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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

38. Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944)

So last week I barely endured all the shit-mongering of Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, which seemed even worse this time than the previous times I’ve watched it. Rather than careen at Almereyda’s Cymbeline, I took pity on myself and watched something—anything—else.

What I picked was Olivier’s Henry V, which I remember not liking all that much, if compared to his Richard III.

Henry-V-film-1944-Riverfront-Theatre-Newport

Actually, I liked this movie far more than I did the last time I watched it years ago. I loved it.

Of course, my loyalties were originally to Branagh’s gritty and realistic iteration, which came out in 1989, whereas Olivier’s 1944 version seemed stilted and quaint to me at first.

Henry V 1

Odd, how Olivier seems the cultural epitome of classical Shakespeare, when he could be so cavalier in changing the text and the context of the work.

For example, the first half hour of the play is set in the open-aired “O” of The Globe, in Elizabethan London, using a huge, meticulous model of the city and a fairly good recreation of the theatrical space. The camera movement in the theater reminds one of Scorcese, and makes the space feel so intimate.

Henry V 2

The role of Henry does not seem as personal as Branagh, of course, but the perspective of the Olivier film is breathtaking, and, oddly, the laughter and reaction of the audience makes watching this portion of the film seem like watching a sitcom on television. The bridge between Elizabethan England and my own doesn’t seem that long.

Olivier makes the leap to France through a scrim and onto more cinematic sets, but once again, even though we are leaving the Elizabethan audience behind, and joining Henry on his medieval battles, the scenery is stylized to look like a combination of a fairy tale and the art of the Middle Ages. At times, the architectural perspectives look a bit like a funhouse.

Henry V 3

Despite all of this cinematic soundstage trickery, the battle scenes come off as credible.

Henry V Fight Scene

There are plenty of fine performances in this film, and no bad ones that seem to mar the whole bloody thing. And there is one actor whose presence fills this rogue’s heart with joy: Robert Newton, who here plays Pistol, the commoner and onetime associate of the king in his wilder, more youthful days.

Henry V Robert Newton

You might be familiar with him as Lukey in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out from 1947, or as Long John Silver in Walt Disney’s Treasure Island in 1950. I found about his performance in Odd Man Out from reading Harold Pinter’s Old Times. Robert Newton is funny, yet so damned compelling, too.

Olivier found legitimate ways to inject humor into Henry V. Maybe this was a result, somehow, of making the film while World War II was happening–trying to find some lightness in such a dark, serious time.

If you watch this Henry V with the right set of eyes, it’s an absolute delight.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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