Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play Henry V was originally released in the United Kingdom in November of 1944. (The date I’ve listed above is the release date of the film in the United States.) Following its release in the United States, Henry V was nominated for a 1946 Oscar for best picture, as well as Oscars for best actor, best score, and best art direction. It didn’t win in any of its nominated categories, but Olivier did receive an honorary Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”
The recognition was well deserved (even though Olivier considered the award a “fob-off” from a jingoistic Academy). This film is a splendid achievement, and holds up remarkably well. Not only is it a fine cinematic adaptation of a great play, it’s a beautifully crafted film within a play within a film, in which Olivier the director has fun with convention while Olivier the actor delivers an assured and commanding performance as Henry, only recently a monarch after a misspent youth (chronicled by Shakespeare in Henry IV parts one and two).
The film’s full title is “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift With His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France,” and that’s how the title appears on the opening placard, which invites people to attend “Will” Shakespeare’s play, performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe Playhouse this day, the first of May, 1600. There follows a panoramic vista in gorgeous, nearly surreal Technicolor of the London of Shakespeare’s day. It’s obviously a model, but it’s an effective one, with wisps of smoke rising from chimneys and tiny vessels dotting the Thames.
The beginning of the film attempts to faithfully recreate the theatrical experience one would have had at the Globe during Shakespeare’s time. There are no set dressings, and the Chorus (Leslie Banks), in each of his appearances, invites the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief, vividly describing the scene that is about to be played, and in so doing draws attention to the artifice of the play. As the film goes on, however, it moves out of the confines of the theater and becomes increasingly realistic, reaching its apex when Henry finally leads his troops in battle against the French at Agincourt.
Artifice and realism aren’t strictly delineated in Henry V, however. When the film first moves out of the theater to the court of France, the ocean is a static sea of waves that looks like the backdrop for a puppet show in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And after the impressive battle, which was filmed in County Wicklow, Ireland (as a neutral country, it wasn’t ravaged by the war), artifice slowly returns in the form of phony-looking backdrops and a return to the stagey castle set of the French court.
When Olivier first appears on screen, it is as Oliver the actor, standing backstage in full costume, waiting for his entrance cue, and coughing into his hand in a decidedly unheroic fashion. As soon as he steps on stage, however, his voice commands attention. By the time he delivers his famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech, I was eating out of his hand. This is no mean feat, either, considering the historically accurate haircut Olivier saddled himself with, as well as his very noticeable eye makeup.
It’s common knowledge that Henry V was made with the cooperation of the British government and designed to be a nationalistic morale booster in the days following the Allied push into Normandy. Consequently, the scene in which Henry threatens to rape women and kill children was excised from the script, along with the hanging of Bardolph and Henry’s order to kill French prisoners. But it’s all in keeping with the tone of the film, which is more a celebration of theater and patriotism than it is a nuanced character study.