Olivier mustered out of the navy to film this adaptation of Shakespeare's history. Embroiled in World War II, Britons took courage from this tale of a king who surmounts overwhelming odds and emerges victorious. This sumpt... more »uous Technicolor® rendering features a thrilling recreation of the battle of Agincourt, and Sir Laurence in his prime as director and actor.« less
"This is a brilliantly conceived movie-within-a-play-within-a-movie that showcases the genius of Laurence Olivier. Today's audiences are exposed mainly to Olivier the movie star. But if you want to see a purer form of acting, see Olivier the stage actor. This is possible by watching his Shakespeare plays on film. And these films are by Olivier the "auteur," long before the title was coined. Olivier's is the legacy to which Branaugh, the darling of the current generation, fancies himself the pretender.And lest you're expecting a camera pointed at a stage, don't worry. Olivier, who produced and directed most of his Shakespeare films, has actually used the film medium to enlarge his plays' visual scope, while maintaining the intimacy that is the essence of live theatre. Moreover, Olivier is mindful of how daunting the language of Shakespeare is for modern audiences and has modified much of the original script to be more comprehensible, while preserving the feel of Elizabethan English.Olivier's "Henry V" was to England what Eisentein's "Ivan the Terrible" was to Russia - a familiar history rendered as a national epic, for morale purposes, while audiences were fighting off the Germans during World War II. There are other parallels. For example, both use static, formalized composition, in Henry V's case, meant to resemble the images in medieval illuminated manuscripts and books of Hours. (In Ivan's case, according to Kael, like Japanese Kabuki.) Thus, a soundstage "exterior" backdrop becomes a tableau that serves to enhance, with its flat perspective and subjective scale, the view we have of that fabulous Age of Chivalry, for which the play's Battle of Agincourt was the closing act.I've always sneered at the extravagant accolades which show business gives its own. But after seeing this film, or the equally brilliant "Hamlet," I can understand why this man was so good that a knighthood wasn't enough, and why he was raised to the peerage.By the way, the Criterion DVD is beautiful."
A Truly Regal Experience
Robert Morris | Dallas, Texas | 02/26/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"From various reference sources, in brief, here's the historical background both to Shakespeare's play and to this film. Henry V, the eldest son of Henry IV and Mary Bohun, was born in 1387. An accomplished and experienced soldier, at age fourteen he fought the Welsh forces of Owen Glendower; at age sixteen he commanded his father's forces at the battle of Shrewsbury; and shortly after his accession he put down a major Lollard uprising and an assassination plot by nobles still loyal to Richard II . He proposed to marry Catherine in 1415, demanding the old Plantagenet lands of Normandy and Anjou as his dowry. Charles VI refused and Henry declared war, opening yet another chapter in the Hundred Years' War. His invasion of France served two purposes: to regain lands lost in previous battles and to focus attention away from any of his cousins' royal ambitions. Henry, possessed a masterful military mind and defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt in October of 1415. By 1419 he had captured Normandy, Picardy, and much of the Capetian stronghold of the Ile-de-France. By the time when the Treaty of Troyes was signed in 1420, Charles VI not only accepted Henry as his son-in-law but passed over his own son to name Henry heir to the French crown. Had Henry lived a mere two months longer, he would have been king of both England and France. However, he had prematurely aged because of having lived the hard life of a soldier, became seriously ill, and died after returning from yet another French campaign. Catherine had given birth to his only son while he was away but Henry died without ever seeing the child. The historian Rafael Holinshed, in Chronicles of England, summed up Henry V's reign as follows: "This Henry was a king, of life without spot, a prince whom all men loved, and of none disdained, e captain against whom fortune never frowned, nor mischance once spurned, whose people him so severe a justicer both loved and obeyed (and so humane withal) that he left no offence unpunished, nor friendship unrewarded; a terror to rebels, and suppressor of sedition, his virtues notable, his qualities most praiseworthy."It would be a disservice to compare and contrast this film with the version which Kenneth Branagh directed 45 years later. Each has its own unique strengths and both are worthy of high regard. The year is 1413. As Shakespeare's play begins, newly crowned Henry V (Olivier) attempts to resolve animosities between England and France. In the film, however, Olivier creates a truly magical introduction which enables us to wend our way out of London and across the fields to a performance at the Globe Theatre. Once inside, we observe the audience around us but he also takes us backstage as the actors prepare. Following a welcome greeting by Chorus (Leslie Banks), the brief portrayal of a live performance continues as a film in 15th century England. This is a brilliant device. For many years, I showed this opening sequence to my English students before their reading of one of Shakespeare's plays. The "You Are There" effects are compelling and unforgettable.The quality of acting throughout the cast is outstanding, notably Olivier, Robert Newton (Pistol), Renee Asherton (Princess Katherine), Esmond Knight (Fluellyn), Leslie Banks (Chorus), and Felix Aylmer (Archbishop of Canterbury). Special note should also be made of the cinematography (Jack Hilyard and Robert Krasker) and production design (Carmen Dillon), given the severe limits on what could be done (and what could not be done) when producing a film in England during World War Two.Whereas Branagh chose to film Shakespeare's play in intensely human terms, and does so with great skill, Olivier takes a more formal approach after the initial scenes discussed earlier. His is a more regal Henry V, cunning as well as eloquent to be sure, but (or so it seems to me) a far more mature, self-assured monarch. Stated another way, Branagh's style reminds me of Mel Gibson as Hamlet or Braveheart whereas Olivier's style reminds me of, well yes, Olivier: In total self-control and of all he surveys. Never for a single moment did I doubt that his Henry V would conquer the French and wed Katherine. And so he did."
Improves with age
Robert Morris | 04/12/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"When I first saw this film, in about 1948, I only really enjoyed the battle scenes, and then mainly the first flight of arrows streaking into the French cavalry. Since then I have revisited it countless times, most recently just now, and my admiration for it steadily grows. I sympathise with those reviewers who couldn't understand the circumstances of the film's production, were disappointed, or thought the actors foppish. It is true the English stage of the day was somewhat overloaded with old queans, some of whom appear here. But these things are basically irrelevant. Olivier's delivery, his perception of the significance of every word that Shakespeare wrote, is impeccable. Appreciation of it sinks in deeper every time his performance is re-savoured, and the bits I was bored with 50 years ago --- eg the opening, the death of Falstaff, the discussion of "nationhood", and the courtship scenes --- grow more and more enjoyable and interesting. By comparison, Branagh is almost totally insensitive to the rhythms and latent meanings of the text. Both versions are heavily edited: Branagh wallows more in the brutality, but Olivier is infinitely more subtle and perceptive. Branagh tries to be different, but several of Olivier's speeches and scenic exchanges are just so fine and powerful that all Branagh can do is produce pale copies of them. Not everyone will agree. Time will tell. I know the arrows were just scratched into the celluloid."
Excellent DVD version
Robert Morris | 04/05/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"As usual, Criterion has delivered a package that is well worth the money. The transfer is excellent, the colours vivid, and the feature-length commentary by Bruce Eder is a treasure trove of background information. Also included is a picture gallery from the Book of Hours, which inspired many of the scenes. This is a disc that will give pleasure for years to come."
Thomas Magnum | NJ, USA | 01/28/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Sir Laurence Olivier's 1945 version of Henry V was not the first attempt to bring Shakespeare to the screen, but it was the first to be successful. Up to that point, filmmakers had tried to translate the Bard to film, but failed to achieve any success. Sir Laurence was given the task to create a film that would be pro war and pro England in order to bolster the spirits of the people during World War II. While his version of Henry V is far from a faithful adaptation, it captures the essence of the play and was a tremendous critical and commercial success. It showed Sir Laurence's tremendous talent not only as an actor but as a writer and director. The film is a visual marvel, shot in glorious Technicolor, it opens with the play being performed on stage at the Globe Theater circa 1600 and then dissolves into the actual battlefields of Agincourt. Through the years the film has come to be derided as just a piece of wartime English propaganda. The film definitely was made to serve that type of purpose, but to simply classify in that vein is take away from the masterful job of producing a visually stunning and well crafted film that was very much on the cutting edge of filmmaking in 1945. In fact, the Academy gave Sir Laurence an honorary Oscar for his achievements in creating the film in addition to nominating him for Best Actor and the film for Best Picture."