Orson Welles seemed to spend most of his career having his ambitious and high-minded projects thwarted and suppressed by commercially-minded Hollywood studios with the result that a lot of his films have been actually quite difficult to see, at least in the unbutchered states that he intended. Welles sometimes said that the favourite of all the films he directed was Chimes At Midnight, his loose 1966 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, but I can’t remember it ever being shown on television, and it looks like it’s only been issued on DVD within the last couple of years. The Cambridge Film Festival have got it though, so despite my ignorance of both the source texts and this period of English history in general, I figured I should see it while I had a chance.
The first surprise, given Welles’s reputation as a bit of an iconoclast, is how respectful and traditional it looks. No junking the text and just keeping the bare bones of the plot a la Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood and Ran here, and no radical anachronistic makeover like Julie Taymor’s eye-popping Mussolini-referencing Titus either – this is a proper period setting, with castles and armour and taverns and a proper pointy crown and Johnny Gielgud giving it the full RSC as the pompous and ailing king. It takes a while to adjust, to be honest, as Welles cracks through the script at a pace, leaving an audience unfamiliar with the plays not much breathing space. He does however also provide some establishing narration (loftily intoned by Ralph Richardson, naturally) which helps you sort out who’s who, and after a while you do start to get drawn in, largely because of the confidence of the production, particularly Welles’s show-stopping and lusty turn as the man of infinite appetites Falstaff, surely one of the most appropriate bits of casting in history. Technically it’s pretty impressive too, full of arresting compositions in beautiful high contrast black and white, and the climactic battle scene on the fields of Shrewsbury is breathtakingly brutal, with scores of men running at each other and impaling each other with lances while horses gallop and fall around them. It’s the equal of the churning, muddy, desperate raids in Seven Samurai and Andrei Rublev. The many, relatively static, dialogue scenes are somewhat less compelling, though it always comes over like a proper movie, rather than the film of a stage play.
So is Chimes At Midnight really a better film than Citizen Kane, or Touch Of Evil? Not for this non-Shakespeare scholar, though it held my attention throughout and I’m glad to have seen it on the big screen. As Welles literary adaptations go The Trial is still the one to beat.