*. While doing some background reading for these notes I was a bit surprised to hear this movie so often referred to as the first successful film adaptation of Shakespeare (successful meaning both popular and a decent interpretation of the play). Was this true? I thought Max Reinhardt’s 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream pretty good. It failed at the box office, but then Henry V didn’t do that well either.
*. Though even without box office it did have value as propaganda at the time, what with England about to invade (German occupied) France again. Shakespeare may be timeless, but this Henry V is also a movie of its moment. As such, it has taken on a kind of iconic value, along with whatever personal place it may have in the memories of fans. David Thomson: “maybe there is no gainsaying the version of Henry V you were born with. I am helplessly loyal to Olivier.”
*. I think this is true, as Kenneth Branagh’s version has the same sort of resonance for me. But there’s no denying Branagh was responding to Olivier, as I think nearly everyone has since.
*. I can’t think of other Shakespeare adaptations that have anything like the same look as this. At the time it must have seemed incredibly daring. The Technicolor was still something new (there was only one Technicolor camera in England), but most of all the production design, going from the costumes, elaborate models, sets, and painted backdrops to the green fields of Ireland, is something I can’t think of anything to compare to. It’s remarkable, and fits perfectly with the whole idea of the playhouse disappearing as we’re drawn into its world.
*. The art direction was by Paul Sheriff and he deserves a lot of credit. So much credit that I had to wonder how much to give to Olivier for directing. I think quite a bit. He hadn’t wanted to direct, but all his first choices (William Wyler, Carol Reed, Terence Young) turned him down and since he’d wanted complete control over the production anyway it only made sense that he’d direct. And would anyone else have been so daring? As Bruce Eder remarks on the Criterion commentary track, “no one else could or would have gotten away with making a movie that looked like this.”
*. The brashness, daring, and originality of a rookie? The obvious comparison is to Welles and Citizen Kane, and while I don’t think Olivier was a filmmaker on the same level as Welles, the fact that this was his first rodeo might have made doing his own thing a little easier. I made a similar remark with regard to Clive Barker and Hellraiser. I think there’s something to be said for the freedom an artist feels when they’re starting out.
*. In terms of the film’s conception, the drawing in and then drawing back out, I think it’s brilliant. That cavalry charge is such a fitting climax in terms of the camera finally cutting loose on its mile-plus racing dolly shot. But the long takes were probably less showing off (as they are with Welles) than the result of just working in a way that the cast was most comfortable with.
*. Something else that few other directors could have gotten away with is the job that’s done on the text. As in all of Olivier’s major Shakespeare productions, this is a heavily edited and re-arranged version of the play. Even the language is changed to make it more accessible (an elder-gun, for example, becomes a pop-gun, which is the same thing). Eder mentions that only half of the lines in the play were kept, and if you know the play well you can really feel the gaps. But it works, because Olivier knew what would work. And as I’ve said before, it’s not like a full-text Shakespeare would have been produced even in Shakespeare’s own day.
*. As an example of how the rearrangement and presentation can result in a wholly new interpretation, take the scene where the French leaders moan about the shame of their defeat and then pledge to go off into battle (“to the throng”) to try and salvage something from their disgrace. In the film this is followed by their immediately attacking the defenceless baggage train, and killing “the poys and the luggage.” The short scene where Henry commands the English to kill their prisoners is cut (as it usually is). Then when the nobles return the Dauphin is seen riding away. Not, I think, in cowardly retreat, but in disgust at what his compatriots have just done. It’s an interesting interpretation (the Dauphin is usually portrayed as a poltroon) and I’m not sure where it comes from, since it would probably be hard to do the scenes the same way on stage.
*. Eder points to how it’s a modern production that is both grounded in Shakespeare’s Globe and in medieval art (the sets and backdrop paintings are lifted from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry). It’s also, I think, grounded in different styles of filmmaking. At times it plays like the drama of the silents, with oversized gestures and lots of physical business. But then it becomes more subtle, quieter, and more naturalistic, to the point where Henry’s monologue before the battle is done entirely as a voiceover. Though even in the battle scenes there is a strong sense of stylized action, recalling Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, among other sources.
*. I think if you want to know why Olivier is such a great actor you just have to watch his eyes. I’m honestly mystified at how he manages to project so much with them, while not changing his facial expression at all. His face may even be mostly covered up, as when Montjoy the herald arrives for his final parley. Those eyes make it perfectly clear that this is a man not to be pushed any further, and yet his expression is completely blank. How does he do this? Is there an art to it?
*. The supporting cast is great. Henry V has I think Shakespeare’s biggest role for a Chorus, and Leslie Banks (Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game) handles it well. Robert Newton made a whole new career for himself with the broad comedy of Pistol. Renée Asherson as Princess Katherine is fittingly doll-like (Olivier had wanted his wife Vivien Leigh to play the part, but she was under contract). Photography by Robert Krasker that really paints with colour and light. A classic score by William Walton. It’s hard to think of anywhere they went wrong. They even won the war.