Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: James D. Mardock
Peer Reviewed

Henry V: Stage and Screen


1Introduction

In a 1947 critical survey, Paul Jorgenson wrote that the popularity of Laurence Olivier's film showed that it was mainly scholars, not audiences, who wish to see a troublesome, contradictory, ambiguous representation of Henry (Jorgenson 59-60). It is true that performances of Henry V have always been conceived, or at least received by their audiences, with an eye to the political contexts surrounding them, and since 1599 the text has been adapted to those contexts, often with the effect of lessening the more starkly ambivalent aspects of the play. The two film versions with which most readers will be familiar -- Laurence Olivier's of 1944 and Kenneth Branagh's of 1989, each directed by its respective star -- may serve as a preliminary illustration of this.

2The Olivier film was shot near the end of the Second World War and dedicated to memory of English military sacrifice, specifically to the "Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has humbly attempted to recapture." A film explicitly and unapologetically of the moment of its production, its audience a war-weary Britain in need of an emotional boost, it understandably portrays Henry and his war as benignly patriotic, eliminating any moral or ethical ambiguity in the king and any sense of fractured will among his troops. Gone are Henry's seemingly sadistic threats to the citizens of Harfleur (3.1). Gone is the traitor scene (2.2) -- replaced by expansive pageantry and a dumb show of Henry's pious devotion before the troops set off to storm the beaches of Normandy. Gone is the sense, in the play's opening scene, of faction among the English governing powers, replaced by clerical slapstick. Gone is the nuance built even into the play's most apparently jingoistic moments. Olivier stripped the danger from the bickering captains and the personality from the French lords, reducing both groups to caricatures. What remains is a bluntly-realized Merrie Olde English past, exemplified by the film's spectacular opening model effect, a shining and splendid Shakespearean London straddling a pristine, glimmering Thames.

3Branagh's 1989 film, on the other hand, was made for a film audience whose view of war had been conditioned by the failed adventure of Vietnam, honed by the many films that captured the disillusionment of the following generation, and given point by the British conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982, a controversial and much-politicized military victory. In Branagh's film, Henry's war proceeds from a trumped up pretext concocted in a shadowy antechamber by sinister, whispering bishops. Henry's first appearance, a larger-than-life stalking silhouette framed by fire, evokes nothing so much as Darth Vader, and even when he is revealed to be a boyish figure rather dwarfed by his throne, he maintains a cold intensity: his whispered, steely-eyed "May I with right and conscience make this claim?" comes out as false piety barely-disguising realpolitik tail-covering. Unlike Olivier, Branagh preserved the traitor scene and allowed it to blot with suspicion the "full-fraught men, and best" in his service, a suspicion reflected in the sidelong glances of Exeter, Erpingham, and Westmorland. Branagh's army seemed never to be fully united; the bickering between Fluellen and Macmorris had real menace, and Williams (played by Michael Williams) managed to present a serious ethical conundrum, and a challenge to a duel, to Branagh's Henry (the challenge had been cut in the 1944 film). Where Olivier's Agincourt was a brilliant and bloodless piece of Technicolor chivalric pageantry, Branagh's was a bitter, brutal slog in a huge mud puddle that reddened sickeningly by the end of the battle. Where the Olivier film glossed over the human cost of battle, the Branagh film dwelt upon it, with Henry accosted by French widows after Agincourt, and Burgundy's long speech on the unweeded garden of France (TLN 3010-54) delivered over a montage of flashbacks of the recognizable dead characters -- the Constable, York, the Boy, the Hostess, Nym, Bardolph, Scrope, and Falstaff.

4It would, however, be reductive to present these films as two poles of a binary -- with Olivier's film as Rabkin's gestalt rabbit, as it were, and Branagh's as the duck. As James Loehlin has argued, despite his film's clear anti-war bent, Branagh's Henry never fully emerges as a Machiavellian schemer. The threats to Harfleur are followed by a close-up on his face, after the town's surrender, that reveals them to have been a desperate bluff. And Branagh's is among the most believable deliveries of Henry's "band of brothers" rhetoric: he marches alongside his men in the mud; bloodied and wet after Agincourt, he carries the body of the boy on his back in a long shot that registers his men's sacrifice; and he swallows up Ian Holm's Fluellen in a fraternal embrace, overcome with the relieved tears of the veteran and survivor. Loehlin argues that Branagh's film, while ostensibly radically anti-war, is really "the official version of the play disguised as the secret one," failing to be truly subversive in its focus on the performance of Branagh, who "demands to be liked, in the face of all the horrors he lays to Henry's charge" (Loehlin 145). Conversely, Graham Holderness has argued that Olivier's film is not the simplistic exercise in jingoism that most critics have seen. Its inclusion of overtly artificial stage techniques, even after the action leaves the Globe and becomes more "realistic," Holderness argues, "provides the film with an ideological tendency which is quite different from -- potentially contrary to -- its ideology of patriotism, national unity and just war" (Holderness, Recycled 185).

5Andrew Gurr has argued that the dual character of the Folio text simply cannot be represented onstage, that the play's stage history, a history of performance scripts altered from "Shakespeare's impossibly ambivalent original" (Gurr, Henry V 63), shows the play to be "an almost intolerably difficult challenge to any stage or film director" (53), only truly understood in the act of reading. But Gurr's rather reactionary assertion -- in accord with Stephen Greenblatt, but really Romantic in spirit, hearkening back to the neoplatonic, anti-theatrical arguments made by Charles Lamb in 1811 (qtd. in Bate, Romantics 111-27) -- suggests an ideal play existing only in the author's mind and accessible only in the study or in imperfect glimpses on stage: "what Shakespeare sold his company in 1599 was . . . incapable of being fully realised on stage" (Gurr, Henry V 63). While it is true that each production's choices erase an infinity of others, and that no performance (of any play) captures the full range of possibilities in its text, the interpretative ambiguities that the critical history of Henry V demonstrates are likewise apparent in its stage history, and neither the exigencies of particular stagings nor the persistent tendency to exploit the play's topical potential can erase its curious duplicity.