A look back at Orson Welles'
last great film

by Don Larsson

I first encountered the character Falstaff in high school English class, where we had to read Henry IV, Part I, but the play paled next to Hamlet, which was also on our reading list that year. The main thing I recalled about it was the teacher, waving his copy of Shakespeare's Bawdy while letting us know what a "leaping house" actually was and mentioning the play as the inspiration for Falstaff Beer. Otherwise, it did not make too much of an impression. (The teacher also accused our school-issued text of being bowdlerized to the extent of omitting Doll Tearsheet, but she doesn't show up until Part 2.)

I picked up the play again (both parts this time) for a college Shakespeare class, but by then it was too late: Orson Welles had robbed me of my youth; I had just seen Chimes at Midnight. Welles has permanently colored my reading of the Henrys (including Henry V) and of Falstaff himself. All other Falstaffs, filmed or onstage, pale next to this tragi-comic great sack of guts, seeming mere fat fratboys, sack-swilling Bluto Blutarskys by comparison.

Initially, I had wondered why the title character of the plays had such a small part, but the real hero of Shakespeare's two Henry IVs is not that king, already rex quondam, but Prince Hal, rexque futurus of Henry V, in legend the last great hero warrior-king of England and a kind of model for Queen Elizabeth herself. Like all of the history plays, though, the Henriad is a lesson in political science, a primer on the art and craft of leadership and the balance needed in a monarchy among charisma, power, and personal integrity, it being dangerous to allow any one quality (integrity especially) to exceed the others.

Welles's genius was to see through this political lesson, and then to shift the focus of the drama from the kings and princes - their powers passed to other types of leaders, whether dictators or democrats, whose history in this last century requires not admiration but the most attentive skepticism, if not outright horror. The real hero in our ironic age, Welles realized, was Falstaff himself, "the last good man" in spite of all his surface flaws. Not that those flaws don't count for something. Like Charles Foster Kane, George Amberson Minnifer, Hank Quinlan, even Othello and Macbeth, Falstaff is a man close to power who finally overreaches and achieves his own bitter comeuppance. The difference is that this time the comeuppance is at the hands of his own best friend, the rakish prince who is using this father-surrogate as a way of reaching and reaching beyond his own real father.

One of the most brilliant pieces of staging in the film is the deep-focus long shot of Hal's soliloquy "I know you all and whill awhile up hold/ The unyok'd humor of your idleness," comparing himself to the sun hidden by a cloud that will seem all the more glorious for being dimmed before. The speech is the mark of the most calculating mind, but in this shot Hal, perhaps aware of his friend in the background, gives fair warning: This will not last; I will take you down for a fall - giving further point to Shakespeare's own mock father-son dialogue in the kitchen scene. (Keith Baxter, who played Hal, disliked the speech and the wink at the end that Welles directed him to give Falstaff, but it actually works in context here, Hal once again with the wink reverting to being the old man's playmate in spite of what he had just said.)

Welles tightens the crossed father-son relations of Shakespeare's plays, which are dissipated in the separate texts but are here brought together in full force. For the false father-son relationship of Falstaff and Hal, there is the other relationship of the King and Hotspur - his noble enemy, the more deserving mirror-image of his own unthrifty son.Derided by Hotspur as "that sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales," seen by his father as too much like the feeble Richard II whom he had deposed, Hal is really all thought and planning; Hotspur, though, is all action. Moved, even to rebellion, by the depths of his own feeling, he dashes away from Marina Vlady's beautiful and bemused Lady Percy to war and to his death. Too impetuous to ever be a good leader, Hotspur's very vitality mirrors not the Prince but the life-affirming fat wastrel who has been Hal's companion, the man who hides in battle, knowing that "honor" is but a word and that discretion is the better part of valor.

Neither is a good politician. It is Hotspur's death that seals Falstaff's own fate, in Welles's telling. The false son slain by the real on Shrewsbury Plain, Falstaff takes the credit for the killing, and the reconciliation of King and Prince at the end of Shakespeare's Part 1 does not come here. Hal's feelings for Falstaff are colored by the coward's act for the rest of the film. "Honor" does mean something to some people, after all. In another smart transposition, Falstaff speaks his ode to the joys of sherez-sack while father and son go again their separate ways.

At the end, the father dying, the son retrieves the cold, hard crown in the cold, hard room and has a final chance for reconciliation with the king. Politic to the last, the dying elder Harry counsels his son to stifle the rebellions that plagued his own rebellion-born reign by unifying the country around a cause, to "giddy busy minds with foreign quarrels." And sure enough, as soon as the crown is officially on the new king's head, he announces his new chapter for the Hundred Years War: "No king of England, if not King of France!"

It is a new reign, a new world, and no place for a fat, pleasure-loving old man. The close-up of Falstaff's face - greed, love, and relief combined - when he hears the good news that the old king is dead constrasts all the more sharply with the close-up of his anguish when he hears the new king, his "sweet boy," reject him. In Shakespeare's world, Hal's act is proof of prudence and maturity; in Welles's recreation of that world, it is more treasonous than anything that Hotspur ever did. The chimes at midnight that old men once heard are now the bell tolling for the banished friend. Falstaff dies soon after, trundled off to obscure burial in a great chest of a coffin, his few remaining friends heading off to fight (Bardolph to be hanged, Pistol to disappear) in the new king's war, while Hal goes on to glory, in Holinshed's now-ironic words, "a pattern in princehood, a lodestar in honor, and famous to the world alway."

As so often, Welles had to cope with numerous difficulties in the making of the movie. He had cadged the production dollars by promising the producer a two-for-one deal that never came. John Gielgud, Margaret Ruthford, and Jeanne Moreau could only come to filming for a few weeks each, and Welles had to work around their schedules, using stand-ins or even cardboard cutouts in some scenes. Other roles were played by local Spanish actors who spoke no English and had to be dubbed (often by Welles himself, something he had done in more than one film before). If those difficulties, and the settings in the Spanish countryside, account for some of the film's occasional roughness, they may have also prompted Welles' usual ingenuity in solving those very problems. (The casting problem occasioned at least one sly bit of satire--the Spanish actor who plays the stuttering Silence looks uncannily like Richard Nixon!)

The very oddness of some parts - Moreau's Doll, especially - in context seems to work. Other roles, though, are in their disparate ways pitch-perfect: Gielgud's paean to sleep (to be echoed by his son's pre-Agincourt soliloquy in Henry V) - "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" - and Margaret Rutherford's "cold as any stone" account of Falstaff's last moments are soaring arias, pure music in the form of speech. And the Battle of Shrewsbury itself is one of (if not above all others) the greatest battle scenes on film.

While many have said that this Falstaff is not especially funny, I do think that his performance is more deeply, richly comic than a single viewing can reveal. I laugh more and louder every time I see it.

Although Welles did other things after, and although there are those unfinished films that we will never see the whole of, I think of Chimes at Midnight as his capstone work - his last great achievement. Citizen Kane will always be his most technically perfect movie, The Magnificent Ambersons his great lost opportunity, Othello and Touch of Evil works that any director should be proud to claim. But, more than any of these, and even though Welles was a bit younger than I am now when he made it, Chimes at Midnight is a work of full maturity, a film that displays in the sheer fact of its existence what a great craftsman can do with just a little money, cardboard, glue and bits of string. More important, it is the mark of a life lived to its joyous and most bitter full, a testament to the conflicts of desire and love, of power and friendship that have marked our non-heroic age.

©2001 Don Larsson