“There lives not three good men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat and grows old.”
I don’t know much about Shakespeare, but I do know that Orson Welles was a big fan. And since Orson Welles is undisputedly one of the greatest film makers in the history of the medium, I had to ensure some of his adaptations of the playwright were included when I decided to tackle Shakespeare Week. I also like the idea of going in totally blind on a Welles adaptation of a Shakespeare play I’d never even heard of, Chimes at Midnight.
This is the story of the man who would be King Henry V (Keith Baxter as Prince Hal). It’s also the story of the man who at different times would play the part of his mentor, friend, foil, and victim of betrayal, Sir John Falstaff (Welles). It turns out that the reason I’d never heard of this play, is because Chimes at Midnight isn’t a Shakespeare play. It’s several. With story elements from Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Richard II, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, the story opens on a very fat, very weary Falstaff, preparing to reminisce.
Flashing back to some years before, the newly crowned King Henry V (John Gielgud) becomes the newly crowned king by killing his predecessor. A predecessor whose rightful heir is still alive. When relatives of said heir, including Henry Percy, AKA Hotspur (Norman Rodway) let it be known that they expect the restoration of that heir, things get dicey and war was imminent.
Meanwhile, in a local pub, Prince Hal, son of the new King, is less occupied with the goings on of his father, and more interested in pranks, petty crime, cavorting and a little debauchery, lead by Falstaff. But when war finally does come, Hal steps up. The more Hal grows and begins to take his responsibilities seriously, the further apart he and Falstaff become.
Apparently Welles always said this was his favourite of all his movies. And the one thing the plays combined to make Chimes at Midnight have in common is the character of Falstaff, which was Welles’ dream character to play. So it’s no wonder that Falstaff gets all the juiciest parts of this movie. And Welles never gives it less than his all. Falstaff is a buffoon at times and Welles plays those parts way funnier than I ever would have thought he was capable of.
Maybe if I was more familiar with the source materials, I’d see the seams a little more. But as someone who has never seen performances of, or even read, the five plays combined here, Chimes at Midnight comes together really well as a single, coherent story. And as someone with such limited exposure to Shakespeare, I probably understood maybe a quarter of what was being said. But when it’s said with such relish, by someone as engaging as Welles, understanding just one quarter is still more than enough to be blown away.