The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Banished by Hollywood, Welles made movies where he could. Chimes at Midnight is primarily wrought from Henry IV, Parts I and II, although Henry V, Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor are also drawn upon. The film, then, patches together appearances of Shakespeare’s most beloved character, Sir Jack Falstaff, whom Welles himself beautifully plays. Welles described the film as a “lament for Merrie England”—in effect, a lament for all that’s past. Apart from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (see above), it is the greatest film derived from Shakespeare. Welles was proud of it on another score: No horses were injured or killed during filming. Unlike countless other U.S. filmmakers shooting abroad, Welles did not take advantage of laxer laws regarding the (mis)treatment of animals.
In particular, Welles considers Falstaff’s fatherly tutelage, in taverns and brothels, of Prince Hal (Keith Baxter, brilliant), young heir to the British throne. Alas, their close alliance as fellow carousers does not spare Falstaff royal dismissal once King Henry IV (sonorous John Gielgud) dies and the prince takes his place. By noting from the start the emotional distance between the boy and Falstaff, which the former imposes and the latter ignores, the film makes Hal’s subsequent rejection of his surrogate father less a betrayal of familial love than a signal for the collapse of illusions.
With its melancholy, absurdism and rich comedy, the whole film amazes. One of its sequences, though, is often anthologized as clearest proof of Welles’s genius: the Battle of Shrewsbury. With Falstaff’s armored bulk darting about (“The better part of valor . . .”) lending the film one of its touches of the absurd, the passage becomes a massive, near abstract spectacle of muddy, flashing death—Welles’s stunning portrait of war’s enormity.
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