“We have heard the chimes at midnight, master Shallow.”

— Sir John Falstaff, in William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part Two”

What a thrill it would have been for my old British friends, devoted fans of Shakespeare, now long gone, having heard their own “chimes at midnight,” to be here today to see Orson Welles’ long-missing Shakespearean masterpiece, “Chimes at Midnight.”

Here it is in a completely, gloriously refurbished digital view, being presented as one of the closing day pieces at the 19th Annual Maine International Film Festival.

I wish Orson could be here.

A little background: His Sir John Falstaff, the boozy, heroic companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, appeared in three plays by Shakespeare — “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” — and has been played by dozens of great English stars: Sir Ralph Richardson, Anthony Quayle, even Robbie Coltrane, the massive Hagrid the Giant in the Harry Potter series etched Falstaff.


But it’s safe to say that the most impressive interpretation of Shakespeare’s gluttonous buffoon and charmer was brought to life by one of American films’ greatest actor-writer-directors — a young genius born on May 6, 1915, in the then-sleepy town of Kenosha, Wisconsin — Mr. Orson Welles.

Orson always had been obsessed with Falstaff, and had staged a play in Dublin, Ireland, and Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1960.

Now, more than 50 years after it debuted in 1965, not well met, and quickly disappeared, Welles’ amazing, historical and dazzling film is back, like a vintage Rolls-Royce, all polished and dusted for new generations of scholars and fans, both of the Bard and Orson, and narrated by Sir Ralph Richardson, to enjoy.

Here is Orson as Falstaff, holding court in the infamous Boar’s Head Inn, run by the great Dame Margaret Rutherford, the once and forever Miss Marple. Here Falstaff drinks, eats and frolics with Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau), the comical Shallow (Alan Webb) and his beloved young friend Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) who will, as we all know, betray him in the end.

All of Shakespeare’s great clowns, warriors, kings and princes are here, topped off by Britain’s greatest Shakespearean actor, Sir John Gielgud, he of the most magnificent voice in British theater. Gielgud owns probably the most heartbreaking scene in this production, the dying Henry IV’s last speech, almost 10 minutes long.

But it’s Orson — the legendary Orson — who, by his own writing and directing, of course, holds the sacred ground. This is not the order Shakespeare had in mind; Orson picked and chose the parts he wanted, put them together where he wanted them, and had fun. The true story of the making of the film would be a movie on its own. He borrowed money from friends and enemies, stole, cheated, patched, and putted.


Finally, Hollywood broke his great heart.

But here he is, the true Falstaff, white-haired, a face mottled and scarred, looking like mutton left too long in the sun. He sits staring with rheumy eyes into a roaring fire in a shattered hovel with his friend Shallow, having been broken and discarded by his young friend, now the king. The two old friends, near death, remember their great days, remember when both heard the “chimes at midnight.” You can almost here Orson’s heart break.

After this, at least here in Maine, this classic may vanish forever. Take your children to see it now, this day, on the big screen, before it’s gone.

J.P. Devine, a Waterville writer, is a former stage and screen actor.

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