HENRY V (1944)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Laurence Olivier, Robert Newton, Leslie Banks
Director:  Laurence Olivier
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  127 Minutes
Release Date:  June 22, 1999

Film ***1/2

Henry V represents a truly remarkable cinematic achievement, owing greatly to the bold vision of director/producer/star Laurence Olivier…and yet, I cannot quite bestow on it 4 star honors because of the unashamed manipulation of Shakespeare’s work into something with an altogether different feel and message.  I give it credit for originality, and to be sure, many have lent their own interpretation to the Bard’s works over the years, but I found these alterations to be just a bit too much.

Which is not to say the film isn’t outstanding, imaginative entertainment in its own right.  Few things are a satisfying as watching and actor and filmmaker who is well versed in the art of the Shakespearean drama seize the text in a unique way, and with a desire to make his audience feel the passion within the words.  Olivier does just that, and then some. 

The uniqueness of his vision allows the play to begin as exactly that:  a play, on the stage of the Globe Theatre, much as it may have looked in the Bard’s time.  We see the actors costuming and bolting about backstage; we hear the audience’s response to the words spoken by the actors.  Then, through the magic of cinema, as the chorus begs the audience to use its imagination and follow the story to the battlefields of France, where no play could go, it is like the camera itself captures that imagination, and the story (and settings) expand to a fully envisioned scenario, complete with horses, castles, and a tremendous battle sequence.  Which eventually leads into the dénouement, which returns the audience to the Globe Theatre for the fall of the curtain.

Technically, the film is a marvel, with outstanding and ingenious camera work, lushly designed sets and costumes, and beautiful cinematography.  The movie also boasts terrific acting across the board, anchored by the strong performance of Olivier in the title role.

So where does this classic fall short?  Well, one must remember the time in which it debuted, which was 1944, when England suffered under the attacks of the onslaught of Nazi Germany.  As such, Olivier viewed making this film as an opportunity to reaffirm England’s courage and valor, and ability to withstand and triumph even in the most lopsided of affairs.  In order to do that, however, certain aspects of Shakespeare’s character of the king had to be changed.  He had to be more bold, more single minded of purpose, and more sure of himself.  Hence his campfire soliloquy where he reveals his uncertainty, and prays for guidance, is cut very short.  Henry also had to be completely heroic in his deeds, whereas Shakespeare presented him as more of an anti-hero.  That means a few more scenes had to be cut, such as Henry ordering the deaths of the three traitorous lords, and the part where the French prisoners are ritually executed.  In the face of the second World War, it was also imperative that war not be presented as ugly, barbaric, and frightening, but rather as something of noble cause and heroic.  Let’s not forget the war with France in this play came about because of a mere insult.  So we don’t witness on screen a senseless slaughter for a vain and political purpose, but rather the strength and valor of England against an almost comically inept France.

Many critics have applauded Olivier’s originality in choosing to make his movie on such a level, and to an extent, I too, praise his imagination and vision.  Nevertheless, I can’t fully support his decision to so radically change the subtext of the play just to make his film a better source of propaganda for the British boys in uniform.

Video ***

The print is not as good as I would have hoped, with some noticeable nicks and scars (particularly in the darker scenes), but overall, this represents another fine effort from Criterion.  The colors are bright, sharp, and well defined, and there is no evidence of grain anywhere on the transfer.  Occasionally, some images seem a bit softer and lighter than others, but that is more likely the fault of the source material.  Still, for a 55 year old film, this is about as good as can be asked for, and it is very satisfying. 

Audio **1/2

The soundtrack is in its original mono, and sounds perfectly good, given the age of the film.  There is very little in the way of telltale noise, and dialogue sounds clear and solid throughout.

Features ***

The highlight is a commentary track by Bruce Eder, a knowledgeable film historian with great insights into the film, Olivier, and Shakespeare.  There is also a trailer, a photo gallery, a look at the “Book of Hours” (whose illustrations provided Olivier with some of his ideas for the look of the picture), and a timeline of the royalty of Shakespeare’s historic plays.


My complaints aside, there really is nothing inherent in this film that should prevent any movie lover from seeing it.  It is an astounding, imaginative, groundbreaking, visionary cinematic landmark, whose only flaw may be that the desire to deliver a more contemporary message watered down some of the true drama of a terrific Shakespearean play.

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