Film review: Laurence Olivier’s Henry V

I watched the Olivier Henry V for the first time on Sunday. I intended to follow this immediately with the Branagh version for comparison’s sake, but it was getting late, and it didn’t happen. I’ll be watching it this week though. In any case, I first saw the Branagh Henry V when I was 17, and saw it more recently last year. For me, therefore, it was the definitive version, so what I primarily noticed about Olivier’s version was the bits that were missing. Well, and the radically different style of filming and acting, and the awful French accents, but that’s another matter. I had been told that Olivier’s version, being filmed in 1944, was very pro-war, whereas Branagh’s was very anti-war. Perhaps Branagh was more subtle, or perhaps his view resembles my own too strongly, but it still seems to me that his version is closer to Shakespeare’s original.

Olivier presents a very unified vision, and to this end, he takes out a lot of the ambiguities in Henry V’s character, and in the war itself. The hanging of Bardolph is lost; the threats to Harfleur omitted; the three treasonous nobles never appear, and Williams never finds out who he spoke to and challenged on the night before Agincourt. There were other omissions, I’m sure, but these were the ones that I particularly noticed. (He also omitted the lines where Harry tells Kate that he is so ugly that he’ll only improve with age – a rather endearing instance of vanity, I thought). In terms of things that Branagh didn’t show, we had the slaughter of the boys and the destruction of the campsite (though not Henry’s reciprocal slaughter, now I think about it, though Branagh didn’t show that one either. Maybe I imagined it?); we also got a much more distant and triumphal view of the battle – the glory of war, rather than the gritty reality. I don’t think Branagh showed the scene with all the French nobles expounding on their own shame after the battle, either. Olivier’s actors played that with rather a lot of enjoyment, I felt…

I also noticed that Henry did not admit to Montjoy that he still didn’t know who had won the battle – but after what we had seen, it would have been an unconvincing denial. Branagh’s Henry V, surrounded by the noise of the battle and the bodies of his soldiers could deliver that line with conviction, and did.

I should add that I have not read Henry V recently, so I’m working from memory here. Still, it seems to me that Branagh omitted less from the text, which one would think would bring him closer to Shakespeare’s original conception; and in terms of Henry’s characterisation, I think it does. On the other hand, his vision of Agincourt as completely chaotic and close fighting, and his apparent uncertainty over who had won are probably further from Shakespeare’s view – that whole tally of how many thousands of French have been killed versus the tiny number of Englishmen suggests a Glorious and Overwhelming Victory, which was certainly what Olivier portrayed; it seems to me that Shakespeare, while enjoying the not-always-noble nuances of Henry’s character, saw Agincourt as a Glorious English Victory over the Arrogant and Perfidious French (the characterisation of the French lends credence to this view), and that’s what Olivier showed. Branagh gave Agincourt a much greater ambiguity, I think more than Shakespeare intended. That said, I still prefer his version.

There were some interesting choices of characterisation and setting in Olivier’s Henry V; I loved the interactions with the audience in the early part of the play, and I rather wish he had continued doing the film that way. His characterisation of the French King as rather senile and doddering was also interesting, and has the advantage of explaining why the Dauphin seems to be running things as much as he does. I was less convinced by the Katherine, and of course the chemistry between her and Henry did not compare well to that of Branagh and Thompson (but how could it?). I rather liked the Dauphin, too – he was utterly arrogant and irritating, but a rather convincing character.

Altogether very interesting – I think this is the first time I’ve really understood just how much a director’s vision of a play can change it’s meaning. I’m really looking forward to watching the Branagh version again, and to our reading of the play itself, to see what other angles I’ve missed.

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