Orson Welles’ seldom seen 1965 film Chimes at Midnight has finally gotten released to home video by the Criterion Collection. For decades the movie was entangled in ownership rights issues but that has finally been resolved and the film has been restored.
Chimes at Midnight was Welles’ favourite movie. It started out as a play that he conceived in 1930 that merged several Shakespeare plays into one story. Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III. The play evolved into Five Kings which only saw one performance in 1939. Welles tried to bring the play back in 1960 and now called the project Chimes at Midnight. That play also failed but Welles decided on making it into a movie.
Welles loved the character of Falstaff, the drunken friend of young Prince Hal. Falstaff appeared in the plays Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor and Welles wanted to play Falstaff. Welles took text from Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2,Richard II, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor and combined the stories from the plays but Welles reworked all of Shakespeare’s plot into his own story.
The movie opens with Falstaff and Justice Shallow (Alan Webb) reminiscing in a bar. The film then tells how Richard the Second died and King Henry IV (John Gielgud) has succeeded him. Henry’s son Hal (Keith Baxter) hangs out with Falstaff all day, drinking and getting into trouble. Henry doesn’t approve of Falstaff thinking he’s bad influence on the future king. Meanwhile there’s been an uprising lead by Hotspur (Norman Rodway) aka Henry Percy the cousin of Edmund Mortimer the rightful heir to the crown. King Henry, Hal and Falstaff all go off to battle the rebels in the Battle of Shrewsbury. Afterwards Henry falls ill and Hal becomes King Henry V. The movie then returns to Falstaff reminiscing at the bar and then Falstaff leaves to go to the coronation.
By the 1960s Welles was working primarily in Europe. He was done with Hollywood after the big fight he had over Touch of Evil but he was having trouble finding funding for Chimes at Midnight. Welles met Spanish film producer Emiliano Piedra and convinced him that if he funded Chimes at Midnight, Welles would also make Treasure Island for him. The idea was that both films would be shot back to back, except Welles had no plans to make Treasure Island. The budget was low and after shooting for a couple of months Welles ran out forcing production to stop until he could secure more. He got more money from producer Harry Saltzman (who was co-producing the James Bond movies) and finished production. Unfortunately because of the budget the sound recording was poor and had to be mostly redone in post. Also several of the main actors were only available at certain times so there are scenes where none of the actors who are talking on screen together were ever in the same room at the same time in real life.
Chimes at Midnight was poorly received when it was first released. Most critics disliked it and Saltzman barely released it in the States. But over time the film has been reevaluated and has become highly regarded. In the 2012 BFI Sight and Sound poll for best films, 11 film critics and two directors voted Chimes at Midnight as one of the 10 greatest films of all time.