In preparation for teaching a class on Henry V, I rewatched both the 1944 version by Laurence Olivier and the 1989 by Kenneth Branagh. The forty-five years’ difference is evidenced not only in technology, but in approaches to filmmaking and Shakespeare.
The legend is that Winston Churchill approached Olivier to make the film to boost the sagging morale of the English people during the end of World War II. I have read this several times and believe it to be true but it still puzzles me. Filming a Shakespeare play for the general public seems suspect to me. Probably a more traditional historical drama like Fire Over England with Flora Robson doing it up as Queen Elizabeth I would have been a more effective choice.
I doubt that any Shakespeare film would ever be a popular entertainment, the exception being Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The popularity of that film probably relied more on the gorgeousness of the young cast more than the gorgeousness of the iambic pentameter.
So what are the differences between the two versions of Henry V?
1- Approaches to acting:
In 1944 a typical audience member would only have experienced Shakespeare on the stage or on the radio. In both cases, the oratory is what was first and foremost. My friend Martin Seay said in reference to Hitchcock’s Rebecca that Joan Fontaine was a brilliant film actress in a film and Olivier was a brilliant stage actor in a film. What he meant was that film actors know how to scale back their acting for the camera. People who are mostly stage actors seem always to be declaiming, especially in early films. The two readings of St. Crispin Day speeches are vastly difference. Olivier declaims the speech in his beautifully modulated voice, even brings out the pentameter theatrically in words like ‘remembered’. And he rises in pitch until the climax of the speech. Branagh is more modulated. His volume throughout the speech varies. He seems to choke on “we few, we happy few” (as well he should). It doesn’t hurt that the climax of his speech is supported and perhaps overwhelmed by the beautiful anthem-like score of Patrick Doyle.
2- Approaches to the Text:
I always found Henry V an odd choice for Churchill to request. It deals with the Hundred Years War, a brutal conflict between England and France. When Churchill commissioned the film, France was England’s great ally and the Allied powers were engage in a bloody war to extricate them from Nazi rule. The parallel seems imply that the evil French of the Shakespeare play are a gloss for the Nazis of the film’s production time. It seems counter-intuitive to me. To see a better, clearer use of medieval European history as propaganda against Nazi Germany, see Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. The French court is turned into a bunch of clowns. The King is fearful and dithering. The Dauphin’s arrogance is stretched to the point of caricature. But the conundrum is that they are still the French and how are we supposed to hate them in the film when hundreds of the English army are dying for their freedom. Making them into cartoons to me is a failed solution.
Even though the play has the feeling of a historical pageant, there is lots of nuance in the portrayal of the King. The Olivier version jettisons Henry’s more objectionable qualities. Gone is the cat-and-mouse execution scene against the three traitors at Southampton. Gone is the speech before the walls of Harfleur where Henry vows to rape the city’s virgin and impale the city’s babies on pikes if the governors of the city do not surrender. In both cases, the horror of Henry’s anger is edited out and all that remain of lip-service to the notion of mercy to one’s enemy.
The much lauded recreation of a performance in the Globe in the beginning of the Olivier film is fascinating, but along with the historical accuracy of the performance, much of the opening is inexplicably turning into farce, especially in the scenes with the Archbishops of Ely and Canterbury. When a real comic character like Pistol arrives he pales in comparison to the Laurel and Hardy antics of the churchmen. That can’t have been Shakespeare’s intention.
Even though Branagh’s version is more complete and more faithful to the text of the play he, like Olivier, can’t seem to resist inserting the Fat Knight in his film. Shakespeare’s scene recounting the death of Falstaff is moving and seems to put a full stop on the character. It almost seems as if Shakespeare is saying, “OK you want more Falstaff? This is all you are going to get because we have the battle of Agincourt to set up!” I bet the vast majority of the films viewers don’t realize that Falstaff never appears in Henry V. In both cases I think the lily is substantially gilded.
So, which is the better of the two films? It is not for me to say since they seem to be conceived as two very distinct things. Watch them both and let me know what you think.
It might be interesting to do a side by side comparison of both directors’ Hamlet films. Also, Olivier appeared in but did not direct a very early version of As You Like It. Branagh directed but did not appear in a 1990s version of the same play. That might be interesting to look into, as well