‘The King’ (2019) and ‘Chimes At Midnight’ (1967): Falstaff the Kingmaker?
There live not three good men unhanged in England. And one of them is fat and grows old.
The King, directed by David Michod, is a recently released historical drama on Netflix which adapts the ‘‘Henriad’’ (Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V) by William Shakespeare. Similarly, Chimes At Midnight directed by Orson Welles adapts the ‘‘Henriad’’ but also includes material from Richard II and The Merry Wives Of Windsor.
However, although both films are fundamentally based upon the same source material the films have significant differences. The most substantial difference is the role of one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations the tragicomic Sir John Falstaff within both films. In Chimes it is central to the film and in The King his role is altered almost completely, both in character and in the timeline created for him by Shakespeare.
In both films Falstaff is close to Hal (Prince Henry)and acts like a surrogate father for him. He is for the moment estranged from his real father Henry IV and is acting like a rebellious teenager. A figure that has crossed remarkably easily from 15th century Merrie England into our own modern world. The genius of Shakespeare.
Yet there are far deeper issues at play here. Henry IV has usurped the Crown from the rightful heir Edmund Mortimer who is now, as we are made aware by his nephew Hotspur (the clue to his character is delightfully made clear in his name) is being held captive in Scotland. Henry IV refuses to help release him for very obvious reasons.
Henry IV, even though he knows that Hotspur and his relations are a direct threat to his attempt to plant the seeds of his own dynasty into the soil of England likes this young man’s fire and determination more than the dissolute nature of his own true son. Hal is aware of this. The relationship between father and son is very difficult to say the least. This is where Falstaff, for Hal, plays the role of surrogate father and perhaps even surrogate mother.
Both in Shakespeare’s plays and in the film, Prince Hal must ultimately choose between two “fathers,” one his real father, the king, who is at war with powerful, disenchanted subjects; the other, a false father, Sir John Falstaff, a larger-than-life (in every way), comically engaging embodiment of irresponsibility. Welles departs from Shakespeare in underplaying the historical themes to focus on the Hal-Falstaff relationship, one tempered throughout by a mutual awareness that the son will finally reject the false in favour of the real father.
In The King the change in the characterization of Falstaff is part of the change in emphasis of this modern reinterpretation. For the Shakespearian Falstaff, is the very antithesis of a hero. In the plays and most memorably in the Orson Welles film (played by the great man himself) he is a liar, a thief and a coward. He does everything he can to avoid going to war although he is happy to take as many benefits from war, as he can get his hands on. Falstaff is not at Agincourt. The idea that he could be is a moment of Falstaffian comedy itself. I can hear him roaring with laughter. Or is that Welles laughing?
But this alteration is deliberate for it is part of the wider theme being promulgated in The King. Prince Hal is trying to understand the nature of kingship and the way to be a good King. Part of that is being victorious in battle whether at Agincourt (1415) or at The Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) where he kills his rival (Hotspur), not just for the respect of his father, but for the very Crown of England.
Falstaff and his brave act at Agincourt (which the Shakespearian Falstaff could have none of, as he had already been killed off by Shakespeare in Henry V) is meant to show his ‘son’ Hal the meaning of sacrifice. He is prepared to die to save him because he believes in him as the Once and Future King, and I think it is safe to assume, he loves him as if he were his own son.
While a good part of Shakespeare’s historical concerns is to some extent repressed in Welles’s film, history returns with a vengeance in the extraordinary Battle of Shrewsbury sequence. The scene of the battle of Shrewsbury is justly famous. It lasts fully 10 minutes, chaotic action at a brutal pitch, horses and men confused in smoke and fog, steel crashing against steel, cries of pain, desperate struggles, confused limbs caked in mud and blood, men falling exhausted or dead. This scene has influenced both Mel Gibson and Steven Spielberg. I have no doubt the audience of Game of Thrones would have recognised its influence in the epic battle scene with Jon Snow.
During this battle scene we see a fat old man in ancient armour running around like a headless chicken. He pretends to be dead to escape the violence of the battle. Prince Hal finds Falstaff and knowing him not to be dead plays along and cries out:
What, old acquaintance! Could not all this flesh keep in a little life?
We know Falstaff is not dead and so does Hal. Many have died. But Falstaff is alive. We cannot hold anything against such a man for staying alive. In fact we perhaps love him even more. This is the real Falstaff. For Welles and Falstaff have shown how brutal and unheroic war truly is. It is in the words of Welles biographer and actor Simon Callow: ‘‘muddy, messy, bloody, at times farcical, but ultimately tragic.’’
It is rather interesting to compare two of the great fictional comic characters here. Falstaff and Joker. For Joker his experience of the world has made him finally realise that his life is not a tragedy but a comedy and Falstaff is the exact opposite. For Falstaff, his life is a comedy that he conducts with aplomb, yet, at the end, there is tragedy, as the boy he has loved like a son, completely turns his back upon him. Both are rejected by their world and both question the nature of power. At the Coronation of Henry V in Chimes at Midnight it is almost impossible to forget the expression on Falstaff/Welles’s face when he cries out “God save thee, my sweet boy,” and the new king replies, “I know thee not, old man."
Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 challenges princely power as being false and based upon artifice. Falstaff the overweight, heavy drinking, licentious, ordinary man of the people has nothing but scornful rhetoric for ornamentation and hypocrisy. This is clearly shown in the play within the play when Falstaff and Hal pretend to be the real King Henry and his son.
Dost thou hear, Hal? never call a true piece of
gold a counterfeit: thou art essentially mad,
without seeming so.
However, Joel Edgerton in The King is a more serious Falstaff, a different version of Falstaff and perhaps even a better surrogate father than Hal’s real one. But his role is still as it is in the play to illustrate the deceit and false-image making of monarchical power and the sheer pomposity of power itself.
Falstaff has nothing but irreverence for his ‘betters’ with Hal being the only exception. His sheer corporeality, his lust for life, his sarcasm, presents a serious threat to the image that the royal players construct of themselves in Henry IV Part 1.
The King does manage to capture a little of this with Edgerton’s portrayal of Falstaff. However it is really Chalamet who provides the focal point for concerns about the Lancastrian counterfeiting of monarchy and the fabrication of authority. There are hints at a deeper understanding of his new role in a soliloquy by Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt:
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony?
What kind of god are thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? What are thy comings-in?
ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught but place, degree, and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
In Henry IV Part 1, Falstaff has been ruthlessly picking at Prince Hal’s conscience at his father’s theft of the Crown of England. Yet Falstaff knows that inevitably, the Prince will become the King and have to decide upon Falstaff’s fate. This is foreshadowed by his famous line to the young Prince very early in the play:
Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
In Henry IV Part 2, ‘Jack’ is banished by his King. It is one of the most famous and heartbreaking moments in Shakespeare. The rejection of Falstaff is of profound significance for the thematic and political concerns of Shakespeare. The King misses this extremely important and central moment.
For Henry V is not just banishing Falstaff, he is banishing the human, the corporeal and the authentic from the Lancastrian myth of kingship. For Falstaff represents a proto-political viewpoint. The anointed King (or any type of political leader) must recognise that his power coexists with his human fallibility. Falstaff is our voice.
Henry V by banishing his humanity is distancing himself completely from interactions with his subjects, from the common man, and rising up towards the hagiographic interpretation of monarchy and authority.
King Henry is embracing the ideological concept of the divine right of Kings and Agincourt which was won by the bravery and sacrifice of the common man (personified by Edgerton’s Falstaff) now seems a quite different historical and political event. A foundation myth of Royal Authority and the creation of the Tudor state.