Once More Unto the Breach

I'm probably not far wrong if I claim that Henry V is Laurence Olivier's best Shakespeare movie.

It was made in 1944, during the war, so there is a definite patriotic tendencity in the offing, not surprisingly. But there is very little pathos and the patriotism seems somehow wholesome and clean spirited.

The movie is set up as a play at the Globe, that great wooden O, played by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men on the first of May 1600. First there is some magnificent William Walton, as English music as you can get, then the camera majestically sweeps the Elizabethan London (a rather good scale model, actually) with its trees, thatched roofs, chimneys sprouting smoke, and the bluer than blue Thames leisurely making its way through the city. The camera zooms in on the Globe. The flag is just being raised so we know there’s about to be a performance; our play – Henry V. Then we get a tour round the Globe and see the musicians, staff, the genteel audience sitting along the walls of the theatre and the groundlings bustling and prattling in front of the stage: it’s all delightfully unceremonious and unspectacular. A boy with a sign appears on the stage. The sign "The Chronicle History of Henry the Fift with his battell fought at Agin Court in France". The audience starts to settle down. Then the chorus, played by Leslie Banks (who for me always is and will be the supremely evil count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game) struts out and starts declaiming. Everything is still very casual with members of the audience actually sitting on the stage, right beside the actors and the action.

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!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt –

Then a cunning cinematic trick, the chorus approaches the camera and directs his words directly to the film audience:

On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

The camera pulls back and the boy with the sign reappears. Now we’re in King Harry’s antechamber and the play proper begins with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely scheming to protect the riches of the church. After the scene we follow the actors backstage for a quick and dizzy glimpse of the what goes on behind the scenes. The King makes his appearance. Usually this scene – Henry’s justification for going to war against France – is extremely boring, now it’s played for laughs with almost slapstick humour. This is in fact quite curious and bold: this is after all a wartime movie about an important English war. The attempts to justify war are downright ridiculed and mocked. The lack of pathos seems absolutely refreshing.

The scene shifts to the street in front of the Boar’s Head – that merry and familiar stomping ground of dear old Falstaff – as it starts raining and the groundlings seek cover as the actors just get drenched. Robert Newton, as is his wont, does an excellent Ancient Pistol: mellifluous and bombastic and with the gravitas of a sort of comedic James Mason. This is the death scene of Sir John Falstaff. In the play he never appears and is only mentioned by others: he’s been cut out of the play as he’s been cut out of the King’s life.

In the movie Falstaff does get screen time, as is only right and proper, and his death scene is shown, echoing lines from his last meeting, with prince Hal in the second part of Henry IV. This Falstaff is just an old man, a reed, bereft of life and devoid of wit. He’s still breathing but already dead. He’s a hollow shell. It’s all profoundly tragic. They say he cried out of sack.

Then it’s off to France and the dreamy and more than slightly decadent French court. The scenes are no longer played on the stage of the Globe, they’re abstract but still clearly studio scenes with their painted artificiality and deliberately cardboardy settings – a typical contemporary theatrical stage setting, in fact. The shots and scenes become increasingly realistic when the battle commences, but there are still definite artificial elements. It looks almost as if the scenes were shot outdoors, until one sees the painted backdrop. And then the rocks no longer look that natural. But maybe it is an outdoor shot, and the backdrop is there to conceal it?

Olivier delivers his speeches magnificently, stirring both his men and the audience into a frenzy. The mood has definitely shifted. No longer are we served crude but amusing slapstick.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

And then, of course, the mood changes back we get more slapstick with Nym, Pistol and Bardolph, and the humorous squabbles of Fluellen, Macmorris and Jamy. But now there is a strong undercurrent of seriousness, a tangible core of do or die. This piece isn’t about a war that was fought centuries ago, it’s about the war that is being fought right now. The scene in which Harry roams the nocturnal camp incognito and discusses the war with his more humble subjects at a fire may be the finest in the picture.

The English are severely outnumbered. It should be but a light feat for the French to wipe them out. But: the French may have the numbers – the English have Harry.

When it’s time for the big battle the scene shifts yet again and now we really are outdoors, under a very clear and blue sky, the scene becomes realistic – and we get the glorious, riveting St Crispin Day speech:

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.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. Of course this is insanity, but very noble, beautiful and inspired insanity.

The battle scene isn’t half bad: lots of horses, lots of archers. When the archers let off their arrows in a black cloud of death one almost feels sorry for the French knights. Then pretty soon it’s all chaos.

After the battle we again return to the more theatrical and artificial settings in the court of France where Harry woos and wins the fair French princess Katharine. Then we’re back at the Globe for Harry’s nuptials (with Kate as a boy, obviously). The chorus concludes the play.

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
By which the world's best garden be achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown; and, for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.

We zoom out of the Globe, through London, back into the skies, and encounter the credits accompanied by ripping choral music by Walton.

Olivier’s Henry V may well be patriotic war time propaganda – but first and foremost it’s art. Just like Shakespeare’s play.

Branagh's Henry V ain't bad, it's his best Shakespeare film by far, but Olivier's is better.

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