by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Last night Charles and I watched a great movie, one that tied in with the trip we’re currently taking through the BBC-TV miniseries An Age of Kings that adapted eight of Shakespeare’s history plays into a continuous cycle from the deposing of Richard II in 1399 to the Battle of Bosworth Field and the accession of the Tudors in 1485. Having recently seen the two Age of Kings episodes dealing with Henry V (his reign and Shakespeare’s play about him), I was curious as a point of comparison to run Laurence Olivier’s masterly film of the same play from 1944. The film is actually called The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France — a title, including the variant spellings (it wouldn’t be until Samuel Johnson wrote his famous English-language dictionary that the spellings of English words would be regularized and systematized), that might well have adorned one of the original printed editions of the play or been posted on a playbill of the time — not that a playbill would have done much good since most of the people in Shakespeare’s audiences couldn’t read. (It’s generally assumed that Shakespeare and his rival theatre company managers sent out barkers with bells to herald that a performance of such-and-such a play was about to occur and how much it would cost to get in.)
Olivier’s three Shakespeare films as actor-director — Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III (he actually appeared in films of two other Shakespeare plays, As You Like It and Othello, but did not direct those) — have often been regarded as the last word on how to bring the Bard to the screen, and while there are other approaches that work (I’ve always been quite partial to the Orson Welles Macbeth — at least once I had a chance to see the restored 107-minute version of the film — with its Caligari-esque stylizations mirroring Macbeth’s diseased mind), Olivier’s Shakespeare films are clearly the work of a man who loved the author and the theatrical tradition from which he sprang.
In fact, Henry V works on various levels of artifice — the film actually begins in May 1600, starting with a flag fluttering in the air and opening up to reveal the main title credit, then a pan shot over the London of the time (a marvelously convincing model by special-effects genius W. Percy Day, who would later work his magic with Michael Powell on A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes) that comes to rest inside the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s company is about to put on a performance of the play. For the first 37 minutes of the movie we remain pretty much inside the Globe — sometimes going backstage and watching the characters hurriedly putting on their costumes and wigs before going on, mostly witnessing the play as spectators in Shakespeare’s time would (presumably) have seen it (though there’s an anachronism in Olivier’s use of signboards to tell the audience when the scene changes — as noted above, very few people in Shakespeare’s London could actually read) — and it’s only about one-quarter of the way through the movie, when Henry V’s expeditionary force finally sails to France, that the film opens up and uses the full resources of cinema to tell its story.
Henry V overall is a marvelous movie, thanks largely to Olivier’s skill and sensitivity as a director and a text editor (he co-wrote the script with Alan Dent and an uncredited Dallas Bower, using Shakespeare’s dialogue almost exclusively — except for the end of the Boar’s Head scene, when Pistol quotes a few lines from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great — but cut extensively, sometimes moved lines from one character to another, and incorporated Henry V’s famous kiss-off of Falstaff — “I know thee not, old man/Fall to thy prayers” — from the end of Henry IV, Part 2) and his ability to recruit competent (more than that!) help, not only an amazing cast (Leslie Banks — otherwise best known as the villain in The Most Dangerous Game and the hero in the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much — as the Chorus, Robert Newton as Pistol, Felix Aylmer as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ernest Thesiger as the French ambassador, Leo Genn as the Constable of France, and quite a few less famous but equally gifted players in the supporting cast, including Harcourt Williams as a decrepit, out-of-it French king and Max Adrian as his son and heir, the Dauphin) but also the brilliant cinematographer Robert Krasker (shooting color for the first time in his life), the great designers Robert and Margaret Furse (who intensively studied paintings of Henry V’s time to determine what the sets should look like, and came up with an appealing mixture of realistic and non-realistic designs that shouldn’t have worked, but did) and, above all, composer William Walton.
With the possible exception of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (whose first film assignment was to adapt Mendelssohn’s music for Warners’ 1935 production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), it’s hard to imagine any experienced film composer in 1944 who would have given this score the consistent imagination Walton does; though he falls a bit flat on the Battle of Agincourt (the cues here are pretty much standard back-and-forth “battle music” without the awesome power of Prokofieff’s score for the battle on the ice in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky), throughout the movie Walton’s music does what a film score should do: it amplifies the emotions of the situations without getting in the way of the great dialogue. Interestingly, Walton did not allow the music to be performed independently of the words; when Walton adapted this and his scores for Olivier’s other Shakespeare films for concert performance, he included a part for a narrator reading Shakespeare’s lines.
Much of the interest of Olivier’s Henry V lies in its fascinating balance between three views of the story: Henry V’s French campaign and the Battle of Agincourt as it would have appeared then; the story as it played in Shakespeare’s time; and how it would be seen by a British public in a middle of a war for the country’s very existence. It’s well known that Winston Churchill, who had virtually shut down the British film industry for most of the war (he was concerned about it using men, money and strategic materials needed for the war effort), gave Olivier special dispensation to make this movie, including letting him out of his own enlistment and authorizing producer Filippo del Giudice to spend the money on lavish sets and costumes, and also Technicolor (the first time Shakespeare was ever filmed in color). Olivier was also allowed to film the battle scenes in Ireland (a neutral country in World War II) and to use on-leave servicemembers as his battle extras.
Perhaps as part of his deal to make the film and perhaps also from his own sensitivity to its appeal as a morale-booster, Olivier somewhat sanitized Henry’s character; he deleted Henry’s quick execution of the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scrope and Sir Thomas Grey for having plotted his assassination (though he kept in the scene in which Henry pardons another person for speaking out against the King) and he also deleted the scene in which Henry orders his soldiers to kill all the French prisoners they’d taken at Agincourt. (Oddly, Olivier and Dent left in the cue line for this — “I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant” — but cut the actual order and its execution, leaving the line somewhat hanging in mid-air.) On the plus side, Olivier and Dent did leave in the opening scene — after the Chorus’s prologue but before the King’s council — in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely anxiously debate Henry V’s threatened revival of a law the House of Commons had considered under Henry IV to seize for the state all estates willed to the Church, and the two reach a consensus that in order to forestall that confiscation they’d better give Henry the answer he wants about the validity of his claim to the throne of France. (Eric Crozier, editing the play for An Age of Kings, left this out and went straight from the prologue to the council scene.)
It should be noted that Shakespeare wrote Henry V at least in part as a morale-booster; the Earl of Essex was about to take a British army to subdue and occupy Ireland, and Shakespeare in 1599 was dredging up this slice of British history from 1415 to inspire the British public to support the war — just as Olivier dredged up Shakespeare’s play in 1944 at least in part to bolster support for Britain’s effort in World War II. So there are essentially three separate views of the events of Agincourt embodied in Olivier’s film, and time has added a fourth; when we see the film today, we can’t help but be affected by the changes in how we view war and both individual and national honor between 1944 and 2009, and in particular how the ghastly slaughters of both 20th century world wars and the bland acceptance that civilians are fair game has changed the morality of war and challenged the whole concept of combat as a test of individual merit and courage.
Having just watched the Age of Kings version of this story, Charles and I couldn’t help but compare the two, not only in the different ways they edited Shakespeare’s text but how differently Olivier as both star and director handled much of it from the way Robert Hardy (who had the advantage of playing Henry V as part of a complete cycle and therefore being able to give us the entire character arc) played it under Michael Hayes’ direction. Oddly, it’s Hardy who’s the more straightforward hero; Olivier’s performance as Henry V is surprisingly edgy, reminding us that in his nation’s existential crisis there were two major leaders who were especially known for their eloquence and ability to move people as public speakers. One was his country’s leader, Churchill; the other was his enemy’s leader, Hitler — and Olivier sometimes seems to be pitching his Henry V midway between Churchill and Hitler (and evoking the ways Churchill consciously used quasi-Shakespearean rhetoric to rally his country).
At times Olivier seems to be mocking Henry’s pretensions to a surprising degree for a movie that started out as a rah-rah piece to boost Allied morale — the opening council scene, played straight in An Age of Kings, becomes low comedy here, as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Ely fumble their way through the elaborate stack of papers purporting to establish the right and justice of Henry’s claim to France. Henry’s big pep talks to his soldiers — the “For Harry, England and St. George” speech outside the walls of Harfleur and the St. Crispian’s Day speech on the morning of Agincourt — really do seem, in Olivier’s readings, like he’s making them up as he goes along, figuring out just what he has to say to these men to get them to go to battle against a force that vastly outnumbers them.
On the other hand, the scenes in the French camp — which Michael Hayes in An Age of Kings plays as high camp — are far more seriously staged here. As James Agee noted in his Time magazine feature on the film, “Olivier transforms the French into sleepy, overconfident, highly intelligent, highly sophisticated noblemen, subtly disunified, casually contemptuous of their Dauphin — an all but definitive embodiment of a civilization a little too ripe to survive.” It’s odd that, in a film so dependent for its appeal on the power of its language — for it was the enduring appeal of Shakespeare’s eloquent speech that led a filmmaker to bother with this play 245 years after its premiere — the scene that most sums up the atavistic nature of the French and their culture of chivalry is non-verbal: a grimly amusing shot of a French knight so weighted down by his armor that his assistants have to use a pulley to raise him into the air and then set him down again atop his horse.
Also, for all the edginess of Olivier’s playing in Henry’s big public moments, his performance is strongest when it is quietest — especially in the long sequence just before Agincourt in which Henry disguises himself and walks around the English camp, talking to his countrymen and showing off the love and understanding of the common people Henry got from all those afternoons carousing at the Boar’s Head in the two previous plays in the cycle before he became king. To quote Agee again, “Shakespeare gave to a cynical old soldier the great speech, ‘But if the cause be not good … ’. Olivier puts it in the mouth of a slow-minded country boy (Brian Nissen). The boy’s complete lack of cynicism, his youth, his eyes bright with sleepless danger, the pleasant patience of his delivery, and his Devon repetition of the tolled word ‘die’ as ‘doy,’ lift this wonderful expression of common humanity caught in human war level with the greatness of the king.” (And later in the movie it seemed to me that it was the sight of Nissen’s corpse, one of the mere 29 British soldiers killed in the battle, that provoked Henry’s outburst, “I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant,” as if the anguish of seeing someone he had befriended — albeit briefly and casually — killed had provoked Henry’s anger against his enemies.)
Henry V is a movie that’s been a bit overrated — Peter Hall called Olivier’s direction of Henry V as his first film “comparable with Orson Welles’ achievement in directing Citizen Kane,” with which I would disagree (Welles and his writer, Herman Mankiewicz, were working directly from life, not adapting a dramatic poem by a genius author who had already done much of the work), though ironically in the marvelous scene showing the death of Sir John Falstaff (only referred to in Shakespeare’s play) Olivier indulges in two visual quotes from Kane: the long tracking shot through the window of the Boar’s Head into the room in which Falstaff lays dying, and the straight-line horizontal shot of his deathbed instead of the usual three-quarter view from above. That’s not the only visual quote in this movie; the scene in which the British soldiers leap from the trees to ambush the French riding below is straight from The Adventures of Robin Hood (the 1938 version with Errol Flynn).
For me, the attempts to mesh various levels of realism — the reproduction of what Shakespeare’s audiences presumably saw when the play was first produced, the stylized backdrops (in forced perspective) of many of the French “exteriors,” and the naturalism of the battle itself — don’t always work, and the two scenes with Princess Katherine of France (played by Renée Asherson after Olivier’s then-wife, Vivien Leigh, was denied permission to do the role by David O. Selznick, who held her movie contract — Asherson later admitted she only got the role because she was the same size as Leigh and therefore could wear the same costumes without alterations) aren’t totally free from the trap of coyness Shakespeare set in them. But overall it’s a haunting film, mostly devoid of the annoying affectations filmmakers tend to fall into when doing Shakespeare — the actors fulfill their first duty by making us believe that this language is their normal mode of expression; they don’t sing-song their way through it or over-compensate the other way by deliberately breaking Shakespeare’s carefully worked out rhythms — and the multiple levels of reality do bring the story into focus for us and our time far better than a flat-out modern-dress production would have.
Henry V is an acknowledged landmark in the filming of Shakespeare and in Olivier’s career (it’s indicative of his skill as an actor and his glamour as a personality that he’s able to get away with playing Henry at 37, eight years older than the real Henry was at Agincourt and two years older than Henry was when he died), and a vivid theatrical and dramatic experience even though it by no means exhausts the possibilities of Shakespeare on film. — 10/20/09
The film I picked was the third disc in An Age of Kings, the cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays produced by the BBC in 1960 with a cast of those wonderful British actors that seem to recur in each generation. This contained two episodes dealing with the play Henry V, “Signs of War” and “The Band of Brothers,” and the single episode editor Eric Crozier got out of the play Henry VI, Part 1, “The Red Rose and the White.” One problem with presenting the Shakespeare history plays as a cycle is that Shakespeare wrote the second set of four — the three Henry VI plays and Richard III — before he wrote the first set, and scholars still disagree about how much of the Henry VI plays are Shakespeare’s work.
Henry V was Shakespeare’s last history play (aside from Henry VIII, one of his last works and not part of the cycle depicted in An Age of Kings), written in 1599 and apparently at least in part a celebration of the Earl of Essex, who was about to launch a war to subdue Ireland that Queen Elizabeth saw as an analogue to Henry V’s war for France — though as things turned out Essex, unlike Henry V, got his ass kicked by an Irish army led by the Earl of Tyrone, and the defeat cost him Elizabeth’s favor and ultimately led to the plot that finally got him arrested for treason.
On the surface, it’s a glorification of war and imperialism — but that’s only on the surface; as strong and decisive as Henry V appears, the play also contains a lot of dialogue questioning not only some of the actions but the justice and righteousness of his cause itself. Though this scene was deleted from An Age of Kings, the play begins with a nervous debate between two high church officials worried that the new king is going to seize the church’s assets, and accordingly when a cleric is asked for his opinion about the justice of Henry V’s claim to the French throne (in the scene that opens this presentation of the play) naturally he knows he has to give the “right” answer.
Watching An Age of Kings in this go-round I’ve been struck by the parallel between Henry V and George W. Bush — indicative that the source of Shakespeare’s endurance has been the fact that not only did he capture human nature and depict both political and personal issues with an insight rare for the time, but that human nature has changed so little that our species continues to generate situations similar to those Shakespeare wrote about. Both Henry V and George W. Bush were the sons of hereditary rulers, both had youthful periods of licentiousness and wastrel behavior that disappointed their fathers (indeed, both had more strait-laced brothers who had much more of their dad’s favor), and both ultimately rose out of their drinking and carousing to seize the responsibilities of power. The parallel isn’t entirely exact — Henry V instructs his occupying army to treat the French gently, take no French food or other goods without paying for it, and (at least until the scene in the aftermath of Agincourt in which he ordered his army to massacre the French prisoners — a major war crime we’re really not prepared for by the way Shakespeare has drawn Henry V up to that point) to take good care of their prisoners — but the arrogance of the war council with which the play opens and the sheer outrageousness of the idea that, armed with a flimsy claim to the throne of France, Henry V can install himself as king of both countries by sheer will and force of arms ring all too closely parallel to more recent bits of history.
Producer Peter Dews and director Michael Hayes had more competition on Henry V than on most of the plays in the series — in 1944 Laurence Olivier had done a big-screen feature film (shooting the battle scenes in Ireland, where there was enough unspoiled countryside to stage a medieval battle without any modern anachronisms creeping in), and in 1989 Kenneth Branagh (both starring and directing, as Olivier had) did a remake — and their version suffers in the depiction of the actual battle of Agincourt (which is basically a handful of people hacking away at each other with swords — on a 1960 BBC-TV budget they couldn’t possibly duplicate the massed longbow attacks that actually won the battle for the British), but is certainly competitive with the casting.
I haven’t seen either the Olivier or Branagh films in years, but Robert Hardy is as good a Henry V as I remember his formidable feature-film competitors as being, capturing the character’s sense of justice and morals as well as his arrogance and self-righteousness, his understanding of the common people from having hung out with them before he became king (yet another strong difference between him and George W. Bush), his ability to make quick decisions even if (like the massacre of the French prisoners) they’re not necessarily the best decisions he could have made, and above all his ability to rally a significantly outnumbered army to victory. (In the 1920’s and 1930’s football coaches studied Henry’s St. Crispian’s Day address to figure out how to do pep talks to their teams.) He’s matched by a formidable cast of supporting actors — what’s most amazing about the acting in An Age of Kings is how well the cast members mesh and how they manage to inhabit characters speaking in an unfamiliar sort of English and actually convince us they’re people living 450 years earlier — including the young (but instantly recognizable) Judi Dench as Princess Catherine of France, whom Henry marries to solidify his claim to the French throne but whom he also wants genuinely to love and be loved by.
One of the most interesting aspects of Henry V is the extent to which religion — only peripherally mentioned in the earlier plays, and then usually in a context of frustration (Richard II aghast that God, who supposedly installed him as king, is allowing him to be deposed by a mere mortal; Henry IV’s intention to atone for his sin in deposing Richard by mounting a Crusade, systematically frustrated by the unrest at home and the attempts to organize a revolution against him, one of which — at the start of Henry IV, Part 2 — is led by a clergyman) — takes center stage; with the church already having been suborned, blackmailed or whatever into giving divine blessing to Henry’s actions, the characters cross themselves incessantly and are constantly appealing to God’s favor on their enterprise. (Henry’s eve-of-battle pep talk even keys on the saint whose name-day is the day the battle is taking place.)
Another interesting parallel that you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t watching the plays in sequence, in a context like this in which they’re being presented as a single story instead of separate works, is the similarity between Hotspur’s eve-of-battle attitude in Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry’s attitude here — particularly when both rally the troops by saying that, contrary to showing fear at the way they’re outnumbered, they should glory in being outnumbered because then the victory will be all the sweeter. Though this really doesn’t come through in Shakespeare, other tellings of the story — like A. M. Maughan’s novel Harry of Monmouth — stress that Henry and Hotspur were boyhood friends (their fathers, after all, were friends and allies until they broke spectacularly right after Richard II’s fall), grew up together and were similar in a lot of ways, and in Henry IV, Part 1 Henry IV audibly wishes Hotspur were his son (just as in Henry IV, Part 2 he wishes his younger son, John of Lancaster, were the heir to his throne — as I noted above, yet another parallel to George H. W. Bush and his relative estimation of his children’s fitness to rule; it’s well known that Daddy Bush thought it would be Jeb, not W., who’d be the second President Bush). — 10/17/09
About the Kenneth Branagh Henry V several things are important to say. First of all, did Alistair Cooke really believe it when he said Branagh had no idea, when he was making this film, that he’d be compared to Laurence Olivier — and not just compared, but have a lot of questions asked about him in the who-does-this-guy-think-he-is vein? It’s as if a modern singer were to release an album containing all the songs in Sgt. Pepper, in exactly the same order as on the Beatles’ album, and not expect the inevitable comparisons to be made. What’s more, Branagh’s Henry V seems to have been planned and executed almost deliberately as a modern-day answer to Olivier’s, from 45 years later when audiences are a lot more cynical than they were in Olivier’s day and would be intolerant of a production that used the play as a wartime morale-booster the way Sir Larry did in his film. The differences are summed up in the opening sequences; both Olivier and Branagh retain the Chorus character, but Olivier’s Chorus introduced the story from a replica of the Globe Theatre while Branagh’s does so from a film studio, complete with medieval props and miniature buildings as well as cameras and lights.
Basically, Branagh’s Henry V is the most noir Shakespeare movie I’ve seen since Orson Welles’ Macbeth, to which it bears a lot more resemblance than it does to any production Olivier ever went near. Much of it is in contemporary color noir style — all dank browns and greens, especially in the scenes involving Falstaff (whom Shakespeare removed from Henry V, but both Olivier and Branagh re-introduced, Olivier by a dramatization of the narrated death scene and Branagh through flashbacks drawing on the Henry IV plays for material) — and, predictably, the usually cut opening scene (in which two Catholic priests debate how to keep Henry V from confiscating the Church’s lands, and finally decide to tell him his planned war against France has divine sanction) is retained, which sets up from the beginning what Branagh’s “take” on the story is going to be. It’s a measure of Shakespeare’s richness as an artist that everything Branagh wants to put in the play — the cynicism towards war as an instrument of national policy, the tacit pacifism of reminding people that the essence of war is killing and the deflating of a highly pretentious king and his macho fantasies of himself — is already there, ready to be brought to the forefront by a revisionist director like Branagh instead of glided over or skipped as a mainstreamer would do. On my usual test for a revisionist production — does it shed new light on the original work, and do the deviations from tradition have a serious, readily discernible artistic point? — Branagh’s Henry V passes with flying colors.
Branagh’s Henry V also might be described as the first rock ‘n’ roll Shakespeare movie. His own playing of the title role, more than anything else, gives it that flavor; he comes off as a refugee from a punk-rock band (which, in a sense, Henry was — or at least the medieval equivalent thereof), bursting with barely containable energy. The siege of Harfleur is, visually, the best thing in the movie, even though it takes place at night and is filled with the sound of explosions (hardly something you’d expect to hear in a reproduction of medieval war, however de rigueur they would be in any screen battle taking place after the invention of gunpowder — though the armies of Henry V's time did have artillery, but not hand-held guns). The sequence looks like a heavy-metal MTV video, with Henry riding a horse across a battlefield and sheets of flame coming from the city’s gates. Also awesome is the battle of Agincourt, which could have been staged better but has some incredible shots of the arrows from the English longbows literally raining down on the hapless French troops. Branagh is also to be commended for not having the French all come off like screaming queens (a real temptation, given the deliberately campy lines Shakespeare wrote for them!), though he edged dangerously close to Derek Jarman territory when he had Henry V hug and even kiss a young nobleman who’d been a close friend until he turned traitor, just prior to executing him.
There are some moments of Henry V that simply don’t work. Having the Chorus come on, in the middle of a medieval scene, dressed in a modern greatcoat is jarring. The big “production number” at the end of the battle of Agincourt, in which the troops start singing “Dona nobis pacem” and the music swells to a great climax on the soundtrack, is just Thirties-Hollywood silly (though Shakespeare did call for singing here and both Olivier’s film and An Age of Kings include it). On the whole, however, this is a truly remarkable movie, every bit as legitimate an interpretation of Shakespeare as Olivier’s version, and able to withstand the inevitable comparisons everybody but Branagh himself was ready for from the moment it was released. — 3/8/03