Campanadas a Medianoche (Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles, 1965)

Finally, finally saw the Spanish DVD of Campanadas a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles, 1965)--personally my favorite of all of Welles' films, easily the best-ever adaptation of Shakespeare to cinema, and arguably one of the greatest pictures ever made. Reasonably clear, everything as I remember it, not a frame or detail out of place--the brief, inexplicably ominous slow-motion shot of soldiers facing the camera at opening credits' end, hanged men swinging helplessly behind them; the flagstones laid on a kitchen floor doubling as the castle floor (with a crown on top); Falstaff running out into a field of crumpled white bedsheets standing in for melting snow (on a 35 mm print you can actually see the linen creases).

And the only battle sequence Welles had ever filmed, the Battle of Shrewsbury, which has haunted my dreams for the past, oh, fourteen or so years (the last time I saw the picture was in 1991 or 1992). I remember all the preparatory details--the armored men hanging from trees (visually rhyming with the opening image of executed men hanging from poles) as they're lowered on their horses; the tracking shot of soldiers marching past a row of spears aimed just above the audience's heads. Falstaff, iron-plated like a potbelly stove--with a thundermug for a helmet--tries to get himself lowered onto a horse (a squadron of serfs puffing away at one end of a rope), and is dumped on the ground for his pains.

The editing of the battle itself--possibly some of the finest in all of cinema--has been oft mentioned; what hasn't, I think, is the sound design, nightmarish yet tangible, real. Like much of the battle it seems confusing at first; after a while you sense a progression--from cavalry to weaponry to hand-to-hand combat; from the thunder of hooves to the thwack of arrows to the clash of armor to the thunk of steel into meat, the thud of club on bone, fists flailing away, everything eventually overlaid and overwhelmed by the sound of squishing mud.

The battle shows a similar progression, the shape emerging gradually out of the chaos--cavalry charges (Hotspur's army charges left to right, Henry IV's from right to left), infantry assaults, archers launching arrows; the action breaks up into small groups rushing here and there (the left/right dichotomy quickly disappearing), the peasants pulling knights off their horses to be clubbed to death. Matters degenerate further into a general tumult of nameless figures sunk in sodden soil, like struggling crustaceans on a tide-drained beach. Welles' Battle of Shrewsbury is, in effect, evolution in reverse, the men devolving from soldiers in an army to creatures in slime. Occasionally trumpets would sound, the men would rally, and you're invigorated by the odd twang! of arrows being fired. But the trumpets and battle-cries ultimately give way to gasps of exhaustion and pain, and even that gives way to an awful silence, as Welles' camera rises to take in a view of the field, choked with corpses (they almost don't need burying; they've halfway done the job already, screwing themselves firmly into the mud).

Paradoxically the only sane figure in all this is the fool in the potbelly stove, distinguishable from the general slaughter by his bulbous shape, and stubborn insistence on siding with the vegetation. Falstaff's done nothing but run from one massacre to another, watching without joining in; when opportunity presents itself, he steps forward to claim (falsely) credit for the single most significant event in that battle, Hotspur's death, and succeeds. War, Welles (speaking through Falstaff--first in soliloquy, then in action) seems to be saying to us, is foolishness anyway. For all the sacrifice and suffering on display the past ten or so minutes (seems like hours, it's so devastating), what one really must do to earn reward and military honor is to tell the right lie, at the right place and right time.

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