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Henry V On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's patriotic epic

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Written around 1599 when Shakespeare was at the height of his creative powers, Henry V was his last major history play and remains his most popular and quotable, with some of his best-known speeches ("O for a muse of fire", "Now all the youth of England are on fire", "Once more unto the breach, dear friends"). It has been acclaimed as both a supremely patriotic hymn to English heroism and a much more ambiguous and realistic portrayal of war, with Henry himself something of a cipher - at least as far as the play itself is concerned: those who have seen the earlier Henry IV plays have plenty of background to draw on.

Unsurprisingly, Henry V has been a popular subject for both large and small-screen adaptations, having inspired two major films and several television versions. The first cinema version (d. Laurence Olivier, 1944) remains the best known, and still one of the greatest of all Shakespeare adaptations, as much for its importance to the medium as a whole as for its own considerable qualities. It was by far the most ambitious Shakespeare film attempted to date, fusing a portrait of Elizabethan London (a replica of the Globe Theatre had to be reconstructed for the film, as the original burned down in 1613 and was not rebuilt until 1997) with a realistic portrayal of war, and attempting to satisfy both Shakespeare buffs and those who wanted a patriotic call to arms in the final days of World War II (Winston Churchill himself is said to have suggested cuts to Olivier, in order to emphasise the patriotism).

Henry V had made its television debut nearly eight years earlier, when the BBC broadcast a scene from the play on 5 February 1937 as part of the first ever television Shakespeare presentation, directed by George More O'Ferrall and starring Yvonne Arnaud as Katherine. The 1950s saw three full-length BBC adaptations, on 22 April 1951 (directed by Leonard Brett and Royston Morley and starring Clement McCallin as Henry), on 19 May 1953 (directed by Peter Watts and starring John Clements as Henry, with John Laurie, Olivier's Jamy, appearing as Pistol), and on 29 December 1957. The latter, The Life of Henry the Fifth, was the inaugural programme of their World Theatre series. Produced and directed by Peter Dews, who was also responsible for An Age of Kings (see below), it starred John Neville as Henry with a supporting cast including Bernard Hepton (Chorus), Geoffrey Bayldon (Pistol), Michael Bates (Bardolph) and John Wood (Louis the Dauphin).

Dews returned to the play less than three years later, when he turned it into the mid-point of An Age of Kings (1960), his ambitious fifteen-part BBC adaptation of all the major history plays. Parts seven ('Signs of War', tx. 21/7/1960) and eight ('The Band of Brothers', tx. 4/8/1960) amounted to a two-part reduction of Henry V, with Robert Hardy in the title role, having already played Prince Hal in the four preceding episodes. The supporting cast included future stars Frank Windsor (Williams), Julian Glover (the Earl of Westmoreland) and a young Judi Dench as Katherine.

Aside from a made-for-schools version shown on 26 September 1962, two decades elapsed until the next major television production, when the second BBC Television Shakespeare series presented it on on 23 December 1979, as the culmination of a four-play cycle that also included Richard II and the two Henry IV plays. As with An Age of Kings, consistency of casting meant that audiences could watch Henry (this time played by David Gwillim) mature over time. In contrast to Robert Hardy's bluff and jovial rendition, Gwillim emphasised the king's introspective nature in a low-key production that was criticised at the time for being insufficiently stirring (some extremely low-budget battle scenes did not help), but which offered a refreshingly different view of a character too often reduced to a simplistic caricature. The accompanying 24-minute Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was presented by Lord Chalfont.

The second cinema version of Henry V was made in 1989 by the then 28-year-old Kenneth Branagh, preserving on celluloid an interpretation which he had already made famous on stage. Although much criticised for his apparent hubris in seeking to challenge Olivier, Branagh's production was in many ways a calculated inversion of the earlier film, not just retaining but emphasising the ambiguities that Olivier deliberately removed in order to make his Henry a more straightforwardly patriotic hero.

On 15 June 1997, the reconstructed Globe Theatre was formally opened, and the accompanying Channel Four broadcast, Henry V at the Globe, included a presentation of Act IV in the acclaimed stage production starring Mark Rylance, with Zoƫ Wanamaker (daughter of Sam Wanamaker, the main creative force behind the project, who died before its completion) reading extracts from the prologue, Shakespeare's most vivid evocation of the theatre and its 'wooden O'.

The real-life Henry V was the subject of a Kings and Queens documentary, broadcast by Channel Five on 15 July 2002.


1944 - d. Laurence Olivier
1989 - d. Kenneth Branagh

tx. 5/2/1937, excerpt, d. George More O'Ferrall
tx. 22/4/1951, d. Leonard Brett, Royston Morley
tx. 19/5/1953, d. Peter Watts
tx. 29/12/1957, The Life of Henry the Fifth, d. Peter Dews
tx. 21/7/1960, An Age of Kings part 7: 'Signs of War', d. Michael Hayes
tx. 4/8/1960, An Age of Kings part 8: 'The Band of Brothers', d. Hayes
tx. 26/9/1962, schools production
tx. 23/12/1979, BBC Television Shakespeare, d. David Giles
tx. 15/6/1997, Act IV only, d. Richard Olivier, Steve Ruggi

Michael Brooke

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