by Richard von Busack
(Plays Feb 21-23 in Palo Alto, California at the Stanford Theatre.)
Hamlet is famous for a scene of a conversation between a man and a skull. (The skull says nothing but it has its own eloquence.) Just as famously, Shakespeare’s Henry V begins with a Chorus’s apology for a lack of production values. How can a small theater-in-the-round, a “wooden O,” contain a something as momentous as the battle of Agincourt?
In 1944, when Laurence Olivier took on the first completely artistically successful Shakespeare film, he faced a number of challenges. England was enduring aerial siege. There were wartime shortages, so severe there was no metal for the armor of the king’s soldiers. Rather than taking the viewers straight into the palace and the action, Olivier made the Chorus’s complaint essential to the film.
The 1944 film of Henry V begins in a recreation of a performance of the play at the Globe Theater in London, May Day 1600. From the beginning, Olivier confronts those who felt there was no possible way vulgar cinema could contain something as noble as Shakespeare.
So Olivier begs his viewers to remember the vulgarity of the stage. A rowdy crowd is watching Henry V unfold: backstage we see the boys stuff their bodices with oranges and get their wigs combed. The church nobles who have the double-talk dialogue about Salic Law are draining a quick tankard. On stage, they dodder and spill their documents, so that the King has to cover for them with a line. Of course he understands their legal logic, it’s “as clear as the summer sky.” The crowd likes that call. They like it less when they hear of the impending death of Falstaff. The groundlings rebel and mimic the actor who gives the bad news.
And this play about the nobility of a warrior king is enriched with comedy, low and otherwise: the three medieval stooges at the Boar’s Head tavern; the dialect humor of the original bomber-crew cast, the fighters from the corners of what would come to be Great Britain. And finally, the charming cod-English lesson of the French princess.
(Olivier, above, with Renee Asherson as Princess Kathryn)
In addition to the humor, Olivier notes the otherness of the 1400s, such as the Crusades-inspired bonnets in all their fashionable outlandishness. Enthroned, King Henry wears an outfit that seems to have been the source for the wardrobe of His Majesty Burger King, in mustard yellows and ketchup red.
No strange clothes can conceal the sense of action. When the French Dauphin sends him a dismissive gift of tennis balls, Henry cries
“he comes o'er us with our wilder days,
Not measuring what use we made of them.”
No doubt, that line gave some comfort to the British upper-class in the audience, who had been partying away the 1930s, while Nazi Germany gorged on the nations surrounding it.
In defiance to the French insult, Olivier’s Henry snaps into action. He tosses his crown (it was made of paper mache) like a horseshoe, at the peaks on the back of his throne. He gets a ringer without looking.
It’s a medieval version of that gesture 007 used to make, tossing his hat at the hat rack as he greeted Miss Moneypenny. It wouldn’t be worth mentioning the parallel if Sean Connery’s Bond hadn’t quoted Henry V in From Russia With Love: “Once more into the breach, dear friends…”
Then Olivier frees the play, in critic James Agee’s words, like a man letting a bird out of a cage. Neutral Ireland played France; it had open fields and able-bodied men from the Eire Guard. On location, Olivier performed his own stunts, ruining an ankle and spraining a back during the trick of jumping from a tree limb onto a horse. When one thinks of this movie, more than the lines, even, one remembers a sound. It’s a sickening, swooping sound: the hundreds of arrows raining from the skies on the helpless French.
Olivier’s Henry V is the long overdue British response the Nuremberg Rally. At last, the British responded to the Nazi guns by reaching for their culture. It was a mad gesture to produce the most expensive British film made up to that date, right during the middle of the war. But Henry V was a triumph of propaganda, with its speeches addressing the brotherhood of soldiers and the God of Battles, and the St. Crispin’s Day words recited from a haycart stage.
Olivier’s Henry V is thus not just an act of film production but an act of gallantry. In the lead role, Olivier is every bit the “lovely bully” Henry is described as: a great, feline theatrical, inscrutable, cagey, quick, dashing, and larger than life. He’s the perfect vision of a deeds-not-words leader.
As counterpoint to Henry’s force, Shakespeare notes the bad nerves of the soldiers on the eve of St. Crispin’s Day. During a night as dark as any London blackout, the British men wonder if the cause is just, and question what happens to those killed in action:
“Some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
Despite Olivier, despite the jewel-box Technicolor, the 1944 Henry V succeeds because of the play itself: because of Shakespeare’s fullness: the glory, the prizes deepened with skepticism for the need for war, and the playwright’s doubt about the glory of it. Honoring a great conqueror, the play and the film gives some honor to those, like the late lamented Falstaff, who sensibly prefer ale and safety…to the ones who decide, like Robert Newton’s unsavory Pistol: “Lambkins, we will live.”