Trompé Setsuled (setsuled) wrote,
Trompé Setsuled

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Into the Ambiguous Breach

There are a few reasons it seems strange that Winston Churchill wanted Laurence Olivier's 1944 film version of Henry V as part of the propaganda effort for Britain. While it does feature the beautiful Saint Crispin's Day, "band of brothers", speech and features the English fighting in France, the motives for doing so are far less noble than those of Britain in World War II. It's also awkward to read or watch Henry V in isolation from the rest of Shakespeare's Henriad but there's no denying the impressive beauty and splendour of this film and the greatness of the performances.

I dearly love how this film opens, with a fantastic model of London in 1600, simulating an aerial shot that transitions into a full, somewhat accurate recreation of the Globe theatre on a soundstage. The first portion of the play is an extravagant recreation of what the first performance of the play might have been like, a joy to behold in Technicolour with wonderful costumes and amusing business with the actors backstage, including some improbable comedy from Robert Helpmann as the Bishop of Ely.

I suspect Olivier wished to do more than recreate a late Elizabethan theatre atmosphere for the audience--this stuff also misdirects the audience from the actual content of the play a bit and downplays the fact that the King (Olivier) is choosing to invade France to redress a petty insult, using as excuse the flimsy pretexts cooked up by Ely and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer).

Without having seen or read the preceding two parts of Henry IV, it must have been difficult for the audience to understand why the French nobles think this new English king is a trivial, feckless lad. Though my impression of the character is that he really doesn't change all that much. Is he really such a layabout in his days with Falstaff? We see him pulling complex pranks with Poins involving highway robbery. He's an adventurer with Falstaff, and he's an adventurer as King, his lust for excitement outweighing his sensitivity. I think he has genuine affection for his father. But I think an actor could very easily play the scene of Hal trying on the crown in a way that does not flatter the future Henry V as much as it normally does.

Olivier imports some dialogue from Henry IV part II to give us a brief glimpse of Falstaff (George Robey) on his deathbed. A particularly confusing decision on Olivier's part as it has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the film. Though it is followed by a lovely rainy scene outside the Boar's Head featuring Falstaff's cohorts.

Most wonderful is Robert Newton as Pistol, six years before he portrayed the definitive Long John Silver in Treasure Island. He would have been a magnificent Falstaff but Pistol in Henry V basically fills the Falstaff role. I wonder if Shakespeare killed off Falstaff because, while he still needed a Falstaff type, he knew he didn't have the same quality material for him as he had in the Henry IV plays, so Pistol allowed Shakespeare to include a Falstaff type while allowing Falstaff himself to end on a higher note. Though there's also the fact that Falstaff's death puts an effective period on Henry IV part II's ruminations on death and further emphasises King Henry V's callow nature that he really doesn't seem to care about Falstaff's death.

Falstaff's famous speech about honour in Henry IV part I is a thematic precursor to the famous scene in Henry V of the King walking among his troops disguised. Williams' speech about the responsibility of rulers sending their loyal soldiers to kill or die, and the reckoning such rulers would face in the afterlife for starting wars for unjust causes, seems more applicable to Hitler. It's not hard to think of the common argument about Nazi soldiers "just following orders". The King's counterargument about a merchant's son seems petty in the context. His real counterargument is the Saint Crispin's Day speech.

Here we have finally the direct rebuke to Falstaff's condemnation of honour as a thing that leads men to death and bloodlust. King Henry V says, in reply to those wishing the English had greater numbers,

If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our Country loss: and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
Gods will, I pray thee wish not one man more.

Olivier's is my favourite version of the Saint Crispin's Day speech on film. For one thing because he understands it needs to be shouted, it needs to be heard by a massive crowd of guys in armour. Too many actors drop to dramatic whispers. And in this, he drops the dodgy argument about a merchant's son abroad being responsible for his father's orders and owns his real argument, that the joy of battle and conquest is the sign of truly living. He becomes Errol Flynn's Robin Hood taken to true psychosis. But even though Olivier removes some harsher elements from the play, he does leave in the French slaughter of English youth. I find Henry's speech really inspiring and I do think it's important to have a lust for adventure and strength of will. But remembering where that sort of thing can lead makes me like Falstaff's speech a lot more.

Tags: henry v, laurence olivier, movies, robert newton, shakespeare, william shakespeare, winston churchill, world war ii
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