In Donald Spoto’s 1991 biography on Laurence Olivier, the actor is described as having a somewhat disastrous turn as a soldier during World War II. Together with his buddy and rival Ralph Richardson, he joined the Fleet Air Arm, but they were both so good at crashing aircraft that they were grounded. Eventually, the Ministry of Information found a useful purpose for Olivier: they wanted him to turn ”Henry V” into a movie.
The famed Shakespearean actor, who preferred the stage over film, took the job and turned it into a massive project that he dominated as producer, director, co-writer and actor.
Welcoming us into the Globe Theatre
In 1600, we are treated to a performance of William Shakespeare’s play ”Henry V” in the newly built Globe Theatre in London. The Chorus (Leslie Banks) enters the stage and tries to get the audience into the right mood, imagining the 200-year-old setting of the story. It takes place in the 1400s, where King Henry V (Olivier) is discussing the relationship between England and France with his bishops. The French Dauphin (Max Adrian) has sent him a gift, but it’s a pure insult, a box of tennis balls. Henry believes that the French throne belongs to him and the gift only makes him more convinced of the need to grab it. England must go to war. The campaign takes the army to Harfleur where a siege begins…
Had never directed a film before
When this movie was made, Shakespeare had been adapted on multiple occasions, including that time in 1936 when Olivier himself appeared in As You Like It, but there hadn’t been a thoroughly successful cinematic take. What Olivier did remains a stunning achievement, all the more so because of his lack of experience as a filmmaker. He had never directed a movie before, but he did spend the late 1930s and early ’40s growing as a theater actor and manager (which was essentially the same thing as a director) and he threw himself into Henry V with the same kind of ambition. The result was a film that seemed both ahead of its time and grounded in the tradition of the theater.
Movies adapting plays are often accused of being merely a ”filmed play”. Well, this one was filmed as if the theater experience took place back in the 1600s, complete with a rowdy audience and a recreation of the city and the Globe at the time. That’s as fascinating as the play itself, helping us accept the smooth transition from the Globe to Southampton and eventually the battlefields in France, which were filmed on location in Ireland. Hundreds of extras were used for the Battle of Agincourt (some of them using their own horses), which is edited to great effect, making us believe in the sound and fury of the fighting without showing the blood and mud of the more realistic 1989 version. All of it was filmed in Technicolor, for maximum impact, emphasizing the glory of Henry’s campaign. Olivier made sure that less flattering aspects of the play were erased, in order to make sure that the film did its best to boost wartime morale.
Henry may be the leading character, and he’s superbly performed by Olivier, but as a filmmaker he frequently reminds us about the soldiers and less aristocratic characters of the play, humorous men who also appear in other works by Shakespeare.
The blend of outdoor locations with stylized theater sets (courtesy of art designer Paul Sheriff) was revolutionary at the time and breathes life into the Bard in a way that’s needed from time to time. William Walton’s stirring music score is another asset, especially the sweet ”Touch Her Soft Lips and Part” track.
Henry V 1944-Britain. 137 min. Color. Produced by Filippo Del Giudice, Laurence Olivier. Directed by Laurence Olivier. Screenplay: Dallas Bower, Alan Dent, Laurence Olivier. Play: William Shakespeare. Cinematography: Jack Hildyard, Robert Krasker. Music: William Walton. Editing: Reginald Beck. Art Direction: Paul Sheriff. Cast: Laurence Olivier (Henry V), Robert Newton (Ancient Pistol), Leslie Banks (The Chorus), Renée Asherson, Esmond Knight, Leo Genn… Ernest Thesiger.
Trivia: Vivien Leigh was reportedly considered for the part of Princess Katherine. The play was also filmed as Henry V (1989). Olivier received an honorary Oscar for his work.
Last word: “I’ve always said that if it weren’t for the music I don’t think ‘Henry V’ would have been a success. That is perfectly sincere, and in case you don’t think it is perfectly sincere I will tell you that after [Walton] had seen a run-through of the film, naked and innocent of all sound – there was no music, no sound effects as well, he thought to himself, ‘Well I had better do something about this…’, and when I thanked him for the music afterwards he said, ‘Well, my boy,’ as he always did, ‘I am very glad you showed it to me because I must tell you I did think it was terribly dull without the music!’ He had really saved it and he knew that he had saved it too. If ever music was essential and helpful, it was there.” (Olivier, “William Walton: Muse of Fire”)