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In the inspired Olivier concept, Shakespeare's play begins as a performance in the Globe Theatre, shifting in broad cinematic terms to an epic narrative of Henry V, who had developed from a dissolute youth to a purposeful monarch. Proving his ability as a soldier and skillful leader, he unites the dissident factions in the English army and goes on to crush the French, against enormous odds, at Agincourt. Arranging a treaty with the French court, he woos Princess Katharine to whom he is formally betrothed as part of the peace agreement. Written by
John Gielgud asked Olivier to cast him as the Chorus in the film but Olivier declined, offering him the lesser role of the King of France instead. Gielgud turned down the offer. See more »
O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention; a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene. Then should the war-like Harry, like himself, assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, leashed in like hounds, would famine, word, and fire crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all, the flat unraised spirits that hath dared on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object: can this cockpit hold the vasty ...
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The main title appears as a playbill floating over the Globe Theatre. Also, there are no opening credits except for the name of the production company and the film's title, which is commonplace today, but was very rare in 1944. See more »
"Henry V" is poetry within the historical context of English patriotic pageantry. As Shakespearean scholar J. Dover Wilson observed in a 1943 critique, it justifies and celebrates a well-ordered vision of British conservative values respect for the monarchy and a rigid feudal class-system. And as Pauline Kael asserted in 1989, Shakespeare's text "is perhaps the greatest jingo play ever conceived."
At the beginning, a Prologue asks us to imagine "a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene" rather than "the flat unraised spirits...on this unworthy scaffold." Laurence Olivier, who directed this 1944 film version, heeds the misgivings expressed in that Prologue. While his staging of "Henry V" begins within the enclosed intimacy of a studio-created Globe Theatre, acted before an appropriately attired Elizabethan audience, Olivier uses the medium of Cinema to physically "open up" the play as it progresses from scene to scene, increasingly taking advantage of elaborate studio scenery and lighting and mattes, ultimately using vast exterior locations for the climactic Battle of Agincourt.
Olivier, in the lead role, is a forceful King Harry, but his work and imagination behind the camera are stunning, especially for a first-time director. The humor of the fumbling "unraised spirits" who impersonate the roles of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) and the Bishop of Ely (Robert Helpmann) is an early surprise, as is the coarse high-jinks of Robert Newton's interpretation of Pistol, chewing up the scenery and everyone in sight. As a director, Olivier borrows from the conventions of the stage, but it isn't so much that he copies them; he transforms them. Thus, he shows us a fleet of miniature warships engulfed in an English Channel fog, a "narrator" superimposed against painted, moving backdrops, and (at the end) the bleak French postwar countryside a zone of pillage, poverty, and heartbreak in the aftermath of battle.
This version of "Henry V" was made with a wartime audience in mind. (The 'V' in the title is a perfect symbolic reference to the times.) Here, the effete, overconfident Dauphin (Max Adrian) and other French nobles stand in for the Axis alliance; the common men who make up the motley army of archers and infantry are a parallel to the agents of 20th-century anti-authoritarianism. The French losses total about ten thousand 8,400 of which are "princes, barons, lords, knights, squires,/And gentlemen of blood and quality." The English fatalities: only "five and twenty score." An overwhelming victory for the forces of medieval anti-Fascism.
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