Orson Welles’ Long-Lost ‘Chimes At Midnight’ Hits New York’s Film Forum

Ring in the New Year with some flawless Shakespeare.

By Tony Sokol

If you’ve never seen Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight, long held to be the crowning achievement of the iconic director’s late film career, you are not alone. The Shakespearian film adaptation doesn’t turn up on TCM and hasn’t been screened in decades. That will change on New Year’s Day 2016, when it will play exclusively at only two theaters, one on the east coast, one on the west.

Chimes at Midnight will play the Film Forum at 209 West Houston Street and at Cinefamily somewhere west of the L in Los Angeles on January 1st.

According to Hollywood Legend and Welles’s family lore, Orson preferred uncut Willy when he was a kid, opting for unabridged Shakespeare over the kids version by the age of two. His fascination with the plays of William Shakespeare would continue for the rest of his life and this was the film he hoped survived the afterlife.

"If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that's the one I would offer up. I think it's because it is to me the least flawed,” Welles said in an interview at the time. “I succeeded more completely in my view with that than with anything else." 

The imp in Welles loved the loyal drunk Sir John Falstaff, the best friend to King Henry IV's son Prince Hal. Falstaff showed up as comic relief in a few of Shakespeare’s plays, but Chimes at Midnight puts him front and center.

Welles took Falstaff scenes from the plays Henry IV, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and filled in the backstory to create a tragicomedy narrative.

"It may be the greatest Shakespearean film ever made, bar none," wrote Vincent Canby of The New York Times at the time of the release.

Welles adapted, directed and performed in dozens of Shakespeare plays, including his “voodoo” Macbeth, set in Haiti, which was his first production for the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project. He also directed three movie adaptations: Macbeth in 1948, Othello in 1952, Chimes at Midnight in 1966.

Chimes at Midnight was the culmination of a career-long passion project that Welles had been working on he was a student at the Todd Seminary for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois. After that first anthological piece, Welles next played Falstaff for the Theatre Guild in 1939, in Five Kings, based on the Henriad, which is what edumacated people call the cycle of plays that includes Richard II; Henry IV, Part I and Part II; and Henry V. The show closed before the cycle could be completed because of lack of funding, something the effervescently errant director would come to know well. Welles only got funding for Chimes at Midnight because he promised a producer that he would also direct a film of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island which he never really planned on doing.

Welles said he edited Chimes at Midnight so that nearly every cut during the kinetic, violent Battle of Shrewsbury sequence would be set to a blow between soldiers. Some of the shots of soldiers sinking into the mud during the battle sequence were filmed in a warehouse.

"He has directed a sequence, the Battle of Shrewsbury, which is unlike anything he has ever done, indeed unlike any battle ever done on the screen before. It ranks with the best of Griffith, John Ford, Eisenstein, Kurosawa-that is, with the best ever done," wrote-Pauline Kael of Chimes at Midnight at the time.

John Gielgud, who plays King Henry IV, had to film all of his scenes in two weeks. His double appears in many shots.

Published December 31st, 2015

Tony Sokol is a writer, playwright and musician. He writes for Den of GeekThe Chiseler, KpopStarz.com and wrote for Altvariety, Coed.com, Daily Offbeat. Dark Media Press, Wicked Mystic and other magazines. He has had over 20 plays produced in NYC, including Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera "AssassiNation: We Killed JFK." He appeared on the Joan Rivers (TV) Show, Strange Universe and Britain's "The Girlie Show."