Like many of Welles’ later films, the strange history of this film is almost as interesting as the movie itself. It’s the kind of saga that makes me want to read a biography of Welles though I think there’s a documentary that just came out, isn’t there? Anyway…
This is certainly one of the most unique adaptions of Shakespeare I’ve seen, and it was likely far more unique in 1965. Because of Welles’ reputation he actually had to lie about what the film was about to get funding. Welles has taken the scenes featuring Falstaff from a bunch of different plays and turned them into the story of Falstaff, sort of like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but with the scenes from the actual plays instead of newly written stuff.
The critical reputation of this film has swung wildly from not very good to some viewing it as Welles’ best film. As usual, the truth is somewhere in between.
The film is beautifully shot, and there is some really quirky framing that makes it a joy to watch. I haven’t seen too many medieval battle scenes from the 1960s or earlier – just a select few – but apparently the battle scene has been massively influential a well, not just because Welles was able to make a few hundred or so extras feel like thousands but the way it was shot and the amount of mud. So that’s cool.
I have only read most of these plays and only seen the movie version of Henry V so I can’t say I have very strong opinions about versions of Falstaff. So I don’t know that Welles’ performance is particularly notable or not notable, though many people claim it is one of the best, certainly on film. Without comparing it to other Falstaffs, it certainly is good, I just have no idea how it compares to others.
But though the film is ambitious and well-made, it doesn’t really resonate with me the way my favourite Shakespeare plays do, and I think that’s because it’s the arc of a particular character and a little bit of British history (interpreted, of course), rather than a grander tragedy or comedy.
But it’s still very much worth watching.