Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Hollow Crown: Henry V (BBC-TV, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan •All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched Shakespeare’s Henry V, presented as the fourth and last (at least so far; there’s always the chance that the BBC, which produced this, will duplicate their 1960 15-part mini-series An Age of Kings and run the entire Shakespeare history cycle from the fall of Richard II in 1399 to the fall of Richard III in 1485) in a cycle of Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V in a four-part mini-series. Though they departed enough from the Age of Kings template to cast two actors as Henry IV — Rory Kinnear played him in Richard II and the much better-known Jeremy Irons played him in the two Henry IV plays — and they used three different writer/directors (Rupert Goold in Richard II, Richard Eyre in the two Henry IV plays and Thea Sharrock, who directed Henry V and co-wrote the adaptation with Ben Power), at least they allowed Tom Hiddleston, an actor so far best known for playing Loki in the Thor movies, to play Prince Hal, later King Henry V, in all three plays in which he appears. The story of the complete cycle tells of how young Henry Hereford, a.k.a. Bolingbroke, a.k.a. Lancaster (the British penchant for not only giving their upper-class people noble titles but adding those titles to their names sometimes makes it confusing to tell who is who, and in particular whether a person coming in with a new name is the same as the person we met before under one of his earlier ones), overthrew his cousin, Richard II, and established the House of Lancaster; how his son was a tavern wastrel, hanging out with a batch of disreputable companions led by Sir John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale), until dad died and he suddenly snapped out of it, becoming a super-responsible king and taking his father’s deathbed advice to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” In other words, Henry IV, who had grabbed the throne illegitimately and whose reign was full of attempts by other nobles to rebel against him, get rid of him and put Richard II’s designated heir, the Earl of Mortimer, on the throne, was telling his son that the best way to stop all the domestic squabbling would be to find the country a common enemy and wage a foreign war. And he had no doubt as to who the foreign enemy would be: France. Since William the Conqueror, ruler of the Norman (Vikings who had settled on the coast of France and been given the province of Normandy by the French king in exchange for them letting the rest of France alone) enclave in northern France, used that as a stepping stone for a successful invasion and takeover of England, the English kings had had ambitions to conquer France and unite the two kingdoms under joint rule. They’d come close to succeeding in the previous century when Edward III (son of Edward II, the mostly Gay king; also the grandfather of Richard II and Henry IV and therefore the great-grandfather of Henry V) sent his son Edward the Black Prince (who never got to be king only because he died one year before his dad did) at the head of an army that nearly conquered France.

Now Henry V, armed with a paper-thin claim to the French crown based on a tortured re-interpretation of the so-called Salic Law (it was a document designed to ensure that a woman would never inherit the throne of France — an interesting dramatic device given that at the time Shakespeare wrote this play his own country was ruled by a woman, Queen Elizabeth! — which the ministers of the Roman Catholic Church in England, fearful that if they didn’t Henry would sign a bill forcing the church to sell much of its property to pay his taxes, argued didn’t apply to France), decides to mount an army, sail across the Channel and finish the job his great-grandfather and great-uncle started. Henry V lands his army, successfully besieges the town of Harfleur and then fights a major battle at Agincourt, which the British manage to win even though they’re outnumbered five to one. He then cuts a deal with the French king that includes his marriage to the king’s daughter Katherine (Mélanie Thierry), though there’s a charming scene in which he’s attempting to win her genuine love while still trying to penetrate the language barrier between them. Shakespeare wrote Henry V at a time when the Earl of Essex was at the peak of his popularity in 1599 and was about to launch his own “foreign quarrel” in Ireland, and it’s known that the play was at least in part agitprop to get English theatergoers to accept the Henry = Essex parallel and see them both as similarly dashing heroes — but unlike Henry, Essex got his ass kicked by the Irish leader, the Earl of Tyrone, retreated in disgrace, ultimately launched a plot against Elizabeth herself and ended up first in the Tower and then beheaded. Henry V’s inspirational speeches in the play — particularly the famous St. Crispian’s Day address on the eve of the battle — were mined in the 20th century by football coaches looking for particularly inspirational language to rally their players to victory. They were also mined by Winston Churchill, who loved Henry’s line “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” and used it for the far more important purpose of mobilizing both the British military and the civilian population to resist the Nazis and win World War II. Indeed, after shutting down virtually the entire British film industry for two years (1942 to 1944), Churchill allowed it to reopen in 1944 specifically so that Laurence Olivier could direct and star in a film of Henry V as a morale-booster. Given that background, one might expect Henry V to be a rah-rah patriotic pageant in which the gooder-than-good hero leads his triumphant minions and wins over an evil and decadent enemy — but you’d be wrong. Shakespeare filled his play with ambiguities and didn’t shy away from the bad things — like ordering his soldiers to slaughter all the French prisoners after Agincourt — the historical Henry V did. Henry V is a typically jumbled Shakespearean character in which we see qualities we like (like his disguising himself as a common soldiers and going about the camp on the eve of the battle to have interactions with his men and find out how they really feel about him, the battle and the cause) and qualities we don’t (like his ruthless suppression of anyone who displeases him — including his old friend Bardolph, who’s been caught stealing from a French church and who’s executed for it) cheek by jowl.

Over the years there’s been a tendency to “revise” the Henry V character, first in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (which was mostly based on the two Henry IV plays but reworked them so that Henry’s rejection of Falstaff once he’s crowned was not an acceptance of adult responsibility, which is what Shakespeare intended, but a betrayal of his better nature and his becoming a grim fanatic; Welles ends his film by showing Henry V leading his expedition and proclaiming, “Not king of England, if not king of France!,” in a direct and deliberate visual quote from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will — not Henry = Essex but Henry = Hitler!) and then in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 movie, which played up the ambiguities and less attractive aspects of Henry’s character that Olivier had played down. This script continues the “revisionist” tradition, though less so in the Thea Sharrock/Ben Power adaptation than in Tom Hiddleston’s casting. Hiddleston is clearly more comfortable as the responsible King Henry V than he was as the wastrel (or at least posing as a wastrel) Prince Hal, but his previous role as Loki gives his performance here an unsympathetic air that the filmmakers may or may not have intended. After all, in the Thor movie Hiddleston is also playing a commander who besieges a walled and well-fortified city on his way to conquering an entire community — though in the context of that film we’re clearly meant to hate him and to root for the defenders — and it’s hard for me to believe the filmmakers were not mindful of the similarity between the two plots and didn’t fully intend it. Another decision they made was to cut down on the caricaturing in the scenes taking place in the French court; they cut most of the scenes in which Shakespeare makes fun of the French and instead went for the similarities — an anxious young commander (in France’s case the Dauphin, who expects to inherit the French throne and who will instead be cut out in favor of Henry V under the peace treaty — though since the real Henry V died of dysentery three years after Agincourt and was replaced by his two-year-old son Henry VI, the French were able to mount a resistance and put the Dauphin back in his rightful place as heir to the French throne —while Henry VI’s weakness, even after he grew up and assumed full powers, provoked the civil war known as the Wars of the Roses, with the humiliating result that a country that had nearly conquered France now was subject to a civil war in which both sides were hoping to get French help!) mobilizing his troops and fighting for his country

When Charles and I watched An Age of Kings after its DVD release in 2010 I was struck by the parallel between Henry V and George W. Bush; both members of hereditary ruling families, both with wastrel pasts, both mistrusted by their fathers (Henry IV would rather have been succeeded by his more responsible younger son, John of Lancaster, and George H. W. Bush was convinced that Jeb, not W., would be the second President Bush), and both of whom led their countries into foreign wars, had initial success (one could readily imagine Henry V at Agincourt posing for his court painters under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished”) but then got dragged into a quagmire after the people of the country they were trying to conquer and rule put together a successful resistance. The battle of Agincourt is considered a landmark in military history because it showed off a new style of warfare in which the armored cavalry of the knightly era (the word “chivalry” even comes from cheval, the French word for “horse”) would prove cumbersome and unable to deal with a highly mobile infantry equipped with a long-range weapon — in Henry V’s case the longbow, which served for his generation of warriors as the machine gun would six centuries later, raining deadly fire on his enemies with high speed and accuracy. There was one other key reason for the English victory that isn’t reproduced in this movie; the film shows the battle of Agincourt taking place on a clean, dry field. In fact it had just rained and the battlefield was muddy — which helped neutralize the French’s numerical advantage: their horses, weighted down by the amount of armor both riders and horses were wearing, got bogged down in the mud and couldn’t move, making them sitting ducks for the English attacks. (Olivier made this a gag in his movie; he showed one of the French knights being lifted onto his horse with a pulley, since his armor made him weigh too much to mount his horse normally.)

Overall, Henry V is the best of the four episodes of The Hollow Crown, partly because it’s the best play (it’s Shakespeare on the cusp of his acknowledged masterpieces like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet) and partly because Thea Sharrock gets more energy into it than the previous directors in the series. Though she inserts a brief shot of Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff — at the end of Henry IV, part 2 Shakespeare had inserted a brief chorus which promised a sequel “with Sir John in it,” but he broke that promise; the precedent for showing the dying Falstaff in a Henry V production was set by Olivier, who cast veteran British musical star George Robey in the role — she’s clearly more interested in the serious business than the comic relief, and she moves the action along well even though there are an awful lot of dialogue-less sequences of ships sailing and riders riding that don’t add much either to the action or the atmosphere. Henry V is also the most extravagantly scored episode in the series — Sharrock clearly doesn’t share the general reticence of British directors towards background music — and her deployment of Adrian Johnston’s score is well done even though it occasionally gets a bit too Mickey-Mouse-ish for me (in order to give as much of a sense of realism as possible to his animation, Walt Disney insisted on a very exact matching of music, sound effects and images — and to this day an especially tight combination of those elements in a film is referred to in the trade as “Mickey-Mousing”). Overall this Henry V is a good adaptation, with Hiddleston maybe not quite as charismatic as Olivier or Robert Hardy (the remarkable actor who played him in An Age of Kings — whatever happened to him? He may have killed Hotspur in the series, but it was the actor playing Hotspur, Sean Connery, who had the international superstar career Hardy deserved!) but certainly effective and genuinely moving in the role — and I can only hope the epilogue delivered by John Hurt (who did all the “chorus” speeches), written in mock-Shakespearean style by Sharrock and Power, which gives us a précis of how Henry V’s early death plunged England into chaos, civil war and the loss of France, presages a Hollow Crown, Part II which will dramatize the remaining four plays in the cycle.