BACK-STORY: “Henry V” is a masterpiece acted, directed , and produced by Laurence Olivier. His work was so amazing he was awarded an Academy Honor Award at the Oscars. It was nominated for Best Actor, Score, Art Direction, and Picture. (It lost to another war film – “The Best Years of Our Lives”). It was designed to be a morale booster for WWII Britain. Mission accomplished. It was specifically dedicated to England’s commandoes and airborne troops. What better subject than the battle that is considered the greatest upset in military history? The story of a small, exhausted army defeating the cream of French knighthood certainly resonated with a Britain facing the supposedly all powerful Wehrmacht.
The movie was a box office success and inspired the British people to carry on. It was the most expensive British film up to that time. Wartime shortages impacted production. For example, shortages of metal led to the decision to “make” the chain-mail out of hand-knitted gray wool. Many of the extras were servicemen. The official title – “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with his Battell Fought at Agincourt in France by Will Shakespeare” – is the longest title to be nominated for Best Picture.
OPENING: The movie is set in 1600. We get a bird’s eye view of London as we zoom into the Globe Theater. We are inside the theater as the actors prepare for the play. The Chorus (played by Leslie Banks) urges the audience to use its imagination. Two clergymen recap Henry’s evolution from a wastrel to a moral leader. There is some humor as the Archbishop of Canterbury explains how Salic Law justifies Henry’s claim to the French crown. French ambassadors arrive with their famous tennis balls insult and we are off to war.
SUMMARY: The movie now moves out of the Globe to a series of movie sets based on the medieval Book of Hours. Falstaff dies and the band of rogues formerly Henry’s “posse” leave to join the army with dreams of glory and spoils. At the French court, the Dauphin is overconfident and the King is fearful.
At Harfleur, Henry passionately urges his men “Once more into the breach…” which they do off camera. The action is being saved for Agincourt. Meanwhile, at the French court the Princess Katherine gets an English lesson (parts of the body) from her maid. In a nice touch, there are no subtitles for the French. The King sends off an army of French knights to destroy the victors of Harfleur.
The British army is moving toward safety at Calais when its path is blocked by the much larger French force. The British are not only greatly outnumbered, but exhausted and in ill-health. The night before the battle, Henry walks disguised through his camp. His men are gloomy and pessimistic. He has to control his temper as some of the men are critical of the king for getting them into this mess.
The day of battle dawns and Henry gives his famous “Band of Brothers” speech. Who better to orate it than Olivier? Archers pound in their stakes while the French laugh it up in overconfidence. The French Harold comes and demands Henry give up for ransom. No thank you, sayeth Henry.
The battle scene is one of the greatest in war movie history, especially noteworthy considering the technology available in 1944. Olivier did have access to an aerial view which nicely shows the wedge shaped formations of British archers. He was also able to film the knightly charge through a half-mile tracking shot. We follow along and then feel the blizzard of arrows coming down. The battle devolves into a bloody melee with even the archers wading in with their daggers. At one point a flanking attack by French knights through some woods is blunted by archers jumping out of trees in ambush. The French prove their villainy by treacherously attacking the British camp, killing boys in the process. This enrages Henry who returns to battle for a duel with the French Constable. The army forms a circle like in a schoolyard to watch as Henry dispatches the enemy commander with a blow from his gauntlet. (The next one’s for you, Hitler.) The Harold arrives to cry “oncle”. Henry’s bedraggled, but victorious army marches into the sunset to Calais.
The movie naturally suffers from an extended denoument after the battle. (Reminiscent of “Braveheart” after the Battle of Stirling.) Henry woos Katherine with a lot of words to someone who does not understand them. He has a strong love for someone he has just met. Is it BS? Shakespeare seemed to think he was sincere and not just Macchiavellian. Kate buys it (as though she has a choice) and they kiss.
CLOSING: Henry and Katherine are married. We are back in the Globe for “The End”.
Overall = B
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? This is one war movie that women would probably like more than men. Women tend to like wordy movies more than men and this movie has a lot of words. You also have to concentrate on what is being said. The Shakespearean dialogue is easier to follow than the unsubtitled French, but not by much. Women will be less frustrated than your typical male war movie lover. You also have the romantic subplot to appeal to women.
ACCURACY: The movie is very faithful to the play. Only one line is not from Shakespeare. The movie does not cover the whole play, by the way. It leaves out some material that tended to show Henry is less than a saintly light. For example, Olivier omits a scene where Henry hangs one of his old buddies for violating his ban on looting.
When examining “Henry V” for accuracy, let’s look at whether Shakespeare got it right. The background to the invasion is accurate in its portrayal of Henry’s motivation. Even the tennis ball incident apparently occurred. Shakespeare goes off the historical path a bit when the army reaches France. The audience is led to believe that “once more into the breach” resulted in the fall of Harfleur, when in actuality the next assault failed and the city gave up when word arrived that a relief army was not coming.
The Battle of Agincourt is significantly different than depicted. The play and movie makes little reference to the really deplorable state of the British soldiers. They were suffering from dysentery (which we can be thankful is not graphically depicted) and exhaustion. The battle itself is fairly accurate in a simplistic way. The first attack was by cavalry, but the subsequent one was by knights wading through the mud on foot. There is not nearly enough mud in the movie! The melee aspect is realistic, but clearly there was no duel between Henry and the Constable (that is pure Hollywood). There was also no ambush of French cavalry in the woods by archers leaping from trees.
The French attack on the baggage train with its killing of the innocents was accurate (even though the movie falsely implies that the French leadership was behind the assault), but Henry’s response was not. In fact, he did not respond by returning to the battle. Instead, he gave the infamous order to kill the French prisoners (who were being held for ransom) out of fear that they might rearm themselves and return to the fight. You can debate Henry’s decision, but it is no surprise that Shakespeare (ever the patriot) and Olivier (making an inspirational movie) chose to omit this facet of the battle.
The aftermath of the battle is pretty spot on. Henry did marry Katherine and was promised the throne when the king died (which did not happen because the much younger Henry died first). I find it hard to believe the wooing scene actually happened, but it’s a play.
CRITIQUE: This is an amazing movie. Olivier does an amazing job – possibly the greatest all-around performance in movie history. He justly deserved the special Oscar. One wonders if the Academy felt guilty for choosing an inferior film (“The Best Years of Our Lives”) for Best Picture (guess which one was a patriotic American film). He was already a renowned actor, but this was his first directing job. (He modestly looked for others to direct it until he was persuaded he was the best man for the job.) His decision to start the movie in the Globe, then shift to sets, move on to the great outdoors for the battle, then back to sets, and end back at the theater , was nothing short of brilliant. The audience gets a taste of an Elizabethan play and the action of a movie. The use of The Book of Hours as the inspiration for the set designs is awesome. But the kicker is Olivier made a Shakespeare movie that audiences and critics liked. This was a first and is still a rare accomplishment.
The only flaws are some inaccuracies in the military aspects. However, Shakespeare did do research for his plays, so any discrepancies are for entertainment purposes or to advance the theme of the play. Olivier’s decision to downplay the negative aspects of Henry’s personality (he could be a jerk and ruthless) are understandable given the patriotic purpose of the film. If you want to see the warts, see Kenneth Branagh’s 1988 version. Speaking of which, I will be posting soon on which version is better.
Another slight quibble is with the acting. Some of the actors chew the scenery a bit. I know this will be defended as realistic portrayals of Elizabethan acting, but it still comes off as over the top.
For those wanting consistent excitement, this movie is not your cup of tea. The first half hour is mostly expository. The Battle of Agincourt stands out as a shining diamond in the middle of the movie. Then the last part is a return to the more languid style of the first part. Blame Shakespeare for that, if you must. But just like Mel Gibson with “Braveheart”, Olivier might have been wiser to end the movie after the big battle scene.
Oh, and did I mention that it is not clearly a war movie. It is more accurately described as a Shakespeare play with a battle in the middle of it.
CONCLUSION: Every cinemaphile should see this movie because it is a tour de force by a master movie maker. Every cinemaphile should see this movie and then Branagh’s version to see how movie-making and film attitudes changed from 1944 to 1988. It makes for a perfect comparison because the source material is the same. Every literature lover should see it because it is arguably the best rendering of Shakespeare ever filmed. People who do not like to read books can see it and not have to read “Henry V” (warning to lazy British Literature students – it only covers about half the written play). Don’t forget that you can also learn some French words for parts of the body. That could come in handy, I suppose. Unfortunately, not the naughty bits.