Today is the 105th anniversary of the birth of the great Orson Welles. As those of you who have been reading us for a while know, Orson Welles is a bit of patron saint around here. With this year being the 10th anniversary of the creation of Through the Shattered Lens (and wow, what a year to celebrate that moment, right?), there was no way that we couldn’t pay tribute to Orson Welles on his birthday.
The scene below comes form the 1965 film, Chimes at Midnight. Based on several of Shakespeare’s history plays (Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, and also Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor), Chimes at Midnight was one of Welles’s dream projects. Though it was initially dismissed by critics, it has since been rediscovered and is now regularly cited as one of the greatest Shakespearean films of all time.
Welles not only directed this film but he also played the key role of Falstaff, the knight who loves good food, good drink, and low company. Falstaff acts as a mentor to Price Hal and, when Hal is finally ready to make his move and assume the throne of England as Henry V, Falstaff supports him. Falstaff believes that Hal will remember his friends once he is king. Sadly, Falstaff turns out to have been far too trusting.
In the poignant scene below, Falstaff greets the newly crowned King Henry V (played by Keith Baxter), just to be coldly rebuffed by his former friend. Now that Henry is king, he no longer has time for the loyal Falstaff. In Shakespeare’s time, this scene was probably meant to reflect that, now that he was king, Henry V was prepared to set aside childish games and devote himself to ruling England. Seen, today, it just comes across as being a betrayal of a good man who deserved better.
It’s a heart-breaking scene. Critic Danny Peary has speculated that, in this scene, Prince Hal/Henry V is a stand-in for every director who Welles mentored in Hollywood who later refused to help Welles when the latter was struggling to get his projects off the ground. Peary may be right because Welles was betrayed by quite a few people during his lifetime. As Welles himself put it, “They’ll love me when I’m dead,” and indeed, it wasn’t until after Welles was dead that his post-Citizen Kane work was truly appreciated.
Here is Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight: