Provost's Film Series
March 1, 2002
Branagh and Olivier
Kenneth Branagh's Henry V is a 1989 film adaptation of the play by William Shakespeare, written about 1599. Branagh—the film's director and star—was influenced by Sir Laurence Olivier's Henry V, one of the first cinematic renditions of Shakespeare to win both critical and popular notoriety. Released as World War II ended in 1945, Olivier's film has both overtones of British patriotism and echoes of anti-war rage. We will certainly consider if those overtones and echoes endure in Branagh's version, released just before Britain joined the American-led coalition endeavoring to liberate Kuwait during the Gulf War. Almost inevitably, modern British productions of Shakespeare, whether on stage or screen, strive to renew and nurture appreciation for the nation's cultural legacy, symbolized in so many ways by Shakespeare. But contemporary productions of Shakespeare's historical and military plays still live with the shadow of English ambivalence about the legacy of the British Empire. It is ironic, then, that Branagh's film explores the foundations of British imperialism, even as the nation was preparing to help address some of the lingering political issues from its own colonial presence in the Middle East.
War of the Roses
Henry V is one of the nine plays that Shakespeare wrote about the Plantagenet line of English monarchs. The sequence explores the origins of the Wars of the Roses, the famous feud between two branches of the Plantagenet family—the houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose). Much of the trouble began when Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, stole the throne from a relative and became King Henry IV in 1400. In Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two, Shakespeare depicts the king as a guilt-ridden usurper, troubled by the threat of revenge from the York family and anguished by the behavior of his own prodigal son. Historical legend had long maintained that the heir to the throne—"Prince Hal," as he is known in Shakespeare's plays—spent his youth in idleness, much to the king's chagrin. Both of the Henry IV plays portray the gradual coming of age of Prince Hal, as he finally abandons his riotous pleasures in the tavern, helps defeat the King's rivals, and becomes King Henry V after his father's death.
Prince Hal and his Tavern Friends
Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays contain some of his liveliest comedy. Much of the humor comes from the verbal sparring in the tavern between Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff, a hefty, drunken, cowardly and yet extremely witty knight. In his film version of Henry V, director Branagh flashes back to some of the scenes from the Henry IV plays, largely to show Prince Hal's final resolution to break away from Falstaff and his tavern friends. However, the comic scenes in the tavern were so popular with audiences that Shakespeare had several of the humorous characters—Pistol, Bardolph, and Mistress Quickly, the tavern hostess—reappear in Henry V. In an early scene from Henry V, Mistress Quickly tells us the story of Sir John Falstaff's death—a signal to the audience that the irresponsible days and comic excess of the King's youth are over and a new of political responsibility has begun.
Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt
The historical King Henry V was a pious young man (he was in his middle twenties in 1413, the year of his coronation in a snowstorm), though he was also known for brutality and slaughter following his victories. No sooner did he assume the throne than he rallied the British forces against France. Henry and the British armies would overcome the vastly larger French army at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, one of the most celebrated military victories in the history of England. To secure peace, the French were forced to recognize Henry V as the heir to the French throne. According to the terms of peace, Henry was to become King of France following the death of their current monarch, King Charles VI. Henry returned to London in triumph, but the victory had been costly. He had been forced to pawn some of the crown jewels in order to raise funds. Over 3000 English soldiers had lost their lives. And he had not defeated all of the French troops. Several renegade armies in France refused to comply with the terms of surrender.
Henry eventually led two more crusades against the French rebels. Following the second campaign, he married fourteen-year-old Princess Katherine of Valois in order to promote peace. But a third campaign into France faced stronger resistance, and Henry V died of sickness in 1422, only eleven days before the death of Charles VI would have made him King of France. The deaths of both Henry and Charles left the question about who was the proper heir to the French throne up in the air. To settle matters, England was soon at war again with French troops. Part of the French resistance was led by a young girl known as Joan of Arc.
Shakespeare’s Rendition of History
Shakespeare's play recounts the first victory at Agincourt. He does not portray the second and third campaigns, although in Act V he skips several years to depict the King's courtship of Katherine (played in the film by Branagh's then-wife, Emma Thompson). In the opening scene of Henry V, the Bishop of Ely (the small town with a large cathedral near Cambridge) and the Archbishop of Canterbury discuss the King's sudden transformation from an idle youth to an honorable ruler. The new dignity is evident in Shakespeare's decision to have the prologue recited by a "Chorus," much like a Greek tragedy. This prologue is also famous because it warns the audience that the battle of Agincourt was too grand to be jammed into the "cockpit" or "Wooden O"—most likely, a reference to their new theatre, called The Globe. (In the film, the Chorus is played by a single actor, the famous Royal Shakespearean Derek Jacobi.)
Soon after the King first enters the play, the Archbishop launches into an elaborate defense of Henry's right to the throne of France. Most historians consider this claim to be rather flimsy, without moral or legal justification; however, the Archbishop's speech strengthens Henry's resolve to invade France. His resolve is further enhanced by an insult from the French ambassadors, who present Henry tennis balls from the French dauphin (or crown prince) intended to mock his playful and childish ways. With that affront, we are on our way to war.
Character and Cause
The play juxtaposes scenes from the English and French camps, as the two sides prepare for violence. The most famous scene occurs on the eve of battle, when Henry adopts the disguise of a common soldier and mixes among his troops, eager to learn what they really think of him and his cause. And what do we think of Henry and his cause? As John Julian Norwich asks in his book Shakespeare's Kings, "Is [Henry V] the nearest thing he wrote to a patriotic pageant, an epic celebration of English glory, or is it a diatribe against war and the abuses of power?" That's a question that director Branagh, like Olivier and other predecessors, cannot escape.