Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. France/Spain/Switzerland, 1965. Internacional Films, Alpine Films. Screenplay by Orson Welles, based on the book by Raphael Holinshed, and the plays of William Shakespeare. Cinematography by Edmond Richard. Produced by Angel Escolano, Emiliano Piedra, Harry Saltzman. Music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino. Production Design by Mariano Erdoiza. Costume Design by Orson Welles. Film Editing by Elena Jaumandreu, Frederick Muller, Peter Parasheles. Cannes Film Festival 1966.
Orson Welles takes one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters and combines his appearances in five different plays into one smooth experience, finishing it off with narrative elements read by Ralph Richardson from the writings of Raphael Holinshed. Welles initially wrote it as a play that performed with little success, inspiring the great auteur to turn it into a film, which in itself was, like many of Welles’ ventures, a difficult task to accomplish. He appears as John Falstaff, the physically impressive, often garrulous man who is made sport of by his companions, most of them younger men who adore this master of revels. Chief among his buddies is Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), heir to the throne of England and disappointment to his monarch father Henry IV (John Gielgud), who does not understand his son’s need to express his youthful energy on anything other than discipline and duty. Falstaff leads his boys in the odd highway robbery and even participates on the battlefield when Henry’s throne is challenged by Harry Percy, but will he still be in Hal’s favour when the young man eventually takes the throne and becomes Henry V? Made quickly on less of a budget than the filmmaker would have wanted, the film does not suffer much technical compromise considering how beautifully photographed it is, showing off deep imagery of detailed sets that include the Welles staple of always showing off the ceiling. The plotting itself feels somewhat cobbled together, however, for while no one can blame Welles for cutting together Shakespeare’s text without adding anything of his own, the piecing together of B-plot scenes from plays about other things means that the development of the relationship between Falstaff and Hal is all incident and no real, deep core; the most moving scene in the film is actually Hal’s reconciliation with his father, which is shot impersonally from below their chins to show a director more interested in visual panache (at least in the scenes that do not involve him). Jeanne Moreau has a brief but effective appearance as the wench most dear to Falstaff’s heart, while Fernando Rey appears (dubbed) as Worcester, likely a conciliation to the Spanish producers.