I girded my loins a bit before this one. I worked in theater for ten years, I had a college friend who became a combat choreographer for several years, and I have actor friends who’ve been in and out various summer free theater productions. I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare productions, is what I’m saying, and on occasion, some of it was….not good.
The productions that went pear-shaped usually were ones where the director had a high-concept artistic vision – turning minstrels into blues musicians, making the set out of toilet paper as a subtle statement about impermanence, things like that. Sometimes that works really well – I saw a version of MacBeth that was a mashup between Shakespeare and the book Fast Food Nation, and as insane as that sounds it also blew me away. I also stage-managed a gender-bending production of Hamlet – and our princess of Denmark was one of my personal three best Hamlets I’ve seen. …It’s just that sometimes you also get things like a production of Hamlet I saw in high school where things started with a vaguely 1940s fascist vibe, Hamlet and Gertrude made out on stage, and Laertes was running around in cammo jeggings and carrying an Uzi in the fifth act. Those are the kind of productions about which my college friend would say, “….The director had An Idea.”
Olivier’s Henry V adaptation starts out looking like he’s had An Idea of his own. We open not in Henry’s chambers, but in the Globe Theater itself, watching the groundlings and lords and ladies making their ways to their seats before the camera glides to the stage where the play’s “Chorus” character comes out through the curtain to start things off. That makes some sense, actually. this very first speech is a lament that the story told by the play – King Henry V’s invasion of France in the 1400s and the English victory at the battle of Agincourt – is too vast in scope for a small stage to recreate faithfully.
But this is a movie, not a play, and the end of that speech would be the perfect time for Laurence Olivier – who directed this adaptation as well as starring – to have smashcut into “real life”. Instead, Olivier leans into the “stage play” setting even harder, showing us some of the backstage hustle and bustle as actors make their costume changes and prepare for their entrances, and the scene where a pair of clergymen persuade Henry to lead England to war is given a comedic twist by having one of the actors perpetually drop his props.
This was a calculated choice, though. Olivier does eventually take the production outside – first onto soundstages with clearly-fake backdrops, with the art design specifically inspired by medieval woodcuts, finally moving into real real life for the climactic Battle of Agincourt. Right after Agincourt, though, we move back to the soundstage and backdrops before a smashcut back to the Globe for the very final scene. While I felt that the initial business in the Globe went on a little bit long, it underscored the fact that this is A Story instead of a proper history – a specific spin on events, told for a specific purpose.
There’s nothing exactly wrong with that, though. Shakespeare definitely had a specific perspective when he wrote the play, after all – nearly all of Shakespeare’s history plays were meant to celebrate the Great and Storied History of the English Throne, as a way of celebrating and paying homage to its current resident. And so too do all of those different spins on Shakespeare have their own story to tell. In Olivier’s case, he was using Shakespeare to inspire his fellow Englishmen during the Second World War, bringing this tale off the stage and into the real world, reminding his fellow Englishmen of a bravely-fought battle and a valiant victory. We did it before, we happy few; we can do it again.
For the war-weary English of the 1940s, that approach largely worked. But I’m a 21st-Century woman who’s a little more conversant with Shakespeare than is the norm, and I found myself picking a couple nits. The Globe-theater bits at the beginning felt like they ran on a bit long, even in retrospect when I got where Olivier was going. I also caught a couple places where Olivier kind of glossed over some moments from the original play which paint Henry V in a bad light; that scene with the actor dropping his props is a scene which implies that Henry is being manipulated into his invasion of France by a couple of busybody bishops hoping to distract him from passing some laws that would impact the church’s tax holdings.
I also spoke with an actor friend who’s way more versed in Shakespeare than I; he pointed out that Olivier’s adaptation cuts out some unflattering bits, like Henry coldly beheading three suspected spies, or Henry threatening the civilians in a French town that his soldiers will rape and pillage their houses, or Henry letting one of his old friends be hanged for looting during Agincourt. (On a more amusing note, my friend also pointed out that all the tents at Agincourt look like they were freshly washed and even ironed.) “It’s a beautifully illustrated storybook come to life,” my friend said, “the English national anthem in dramatic form.”
That didn’t really bother me, even so. As unrealistic as it was, I knew that it was precisely what Wartime England wanted to see. The only thing that bugged me even in the slightest was the scene at the very end when Henry is trying to sweet talk the French Princess Katherine into marrying him. It’s largely a political move, but Shakespeare tries to depict this as a romantic match, something that I have a hard time accepting. Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation of this play does a better job of capturing this match, I think – Henry is trying to be romantic, but he’s clumsy at it, and it’s a damn awkward situation all around anyway. But with Olivier’s adaptation, Henry is suddenly a silver-tongued charmer and Katherine is wooed into a starry-eyed acceptance of his hand. I must say I prefer the Branagh take on this scene (it’s also the one with Emma Thompson in it, to boot).
This was a film very much Of Its Time; these aren’t those times. But I can forgive it that.