Directed by Orson Welles
Based on plays by William Shakespeare
Based on the book “Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande” by Raphael Holinshed
Screenplay by Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, John Gielgud, Keith Baxter, Norman Rodway
The exploits of Sir John Falstaff as he plays the companion to the young Prince Hal, son of Henry IV.
The works of William Shakespeare have been the inspiration for dozens of film adaptations. (Some more literal than others.) This one was taken from a series of four plays including “Richard II”, “Henry IV – Part 1”, “Henry IV – Part 2”, and “Henry V”. In writing the film, Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) also tapped into Raphael Holinshed’s text “Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande”. Welles (The Third Man) also stars in this film alongside John Gielgud (The Elephant Man), Keith Baxter (Berlin Blues), and Norman Rodway (The Empty Mirror).
This story is a unique adaptation of four of Shakespeare’s historical plays. The pieces Welles chose seem to elevate a minor arc into the main attraction. The dialogue, for the most part, comes straight from Shakespeare. The minor exceptions are moments that Welles created to fill in his story. Perhaps the success of this film is the choice to make Falstaff the star. The moments pulled from the plays create a unique story where Prince Hal’s cohort Falstaff takes the lead. The makeup of the story is more tragedy than history due to the choices made in content. Overall, this is a good adaptation of Shakespeare’s work that strays from the originals in all the right ways.
The acting in this film is pretty good. Orson Welles not only wrote and directed this one, but he also stars in the title role. His performance as Falstaff brings out the major flaws in his character without seeking to redeem him. He also seems to give Falstaff his own inner-purpose, which elevates the film a lot. His understanding of this role, and his desire to play it are evident in the performance. The end result is a performance that brings out the drunken reasoning of a man without ambition. He would later call this film his best work.
John Gielgud also does a great job in this one. Unlike Welles, Gielgud gives a stately performance as an aging King, concerned about his legacy. While Welles mumbles his way through the film, Gielgud seems to bring out the true royalty within his role. Keith Baxter and Norman Rodway are just two of the remaining cast members who help to bring this to life. They both do a great job with their parts in the film. The cast seemed to understand Welles’ vision for this movie, and it works nicely.
The visuals for this film are unique, much like the story. The Battle of Shrewsbury has become one of the most celebrated battle scenes ever filmed. Welles took a cast of 180 extras and filmed for ten days. The footage was captured using handheld camera and a variety of other techniques. This footage was then edited over a six-week period, coming together as a six-minute battle that portrays the thousands who would have been there. In many ways this scene seems to wipe away the notions of chivalry and glory in battle. While this is just one moment in the film, it stands out as a major success. The rest of the film features a number of great moments that fit in with Welles’ unique vision.
Welles filmed most of this movie under the false understanding from producers that he was making Treasure Island. This led to a rush in production that hurt some aspects of the film. The sound suffered most, having been recorded improperly for most of the movie. While this doesn’t ruin the film, it is an issue that can’t be ignored.
Overall, this movie is a flawed masterpiece that most people haven’t had a chance to see. If you’re able to locate a copy or find it somewhere make sure to check it out. I definitely recommend this one to fans of Shakespeare or Welles. I give this one 3.7 out of 5 stars.