Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
The British Hero by Michael Brooke
Introduction Stiff Upper Lips Working-Class Heroes Heroic Outsiders Heroic Failures The Antihero
Historical Heroes Literary Heroes Cultural Heroes Local Heroes    
< Previous Page
Historical Heroes
Still from Henry V (1944)

Laurence Olivier as
Henry V (1944)

The British have long been fond of taking real-life historical figures and championing (or, in some cases, exaggerating) their heroic exploits. Four centuries ago, Shakespeare provided several examples, none more potent than Henry V, the king whose triumph over the French at Agincourt was turned by Laurence Olivier in 1944 into a memorable celebration of British patriotism. In the process of adapting the play, Olivier stripped out many of Shakespeare's original ambiguities, apparently at the suggestion of Winston Churchill (another much-mythologised British hero). When Kenneth Branagh made his own Henry V in 1989, he pointedly reinstated them, as if to acknowledge that late twentieth century audiences preferred to see their heroes depicted warts and all.

Royalty has long been a popular subject for heroic mythologising, whether Henry VIII (whose blood-boltered reign was considerably sanitised in The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933), Queen Victoria (Victoria the Great, 1937; Sixty Glorious Years, 1938), Alfred the Great (1969) or Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948). Elizabeth I has undergone more intriguing treatment in such films as Jubilee (1978), Orlando (1992, where she was played by Quentin Crisp) and Elizabeth (1998), but she still comes across as a symbol of a certain image of Englishness.

Wartime has provided much historical material for film-makers to draw on, as it's a situation that regularly gives rise to acts of heroism. This doesn't necessarily have to be on the battlefield, as inventor Dr Barnes Wallace proves in The Dam Busters (1955), or the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen in Regeneration (1997), or even credited to specific individuals, as the firefighters of Humphrey Jennings' Fires Were Started (1943) represented countless real-life Blitz heroes.

David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is one of the most intriguing portraits of a real-life historical hero, as although it generally sticks to the romantic interpretation of T.E.Lawrence's career, Robert Bolt's script is nonetheless ambiguous enough to suggest that his heroic status is by no means clear-cut.

Next Page >