400 years after his death, people still love William Shakespeare. I can think of no other story teller whose works have remained popular so long. His talent, obviously, has a lot to do with it. But so is his adaptability. His plays, written with almost no stage directions, give actors and directors countless interpretations.
Most Shakespeare productions, either on stage or in film, stay loyal to his work. A production of Hamlet may be shortened, and set in a time and place that the Bard of Avon could never imagine. But the dialog would all come from Hamlet.
But some imaginative directors can take a Shakespeare play–or five of them–and create something totally new.
Within a few days of each other at the Pacific Film Archive, I caught two of the most imaginative, and two of the best, Shakespeare adaptations ever recorded on film. Not coincidentally, they were made by two of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers: Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa.
The PFA didn’t screen these films as part of a Shakespeare series. They were just classic films that had recently received beautiful, new digital restorations. Both films were screened off 4K DCPs.
Orson Welles stuck almost entirely to Shakespeare’s language in his 1966 retelling of the Falstaff story. But he didn’t stick to one particular work. The dialog comes from five separate plays.
Most of Chimes at Midnight comes from the plays Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, with a smattering of dialog from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Winsor. From these plays, it tells the tragi-comic story of Sir John Falstaff and his doomed friendship with Prince Hal–the future King Henry V.
Years before I knew that this film existed, I wanted someone would make it. Henry IV, Part 1 is my favorite Shakespeare play. I never cared much for Part 2, except for the brilliant ending that closes the story much better than anything in Part 1. Welles combined the two plays to use the best from each of them.
Quick rundown on the story: King Henry IV (John Gielgud), struggles with a rebellion and his own guilt in the overthrow and murder of Richard II. He also worries about his oldest son, Hal (Keith Baxter), who’s spending his time drinking, carousing, and whoring with a bunch of lowlifes led by a fat, drunken, lying knave named Sir John Falstaff (Welles). Inevitably, Hal will have to set aside his wild ways and take on his royal responsibilities.
It would be tough to find a more perfect actor to play Falstaff than Orson Welles. He was extremely overweight by the 1960s, and yet he still had that star charisma. His Falstaff is rowdy, tricky, mostly joyful, often funny, and inevitably heading for disaster. Like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, he’s a good man with a tragic flaw. But his flaw is his zest for life.
The cast also includes Jeanne Moreau, Fernando Rey, Margaret Rutherford, and Ralph Richardson’s voice narrating from Holinshed’s Chronicles.
As is true with so much of Welles’ work, Chimes at Midnight was made with very little money. Shot in Spain in black and white, it’s a remarkably beautiful film for its budget. Welles and his collaborators create a battle with a smattering of extras, shoot the castle scenes in old, crumbling ruins, and re-imagine the ultimate Merry Olde England pub and bawdy house.
But the low budget shows itself in the soundtrack. Almost all of the dialog had to be post-dubbed after the shooting–and not always with the same actor who had played the role onscreen. The lips don’t always match, and the sound is often too clean for the onscreen environment. I found this a big problem early on. Eventually, I got used to it.
I might not have gotten used to it if it wasn’t otherwise such an excellent film.
William Shakespeare created his saddest, most hopeless tragedy in King Lear. And Akira Kurosawa loosely adapted it in his saddest, most hopeless film, Ran.
Kurosawa altered the story considerably. In the most obvious change, the three daughters become three sons. When your story is set in 16th-century Japan, giving land and castles to daughters would have been unthinkable.
But another alteration takes Ran into a deeper space than Lear. Kurosawa tells us something about the aging warlord’s past. The Lear figure Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is now a senile old man, but was once a cruel and fearsome warrior. He attacked and destroyed his neighbors without pity, killing his rivals, forcing their daughters into marriage, and blinding children who might one day want revenge.
He’s carrying some very bad karma, and he will pay for that karma before the film ends. So will his sons–two of which are as bad as he used to be. Many innocent people will suffer as well. Kurosawa shows no optimism in Ran. The evil will pay for their sins, but that’s of little comfort to their victims. (The title, Ran, loosely translates into English as chaos.)
While turning Lear’s two evil daughters into evil sons, Kurosawa also created one of cinema’s great villainesses in the oldest brother’s wife (Mieko Harada). Seemingly the proper Japanese high-born wife, she manipulates her husband and, after his death, her brother-in-law in her desire to destroy Hidetora’s family. We understand her reasons; Hidetora killed her family and forced her into marriage, but she doesn’t care how many good people must die for her vengeance.
Kurosawa and his collaborators created a stunningly beautiful film in Ran, but it’s often a strangely ugly beauty. The exceptionally gory battle scenes run with a bright red, and a sense of unnecessary yet inevitable death. A castle siege, with no sound except haunting music, may be the best medieval battle scene ever filmed.
I discussed Ran at greater length in 2010–also after a PFA screening. It was screened then off a new 35mm print which I described at the time as “beautiful.” Was that better than the new DCP? How should I know; that was six years ago. But I’d call the digital version beautiful, as well.