Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Henry V (1944)

Director: Laurence Olivier

Honorary Academy Award for Laurence Olivier

Amid World War II comes a risky feat of cinema, a vast British Technicolor picture based on the work of William Shakespeare that was a financial success. Produced, directed, and starring Laurence Olivier, Henry V comes as a benchmark in motion picture Shakespearean adaptions, appealing to mass audiences with vivid imagery and creative presentation that allowed audiences to see this classic work in a new light. Commissioned by the British government as a morale-boosting propaganda picture during the war, this film would once again make the works of Shakespeare a source of box office appeal rather than box office poison.

Henry V is a British adaption of the William Shakespeare play, a dramatization of the English king’s victory over the nation of France. The film opens with the experience of what it could have been like attending a performance at Shakespeare’s own Globe Theater in 1600, sharing the atmosphere and anticipation of play that glorifies a historical period in English history. In this setting we experience what it was like to have a Chorus (Leslie Banks) introduce the play, describe the settings between scenes, and guide an audience through the tale of Henry V (Laurence Olivier).

As the story progresses about the English monarch who claimed the throne of France was his by right to claim, the setting drifts from the Globe Theater to a traditional movie setting, including stylized backdrops in the form of medieval illustrations, and eventually into a vast open air settings. While on his military quest into the foreign land Henry discovers his army has little faith in their endeavor, but through rousing oratory passion Henry stirs his men to victory at the Battle of Agincourt. France’s Charles IV concedes to England as Henry courts his daughter Princess Katherine (Renée Asherson), lining up the union between the two rival countries as the setting fades back to the Globe Theater setting and the play’s conclusion.

A unique aspect that this Shakespearean adaptation does is that it not only brings the tale of Henry V to the screen, albeit an edited version of it, but presents it in a context of what it could have been like to experience it in its intended setting, at the Globe Theater in London in 1600. The audience is given the context of this turn of the 17th century setting, where going to the theater was an event, providing drama, humor, political persuasion, and cultural influence of the world it was produced in. Complete with the Globe Theater’s dual leveled stage and its susceptibility to the elements as at one point it begins to rain on the performance with the actors proceeding on while audience members clamoring for shelter from the temporary deluge.

When the film fades into a traditional movie, the style is inspired by the artwork of medieval illustrations with sometimes flat background paintings that are vibrant in color. Eventually we experience the climactic battle which is shot on a vast open glassy field, giving a scope that can equal the Atlanta train station scene in Gone with the Wind with its number of extras and the nature the camera sweeps across a landscape. The picture brings various levels to the story’s telling that aid in audience’s experience, especially for audiences that may be less inclined to understanding the complexity of Shakespearean English, which even I struggle strongly with many times.

William Shakespeare has been point of pride for many theatrical stage companies, but for motion picture business Shakespeare was sore spot as films based on the famed playwright’s work had struggled to bring in box office profits. Commissioned by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to produce a morale building picture for British troops, Laurence Olivier chose Henry V because of the story of victory through unfavorable odds. Urged by fellow actors and filmmakers Olivier would take on the task of making his directorial debut as well as producing, starring, and shaping of the screenplay.

Many aspects of the original play were omitted to fit the context of 1940’s England. Removed were ideas of debauchery and ruthlessness of the English army at the hand of their monarch as well as the unfortunate loss to France following the reign of Henry V. We must remember this was a picture produced to speak to England of 1944 while at war, it was intended to manifest England’s drive to victory with courage and valor. Olivier would attempt to keep as much of the film as close to Shakespeare’s original words, but manipulation was necessary to deliver the positive message Churchill was asking for in this motion picture.

The film was shot in Ireland in hope to keep production as far away from the threat of German bombardments that plagued the South of England as well as London. The open field of Ireland provided the area and vastness Olivier sought in his battle sequences, delivering scale that English cinema had not been able to produce during war time. Military conflict would find ways to interrupt production from time to time, with a tale of filming coming to halts while air dog fight occurred overhead. Upon conclusion, the filming proceeded, marching to help deliver the product before the end of 1944, the same year of the Allied invasion of France. With an generous sum to fund the picture, it utilized Technicolor to a great degree to bring the world of both 1600 London and Henry V to life in bright colorful manners that grabbed attention for those in movie theaters.

Upon release the picture was a rousing success in England, however it would not see international wide release until following the war’s conclusion, landing in the United States in 1946. With critical praise and large numbers at the gates, Henry V would become the first Shakespearian film to turn a profit in years and its thanks to Olivier’s keen eye for delivering the tale to a modern audience while paying respect to its context.

With this picture being a mix of theater and motion picture magic, Laurence Olivier gained even greater respect in the cinematic world for this large, risky endeavor. It resulted in four Academy Award nominations, two for Olivier including Best Actor and Best Picture. Although he would not win in those categories, the Academy went out of their way to acknowledge the actor/director with a special Honorary Award at the ceremony for bringing this special adaptation to the screen as actor/director/producer.

If Henry V was not as successful perhaps Shakespeare would have gone into further hiding in the world of motion picture, serving only as inspiration instead of direct adaption. The flowery English language remains difficult for many to understand, and with the material out of context from the period it was written many aspects will tend to fly right over the heads of contemporary audiences. In conclusion, adapting Shakespeare is difficult, but with the passion, drive, and keen senses for theater and history Laurence Olivier brings us a wonderful view of this classic play.

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