Another Olivier film in which he starred and directed. He also was one of the producers and had a part in the screenplay. Shakespeare’s plot revolves around young King Henry (or Harry to his friends) defending his claim to the throne of France. His Norman ancestors shared lineage with the French kings and here Henry is demanding from the French king that he be named his successor. But the Dauphin (the king’s son and heir) answers for his father by sending an insulting “gift” to substitute for Henry’s claim. He sends him a box of tennis balls. That starts the war.
The action is divided between Henry’s prosecution of the war, scenes among the French leaders and several personal vignettes. One set of vignettes involve Henry’s former companions; Ancient Pistol, Bardolph, Nim, Mistress Quickly and Sir John Falstaff. In his youth Henry was an irresponsible wastrel that associated with these disreputable characters. But these knaves were very popular from two earlier plays, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and here they are brought back for a final curtain call. Their actions are for comic relief and as a contrast to the heroics of Henry and his warriors. Then there are scenes with the three captains Fluellen, MacMorris, and Jamy from respectively Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. These three men speak in heavily accented dialects reflecting their ethnicities. They are also provided for comic relief with mockery of MacMorris being the primary focus. And finally, there is the scene of Princess Katherine and her Duenna talking about King Harry in a scene where the Princess attempts to learn a few words of English seemingly in anticipation of meeting Henry.
The story’s climax is the momentous battle of Agincourt where according to Shakespeare’s reckoning an army of 12,000 Englishmen, mostly infantry and archers, defeated an army of 60,000 Frenchmen that included a large contingent of heavy cavalry. After the English victory we have a scene where the French King agrees to make Henry his heir in exchange for Henry’s marriage to Princess Katherine. And this is completed with Henry winning Katherine’s heart in a scene that is meant to signify his passionate and determined nature.
So how does Olivier handle this complicated and fragmented plot? After all, some scenes take place in a palace, some in an inn but others are in the middle of a pitched battle and others in a bivouac. In Shakespeare’s day, in his little circular theater, interior scene changes were hard enough but battle scenes could only be handled by suspension of disbelief and by heralds arriving to announce distant action. Olivier pays homage to this by starting the play in the Globe Theater. We see the actors behind the scene dressing and preparing to enter the stage. Even Olivier as Henry is shown first as an actor about to enter his first scene. The following scene at the inn between Ancient Pistol and company are also handled as scenes in the theater.
But once the action moves afield, we get exterior shots of the English and French countryside (actually Irish, this was shot right before D-Day and England was on a war footing while neutral Ireland was not). And it’s outdoors that Olivier gets to give the rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech. And the big battle includes an actual cavalry charge. After the battle they use a strange combination of exterior shots with painted backgrounds that are sort of picturesque in conjuring up a theater. And a theater is where the finale happens, right back in the Globe Theater where the Narrator closes the curtain on Henry and Katherine and reads the epilogue.
So, how did I like this mess? Well, actually, quite a lot. I can’t help but admire the way Olivier takes the conventions of a Shakespeare play like the exits and entrances of the cast and makes them part of an internal joke by showing the cast as actors going onto a stage. He even takes the speech that explains his claim to the throne and makes it a comic scene with bishops and clergymen dropping and finally throwing ancient manuscripts at each other in their confusion at trying to prove Henry is the legitimate King of France. To a modern audience the base and crude friends of ancient Pistol seem strange and exotic but Olivier has his Globe audience filled with Pistol’s spiritual kinsmen who cheer and catcall in approval of their low antics.
By modern standards the battle scenes are somewhat theatrical. After you’ve seen elves and men mowing down orcs in one of the Lord of the Rings movies the knights on horseback can’t be very convincing. And Olivier is no Errol Flynn swashbuckling with a sword. But what Olivier has is the ability to take Shakespeare’s lines and turn them into dramatic speech. I think the fact that Olivier had done Shakespeare on the stage with the best English actors of his generation was what gave him the ability to give the words the inflection and cadence that turns them from a museum piece into a dramatic scene. I’ve seen the St. Crispin’s Day speech done by Branagh and Olivier. Branagh gives it all the intensity and emotion he can. Olivier is calmer and quieter but he infuses his speech with the storyteller’s charm of what it will be like to look back at a victory from the vantage point of many years. Maybe my admiration of his skills is idiosyncratic to me. But even though he is an actor from an earlier time I do not think our modern method actors can compare. They always reach for emotional affect and seem to overdo it.
Henry V is a special play in Shakespeare’s list. Everything but the epilogue is a reflection of the will and fortune of a fortunate king. All his ventures succeed and his reign is fortunate. Only the epilogue reminds us that the War of the Roses is yet to revive in his son’s time and erase all his glories and end the English sovereignty on the mainland. But the play gives the audience a chance to hear of victory as a contrast to the tragedies that will follow. Olivier made his production as a morale boost for the English who were about to join the Americans in the D-Day invasion of France. The story of an earlier invasion of France by Henry was supposed to provide hope for the nation worn out by years of bombing raids and setbacks in the war. And so, Olivier omitted the defeats from the epilogue. Wise decision.
This version is dated in terms of cinematography and stylized in some aspects of the acting but I recommend it to those who enjoy Shakespeare’s plays.