Drawing upon the fifteenth-century paintings of Paolo Ucello and Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky (1938), as well as on the play by William Shakespeare, Laurence Olivier’s Henry V is one of the most radiant, most moving films ever made, and it would remain the director’s highest cinematic attainment. (Reginald Beck, the editor, may have co-directed the film; the wonderful color cinematography is by Robert Krasker.) Olivier’s motive for making it is well known; it was a contribution to Britain’s war effort against Nazi Germany, a pageant and a battle film full of patriotic fervor and stirring rhetoric. Alan Dent, whose script is nothing more (or less) than a reduction of the play, cut the original text along such lines as to diminish the play’s psychological subtleties and court intrigues and to emphasize the propaganda. But perhaps what gives the film such depth and lasting value is that, like Eisenstein’s earlier film, Olivier’s rallying of his countrymen and women nevertheless admits profound accents pertaining to the terrible nature of war. These he does not press, as Kenneth Branagh would in his later, lesser (though marvelously entertaining) film of Henry V (1989); they arise naturally and sharply from the Shakespeare. It is doubtful that Olivier knew at the time that he was making a film for the ages. He must have known, however, that he was the first filmmaker not to be defeated in his attempt to bring Shakespeare to the screen.
Slyly, Olivier has set the play inside a narrative frame that resonates with import. The camera, simulatedly airborne, seems to descend slowly onto London, into the Globe Theater, around 1600, when the first performance of Henry V was given. We are backstage, watching actors cope with hats and props, and we follow them onstage, into the performance of the play, seeing and hearing also our other selves, the audience in the film, respond to it. At the end of a scene, characters revert to being the actors playing them and take their bows to audience applause. Only by degrees does all this artifice drop away to make way for the action of the play into which we are drawn as though it were reality. What an opening! Olivier begins objectively, with the fact of the performance, and progressively draws us into the subjective realm, the play and his interpretation of it, which become what is “real” to us. The entire process coincides with an audience’s—our own—gradual “suspension of disbelief” and the acceptance of theater as life. We are drawn into history. Because of the progressively muted distancing device of the narrative frame, complete with a herald who functions as a kind of Greek Chorus, we are aware of our being drawn into history, like a surgical patient who is awake, though painless, for his or her own operation. At the end of the film, by which time we have fully accepted the characters as real, they take their bows as actors again, and the camera withdraws and ascends, in a reverse of the movement with which the film began. A more graceful interaction between theatrical and realistic elements would be hard to imagine.
As ever, King Harry’s petulant and arrogant designs on France are incomprehensible short of the doctrine “the divine right of kings”—or, perhaps, some jingoistic insistence on the divine right of English kings. Shakespeare nods to the notion that the young king in this case was misled by his archbishop, but all attempts to make historical sense out of Harry and his army’s invasion of France are doomed to failure. Perhaps one must just accept this as a part of the Hundred Years’ War and move on with the film. On the other hand, for once, given Olivier’s design of the film, there is a perfect sense to be had. The film shifts from an objective to a subjective mode by moving into the action of the play from the narrative frame—the Globe Theater, if you will—encasing it. So, with the attack on France, does Harry move from being an actor playing a royal part to being King Henry V, to whose even most murderous whims the world, meaning France, is obliged to bend. The dangerous mischief of such unfettered subjectivism (national solipsism, I would deem it) thus becomes part of the play’s thematic purpose to expose, and indeed Shakespeare’s own play, in its complete form, encourages this interpretation as an undercurrent flowing, like a steady stream of blood, beneath the surface heroics.
But it is as a hero, of course, that we most want to see our Harry, the crown on his head toughening his fiber despite his youth, his days and nights drinking, carousing and prankstering behind him. The boy has become a man—nay, a king fit to lead a great nation. (Falstaff’s own death reminds us of Harry’s unruly past, just as his pardoning of Falstaff—although coming too late to mend Falstaff’s fatally broken heart—reminds us that Harry is himself mindful of his own past, knowing that, while he owes his sense of responsibility to his father, King Henry IV, he owes his humanity to his surrogate father, Sir John Falstaff.) Therefore, in a way, we the audience become Harry’s surrogate parent, taking great pride in his dash and virtue, in the efficient way he deals with traitors at Southampton, in the heroic calm that he exhibits the night before the big battle, and in his thrilling, rousing speech to his battered troops exhorting them to fight:
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian”:
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,—
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
How we love this boy who is newly King!
The 1415 Battle of Agincourt is the film’s great set-piece, and it is quite simply the most stunning action sequence in all of cinema, punctuated by the single most thrilling instant on any battlefield in any part of the world: the cascade of English arrows—a new weapon for the occasion—given amazing flight to reduce the outnumbering French to a more manageable sized army. The breathtaking beauty of this, of course, gives way to a field of clanking swords and sinking slaughter. The day turns out to be Harry’s; and, after the reading of the names of the dead, both French and English, comes the play’s saddest lines, rendered with devastating irony by Olivier, who plays King Harry:
Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum,
The dead with charity enclosed in clay.
And then to Calais, and to England then,
Where ne’er from France arrived more happy men.
Nowhere in literature is there a finer expression of a warrior’s disgust than this.
Nevertheless, filmmaker Olivier’s finest shot—the most glorious shot in the entire Olivier œuvre, in fact—is yet to come. At Agincourt, while the Duke of Burgundy speaks, the camera passes through a palace window to survey, in one long, astonishing tracking shot, conquered France: a bleak, inconsolable landscape punctuated by just two persons, two children, a boy and a girl, probably brother and sister. The shot is so achingly beautiful and desolate that it chastises Harry for the flippancy of his remark to Princess Katherine, the French king’s daughter whom he is wooing for a politically advantageous wife, that he loves France so much he will not part with a village of it! If anyone needs reminding how great a filmmaker Olivier can be, this passage from Henry V should do the trick.
The film was named the year’s best by the National Board of Review and, after the war, Olivier was named best director by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, and in Tokyo, Japan, it won the Kinema Junpo Award as best foreign-language film—perhaps its launch as how we think of it today: as one of the great antiwar expressions of cinema. Olivier also won a special Oscar for his multiple contributions to the film.
His performance answers the question whether Olivier is the greatest actor who ever lived. There was never, because there never could have been, a better actor than Olivier in Henry V. The National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle both named his performance the year’s best. I especially like, the night before the battle, when his Harry, incognito, sounds out the loyalty and feelings of his troops, displaying a common touch but also, when he deems fit, the steely spine of a king.
Olivier brought us all “a little touch of Harry in the night.”
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