Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Campanadas a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles, 1965)

On the occasion of Shakespeare's 450th birthday, reposting an old piece:

This post was also part of the Shakespeare blogathon

(Note: plot discussed in close detail--but at 450 years and counting, is anyone still unfamiliar with the story?)

Bigger than life

What to say about this film? I first saw it on a pirated VHS tape I'd rented in New York back in 1991 (the tape startled me; I had no idea pirated tapes still existed in the USA), and despite the video snow, unstable vertical, wretched sound (not that the actual soundtrack was a model of clarity), thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. Haunted Theater 80 at St. Marks for the longest time, because I'd been told they have screened it before and might again, but it never showed up. Finally had a chance to see it on the big screen in Detroit (of all places!) at an arthouse theater that served coffee and sandwiches on tables while you watched the screen. There were two screenings, and I went to both; had no reason to change my opinion.

Welles based his script on four plays: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2; Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. I'd seen a published version with annotations noting which line had been taken from which play, and a look at the heavily marked pages was revealing--a patchwork of words ranging from all four sources, mostly Henry IV parts 1 and 2, some early scenes from Henry V, and (far as I can tell) only a few lines from Merry Wives, all held together by excerpts from Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, narrated by Ralph Richardson. Scenes are not only shortened, but transferred earlier or later in the story, changing the flow or feel of the narrative; sometimes two entirely unrelated lines of dialogue from two, even three different plays are married to create an entirely new meaning. 

Many cite Welles' directing and performance in the film, but I can't recall anyone commending his writing. It's quite an achievement, though: roughly sixteen hours of Shakespeare, boiled down into a hundred and nineteen apparently seamless minutes (took him long enough to do; arguably, he's been working on this since his overambitious theater project Five Kings, in 1939). Not just condensed but radically reinterpreted--Shakespeare as raw material for fashioning what essentially is a new story.

The main dramatic thrust of Shakespeare's Henry IV is commonly seen to be the struggle between King Henry Bolingbroke (John Gielgud) and Sir John Falstaff (Welles) for the soul and affection of young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter); the struggle is still there in Chimes, but with judicious use of Holinshed and of style, atmosphere, acting and imagery, Welles alters the landscape on which the conflict takes place.

Near the film's opening the narrator (Richardson) quotes from Holinshed: that Henry is an usurper, having seized the throne from his predecessor, Richard II. In the play, when Henry is informed that Edmund of Mortimer had been kidnapped and held hostage by the Welshman Glendower and Henry complains of having to pay ransom and delay his crusade into the Holy Lands you think: that makes sense--why pay for someone who led a failed military campaign, messed up your timetable and is, in Henry's words, "foolish" and perhaps even "revolted" (with, no doubt, all the meanings that word evokes)? With that brief excerpt from Holinshed, however, Welles puts Henry's stubbornness in an entirely different light: suddenly Henry's indignation acquires a strong note of self-interest. Edmund being the rightful heir of Richard, Henry's argument for not lifting a finger to help Edmund--partial basis for his differences with Mortimer's brother-in-law Henry Percy, or Hotspur (Norman Rodway)--sounds more like a stubborn man's insistence that his version of what happened matters over anyone else's (Henry's guilt over usurping Richard could be prodding him into mistreating and arguing with the Percy family). 

Mind you, Shakespeare's play does mention all this (Richard's usurpation, Henry's true motive for abandoning Mortimer), but added later, through Hotspur who is prodded on by Worcester (hardly--as is pointed out by Henry--a disinterested observer). Shakespeare presents Henry's official story, then complicates matters by introducing other points of view; Welles introduces doubt right off, and has us listen to Henry's words with a mistrustful ear.

Welles elaborates with a few other touches. The credit sequence shows horsemen riding through some landscapes; a soldier walks past scaffolding, the purpose of which is unknown (a hard wind blows his helmet off--prophetic, considering what eventually follows). The credits' final shot gives us the meaning of the scaffolding head-on: soldiers stare straight at the camera, swords swinging in curious slow motion while behind, hanged men twist in the wind. 

I've always wondered at that bit of slow motion--a way to stretch the footage, so we can read Welles' name better? Or a little touch meant to cause the image (the swing of the corpses echoing the swing of the soldier's blade) to linger in the memory, the way it has lingered in mine for years? In this single image Welles summarizes Henry's England--a police state filled with unrest, barely held together by a policy of terrorism, summary executions, and military campaigns in foreign lands.

A look at Henry's court is equally instructive--his castle has cathedral-high ceilings illuminated by shafts of light (you feel like kneeling upon entry). When people talk there's an echo (like a cavern--or better yet, a tomb); vapor from their mouths suggest a wintry chill (to match the owner's temperament?). Henry's courtiers keep some ten or so feet away from him, as if Henry were afraid of assassination, or--conversely--the courtiers might be afraid Henry would have them killed. Only Henry Percy (hot spur indeed) dares to raise his voice to the king.

As played by Gielgud, you can't ask for a more astringent villain. Yes, villain--Shakespeare is too much of an artist not to create a rounded view of characters in his plays, but Welles chooses to underline certain aspects of the king over others, to a more pointed dramatic effect. "My blood is too cold and temperate," Henry complains--this king speaks constantly of wars, of punishing enemies and putting down rebellions, but does so in such a passionless manner you wonder why he even bothers to fight--not for his useless son, certainly (by way of contrast it's clear why Hotspur constantly talks of battle; he enjoys the excuse to expend his boundless energy). When not wearing his crown Henry wears a monkish skullcap--this monarch, you imagine, pores over passages from the Bible before going to sleep; in war he wears gleaming black armor but is never seen wearing his helmet--he may lead his men, but apparently doesn't indulge in actual fighting. 

Welles can't help having Henry parodied at least three times--first by Hotspur, fuming over Henry's decision not to help Mortimer; second by Falstaff, playacting with Prince Hal; third by Prince Hal, reversing roles with Falstaff (Hal's impersonation is best, I think, though Hotspur's is the most startling). Perhaps the most vivid impression I have of the king is his utter loneliness--Welles isolates him on his throne, standing on a high stepped platform, often as not shooting him from a distance; if Henry at all derives any comfort or pleasure from his position of power, we don't see it.

Falstaff, on the other hand, is all about pleasure. As played by Welles he's often shot from a low angle, to emphasize his rotundity. His realm (the inn in which he resides) is visually and dramatically opposed against Henry's forbidding castle--homely wood against hard stone; low-beamed ceilings against high vaulted ones; blanketed hay beds against what (in Henry's room) looked like a sepulcher with sheets (the pillow on which Henry's crown rests is, far as I can see, the only concession to comfort in the place). More, Falstaff is in constant physical contact with his "courtiers"--where Westmoreland and Worcester approach Henry by at most a few steps (even Harry Percy can only appear to charge at him), Falstaff is constantly being pummeled, pushed, bussed, hugged, even lifted bodily up a table by a gaggle of kids while playing king (the table is a nice touch--Falstaff's parody of Henry's raised platform). Unlike Henry, loneliness and loss are not something Falstaff seeks out (they come upon him involuntarily); he does his level best to live life as fully as he can, inviting everyone and anyone to join him.

Shakespeare darkened Falstaff's character considerably--the man is in a struggle with Henry for the soul of the prince, after all, and the prince must be seen to have made the right choice; Welles includes elements of that darker side, but the emphasis again has been changed--the Gadshill robbery, for example, where Falstaff takes money from some travelers is treated as a romp, Falstaff repulsed (by Prince Hal in disguise), the money returned (over the robbery we hear the main theme music, plus another melody, softly played, that will be repeated later on). Falstaff's role in accepting bribes from men who don't wish to be drafted into Henry's army is a far more serious matter, but should be seen in the context of what follows.

What follows is Shrewsbury, where Henry and Hotspur's quarrels come to a head, and Welles stages the only battle sequence of his career--arguably the greatest ever filmed.

Half the battle is in the preparation, they say, and it's no less true here: armored knights are lowered down from tree branches onto their horses; racked spears point directly at the screen, as if ready to fire upon the audience. We have preparatory slapstick from Falstaff--the knight, clad in what looks like a potbelly stove and wearing what looks like a thundermug on his head--is raised by a team of men; his gravitas too much for them, they release the rope and he crashes to the ground. The unmounted knight contents himself with waving his sword in the direction of the enemy, urging the men forward.

The battle itself gives the impression of chaos, but a chaos with an underlying progression--cavalry charges to the right and left indicate attacks by Henry and Hotspur's men, respectively; when the soldiers meet the distinction between the sides is quickly lost. Armored men on horses swing swords at fellow armored men; a knight with lance charges at a man with spear, and when the lance hits Welles cuts to a gorgeous long shot of the spear flying through the air. The action degenerates into a slaughter--unarmored infantry pull knights off their horses and bludgeon them; soldiers with swords wander about, stabbing the wounded. The men ultimately end up tumbling over each other into the mud, struggling in slow motion; at one point we see a pair of legs atop another pair, both sunk in mire, parodying the sex act. Throughout all this Falstaff runs comically, ineffectually, from one side of the screen to the other; if he shows any real allegiance, it's to the surrounding shrubbery, which offers him protection.

Welles' sound--remember he started in radio, and has been a great innovator of film sound--is at least as important as his visual effects and editing. The thunder of hooves gives way to the clash and clang of sword on armor (the sound of shrieking metal suggesting more weapons than is actually on display onscreen), gives way to the brutal thud of club on flesh, gives way to the repulsive sound of squelching mud. This, in effect, is war: a devolution of trained and coordinated soldiers into mindless crustaceans, all spiky armor and wavering antennae, groping in the primordial muck. At a certain point we recognize the music full of mournful voices: the same tune that had played at the Gadshill robbery. It's as if Welles were inviting us to compare the activities of Henry and Falstaff--whose is more honorable? Whose results in more deaths? Up to this point we see Falstaff's antics--his refusal to take part in the battle and his earlier impromptu catechism on 'honor'--as a sort of comic counterpoint to all the violence. "What is that honour?" he asks; "air. A trim reckoning…therefore I'll none of it." His cowardice comes to seem less like cowardice and more like a lonely beacon of sanity shining in all the madness.

Falstaff's taking credit for Hotspur's death from Prince Hal (a radical reinterpretation from the Shakespeare) is crucial to the story--we need an ostensible reason for Hal to turn on his friend (though the prince has already been preparing us in a series of asides, telling us he's only pretending to cavort with Falstaff). A despicable thing to do, except that in Falstaff's eyes honor is important only for what it can give him--a promotion, perhaps--and not valuable enough to risk life and limb to acquire (as many of the dead in the battlefield behind him have done). Stealing credit is no big deal for Falstaff, no more so than robbing roadside travellers, or taking bribes from draft dodgers (ordinary folk with no more stomach for violence than Falstaff does).

The earlier scene where Falstaff plays the prince and the prince his father seems to lie at heart of what Welles is saying (or rather, part of it--more on this later). At a certain point the play stops being play; Falstaff, confronted by a pretend king who one day will be crowned, accused of iniquities and threatened with banishment, suddenly finds himself begging for clemency: "banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company--" His final plea is haunting in its pathos (all the more for the way Welles tumbles the words out, throwaway lines that contain the very meat of the speech): "--banish plump Jack, and banish all the world." Falstaff is the world, not just in size but also flaws, heart, appetite for life; that his equating himself with all of humanity does not at this point seem altogether inappropriate is a measure of Shakespeare and Welles' (both actor and director) achievement.

Contrast this to the film's climax--Prince Hal's coronation as Henry V, with Falstaff presenting himself loudly and openly to the new king. In the earlier scene Shakespeare's Falstaff makes an eloquent case for his nobility and against his banishment, to which Baxter's Prince Hal has a short but serious answer ("I do, I will."); this time it's Falstaff's plea that is short and Hal--now King Henry--who delivers the sermon ("
know the grave doth gape / For thee thrice wider than for other men")

If Welles has a rebuke to this scene and to Hal's eloquence, it's found in the expression on his actors' faces. Baxter's king chides Falstaff in slow, measured words--much in the same manner as the older Henry, only this time Hal is not doing a parody. But Hal's voice trembles at certain lines, and his eyes are wide and staring; he seems fully aware of the horror of what he's doing, honoring his blood father while deliberately condemning his spiritual father to exile. As Welles plays him Falstaff has an even more poignant response: he kneels wordlessly, looking up at what in effect is his son with undisguised pride. Baxter in a recent interview describes the "tremendous bond and affection" he had with Welles; I think that bond, the severing of it (in terms of the story and in real life (it was towards the end of the shoot)) and Welles' acceptance and forgiveness of that, shines through.

Henry IV in dying had earlier bequeathed to Hal not just his crown, but advice: "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." Hal takes the advice to heart, and in a later scene (which Welles takes from Henry V) initiates an adventure in France that, following Welles' viewpoint, will inflict great suffering--on the French this time (shades of Bush using 9/11 as justification to wage war on Iraq for the next nine or so years). Falstaff leaves his own legacy--in the same scene Hal pardons Falstaff (again, Welles borrowing lines meant for another offender in the same play), suggesting that the youth has learned from both fathers, and will perhaps do better with his reign (perhaps not--the final image is of Falstaff's enormous coffin being carted away, human carnality disposed of as inconvenient garbage). Exeunt Falstaff; enter police state, part two.

What more can I say? Not much, save that for my money Chimes is Welles' masterpiece, is the finest film ever made from Shakespeare, and is one of the greatest films ever made. 



David said...

I'm so glad to see this detailed analysis--I saw this a few months ago (in 35mm, part of which was recently restored and should be released shortly), and it's probably my all-time favorite movie. Thanks for all the commentary.

Noel Vera said...

David, it's a freaking privilge to write about this film...

Noel Vera said...

Got mixed feelings about the restoration. If it's going to be like Othello, fuhgeddaboudit. The sound may synch more, but they simplified the soundtrack. I'd rather they clean up the print, reshow it in a few theaters, then release it in DVD

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

The version I saw actually was a hybrid--the first half was the old non-restored version and the second half was restored, so it made for an interesting comparison. They actually weren't too different--the restored quality wasn't much better, and the non-restored wasn't much worse. But personally, I'd take the non-restored. I saw it at a Welles conference and one of the scholars made a fascinating comment that Welles' post-dubbing adds a sort of nostalgic memory-like effect to the action, wherein the characters don't seem to be in control of what they're saying, but slated to say their lines in a non-diegetic sound-space (I'm pretty sure he put it better). I couldn't agree more, and it's a perfect approach to Shakespeare, both in the fact that they're performing these famous works, and more importantly, that the whole thing has such a bittersweet hint of fatalism, that the arch seems inscribed in the action from the start, in which they run joyously across that barren field of snow (am I remembering this correctly)?

And yeah, it's a total privilege to even watch the film--one which I wish I had right now.

Noel Vera said...

I don't know about that scholar, whether he wrote the article or read it, included in BFI's series of screenplays of films (that's where I saw how Welles put together what lines from what plays), but there's an article there that makes a similar argument--that there's a haunted feeling to the slightly disembodied voices, that any 'improvement' would only diminish the film. That said, I'd love to see it again in 35 mm

Nick said...

Noel, a British company, "Mr. Bongo" recently did a DVD-release of Chimes. It's without a doubt the best DVD on the market, as the print has been cleaned up (it looks very good) and the sound synced up properly. Regrettably, it lacks extras (even subtitles!), but I'd still highly recommend it.

Noel Vera said...


Can I play this on a Region 1? Is it PAL SECAM? Or am I spouting outdated tech talk?

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