I'm Henry V, I Am, I Am
This is my contribution to the Shakespeare Blog-A-Thon over at Coffee, Coffee . . . and More Coffee. Since this day also happens to be one month away from what would be the 100th birthday of Laurence Olivier, I thought I'd kill two kings with one stone, so to speak.
Laurence Olivier's Henry V is a fascinating creature to behold. It was the first major successful adapation of the Bard, and it marks the first time Olivier worked behind the camera. It is directed with a sure hand, yet it never lets the viewer forget that they are watching a play. With nearly half the play cut out (partially for propaganda purposes and . . . brevity*), Olivier needed to craft a tale that still kept Shakespeare's spirit intact while appealing to the broader audience. The fact that he adapted it for political purposes shows just how close to Shakespeare's spirit Olivier kept it.
Before we go on about "butchering" a work for propaganda, we cannot forget that this has a long history, stretching from Virgil's The Aeneid through Dante's The Inferno and Shakespeare himself. The first thing that pops into my head is MacBeth tormented by the vision of future kings, including King James I of England, who has just ascended to the throne after Elizabeth I died. All the great writers pandered to the political climate of the time, so it is perfectly respectable for Olivier to hide the ironies behind Henry's conquest of France to raise patriotic spirits during WWII.
It is also necessary to look at the look of the film. Henry V was shot in glorious technicolor, yet it features extremely fake backdrops. Taken alone, it would merely show shoddy production values and a distracting nature. However, the film spends over half an hour in 16th Century England, reminding the viewers that Henry V was a play before it was anything else. That combined with the colors in a time when black and white was the norm (and much cheaper) show a man who wants to remind us of the fact that, though we are watching it on a screen, this is still a play.
This theme is reiterated in the repetition of specific shots. Near the beginning of the film, we watch the beginning of the play as if we were sitting in the upper levels of the Globe theater. Later, during one of Henry's more moving speeches, the camera pulls back and up until we are looking at him from the exact angle as we saw the beginning. When Henry makes his first appearance on stage, we look at him from backstage, seeing his back and some members of the audience. This sort of shot it echoed throughout the film, constantly reminding us of just what we are watching.
And so it must be asked: Why? Why take such painstaking efforts to keep reminding us that what we're watching is a play? Maybe he was just trying to keep his aesthetic true to the limitations Shakespeare had. Or maybe he was up to something far more dastardly.
Perhaps this was Olivier doubting the rhetoric he was putting forward. Though the explicit message behind the film is a patriotic one, the most overtly pro-England moments are undermined by reminders that what we are watching is fake. Forced to eliminate the doubt Shakespeare had in his king, Olivier responds by making his world a fake. This couldn't have been what Henry V was really like. Otherwise, that castle in the distance would at least look real. The unknowing viewer can take in a patriotic message and spit it out against the Germans. The careful viewer can see the contempt Olivier holds for the useless war Henry wages. I highly recommend you take a look at The Shamus' look at Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. The Shamus explores Shakespeare's words and his view on patriotism as filtered through Branagh's vision. I think that Olivier's version, though lacking in some of the Bard's most pointed verbal jabs, uses its visual style to put forth the same point of view that Shakespeare intended.
*I am terribly sorry for a horrible joke, but I couldn't resist