Obviously I have been spoiled by Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic Shakespearian vision, not to mention producer Sam Mendes’ absolutely phenomenal Shakespearian endeavor, The Hollow Crown, because, hard as I try, I can’t bring myself to enjoy Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1946). Yes, yes, I know that Branagh and Mendes owe a debt of gratitude to Olivier for being the first director to make one of Shakespeare’s plays into a film that was both artistically and commercially successful, but the artifice of Henry V, not to mention some hamminess on the part of the cast, rubs me the wrong way. Additionally, I am a purist at heart, and if you are going to do Shakespeare then do Shakespeare—don’t cut scenes or pieces of dialogue because the Prime Minister wants you to make a morale boosting propaganda movie!
When William Wyler declined an offer to direct Henry V (he didn’t want to tell Olivier how to do Shakespeare), the task fell to Olivier. With the backing (at least partly) of the British government, Olivier and fellow screenwriters Dallas Bower and Alan Dent went about trimming the play into a “manageable” two hour and sixteen minute production. The nastier side of Henry’s (Olivier) personality was cut—no one gets hung (especially not his friend Bardolph!) and no French towns need worry about being raped and pillaged at the hands of the English, and, under no circumstance, is the real ending of the play mentioned: that less than three years after his victory at Rouen Henry was dead and that his son, Henry VI, would eventually lose France in what became known as the Hundred Years’ War. As much as these omissions rankle me, I must confess that I was happy to hear Princess Katharine (Renee Asherson) and Alice (Ivy St. Helier) actually converse in French. I can only imagine how irritating this may have been to working class English viewers—and God forbid, American audiences!
It’s a colorful film, that’s for certain. Shot in three-strip Technicolor, the sets and costumes absolutely and vibrantly pop off the screen. Of course, this herein is one of the reasons why I take issue with Henry V. The movie begins with a sweeping shot of London, circa 1600—which was accomplished not by CGI but by miniature models—and then the Globe Theatre, where a production of Henry V is about to take place. For the next thirty minutes we see the play acted out in front of a rather boisterous audience, and occasionally we see the backstage happenings. Perhaps it was intended as such, but the acting during this section of the film is almost inconceivably overacted by complete hams. Thankfully, the acting does seem to get better when the production clearly transitions from “inside” the Globe Theatre to a soundstage (Denham Studios), but the film still looks and sounds like a stage play. Paul Sheriff and Carmen Dillon’s sets were primarily based on manuscript illustrations from the Très Riches Heures (a French prayer book), and, while colorful, appear exceedingly fake. Olivier, for his part, did have the good sense to realize that a cinematic version of the Battle of Agincourt should not be filmed on a soundstage. As such, this being a patriotic, morale boosting endeavor, the battle scenes were shot at the Powerscourt Estate in Wicklow, Ireland—which happened to be a neutral nation in WWII. Needing more than 700 cheap extras and land that had yet to be touched by modernity, Olivier spent six weeks at the estate for ten minutes of actual footage. Once the battle is concluded, we turn back to the artifice of the French court—probably fitting, but nonetheless irritating.
Okay, so after reading the above, you’re probably thinking: what’s the big deal with three different set designs, I think it’s clever. No, what’s clever is what happens when Dorothy transitions from black-and-white tornadic Kansas into the Technicolor world of Oz in The Wizard of Oz (1939)—this makes sense. What happens in Henry V makes absolutely no sense at all, other than as a somewhat plausible way for Olivier to somehow work in the Shakespearian narrator. And, did he REALLY need to do this? Moviegoers knew that they were going to see a cinematic version of a Shakespearian play, would it have really surprised them to see and/or hear a narrator pop up every so often to transition the story from scene to scene or act to act? Probably not. It all looks so colorfully fake, fake, fake and then, for a brief moment, a touch of realism creeps in and then back to the fake, fake, fake! Oh, I must stop talking about this, as I can feel my agitation growing…
While it’s bizarrely interesting to look at, Laurence Olivier’s Henry V is probably one of my least favorite film adaptions of Shakespeare’s plays. I’d rather watch Orson Welles’ MacBeth (1948), which was a hot mess itself, a hundred times before watching Olivier’s Henry V. Yes, Welles bastardized the play and made insane additions to it, but, my God, it was so more intriguing to watch!