I don’t think I was the best audience for this film. While I appreciate Shakespeare, so far in life I’ve gotten away with only a minimal study of a few selected works: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Cesar, Hamlet and some Shew on the side. Literature lover’s blasphemy, librarians will now give me the stink-eye. As I watched Laurence Olivier’s The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France, which we will just call Henry V, I struggled to keep up with the dialog and kept some spark notes handy. Let’s just say that the battle scene was a well welcomed break from my brain’s overload.
The film reads directly from Shakespeare, telling the story of Henry V’s life where he must overcome his wild adolescence, hanging out with scoundrels at the Boar’s Head Tavern, and rise to become a valiant king worthy of his people’s honor. To do this, he leads his men to war against the French, but the odds are against them. The night before battle, he disguises himself as a plain soldier to get to know his troops and how they feel about the imminent battle. Alone, Henry laments his position as king, knowing that his leadership is a responsibility to his people that he is about to lead to a war not in their favor.
The beginning of the film starts with a look at London in Shakespearean time. I don’t think it is quite to scale, but it is a great way to think about how much the London landscape has changed. Everything was less congested with more open vegetation. When I saw he Globe Theatre in my travels, there were no trees around, it seemed oddly placed between modern buildings with cars whizzing around. It’s nice to remember the famous building’s roots.
The recreation of the Globe Theatre in Shakespearean time is just lovely and something the film world does not see again so well again until 1999’s Shakespeare in Love. As the play starts on the Globe’s stage, we get a real sense of how interactive these plays once were. The crowd laughs and plays along with the actors perfectly. Even better, we’re shown what happens when it begins to rain on the open theater, the show simply goes on and those in the cheap seats close to the stage either tough it our or seek shelter.
With my less than fluent Shakespeare, I found time to really appreciate the visual details put into the film. Today, most people will scoff and laugh at the painted backdrops of castles and the English countryside, but it is a valiant effort within a production studio during 1940’s wartime. In fact, due to metal rationing for the war, most of the weapons are made of wood and painted sliver. Even the chain-mail is just silver yarn knitted to resemble a chain-mail pattern. It’s rather ingenious and I would not have known otherwise if I hadn’t researched.
Olivier’s Henry V was meant to be a moral booster for the British and even received funding from the British government. In the end, Olivier was awarded an honorary Oscar for his achievement in bringing Shakespeare’s play to the screen. Today, I would suggest this film to Shakespeare buffs, those who enjoy the play Henry V or Laurence Olivier. If you’re interested in the Globe Theatre, there are some real gems in the beginning and the end of the film, but you’re more likely to be entertained by Shakespeare in Love.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”