In 1944, the United Kingdom was a country recovering from the Blitz. Children remembered being shipped out to the country to avoid Nazi bombing raids. Roald Dahl, the Royal Air Force’s flying ace who would kick off a new wave of children’s literature all on his own with works like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda after the war, was trying to win the hearts and minds of Americans with propaganda and espionage in the United States. It seems impossibly indulgent to pick such a time to stage and shoot one of the most lavish adaptations of Shakespeare ever put to film.
Yet, Henry V was apparently so important that Laurence Olivier left the Royal Navy to direct and star as the eponymous Plantagenet. As the august nation flounders about in its seemingly inevitable Brexit crisis, the coming calamity is being compared to the world wars that changed the shape of global politics, and which sent British soldiers back home forever changed. During that time 75 years ago, Olivier thought the country needed a reminder of who they were, and a way to forget the grim world outside the movie theater.
Henry V is perhaps one of the Bard’s most relatable protagonists: He’s king of England but is absolutely sure he should also be king of France. The French king disagrees (the jerk), and the French rub it in by sending Henry some tennis balls as a gift. We all remember a time when a frivolous gift moved us to righteous rage, so it’s understandable that the king immediately musters an army to go invade the land that is rightfully his and fiercely chastise the dopey French noblemen who oppose his just and rightful claim.
There are about a million Shakespeare adaptations, but if you’re like me, then that is not a good enough reason by itself to justify bothering to watch a movie. His writing may be the worst-treated of any writer’s in history, based on the sheer number of adaptations (countless) and how many of them are joyless and ill-considered (the majority). Olivier must have known it. His Henry V begins as a lavishly faithful staging of a you-are-there view of the Globe Theatre, ca. A.D. 1599.
The film is 16th century Cinema Verite, with looks behind the scenes as half-drunk actors squabble over costumes and hurry to apply makeup before they need to rush on. The narrator’s monologue is interrupted by a sudden summer storm—the players soldier right on through it while the groundlings hasten for cover, just as your no-nonsense English teacher assured you back in the seventh grade.
As the story shifts from England to France, the Bard’s words invite us to envision the grand armies in our mind’s eye—a necessity back in his own time. Not for Olivier. We are transported through movie magic to a recreation of 15th century Normandy, with period-appropriate knights in full field plate being lowered onto the backs of their horses using pulley systems. When the action isn’t focused on recreating the battle of Agincourt (filmed in Ireland—it would’ve been difficult to get an Allied film crew into France in 1944), Olivier stages scenes with elaborate backdrops scaled and painted to evoke the illuminations of Irish-Catholic scriptoria.
Every humanities teacher in the Western world feels the need to grab every English speaker by the shoulders and shake them in the vain hope that they will understand how important Shakespeare is to the tongue we all share. Realize the light in the darkness that is this mighty work, they beg us. Olivier’s Henry V succeeds in drawing a connection between the rowdy pleasures of putting on a show and its power to transport us.
It’s wild, then, to think this came out of a shameless propaganda campaign. Faced with the bloody horror of invasion in a time of mass destruction and the threat of a world order of gruesome fascism, and on the eve of another raid on Normandy’s beaches, Britain yearned for a tale from the old glory days. Henry V was partially funded by the British government and openly thanked the troops in its acknowledgements. It was also regarded as the first successful and critically acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare on the big screen.
The movie was filmed in the days leading up to D-Day, with no less important an advisor than Winston Churchill telling Olivier to make it as a morale boost for the troops. It’s telling, then, what parts of Shakespeare’s play didn’t make it into this otherwise conspicuously faithful adaptation, 340-some years since the playwright’s time. Every film adaptation is going to cut some things from the stage version, but the omissions here all seem to work in favor of Harry coming off a better, wiser king: Olivier removed scenes in which he orders the execution of traitors and the pillaging of a French town if it doesn’t surrender quickly enough. The script also excises lines that remind the audience that it was Henry’s immediate successor who would lose France.
Coming as it did in November of 1944, months after D-Day, as Allied forces stormed across Europe, it reads as a justification of and a call to buckle down and soldier on forward in an endeavor of invasion and conquest. They asked for it, after all.
The intricate costuming, the painstaking historical recreation of armor and weaponry that really does resemble 15th century battlefield gear, and that eye-popping three-strip Technicolor process are all a major part of the spectacle, but they all pale in comparison to Olivier pointing the camera at himself and chewing on Shakespeare’s couplets. The Saint Crispin’s Day speech and all that immediately precedes it, the scene in which Harry goes among his men incognito to discover what’s really on their minds and in their hearts as they prepare to die for him, are bigger draws than any of the combat and stagecraft.
Received with roaring success—though slow to make a profit, considering—Henry V might be the most elaborate staging of a Shakespeare play in film, unless you count productions inspired by them, like Kurosawa’s mighty jidaigeki epic treatment of King Lear, Ran, or his take on MacBeth, Throne of Blood. It’s a definitive take on a Shakespeare play that gives us iconic turns of phrase you hear with varying degrees of irony all the time: “Once more into the breach,” “We happy few, we band of brothers…”
It’s also a piece of propaganda that manages to reframe a story three centuries removed from when it was written, and a full five from the events on which the whole thing is based. It’s something to think about at a time when so many people sneer about “politics” in their entertainment.
Kenneth Lowe is afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog.