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'Chimes At Midnight' Gives Weight To A Shakespearean Knave

Orson Welles plays Sir John Falstaff, the portly Shakespearean rapscallion in <em>Chimes at Midnight</em>.
Courtesy of Janus Films
Orson Welles plays Sir John Falstaff, the portly Shakespearean rapscallion in Chimes at Midnight.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.