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Henry V (1944)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Henry V (1944)
35mm, Technicolor, 137 mins
Directed byLaurence Olivier
Production CompanyTwo Cities Films
Produced byLaurence Olivier
Text EditorAlan Dent
From the play byWilliam Shakespeare
Director of PhotographyRobert Krasker
Music byWilliam Walton

Cast: Laurence Olivier (King Henry V of England); Robert Newton (Ancient Pistol); Leslie Banks (Chorus); Renee Asherson (Princess Katherine); Esmond Knight (Fluellen, captain in the English Army)

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The triumphs of King Henry V, leading to his ultimate conquest of the French at Agincourt.

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Laurence Olivier's second Shakespeare film (following his role in Paul Czinner's 1937 As You Like It) pushed adaptation of the Bard onto an entirely new plane. Fascinating not just for its approach to the text but also for its portrait of multiple facets of the British character, calibrated for explicitly propagandist purposes, it came too late in the Second World War to be a call to arms as such, but formed a powerful reminder of what Britain was defending.

The initial scenes echo many early British Shakespeare films in that they resemble a filmed stage production, with the important distinction that this one was staged specifically for the cameras in a reproduction of Shakespeare's Globe theatre, a familiar sight today following its reconstruction, but long vanished in 1944. By bringing it to life again, Olivier's film salutes Shakespeare's London, the opening aerial shot an emotional tribute to those who had only recently survived the Blitz.

When the action shifts to Agincourt, the initial stylisation gives way to a far more dynamic treatment, shot on location and clearly influenced by Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (Soviet Union, 1938), not just in visual composition and movement but also in the fusion between image and soundtrack, William Walton's score as eloquent as Shakespeare's verse. The "once more unto the breach" speech is given on horseback, with Olivier underlining word by deed, his steed weaving in and out of his massed armies before hurtling into the fray.

Historically, it's unlikely that so many Welshmen and Scotsmen would have formed part of Henry's armies, but this diversity is important to Shakespeare's portrait of England (and, by extension, Britain) as a cultural melting-pot, which Olivier picks up on and amplifies. He's also surprisingly sympathetic towards the French, with judicious cutting toning down their frivolity in favour of their implied realisation that the Dauphin is leading them on a hiding to nothing - a viewpoint more in tune with post-1789 sensibilities than Shakespeare's.

The most significant cuts to the original text (reputedly at Winston Churchill's suggestion) concern passages that criticise Henry's conduct - an ambiguity presumably too jarring for such a celebratory film. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version pointedly restored them, as he felt that they contributed to a misleading impression of the play as "a jingoistic hymn to England", one that certainly suited the era in which it was made, but which wasn't necessarily in tune with Shakespeare's intentions.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. A muse of fire (2:05)
2. Unto the breach (2:23)
3. Captain Fluellen! (4:04)
4. Wooing the Queen (4:57)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
As You Like It (1937)
Hamlet (1948)
Richard III (1955)
Beck, Reginald (1902-1992)
Bower, Dallas (1907-1999)
Cole, George (1925-)
Del Giudice, Filippo (1892-1962)
Hanley, Jimmy (1918-1970)
Helpmann, Robert (1909-1986)
Kalmus, Natalie (1887-1965)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Krasker, Robert (1913-1981)
Laurie, John (1897-1980)
Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)
Thesiger, Ernest (1879-1961)
Walton, Sir William (1902-1983)
Two Cities Films
Laurence Olivier and Shakespeare
Literary Adaptation
Henry V On Screen