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Bucket List Movie #447: Henry V (1944)

Updated on June 23, 2014
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Laurence Olivier
Laurence Olivier | Source

Laurence Olivier.

The name alone invokes theatrical perfection, cinematic innovator of Shakespeare adaptations, and acting of the highest class. Laurence Olivier has always been such a legend that, even in life, he was in danger of being a cliche, to the point where the very fact of him had permeated the public consciousness: his reputation as one of the greatest actors who ever lived, his tumultuous marriage to the equally legendary Vivien Leigh, the fact that he dared to chide Dustin Hoffman for his insistence on Method acting ("My boy, try acting, it's easier!") when they worked together in Marathon Man.

Before Kenneth Branaugh was even a dream in his mother's mind, Olivier brought Shakespeare into mainstream cinema without ever having to pander to what he thought audiences wanted, or merely casting big names, no matter how ill-suited (MGM's Romeo and Juliet, I'm looking at you). He directed the 1948 film version of Hamlet, and it not only became the first non-American film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but Olivier himself won for Best Actor, becoming the first director to direct himself in an Oscar-winning performance. He was the youngest actor, at 40, to be knighted, and the first to be made a lord (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurence_olivier).

As if that weren't enough, he was quite the looker in his younger days, too. It's almost enough to make you hate him, isn't it?

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Today's BLM is Henry V, which is one The Bard's historical plays. Ignoramus that I am, I didn't even learn until fairly recently that Shakespeare wrote a tetralogy: Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V, the latter three featuring beloved recurring character, plus-sized comic relief Falstaff. Our titular hero in today's film is the formerly feckless Prince Hal (featured in the two Henry IV installments), now King Henry V of England. Despite his dignified bearing and competency as ruler, he still has many detractors who see him as the frivolous youth he once was (adding insult to injury is when the dauphin of France gives him a gift of tennis balls).

When it is brought to Henry's attention that he is able to lay claim to France, Henry raises an army with the intent to conquer it. Amidst the encroaching war, there are three inept assassins out for Henry's blood, France's Princess Katherine's attempt to learn English, and the expected fear and unrest among Henry's men. In one scene, where he disguises himself as a fellow soldier, he tries to defend his actions, with his men providing solid arguments, in one of the best scenes of character development in a Shakespeare story I've ever seen.

Long story short, battle is won, princess is wooed, all's well that ends well… oops, that's an entirely different play altogether.

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The plot of Henry V is, for the most part, extremely simple and straightforward. The plot isn't really what makes this film special, but its history, cinematography, and exceptional direction by Olivier. If the book The Friendly Shakespeare by Norrie Epstein is to be believed, Henry V was made by Winston Churchill's request, "in an effort to boost war morale in 1943 (Epstein, p. 499)". Churchill was one of the most powerful figures in England, if not the world, during WWII, so when he told you to "make a movie", you answered, "what about, and when do you want it?".

According to IMDb, this was the very first Technicolor Shakespeare adaptation, and it is absolutely glorious to look at: like The Adventures of Robin Hood, there is a dreamy, dewy look to the picture, with sharp reds, creamy greens, and luminous blue skies, both day and night. But that's nothing compared to the delightful framing device Olivier utilizes.

The film opens in a deliberately artificial dollhouse village of Merry Olde England of Shakespeare's time, and it takes place at the Globe theatre, where the Bard's plays were originally performed. We initially see actors performing on the stage (complete with boys playing women), but as time goes by, we are asked to imagine the more complex events, and the film expands into, well, film, as the action takes place outdoors and larger surroundings. The women are even played by WOMEN (sorry, couldn't resist referencing Shakespeare in Love)! Then, as the play winds to a close, in the blink of an eye, the spell is broken: we are back in the little theatre, the settings smaller, the women are once again boys, and it's a lovely reminder of the effect great theatre can have on our imaginations. Yes, it's a bit meta, but in the best way possible, and it's been imitated several times since then.

Olivier won an honorary Academy Award for acting, direction, and production of Henry V, and you can see the love and vision that went into it. I will even say I think he gives a more interesting performance here than he did in Hamlet. His Henry is proud, brave, a touch arrogant, but just the leader you'd want going into battle. Henry V's most celebrated monologue is the rousing St. Crispian's Day speech, and Olivier delivers it superbly. In fact, it is so incredibly moving, I will end my review by enclosing it below.

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What's he that wishes so?

My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

(http://shakespeare.mit.edu/henryv/henryv.4.3.html)

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