Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles proved with his masterpieces Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil that he was not only an innovative and groundbreaking director but an immensely gifted writer, one with an eye for harsh wit and even harsher character study. Yet he also knew how to adapt the work of others; after all, he directed numerous plays for his company before turning to film. Chimes at Midnight, a mash-up of lines from five Shakespearean plays centered on the great character Falstaff, stands not only as his finest adaptation but the greatest of all the Shakespearean films and perhaps even Welles' personal best.

If Welles could ever be said to have been born to play a character, Falstaff certainly would be the reason why; Shakespeare's bawdy, roguish mountain of a man blurs the line between actor and character. A primarily supporting character in the two parts of Henry IV, Falstaff becomes the lead in this melting pot, and in the process we see him for the charming, pathetic, Dionysian yet ultimately good man he really is. Both he and Welles himself remained impossibly charismatic and kind no matter how many hardships they endured, and Falstaff's ultimate damnation for his service conjures uncomfortable allusions to Welles' own Hollywood demise.

Clearly working with a limited budget, Welles nevertheless crafts a suitably Wellesian vision of Shakespeare: the interior of Henry's castle seems to have almost no ceiling it is so vast. Were it not for light peering through the arched windows, one might assume Henry was trapped deep in a well. In contrast, the taverns that Sir John seems to unofficially rule teem with life, tiny buildings packed to the rafters with drunken rogues, and that monolithic knight resting on an ersatz throne with a pan for a crown.

Falstaff cares for his charge, Prince Hal, the future king of England. Played by Keith Baxter, he seems fun enough at the beginning, partying right alongside his mentor. Yet as the film progresses, he grows into a sinister hypocrite, admitting his sins but vowing to reform when it's time to assume power. His father, Henry IV, knows of his son's activities despite the fact we see him only in his vast, lonely castle, slowly dying from the start. Henry despises his child and envies a lord with a nobler son.

The most famous sequence of the film-- and almost certainly the finest in Welles' entire impressive filmography-- is the Battle of Shrewsbury sequence. Before the fight, Falstaff speaks with Hal on the subject of honor. Though Falstaff's speech may seem cowardly, it belies his solemn wisdom; he's seen battles his whole life and knows that the concept of honor only results in death and grief. It's a telling insight into a character who, until that point, seemed a foolish lout.

The battle itself is astonishing; lines of men on horses armed with spears charge at each other so ferociously that a dust cloud envelops the scene. In a long series of rapid edits, he captures the fear, confusion, rage and ultimate horror of war. Soldiers scream rallying cries drowned out only by the screams of the wounded, as now-riderless horses continue to circle in a panic and arrows pour into the fray. Welles juxtaposes these scenes with brilliantly comic shots of Falstaff, this enormous globe of a man encased in a suit of armor that looks as if it took enough metal to equip four men to create, keeping himself a safe distance from the ever shifting lines. Eventually he falls to the ground and plays dead, only giving his secret away when his breath rises in the frost.

I couldn't even begin to count the films that draw upon this battle for inspiration. The two most often-mentioned (at least by the reviews I read before watching this) are Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, which draw obvious cues: the Shrewsbury sequence manages to capture all the visceral excitement of a great battle scene while taking great care to underline the horrifying futility of it all, which plays a big role in the structure of the lengthier battles in both films. The only battle scene I could name that might be more important and defining would be the extended final battle in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

I must admit, with a great deal of shame, that I have a hard time with Shakespeare. Not because it's boring or (as so many young'uns claim of classic literature) old, but because it is so dense and leaves you to pick up all the pieces that by the time I sort out what words used to mean I feel like the play itself has left me in the dust. Yet whenever I actually see a production or a film it falls into place, mainly because I finally can sense the rhythm of the words, and getting to see the actions rather than glean them from the words.

However, Orson Welles might be the only person who not only helps me understand the play but completely draws me into it, highlighting every brilliant pun and zipping along with such wit and warmth that he seems to close that gap between Shakespeare and the present. So many adaptations seem to get as lost in Shakespeare's dialogue as I do, though out of sycophantic deference than my childish ignorance (Kenneth Branagh, I'm looking at you); Welles, on the other hand, finds the perfect rhythms and his enthusiasm fills the words somehow with a contemporary feel despite using the literal lines and the proper settings (no Romeo + Juliet style modernizing here). It's the most accessible Shakespearean adaptation I've seen that still adheres to the original lines and, though I greatly enjoy most of the Shakespeare films and productions I've seen, this was the first one I wanted to rewatch immediately after finishing it.

All of Welles' films contain whether he intends them or not, noticeable parallels to his own life. The most obvious is of course Kane, a man who had the world in the palm of his hand and ended up broken and lonely. But Falstaff bears more similarities than any other character; at one point a knight surrenders to the craven Falstaff purely out of reverence for Sir John's fading reputation. Welles likewise endured his share of sycophants, who loved him for Kane yet knew so little of the man's actual career. Also like Falstaff, Welles was downright lovable; surf Youtube and look for interviews with the man. These rare glimpses into the man revealed someone who certainly liked to maintain a mysterious image yet didn't contain a pretentious or haughty bone in his body. When I finished watching his interview with Dick Cavett I found myself wanting to somehow go back in time and just chat with Welles, and not about his films either.

The tragic qualities of Falstaff are also true of Welles. Falstaff used to be a strong and mighty knight, then fell into lethargy, obesity and debt, though, like Welles, he remained a lover of beautiful women. But it is in the climax, when Hal assumes the throne, only to turn to the man who protected and lectured him his whole life and proclaim, "I know thee not old man," that the saddest parallel comes to the fore. Welles too found himself suddenly ostracized by those who seemed closest; no film buff will ever allow us to forget Welles' landmark creative control on Kane, yet we remember him now as the creator of the most butchered films in history, the ultimate martyr of the Hollywood system.

This was Welles' personal favorite of his films, and I might have to agree. I agree with the common consensus that Citizen Kane is his finest achievement (and the greatest film ever made), but I very nearly preferred The Magnificent Ambersons when I saw it at last, held at bay only by that ending third in which the forcibly cut material became exceedingly noticeable. But this is a finished product. Yes, the dialogue is often out of sync, actors become very obviously doubles every other time they turn their backs and it's in desperate need of some restoration.; but this is a finished film nonetheless, a staggering achievement whose limited budget is seen but never felt, that makes Shakespeare more exciting than ever (only Kurosawa's Ran comes close). Right now the film is only available as a Region 0 import from Brazil, or on Youtube, but in his Great Movies essay on the film, Roger Ebert noted that a restoration was underway and we might see an upgraded release in a year or two. Of course, he wrote that in 2006, so take from it what you will.

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