The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


Once more unto the breach…Henry V vs Henry V

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.

Elizabeth I’s great speech at Tilbury (Flora Robson)

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.

Olivia Hussey and Len Whiting

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.

3- Falstaff.

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

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Mummy (Karl Freund)
  2. From Hell (The Hughes Brothers)
  3. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey)
  4. Ma Vie en Rose (Alain Berliner)
  5. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon)
  6. The Meliés Mystery (Eric Lange)
  7. I Will Buy You (Masaki Kobayashi)
  8. The Housemaid (Kim Ki-young)
  9. I Surrender Dear (Mack Sennett)
  10. Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

1- I was very pleased with From Hell. Just a little gruesome, but it is about Jack The Ripper, so it could have been more gruesome than it was. What made it so good was incredible acting and a really interesting script. Of all the ‘solutions’ to the Ripper mystery, the one posed here seems very plausible, i.e., it has the least logic holes. The way Lucille Ball’s beauty seemed to clash with her comedic genius, at least at the beginning of her career, so too does the beauty of Johnny Depp seem to preclude the gallery of quirky characters that he always seems to play. He is sooooo good at this. His Scotland Yard forensic detective in this film might be his best role.

2- It wouldn’t be Hallowe’en without watching Carnival of Souls. I realizes that its pleasures are very personal for me, evoking pleasing nostalgia for mid-70s New York City Saturday night TV horror movies. It is more than that, though. Its spookiness is so odd-ball so as almost not to be spooky at all. It is more of a danse macabre, with all the eroticism that is associated with that. What is more inexplicably ominous than the Saltair pavilion that haunts our heroine’s nightmares and daymares?

3- Ma Vie en Rose confused me. It seemed to be telling you that this will be a feel-good story about a middle-class French family whose seven-year-old son has decided to be a girl. The cartoonish reaction of the BCBG neighbors was to be expected, but the cruelty of the poor kid’s mother came out of left field, was incredibly hurtful and then dropped by the end in a ‘everybody is happy now” ending. I guess this was one of the first modern films to deal explicitly with gender fluidity somewhat sympathetically, but since there was not really a template for that sort of theme, the film sort of has to find its own way in telling the story while making sure that everyone remains sympathetic. Doesn’t work. The kid is amazing though.

4- I always find anime tedious, but I was interested in Millennium Actress since it was purported to be a fictionalized story based on the life of Setsuko Hara, often referred to as the Garbo of Japanese film because she walked away from it all at the height of her success and disappeared from the public eye entirely. The animation is stunning, especially considering it was all handdrawn (I believe). But is that enough? For more about Setsuko Hara see this.

5- The Meliés Mystery is a interesting documentary telling the story of Georges Melies (today best known from the Scorcese films Hugo). The classic trope is to say that all film can either trace itself back to the realism of the Lumiere Brothers or the fantasy of Melies. This documentary taught me that in many ways Melies was responsible for both genres. The first part is biographical and ends with Melies destroying all of his films in despair because he had been forgotten by the new generation, and was regarded as passé. For years his work was believed lost. The second part is about his rehabilitation, starting with the the French government awarding him the Legion of Honor a few years before he died. It them moves on to tell about detective work that went into finding a majority of his films in archives and basements all around the world..

6- Masaki Kobayashi is a director whose entire catalogue I am trying to get to know. I was blown away by his big three (Kwaidan, Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion). It has been interesting seeing his lesser known work. I Will Buy You is a terrific nest-of-vipers story about the duplicitous world of high-stakes Japanese baseball scouts. The film that this most reminded me of was The Sweet Smell of Success, but perhaps this film is nastier. It was fun to see the usually sweet and adorable Keiji Sada playing a cutthroat scout.

7- Is there any more perverse film than The Housemaid? Yes, Salo is more explicit/pornographic and Caligula is simply depraved, but man oh man, The Housemaid is off the rails. On the Criterion Channel there is an informative interview with Bong Joon Ho, director of Parasite. He explains that for the current generation of Korean directors, The Housemaid was the start of it all. The combination of horror and biting social satire is all there. The film was so successful in what it set out to do, that the woman who plays the eponymous housemaid could not get work in another film because her portrayal so successfully repulsed the audiences of the time. It was her first and last role.

8- I Surrender Dear is a musical short starring Bing Crosby in a ridiculous story but featuring some swell songs, including one of my favorites, Out of Nowhere. But the whole think is beyond silly.

9- Weekend deserves its own post. Hopefully I will get to that soon