Director: Laurence Olivier
“Henry V was regarded by the British government as ideal patriotic wartime propaganda, and Laurence Olivier, serving in the Fleet Air Arm, was released to star in it and – after William Wyler had turned it down – to direct it as well.” (195, Phillip Kemp, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) There’s something just too clean about the whole production, especially the battle scenes. This could be due to the fact that it was intended as a morale booster during World War II and showing any sort of realistic battle scenes would have hit a little too close to home. Censorship is also at play here as well as you don’t actually get to see the kiss between Henry and Princess Katherine of France. I also find the King of France, played by Harcourt Williams, a very wishy-washy character with no substance to him whatsoever. Again I guess this could be a subtle comment on the French given the time in which the film was made.
“The rhythm of Shakespeare’s text, discreetly trimmed to fit the war effort – the three English traitors are dropped, for a start – is buoyed up by the visor of Olivier’s barnstorming performance and William Walton’s sweeping score.” (195) I’m actually not a fan of Walton’s sweeping score – the sound quality is somewhat lacking but that could be due to the age of the film itself rather than the actual score. And in actual fact it is really quite a distraction during the battle scenes. They don’t seem to spend any time developing the lesser characters like Pistol (Robert Newton) and Fluellen (Esmond Knight) which is a bit of a shame as they can be such brilliant and hilarious characters. Fluellen especially seems to be a caricature of a Welsh man and strangely seems to be the only person with an accent in the entire film!
The portrayal of the Globe is surprisingly close to what they recreated on Southbank which is astounding in 1945 as it is long before Sam Wanamaker dreamed up rebuilding the great theatre. It is almost but not quite right given that there are no pillars on the stage – and yet it still brought a smile to my face. Shakespeare belongs to that place and always feels right when set in that wonderful Wooden O. The opening scenes of the play are played for laughs which is unusual. Clever transition between the stage and the actual locations but the sets are now quite laughable when looked at through today’s standards. Some scenes still have that enclosed feeling of having been shot in a studio. And the landscapes are quite noticeably models thanks to the lack of any natural movement and some strange perspectives. There are moments when the extras really do just look like men in tights.
Now I’m going to confess something … Laurence Olivier is not my favourite portrayal of Henry. I know, I know he is lauded as the greatest performance of the well-known king but he’s not even close to my favourite. That title goes to Jamie Parker for his performance as Henry V in the 2012 Globe production, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, but then Jamie holds a special place in my heart as I saw that production as often as I could over that summer. Olivier is a little bit too feminine and too pronounced for my liking. There is something about having the St Crispin’s Day speech given to you live that stays with you. Indeed I think that speech is one that needs to be done in front of a live audience to have the proper impact. I am massive Tom Hiddleston fan but even his performance in The Hollow Crown falls a bit flat yet was blown away by the video of him performing on the Mark Hoppus talk show. There is that energy that I was talking about that makes it my favourite Shakespearean monologue of all time!
“Henry V is the first Shakespeare film that succeeds in being at once truly Shakespearean and wholly cinematic.” (195) While it may be the first film that managed to be both Shakespeare and cinematic it is definitely not the last as there have been some spectacular Shakespearean films – usually directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh like Much Ado About Nothing (1993), although my favourite is without a shadow of a doubt Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). Now if you excuse me I will be off to watch the best version of Henry V – that is the Globe production from 2012.