There is a new king of England, and he is Henry the IV (John Gielgud), who violently deposed the previous monarch, with the result that not everyone accepts his new title. Hotspur (Norman Rodway) for one, and there is a conflict brewing that will settle who is the true heir to the throne once and for all. This should be of great interest to Henry's son Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) for he will be the next king if his father succeeds against his enemies, but for the present he is more involved with carousing with his great friend and mentor Sir John Falstaff (Orson Welles), who the king sees as a bad influence...
For many of Orson Welles' cultists, Chimes at Midnight was their favourite of his films, even above Citizen Kane; it was certainly Welles' most beloved of all his own works. Perhaps there is a tendency to see more of the great director in the role of Falstaff than there is in his Charles Foster Kane, which endears the film more to those who champion him, after all, one is meant to feel sorry for the character who was raised so high, only to be let down so badly by those who he counted as friends. This could also be the reason Welles favoured it so lovingly.
This was based on an unsuccessful play that Welles had assembled of five William Shakespeare works, the ones which featured Falstaff, that is, and he transformed his flop of a stage show into the result you see here. You can tell that he had a true feel for the Bard's oeuvre, even if there is a split in opinion between those who enjoy his reading and those who think he had got the wrong end of the stick. But there are few adapters of the playwright's classics who can, say, secure some genuine laughs out his humour four hundred years after the fact, as happens here.
That's not to mention a battle scene in the middle where Hotspur finally cannot take any more and faces the forces of Henry: it looks as though most of the budget went on this scene to pay for the extras and costumes alone, but it was worth it, with many citing its grime and brutality (for 1966) as being one of the finest of its kind. It surely brings home that it was not all jolly in Merrie England, and also helps in character building, as Falstaff, risibly dressed in armour to contain his girth (let's hope that was padding), effectively hides from the fighting until it is over and he can walk out of his shelter unscathed to praise Prince Hal on his victory.
Many a true word is spoken in jest, as witnessed by the scene where Hal impersonates his father for a laugh, but ends up making cutting jibes against his friend, unwittingly setting Falstaff up for the fall that will shatter him. Welles assembled an interesting cast for his opus, one of the final fictional films he would make (or finish at any rate), which included Margaret Rutherford as the landlady and Jeanne Moreau as Falstaff's companion, but the real acting honours go to himself, Baxter and Gielgud, a triangle of relationships which sees two father figures vying for the attentions of Hal. It is a hard heart who is not moved by the ending; Falstaff may have been a boastful, lying coward, but he was also loyal and warm-hearted, a friendship which the monarchy cruelly do not view with importance. As usual with most of Welles' films a lot more money wouldn't have hurt, and there's a ramshackle air to Chimes at Midnight, but somehow this reflects the personality of its main character and works, ironically, to a benefit of sorts. Music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino.
[In celebration of Chimes at Midnight's fiftieth anniversary Mr Bongo have released a Blu-ray which has no extras but does finally put the film out there to be watched in excellent condition for the first time in decades.]