, wobbling in his dirty, barrel-shaped armor, looks for a place to hide from the fray. The description of how it was done is Bridget Gellert Lyons' fine book on Chimes at Midnight, which includes a scene by scene description and script, as well as interviews with Baxter and Welles.
Another Welles idea is the historically accurate scene of heavy armored knights being hauled onto horseback by ropes angled over tree branches. It rhymes with scenes of men on wooden gallows; warriors and thieves have a common fate in this film, since both are hanged. It's remarkable enough to hear Welles' excellent editing of Shakespeare--few Shakespeare films make the words seem so off hand-and yet it's the visual contrasts that are remarkable. The warm filthy inside of a rough-timbered tavern gives way to the stone mausoleum of the court (it's shot in Spain's Cardona castle, at the time a ruin, and now a parador). The wide lively horizontals of this seedy alehouse contrast with the sharp verticals of the pikestaffs held by the king's black-armored guard. Everything in the king's court is elongated, steep, hierarchical; one has to mount a series of block-like steps to stand in his presence.
Given his pick between the warmth of peace and plenty, and the youth-robbing cruelty of war, Hal makes the choice any financially-interested party makes. In peacetime, watching this choice is sad enough; in wartime like ours, the old King's last advice to his son: "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds/with foreign quarrels..."* seems practically on the nose. In this comical tragedy or tragical comedy, duty battles to the death with the sweetness of life. Welles, as author of the film, and as a man who was a bit of a Falstaff himself, comes out bravely as a soldier in favor of the latter.
(*in order to legitimize an unsteady unpopular government, that is)