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Welles’ Chimes at Midnight: Shakespeare Done Right (And the Best Bard Adaptation You’ve Never Seen)

Written by: Erik Beck, Special to CC2K

“Welles never approached such posterity again, although Touch of Evil (1958) is a fine example of the then-fading film noir genre.”

Steve Persall ST. PETERSBURG TIMES (as syndicated in the San Diego Union Tribune)

ImageFirst of all, when you’ve just explained that Citizen Kane is widely regarded as the greatest film ever made, saying he “never approached such posterity again” reeks of obviousness. Of course he didn't; neither did anyone else. That’s kind of the point. But in Persall’s article, he dismisses Welles among other directors that “once were giants.” What that misses is that Welles may have been forced out of the studio system, but he hardly failed to continue to be a giant (fat jokes not withstanding). 


Yes, Orson Welles had The Magnificent Ambersons re-edited while he was in Mexico, and he never comfortably worked within the studio system again, but that’s more because of studios failing to understand genius more than any loss of talent (on Saturday, during back to back trailers of Meet Dave and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, I turned to my wife and said “But Terry Gilliam can’t get his films financed.). Even hacked up, Ambersons is a masterpiece, and Welles later followed it up with a brilliant Othello (made over many years), Touch of Evil (one of the finest films ever made, on a par with Kane), and of course, Chimes at Midnight, the greatest Shakespeare film you’ve never seen. Don’t feel bad. Almost no one has seen it (even our own Tony Lazlo, who wrote an article on Shakespeare films). It’s not available on DVD in the states and is very hard to find on video (I admit that I taped my copy off the copy that Movie Madness in Portland, the world’s greatest video store, owns). It’s easier to buy the screenplay than the film.

The story of the making of the film is much the same. It was financed with mostly European money. It was released in Spain in December of 1965 as Campanados a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight), but came out in Europe in 1966 as Falstaff and finally made its debut in the state on March of 1967. Welles edited it and dubbed it to hide that certain scenes were shot months apart and with completely different actors. As Pauline Kael noted, when she finally got a chance to review it in June of 67, “The readings in Falstaff are great even if they don’t always go with the images, which are often great, too.” Roger Ebert gave it four stars when it finally hit Chicago in February of '68 (and added it to his Great Movies series in 2006, noting “How can it be that there is an Orson Welles masterpiece that remains all but unseen?”).  

So you almost certainly have not seen it, but I have. If you discount Kurosawa’s two adaptations because they don’t use Shakespeare’s language, then Branagh’s Henry V and Hamlet are its only rivals as the greatest Shakespeare film ever made. It is impossible to even conceive of Branagh’s Henry V without Chimes at Midnight. Branagh specifically mentioned it as one of the great war films he watched to prepare in filming, and it must have been the inspiration for the Falstaff scenes in Branagh’s film.

Chimes at Midnight is plagued with technical problems and a soundtrack that is out of synch, but that only adds to it. It is a dirty, gritty war film, a bawdy comedy and a royal drama all wrapped together. It is the only place to find the entire story of Prince Hal, the young mischief maker who would grow up to be the great King Henry V. Welles has already written a brilliant combination of the two parts of Henry IV, including the Faltsaff scenes from Merry Wives of Windsor and throwing in historical bits from Richard II and Henry V. We get the entire arc of Hal’s education and the fat, sad old man who taught him a different world from his father’s court. 

As with Kane and Touch of Evil, the key performance in Chimes at Midnight is Welles himself. Welles is the most prodigious talent who ever came into the film industry. As a director he belongs on the short-list with Kubrick, Kurosawa and Scorsese. As an actor he could dominate the screen (Citizen Kane), steal the film (The Third Man) or sneak in with a brilliant witty cameo (Catch22). But it was his ability as a writer that completed his talent. Pauline Kael can take away all the credit for Kane that she wants, but that doesn’t account for Touch of Evil or the cuckoo clock speech in Third Man. And Welles knew Shakespeare. He set the New York stage world on its ear with his voodoo MacBeth, spent years putting together his Othello and found a way to take all the different parts of Falstaff and Hal and bring them together. And by then he was old enough and fat enough to play Falstaff himself. Welles had a deep and distinctive voice that played perfectly with Falstaff’s words and his style of filming, out in the mud and the trees, seemed perfectly fitted for the way Falstaff flees from a war and a world. Falstaff is a fat old man who has been rejected by his society and the man he mentored, left to die on his own, much as what happened to Welles.

When a columnist comes along and buries Welles’ talent along with him just because he was abandoned, not by talent, but by hacks who never understood genius, is a travesty. But for a man who tried so hard to make films that never got completed (like Gilliam, Welles tried hard to make Don Quixote), to have one of his completed masterpieces, one that shows exactly how talented Welles was, in so many ways, be almost completely unknown is a tragedy.