Monday, February 29, 2016
Chimes at Midnight
Chimes at Midnight combines the plots and characters of five plays by William Shakespeare to tell the story of Sir John Falstaff (Welles), a fat, old knight always scheming, getting into trouble, drinking, owing money, and leading astray the Prince of Wales, Hal (Keith Baxter), much to the dismay of Hal's father, King Henry IV (John Gielgud). When war breaks out in England, Prince Hal must decide which of these father figures he's going to emulate, and his decision has dire consequences for Falstaff.
Falstaff is regarded as one of Shakespeare's most memorable characters. He's boisterous, loud, merry, a good-natured scoundrel in a manner of speaking. He's a braggart and a coward, one utterly shameless and driven by his desires, a man who inspires both affection and frustration in those close to him. In the text, Falstaff is a comical character, but by making him the focus of the film, Welles brings to the forefront Falstaff's tragic nature. He's goes from this massive, looming figure who dominates the frame to a reduced, pitiful creature who looks small and feeble at the base of these grand castle halls and rows of footmen.
The most impressive sequence is the battle between Henry's forces and those of the rebellious Hotspur (Norman Rodway). Welles buries his camera in a sea of men, mud, and mist and cuts curiously between dozens of little clashes, along with the comical Falstaff running and hiding like a goof. This gives the battle a strong sense of chaos, as well as the impression that there are thousands of troops fighting. One can see the influence this had on a number of battle scenes in later movies.
If you're a fan of Welles or Shakespeare, you'd be well served to seek out Chimes at Midnight. A few technical flaws remain (some characters are clearly not speaking when we hear them), but the filmmaking prowess on display and the exploration of the Bard's themes are superlative, and the performances are excellent.