Henry V

Don't feel sad about getting knocked out of the
World Cup, lads. I put all our money on Germany.
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead!"

Kenneth Branagh's Henry V is not only my favourite adaptation of my favourite Shakespeare, it was the film that finally got me into Shakespeare in the first place. I had no interest in Shakespeare at school. No one did. Not even the teachers. They had as much enthusiasm for the subject as the pupils. It wasn't until I was finally free of the British education system that I rediscovered Shakespeare on my own and found I rather liked it. And I owe it all to this film.

This is the second of three film adaptations of the play. The first, and most famous, was Laurence Olivier's 1944 version, a Government-funded moral booster which played up the comedic elements of the play and omitted some of the play's harsher scenes to portray Henry in a more positive light. Out went his threat to unleash his troops to rape and pillage Harfleur, the hanging of three traitors (one of my favourite scenes), as well as the execution of Bardolph and the melancholy reference at the end of the film to how Henry's heirs "made his England bleed". Branagh restores all of these scenes for this version and presents the text in a grittier and more naturalistic way, while also toning down or removing the play's more comedic scenes.

One of the best things Branagh does is include scenes from Henry IV: Part 1 (and some lines from Part 2) as flashbacks to show the relationship between Falstaff and Henry as well as the other regulars at the Boar's Head. Although Henry V works well as a standalone piece, it is still the conclusion chapter of a four part saga that began with Richard II and continued with the Henry IV plays. Without these scenes the death of Falstaff and the hanging of Bardolph wouldn't have the impact they do.

The centrepiece of the film, as with the play, is the epic Battle of Agincourt. But before we get to the battle, there's the small matter of the St Crispin's Day Speech. The speech, probably the best that Shakespeare ever wrote (it is certainly his most famous after "To be or not to be"), is the granddaddy of pre-battle speeches. Backed up by Patrick Doyal's lush score, Branagh earns his Best Actor nomination, delivering a speech so stirring I was ready to invade France the very first time I heard it.

Fitting with the gritty tone of the film, the battle itself is an orgy of blood and mud. For a first time director, Branagh shows that he has a knack for action, even if he doesn't have the budget to really capture the true scale of the battle (the immense French army everyone is so afraid of only seems to be four guys on horses). The pièce de résistance is the fantastic tracking shot across the bloody battlefield as the English and French gather up their respective dead while "Non Nobis, Domine" blasts on the soundtrack.

Tumblr thinks Tom Hiddleston is a better Henry than me? 
Notes and Quotes

--Katherine and Alice are the only French characters in the film to speak French or even have French accents.

--I love the way the Chorus (played by Derek Jacobi) strides across the battlefield, dressed in modern clothing, talking directly to the camera like he's Simone Schama or David Starkey presenting some big budget historical documentary.

--Although I love the way Branagh says "Here comes your father", I've never been fond of the final scenes of Henry wooing Katherine, which just feels like the climax to a completely different story.

--The film's cast is a veritable who's who of English acting talent. Henry's entire army (which is rather small for an invasion force) consists almost entirely of recognisable faces.

--The line "Do not thou, when thou art King, hang a thief" was originally spoken by Falstaff in Act 1, Scene 2 of Henry IV Part 1. This film gives the line to Bardolph,

--The character Michael Williams is played by the actor Michael Williams (Judi Dench's late husband).

Henry V: "The game's afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"

Henry V: "I know not if the day be ours or no."
Mountjoy: "The day is yours."

Chorus: "O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention; A kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene."

Henry V: "And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by from this day until the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, For he today who 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 abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks, that fought with us upon St. Crispin's day!"

Four out of four band of brothers.


ChrisB said...

I haven't seen this movie in an age, but I just had to tell you, Mark, that the caption under your pull photo made me laugh like an idiot.

Josie Kafka said...

I am horribly ashamed to admit this, but I've never seen this movie. Or read the play. Or watched The Hollow Crown.

In fact, I get the Henries really confused both in the plays and in real history. Except Henry II. I've got him pinned down.

Mark Greig said...

Happy to hear that, Chris.

Joise, is that because he's always played by Peter O'Toole?

Josie Kafka said...

Oh, no. I meant literally pinned down. To our bed. I'm really Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I'm hardcore.