'Chimes At Midnight' Gives Weight To A Shakespearean Knave

Dec 29, 2015
Originally published on December 29, 2015 6:12 pm

1965. It had been seven years since Orson Welles directed Touch of Evil, more than 20 years since Citizen Kane, so a lot of people thought he was washed up when he shopped around a project he had created by blending bits and pieces of five plays by Shakespeare.

Chimes at Midnight was an epic that centered on Falstaff, a fat scalawag with tragicomic weight Welles had wanted to play for ages. He now looked the part, having put on quite a bit of weight, and the character's fondness for deception suited him too, especially when it came to dealing with producers.

When raising money for Shakespeare proved impossible in a Hollywood enamored of The Sound of Music, Welles simply lied to a Spanish producer who wanted him to direct Treasure Island, saying yes, he'd direct it (and even play Long John Silver), as long as he could make his Falstaff project at the same time.

Welles built sets that could theoretically work for both Chimes and Treasure Island, hired actors who could play in both films, but never wrote a single scene about pirates. He just pushed ahead on Chimes at Midnight in an eight-month shoot, using majestic Spanish castles as backdrops for English battles of succession.

His cast was impressive: Margaret Rutherford as innkeeper Mistress Quickly; Jeanne Moreau as prostitute Doll Tearsheet. John Gielgud, who could only spare two weeks to shoot one of the film's largest roles, played the frustrated King Henry IV, who wishes he had a son — Keith Baxter was Prince Hal — who didn't spend all his time with wastrels like Falstaff.

Among the film's set pieces: a Battle of Shrewsbury for which Welles turned 180 extras on horseback into an army of thousands. The sequence would later inspire battle scenes from Braveheart to Saving Private Ryan to Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. It's regarded today as an anti-war statement on a par with Dr. Strangelove.

Still, Chimes didn't ring many chimes in its own time. Its initial reviews were mixed, its American rollout limited, and rights disputes kept the film from being issued on DVD.

Happily, critics have rallied to it in recent years. The New York Times' Vincent Canby considered it "maybe the greatest Shakespearean film ever made," an opinion that Welles — who, like Falstaff, was never shy about his own genius, and who thought Chimes was his best film — would very likely have shared.

So it's good that rights disputes have been resolved, meaning a freshly restored Janus Films/Criterion Collection Chimes at Midnight will shortly be available on DVD and in limited theatrical release — sprawling, and hugely ambitious, and containing a glorious Wellesian Falstaff who is as majestic in folly as he is in girth.

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The one that got away usually means something that's gone for good. Director Orson Welles made a masterpiece that got away for decades, but NPR's Bob Mondello says the movie "Chimes At Midnight" is about to resurface.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Nineteen sixty-five. It'd been seven years since Orson Welles directed "Touch Of Evil," more than 20 years since "Citizen Kane." So a lot of people thought he was washed up when he shopped around a project he'd created by blending bits and pieces of five plays by Shakespeare.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT")

ALAN WEBB: (As Shallow) Jesus, the days that we have seen.

ORSON WELLES: (As Falstaff) We have heard the chimes at midnight.

MONDELLO: It was an epic that centered on Falstaff, a fat scalawag Welles had wanted to play for ages. He now looked the part, having put on quite a bit of weight, and the character's fondness for deception suited him too, especially when it came to dealing with producers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT")

WELLES: (As Falstaff) Four rogues in buckram cloaks. Let drive at me.

KEITH BAXTER: (As Prince Hal) Four? Four? Thou saidst but two even now.

WELLES: (As Falstaff) Four Hal, I told thee four.

MONDELLO: Welles lied to a producer, saying yes, he'd direct "Treasure Island" for him, as long as he could make his Falstaff project at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT")

WELLES: (As Falstaff) Seven of the 11 I paid.

BAXTER: (As Prince Hal) O, monstrous. Eleven buckram men grown out of two.

WELLES: (As Falstaff) But as the devil would have it...

MONDELLO: Talking his way around every roadblock, Welles built sets that could theoretically work for both "Chimes" and "Treasure Island," hired actors who could play in both films, but never wrote a single scene about pirates. He just pushed ahead on "Chimes At Midnight" using majestic Spanish castles as backdrops for English battles of succession, John Gielgud as a King Henry who he wishes he had another man's son...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT")

JOHN GIELGUD: (As Henry IV) By my scepter and my soul to boot, he hath more worthy interest to the state than thou.

WELLES: (As Falstaff) Do not think so.

MONDELLO: Keith Baxter was his Prince Hal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT")

BAXTER: (As Prince Hal) I will redeem all this on Percy's head, and in the closing of some glorious day, be bold to tell you that I am your son.

MONDELLO: And when they went to war, Welles turned 180 extras on horseback into an army of thousands. This sequence would later inspire battle scenes from "Braveheart" to "Saving Private Ryan." It's regarded today as an antiwar statement on a par with "Dr. Strangelove."

Still, "Chimes" didn't ring many times in its own time. Its initial reviews were mixed, its American rollout limited and rights disputes kept the film from being issued on DVD. Happily, critics have rallied to it in recent years.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT")

WELLES: (As Falstaff) I forgive thee.

MONDELLO: The New York Times called it maybe the greatest Shakespearean film ever made, an opinion that Welles, who, like Falstaff, was never shy about his own genius...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT")

WELLES: (As Falstaff) Thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules.

MONDELLO: ...Would likely have shared. So it's good that rights disputes have been resolved, meaning a freshly restored "Chimes At Midnight" will shortly be available on DVD and in limited theatrical release, sprawling and hugely ambitious and containing a glorious Wellesian Falstaff as majestic in folly as he is in girth. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.