Monday, September 28, 2009

At the Movies with Henry V

I've been reading and discussing Henry V along with Ann from TableTalk, and last week I watched all three movie versions, starting with the BBC version starring David Gwillim, then the Kenneth Branagh version, and ending with the Laurence Olivier movie.

The BBC version was most true to the text, with only a few lines deleted, all scenes were virtually intact. Gwillim also played Prince Hal in both parts of the Henry IV BBC productions, and I thought he, more than either Branagh or Olivier, retained the boyish charm of Hal with impish smiles and a ready laugh that was rarely forced. He was an extremely likeable Henry who clearly was doing what he had to do in his job (e.g., sentencing the three traitors, allowing the execution of Bardolph, and ordering the throats of the French prisoners to be cut).

Much has been written about the violence and realism of Branagh's version of Henry V, so I won't go there. What struck me was the vast difference between Branagh's and Qwillim's portrayal of the same character. Branagh's Henry is truly his father's son. In the opening act, he is positively menacing and calculating to a fault--at one point, I thought he was going to order the destruction of the death planet, he seemed so much like a dark lord from a sci-fi flick. While he had his lighter moments, overall his interaction with his troops seemed far more cynical, most likely because I couldn't forget the opening of the movie. Since it had been many years since I watched the film, I eagerly awaited his reaction when he heard that Bardolph was to be hanged, and I was relieved that Branagh let a look of dismay flicker across his eyes. That flicker did a lot to redeem him for me.

Now on to the Olivier version. I first saw this film when I was a young adolescent. This was one of my father's favorite movies, and he went whenever it was playing (mostly only at art film theaters in the 1960s and 1970s in those pre-VHS days) and took me with him. Imagine my surprise when I later learned that Olivier used only about half of the lines that Shakespeare gave him to work with! Once I learned all about how Henry V was made during WWII as part of the War Effort, I became very jaded about the movie. I'm a purist and would rather not have any lines cut let alone have them cut for political reasons.

I watched the Olivier version over the weekend fully expecting to dislike it. I was hyper-aware of what had been cut and was hyper-sensitive to the glorification of war aspect of the movie, but I confess that I found myself caught up in the film again, from the charming reenactment of an early production of the play in May 1600 at the Globe Theatre to the bright costumes, heavy makeup, and stylized sets, even after we fully entered the cinematic world as Henry and the English travelled from Southampton to France.

And then I watched the movie again while I listened to film historian Bruce Eder explain what Olivier was trying to do and how he achieved it--this was an extra on the DVD. Eder's commentary was absolutely fascinating--especially the part about how the French court sets/scenes and even some of the battle scenes (e.g., the Once More Into the Breach speech) and the post-battle scene in the village of Agincourt (i.e., where Pistol commits himself to being a cutpurse) were cinematic recreations of paintings from a medieval book of hours. Here's an example I found that looks strikingly like the set for the French court when the king and his men are worrying about the approaching English.

I now have a renewed appreciation for Olivier's Henry V. What's next? I wish someone would do a complete Henry V (including all the scenes which show Henry in a not so completely sympathetic light) but with Olivier's vision. I love the Globe Theater start/end, and I love the Book of Hours inspiration, but I want the whole play not just the patriotic parts.

There's so much more to talk about--comparing the Katherines, comparing the Fluellens and Gowers, comparing the Boars Head gang, but I need to go and read Dorian Gray so that I can write about that next.


  1. Hard work comparing these three adaptations and after re-reading the text! Thanks for sharing all that with us, Jane. You know I appreciate this kind of posting. I must admit I'm not an expert of Shakespeare's histories but I really want to know more so ...Thank you again!

  2. Phew, Jane, that was a stint and a half. I think I'll pick up on this later in the day over at the discussion site, but I wanted to let you know I'd read it and just to say one thing here. I also saw Branagh's stage 'Henry V'at Stratford. It was the first thing he did for the RSC and when it was announced everyone said "Who?" He was very young and although not entirely unknown he hadn't done much in the theatre world. It was very different indeed, much less brutal. Word was that when it came to making the film he deliberately set out to be as different from Olivier as he could, hence, of course, the lack of nobility. I don't know if that's true, but if it is I'm not certain it's a valid starting point for an interpretation of a great work.

  3. I don't know much about Henry V. Thanks for visiting today!!

  4. Even without having watched any of the versions, I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts. Off to visit the discussion site.

  5. Great post Jane! I saw Henry V many years ago on stage at Manchester's Library Theatre - your post brought back many memories.

    I've given you an award - see this post Awards.