Orson Welles’ love of Shakespeare was deep, lifelong – and devoid of reverence. Whether directing for the stage or the screen, he never scrupled to rework the Bard any way he saw fit. When his notorious ‘voodoo Macbeth’ was in preparation in New York, someone asked his long-suffering associate John Houseman, “When will Macbeth be ready?” “When Orson’s finished writing it,” Houseman shrugged.
So for Chimes At Midnight – previously unreleased on UK DVD – the third and last of his Shakespeare films, Welles mixed and matched chunks of Henry IV (both parts), Henry V, Richard II, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and a good few lines of his own. It hardly matters, since his focus isn’t any of the monarchs but the fat knight sir John Falstaff, drinking companion of Prince Hal (the future Henry v), and in Welles’ view “the most entirely good man in all drama”.
Like most of Welles’ late work, the film is technically flawed. Shot on bleak Spanish locations that never look remotely English, it suffers from unfocused sound (plagued by blatant dubbing of many of the extras) and uneven acting. The casting is erratic, with a stiff Prince Hal in Keith Baxter, Jeanne Moreau uncomfortable as Doll Tearsheet and Italian comic actor Walter Chiari incomprehensible as silence. But the battle scenes broke entirely new ground, shot in tight close-up with agonised figures hacking and clubbing each other in the mud.
The overall mood is sombre and wintry, a lament for lost innocence – and at the heart of it all Welles’ majestic portrayal of Falstaff as “the old England, dying and betrayed”.