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Laurence Olivier’s Henry V today seems like nothing less than a miracle in answer to the Chorus’s call for “a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.” It’s a dazzling adaptation of a Shakespeare play, made (in Technicolor, no less) in the midst of World War II. That it was also a financial success—appealing to mass audiences on both sides of the Atlantic—was as extraordinary as it was unexpected. A trio of Oscar© nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Score), along with a special Academy Award© to producer/director/star Olivier, only affirmed its charmed existence.
It is easy, fifty-five years later, to underestimate the magnitude of Olivier’s achievement. Filmmakers with much greater records of success than Olivier’s—Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, George Cukor with Romeo and Juliet, and Paul Czinner with As You Like It (with a young Olivier as Orlando)—brought Shakespeare to the screen during the 1930s, supported by some of the most popular stars of the era. Their reward: millions of dollars in red ink and reams of negative reviews. The accepted wisdom was that if Shakespeare couldn’t be sold by James Cagney (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer, and John Barrymore (Romeo and Juliet), Shakespeare was box office poison.
Interest in producing a full-length screen version of Henry V dated from the ’30s—from television, not a film studio. Beginning in 1937, the BBC had broadcast scenes from Shakespeare’s plays on its fledgling television channel. Its director Dallas Bower had proposed a televised Henry V. The BBC’s television unit shut down with the coming of war, and Bower became an executive at the Ministry of Information, where he tried without success to enlist support for a Henry V film.
In the spring of 1942, Bower produced a radio show in which Laurence Olivier read two of Henry’s speeches. He found Olivier willing to consider starring in a film of the play. Soon after, producer Filippo Del Giudice bought Bower’s Henry screenplay; after hearing a radio broadcast of Olivier in the role, he was convinced that Olivier should star in a filmed version. Olivier was enthusiastic about adapting Shakespeare to the screen, although his first choice was Richard III. Del Giudice convinced him that Henry’s patriotic story was more suited to the times than Richard, with its tale of perfidy among the members of England’s ruling families.
Olivier still had unhappy memories of Czinner’s As You Like It, and insisted on full creative control over the film. Del Giudice obliged him (he’d previously given the same consideration to Noel Coward on In Which We Serve). Olivier didn’t intend to direct the film; he wanted this responsibility to go to a more seasoned hand. But he was turned down successively by William Wyler, Carol Reed, and Terence Young, before agreeing to direct himself. As his assisstant and technical advisor, he chose Reginald Beck, the editor of The Demi-Paradise, in which Olivier was starring. He then enlisted critic and scholar Alan Dent to cowrite the screenplay. They succeeded in retaining the essence of the play while trimming it by over 1500 lines, or nearly half it length. Some of this material was cut for the sake of brevity, while other sections—depicting the political machinations behind Henry’s invasion of France, and the king’s bloodthirsty nature—were removed for propaganda reasons. Unlike either Shakespeare's or the historical reality. For his score, Olivier chose another veteran of the failed As You Like It, William Walton, one of the most respected serious composers of his generation.
The film won over critics and audiences alike by succeeding where every other screen adaptation of Shakespeare had failed: It made Shakespeare’s language and settings work for the film, not against it. Far from denying the work’s theatrical origins, Olivier and Dent seized on these factors, opening the film as a reenactment of the play in the year 1600 at the Globe Theater.
This setting gave Olivier an opportunity to overthrow the suffocating stateliness with which Shakespeare had been treated in earlier movies. For audiences expecting a slow, reverential film, Henry V’s opening scenes were a revelation, reminding them how boisterous audiences in the playwright’s time were. It also emphasized that, for all of their power, Shakespeare’s words were vital components of a living, breathing theater—cast in flesh, not stone.
Olivier’s treatment solved the problem of what to do with the part of the Chorus. As portrayed by Leslie Banks, the Chorus becomes a character who is part of the play-within-the-film. As the movie progresses, the theatrical setting gives way to cinema’s illusions of time and space (a similar approach proved successful thirty years later when Ingmar Bergman filmed Mozart’s The Magic Flute). This proved so compelling that Kenneth Branagh, in his revisionist adaptation of Henry V forty-five years later, had to acknowledge Olivier and Dent’s solution: he uses his own onscreen Chorus, which moves across a soundstage and directs us into the action.
Olivier’s film unfolds in layers. It carries us first into the realistic 1600 setting, charming and delighting with its depiction (including the deliberate, very Shakespearean anachronism of the figure with contemporary eyeglasses on stage) of a performance of the play. It then allows this setting to dissolve. First the onscreen audience and the backstage areas disappear, then the physical boundaries of the stage vanish from the camera’s sight. Finally the movie opens to the broadest possible cinematic canvas, depicting the combat in France. One must try and imagine what audiences felt in 1944, expecting something dull and stately, then watching the movie transform before their eyes, surprising them with every shot.
But Henry also excels at its heart, with Olivier’s portrayal of the title role. His joyful bravado may seem dated to modern audiences; we supposedly know better (looking down from the perch of hindsight) than to glorify war and combat. Branagh’s dark, irony-laced approach also seems more suited to these end-of-the-century sensibilities. Olivier’s Henry, however, was a creation of 1944, not 1989. With several million soldiers fighting in Europe, it wasn’t possible to depict Henry’s darker, more cynical motivations.
Moreover, as Branagh’s supporters fail to note, the scholar’s perception of Henry V differs from the public’s. It is one of Shakespeare’s most popular histories, and it has long been treated as a fervently patriotic work; its ironies give way to the blood and thunder of Henry’s speeches.
Olivier’s Henry V is Shakespeare clothed in as fine a cinematic garb as any movie made up to that time. It may not be the greatest Shakespearean film—Olivier’s own Richard III, Orson Welles’ Othello, and Branagh’s Henry have since provided fierce competition. But it was the first genuinely great Shakespearean film, and set a standard of excellence against which Olivier and all others have had to compete. It proves that Shakespeare can work on screen and at the box office.
“Small time,” the Chorus tells us in a final speech, “but in that time most greatly lived this star of England. Fortune made his sword, and for his sake, in your fair minds, let this acceptance take.”
Bruce Eder, who has written for the All-Music Guide and Current Biography, has also produced and narrated several Criterion Collection releases.