Orson Welles’s 1965 film, Chimes at Midnight, combines scenes and dialogue from five different Shakespeare plays to tell the story of Sir John Falstaff. This film was the result of a life-long fascination that Welles had with Shakespeare’s historical plays. Welles regarded Falstaff as a tragic figure, so it is not surprising that this film is more of a tragedy than a comedy.
Chimes at Midnight was a labor of love for Welles, so it is sad to note that he had difficulty getting funding for it. Welles had to work with a limited budget. One result of this is that the sound quality is poor. I often had difficulty making out what the actors were saying. (This is not a good film for someone who is unfamiliar with Shakespeare.) Despite such problems, though, this film is a remarkable achievement. The scene in which Harry (Keith Baxter), the newly crowned Henry V, coldly rejects his old friend, Falstaff, is disturbing to watch. It is, in a way, a comment on the corrupting effect of power, which can sever emotional ties between people. Overall, this film expresses a cynical view of political power. Henry IV (John Gielgud) comes across as a pompous hypocrite; he talks about honor and duty, when we know that he murdered his predecessor, Richard II. (He is so vain that he demands that his crown be placed on the pillow next to him on his deathbed.) Harry inherits his father’s hypocrisy along with his crown.
Chimes at Midnight is also notable for its depiction of the Battle of Shrewsbury. The scene begins with knights charging at each other on horseback, and it ends with soldiers grappling with one another in the mud. It is a visual metaphor for the dehumanizing effect of war.
Chimes at Midnight is one of Welle’s best films. Unfortunately, due to legal disputes over the film’s ownership, it has often been out of circulation. You can currently find it on YouTube. I recommend checking it out before it gets pulled.