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A Comparative Study of Falstaff on Film
J.C. Macek III
Dr. James H. Lake
The Character of Sir John Falstaff is an integral part of any adaptation of Shakespeare’s "Henry" plays. The treatment of this character effects the way the production will be taken by the audience as the treatment of Falstaff is directly related to the understanding of the character of Prince Hal (later Henry V). Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, the BBC versions of parts one and two of Henry IV, and Orson Welles’ amalgamation Chimes at Midnight all show Falstaff in different lights, producing three different takes, not only on the character himself, but also on the interpretation of Prince Hal, and the entire workings of the production.
In the case of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V Falstaff is seen only in flashback. This version of Falstaff (portrayed by actor Robbie Coltrane) is displayed as the jovial and kind side of Falstaff with little of the nefarious nature that is seen in the texts of Henry IV parts one and two. Branagh as the screenwriter actually reassigns certain lines to achieve his end, including, but not limited to, the reassignment of some of Falstaff’s lines to others, as well as the reassignment of lines from one scene to another, all to display Falstaff as a happy Santa Claus of a man all but devoid of evil intentions or Machiavelian deceit. The first of the myriad flashbacks in the film begins with the assignment of Falstaff’s description of himself as "A goodly, portly man in faith," (1 Henry IV.II.iv.421) to Pistol. This shows that in Branagh’s version Falstaff is as well respected by his comrades as he is by himself. This is somewhat in contrast to the way he is commonly illustrated, which is as a man who abuses deceit, but is not fooling anyone. In this flashback the audience sees Falstaff as a happy clown, not at all the "old white-bearded Sathan" (1 Henry IV.II.iv.463) he is described as in the text. In an abbreviated sort of version of the rejection scene, Prince Hal (Branagh) shows his intense link to Falstaff by conveying his lines of rejection and banishment without spoken words, choosing instead to use his facial expressions (assisted by a voice over by Branagh) to illustrate his thoughts. Falstaff’s reception of Hal’s non-verbal meaning shows the fact that Hal and Falstaff are linked beyond friendship and family, while the words themselves show that despite this union Hal has no qualms about using Falstaff to achieve his ends. The humanization of Falstaff changes the way we look at the character of Henry V and the production as a whole, as with Falstaff so much more pure, Henry is seen as the Machiavel he must become in order to succeed his father.
The BBC versions of Henry IV parts one and two show Jack Falstaff (played by Anthony Quayle) as a different sort of character altogether. In these productions the lecherous, unhealthy, and alcoholic qualities instilled in Falstaff are accentuated to a nearly morbid respect. While, unlike Branagh, the screenwriter leaves the lines intact, those lines that commonly evoke humor tend to evoke pity, or disgust instead. Quayle’s appearance is not that of a robust jester who promotes joviality and wins the affection of the audience, but rather is a sickly, fat man who drunkenly forces his words out of the side of his mouth. While this Falstaff accentuates the villainess in the character, he does force the audience to observe him. During his soliloquies he addresses the camera in a conspiratorial way and mumbles incessantly, forcing the audience to pay closer attention to him. The problem lies in Falstaff’s tendency to progress down this spiral to the point that everything (even the making of sack) is a conspiracy. By the end of Henry IV Part II Quayle all but looses the audience. The rejection scene in this version is neither tragic, nor comic, but close to pathetic. The affect that this Falstaff has on these productions is that the most jovial of moments are (for the most part) made darker, and the productions are made more humorless than others of their kind. While Quayle’s Falstaff still shows some good points, his evil is commonly accentuated, and Henry’s eventual rejection of him is not a difficult choice affirming his worthiness to be king, but is instead a natural reaction to a nefarious character’s actions.
A middle ground between the portrayals of Coltrane and Quayle is Orson Welles’ Falstaff in the conflation of scenes from all three "Henry" plays which is uniquely his, Chimes at Midnight. Welles pulls no punches when showing Falstaff’s evil as a very real thing, however he also shows the pathos ridden side of Falstaff, which is jovial and lovable. Welles is able to show Falstaff the villain with a pitiable side, as he appears as the child who just wants his way, and essentially knows no better. An example of this is his showing on the battlefield accompanied by the riffraff he has recruited to fight on behalf of the king. Falstaff defends his position without apology, showing not a mere evil deceiver, but a poor man who misses the point at the same time. Similarly, Falstaff the clown is displayed with a touch of pathos rarely seen in these instances. Examples of this are Falstaff’s showing of genuine pain during the mimesis scene where Hal promises to banish him along with all the world, and Falstaff’s running fat and blind in his armor during the during the battle of Shrewsbury. Both scenes show distinct humor shared by the characters as well as the audience, but the humor is laced with the tragic, as the character seems to be unable to help his shortcomings. As this film is centered specifically around Falstaff, it is easy to see that his treatment would effect the entire production. The audience sees Hal as loving, and doubting Falstaff as is seen in the texts themselves. During the rejection scene Hal seems sure of what he has to do. Welles shows Jack Falstaff as much smaller than Hal with his choice of camera angles, and uses his face to show not only pain at the rejection, but pride in Hal’s growth. It is this scene that best shows the multifaceted qualities of the character of Falstaff as played by Welles. It is this multifaceted nature that has Hal attempt (in a scene paraphrased from the text of Henry V) to go back on his decision toward the end and grant Falstaff favor (albeit too late). Welles’ Falstaff is the best example of the cross section of aspects that Falstaff has in the texts.
While certainly each portrayal of Falstaff is from it’s own school of thought, ranging from the idea of Falstaff as the pure, kind friend, to that of Falstaff as the selfish villain, to that of Falstaff as the moderate, complex character, each effectively displays an accurate Falstaff with his own hold on Prince Hal. These three versions show that the treatment of Jack Falstaff, regardless of his prominence in each production, can change the interpretation of the actions of Henry V as well as the reasons behind his choices for many of his actions.
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