Legend has it that Winston Churchill asked Laurence Olivier to make a film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V to help raise British morale during the worst days of World War II. It was not an entirely original idea. The British have had a tradition of throwing Henry V “once more unto the breach” to rally the citizenry for war. By the 19th century the play had been transformed into a spectacle of patriotic pageantry celebrating imperial Britain and the glory of its military. Charles Kean’s elaborate 1859 production featured a ship moored in the Thames River. Between Acts IV and V, King Henry, returning in triumph after conquering France, rode on horseback from the dock to the theater while girls dressed as white-robed angels thronged around him and Londoners cheered “God for Harry! England and Saint George!” By the turn of the 20th century and the Boer War, Shakespeare’s Henry was back on the traditional stage, but with flags waving and raucous London audiences standing to cheer the great St. Crispin’s Day speech. During World War I, as Britain suffered through the horrible sacrifice of its young men in the muddy trenches of France, an invincible Henry V reminded audiences that God was on their side. No wonder that Churchill in his darkest hours thought to call on the glory of Henry V once again.
Olivier accomplished everything that Churchill asked of him and more. Working with all the resources that wartime England could provide, including one of the first good Technicolor cameras, Olivier made the most inspiring Henry V and the greatest Shakespeare film of his time. First shown in 1944, Olivier’s Henry V stirred audiences with “the fewer men, the greater share of honour. / God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.”
Olivier’s film had its American premiere in 1946. James Agee, reviewing it for Time, was unstinting in his praise: “Sometimes . . . it improves on the original. Yet its brilliance is graceful, never self-assertive. It simply subserves, extends, illuminates and liberates Shakespeare’s poem.” American audiences agreed: Olivier’s performance surpassed perfection, and in directing his first film—after editing the original play—he had created a masterpiece. It was a milestone event in the history of 20th-century film. Olivier’s Henry V had helped the Allied war effort and made Shakespeare accessible to the masses. The Allies had just defeated an axis of evil, and no one questioned that God was on their side, the atrocities on the others’, or doubted the justice of the cause, or begrudged the sainted glory of their leaders. Olivier confirmed the people’s faith and proved the old Ukrainian proverb, “When the banner is unfurled, all reason is in the trumpet.” Hollywood basked in Olivier’s reflected glory and awarded him an honorary Oscar in 1946 for his work on the film.
I must acknowledge that in the 1950s I shared James Agee’s admiration for the film. If in England it rallied a demoralized citizenry, here in America it validated the Anglophilia of the educated classes and gave British imperialism a good odor.
But Shakespeare scholars realized that the actual text was interlaced with lines that cut against Olivier’s theme of martial glory and royal heroism. Like his banner-waving 19th-century predecessors, Olivier had performed drastic cosmetic surgery on Shakespeare’s “poem.”
To appreciate Olivier’s makeover one has to read the play with care and then watch the refurbished video. You may then feel as I now dothat Olivier’s film is best compared to a Walt Disney production. Anything in the text that might diminish the glory of Henry V or the justice of his war has been bent to Olivier’s purpose or simply excised. The pivotal consideration of the play—whether Henry V had a just cause for going to war or whether, as William Hazlitt wrote in 1817, he had simply been given carte blanche by the “pious and politic Archbishop of Canterbury . . . to rob and murder in circles of latitude and longitude abroad—to save the possessions of thechurch at home”—has been turned into brief, farcical stage business. The original first scene of the play has the Archbishop ofCanterbury worrying to his sycophant, the Bishop of Ely, that the newking and his parliament are reconsidering the passage of a law urgedduring his father’s reign. The law would take back for the king allthe wealth left by the devout to the Church. To avoid this financialdisaster the Archbishop of Canterbury points the young king towardFrance, where there is far more wealth than the Church of England canprovide. The Archbishop expounds on the law and the Bible to assurethe king that he has a legal claim to the throne of France. Such isthe casus belli of Henry V’s chapter in the Hundred Years’ War.
Olivier edits out the offending lines and makes thewarmongering episcopates into laughable fools. Gone completely tooare the lines at the siege of Harfleur where Henry threatens theFrench governor with atrocities if he fails to surrender: “Thegates of mercy shall be all shut up”; “look to see / The blindand bloody soldier with foul hand / Defile the locks of yourshrill-shrieking daughters; / Your fathers taken by the silverbeards, / And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls, / Yournaked infants spitted upon pikes,” etc. Henry’s speech threatensmass rape of Harfleur’s women three times. Omitted, too, are thedisturbing lines during the Battle of Agincourt when Henry orders,“Every soldier kill his prisoners.” Olivier’s saintly Henry isan unspotted king who reacts instead to French atrocity only thus:“I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant.” Sothe audience will share his righteous anger, Olivier has the Frenchact first, attacking the boys and the luggage. He presents thisepisode as led by the cowardly French dauphin, who thus becomes theembodiment of the evil enemy. The list of omissions goes on, but themost striking is Shakespeare’s epilogue, which speaks to thefutility of the war: “They lost France and made his Englandbleed.”
Dame Judi Dench quoted this epilogue when asked tojudge a May 2004 debate—between Christopher Hitchens, David Brooks,Christopher Buckley, Arianna Huffington, and Ken Adelman, amongothers—about the merits of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraqinformed by competing interpretations of Henry V. Organized as afundraiser for the Washington, D.C., Shakespeare Theatre, the debateseems to have been a friendly preelection joust between Republicanhawks and Democratic doves, with the hawks relying on some version ofOlivier’s sanctimonious interpretation. Dame Judi Dench, herself aQuaker, refused to declare a winner. As it happened, she had appearedas Mistress Quickly in Kenneth Branagh’s darker, post-Falklandsmovie version of the play, released in 1989. (She speaks the famouslines describing Falstaff’s death and blaming the king for breakinghis heart.) Branagh shows us much of what Olivier did not—thatthere can be a mix of good and evil on both sides and that innocentpeople bear the greatest burden of suffering. Viewed side by sidewith Olivier’s version, Branagh’s is the obvious winner, withtime, history, and the text all on his side.
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Olivier’s Henry is a royal saint, resembling Joan of Arc as much as an Englishking, whose superior moral character shines down from the screen. Anaerial-camera shot of what seems to be Merrie Olde England begins thefilm, for which Sir William Walton composed splendid music. Olivierspeaks his first lines from the set of a reconstructed Globe Theatre,impersonating the actor who played Henry V in Shakespeare’soriginal company. In Olivier’s production the king and the playwill move from the stage of the Globe out into the “real” worldof film. In its time this was a marvelous cinematic sequence,producing an authentic sense of the first stage production of HenryV. The chorus asks us to “make imaginary puissance; / Think when wetalk of horses, that you see them.” Shakespeare’s chorusfunctions as a voiceover—as if Shakespeare himself were the sourceof our film clich’s.
Olivier used painted backdrops of French fields and castles that were intended to suggest medieval artistic renderings. In hallowed memory those sets created a medieval world; revisit them today and they seem to have been borrowed from Disney’s Snow White. There are no battle scenes in Shakespeare’s play: the military victory at Agincourt would be an invention of film. Olivier shot the battle scenes on the green sunlit hills of Ireland as glorified horse charges. Olivier’s Henry V shows us a children’s make-believe war. Because Olivier’s Henry begins and ends as a royal saint, there is no psychological development of his character. His St. Crispin’s Day speech—brilliantly delivered, it must be said—is an effort to raise his troops to his own royal level: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition.”
Olivier knew that he was bowdlerizing Shakespeare’s text, and he made one telling addition that seems a bow to the reality of the ongoing war. When the dead are counted after the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare’s text makes the victory a kind of miracle. Ten thousand French are slain but on the English side only four men “of name” and “of all other men / But five and twenty.” “O God,” says Henry, “thy arm was here.” Olivier put the count at “five and twenty score.” But his Henry V is in most other respects a treacly fairy tale.
Branagh’s Henry V is a far superior film and a more sophisticated reading of Shakespeare, but it must have taken a self-confidence bordering on arrogance for a young actor to attempt to match Sir Laurence’s monumental achievement. Branagh explores the psychological dimensions of the character—his transformation from the wild young man whom Falstaff loved to the King who repudiates his tavern friend (“I know thee not, old man”) and grows into his royal responsibilities. Whereas Olivier orates in his first scenes, Branagh converses. His episcopates are not fools but with shortened lines they are not as conniving as their entire speeches might reveal. Branagh’s young King Henry clearly relies on their advice. The film includes scenes that emphasize the king’s break with his past—for example, the execution of three traitors, one of them a lord who shared “his bed”—and he ratifies the hanging of Bardolph (one of Falstaff’s lower-class tavern fraternity) for stealing from a French church. On the night before the Battle of Agincourt, as the king prays, he expresses his fear that God may not recognize his father’s claim, and thus his own, to the English throne. In Branagh’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, less exquisite than Olivier’s but more compelling, he tries to lift himself up as well as his men. His character has to earn the kingly glory with which Olivier begins the play. Branagh’s battle is fought in a muddy field on a rainy day where arrows strike their victims and blood is spilled. The iconic war scene has Branagh’s Henry carrying in his arms the dead body of one of the boys killed by the French, and in the end his chorus, Derek Jacobi, delivers the epilogue of futility. But Branagh’s Henry V, though more psychological and darker, does not break with the tradition that portrays this Henry as the “star of England” and Shakespeare’s greatest king.
It was a tradition criticized from the timeof Hazlitt: “Henry, because he did not know how to govern his ownkingdom, determined to make war upon his neighbours.” InShakespeare’s text, Henry IV, speaking from his death bed, hadurged this strategy on his son. It is not always clear whetherHazlitt was describing Shakespeare’s Henry V or the historicalking. But there can be no mistaking Stephen Greenblatt’s 1988characterization: “The play deftly registers every nuance of royalhypocrisy, ruthlessness, and bad faith—testing, in effect, theproposition that successful rule depends not upon sacredness but upondemonic violence—but it does so in the context of a celebration.”One can almost sense T.W. Craik, the editor of the Arden edition ofthe play, cringing as he dutifully cited Greenblatt’s “newhistoricist” reading of the play—a reading he rejects with everyfiber of his loyal British soul. He blames Hazlitt for initiating thecritical political readings of the play, which find so much irony init.
Irony was certainly what a disdainful W.B. Yeats found inHenry V, and so did Harold Bloom, who condescends to the Olivier andBranagh film versions: “Both movies are lively, patriotic romps,replete with exuberant bombast, provided by Shakespeare himself, withwhat degree of irony we cannot quite tell but are free to surmise.”To indicate his own surmising, Bloom quotes from the “band ofbrothers” speech. His thought is that the common soldiers in theband of brothers are certainly not going to become gentlemen, letalone lords or Henry’s brothers. The King is stirred and stirring“but neither we nor he believes a word he says.” Bloom casts hisvote for irony with Hazlitt and Yeats and against poor T.W. Craik whocannot find a word of political irony in the entire play.
Irony isa magic wand of literary interpretation that can turn words of love into hate, good into evil, and truth into falsehood. One is, as Bloom suggests, free to surmise how much Shakespeare himself provided. Butas the recent history of Henry Vproductions suggests, such judgmentsof irony depend on directors’ political opinions about the natureof the wars then being fought. An American production of the playduring the Vietnam War made Henry V an ignoble Lyndon Johnsondestroying the vineyards of France in order to save them. After theinvasion of Iraq, Nicholas Hytner, in his first production asdirector of the National Theatre in London, reinvented Henry V asTony Blair, a handsome, honey-tongued politician complicit in a warof colonization and trying to justify it. Staged in modern dress,stripping away the patriotic fervor, Hytner’s direction of the playemphasized the human costs of war. The king’s speeches were givenas press conferences and the chorus was Henry V’s spin doctorsbroadcasting on large television sets mounted around thestage.
Here in the United States it is George W. Bush who iscompared to Henry V, despite the president’s limitations as aspeaker. The parallels between the king and our president areintriguing and even disturbing. Both leaders are hard-drinkingplayboys who found God, mended their ways, and followed their fathersinto office. Both men’s claims to that office were sullied—HenryV’s by the murder of Richard II and George W. Bush’s by theSupreme Court’s Bush v. Goredecision. Both men were heavilyreliant on their fathers’ more-experienced advisers. Henry’sself-interested church advisers, dubbed “theocons” by DavidBrooks in the Shakespeare Theatre debate, seem not unlike those whotold George W. Bush about the weapons of mass destruction that wouldbe found in Iraq. Both teams of advisers assured their leaders thatthey could win their wars using much less than the full measure oftheir available military force. And both teams promised easyvictories and long-term benefits. Out of Henry V’s conquest ofFrance would come Joan of Arc and a war of resistance that for thefirst time would unify France as a nation. George W. Bush’sconquest of Iraq has provoked a Sunni insurgency and energized Islamwith new leaders seen as saints by their followers.
One might take all this as far-fetched historical coincidence, of interest only to bardolators. There is, however, another level of deeper and more frightening resonance between Harfleur and Fallujah and between Henry V and George W. Bush. The Shakespeare scholar Herschel Baker noted that in Henry V patriotism is presented as an aspect of religion, and the same frightening conjunction is made by George W. Bush and his own theocon advisers. To be against George W. Bush and his Iraq war is to be against God and country, a heathen and a traitor.
I cannot claim that Shakespeare had this issue of patriotism and religion in mind when he wrote Henry V. But I do think that his play has a particular importance for our times and our America. Yes, Shakespeare’s text is filled with contradictions—contradictions that Olivier cut out and that Branagh used to explore the psychology of the making of the King. Harold Bloom is doubtless correct in his judgment that both films are patriotic romps that ignore the blatant hypocrisy and bad faith and send the audience away feeling nostalgic for the glory of imperial England. Directors like Hytner work the textual contradictions and, wielding the magic wand of irony, lead their audiences to the opposite moral conclusion. The critic Norman Rabkin suggests that in Henry V “Shakespeare creates a work whose ultimate power is precisely the fact that it points in two opposite directions, virtually daring us to choose one of the two opposed interpretations it requires of us.” T.W. Craik, who quotes Rabkin, doubts that “a spectator can preserve this state of moral suspension and still receive satisfaction.”
Yet much of Shakespeare, including the sonnets, has this quality: there is thesis and antithesis but no synthesis. When common sense demands the satisfaction of a conclusion the sonnets become banal. I want to disagree with Rabkin—I think Shakespeare is daring us not to choose—and I hope Craik is wrong and that a state of moral suspension can be deeply satisfying to Shakespeare’s audience in the 21st century. For it is precisely the refusal to yield to easy moral conclusions that makes Shakespeare’s work in general and the text of Henry V in particular relevant for our times.