On Screen: Once More Unto the Breach

 Henry V

Script Adaptation and direction by Kenneth Branagh

A Samuel Goldwyn Films Release

It was at the age of 15 that I found in a public library the recording of speeches from Henry V made by Laurence Olivier in the 1940s. These readings were not excerpts from the soundtrack of Olivier’s famous movie but had been done in a studio with an orchestra playing sections of the William Walton film score. Olivier did the speeches of the chorus as well as Henry’s orations and soliloquies, and his voice combined with the music to produce a sort of cantata that captured the essence of the play.

Already besotted with Olivier from having watched his Richard III on TV, I rushed home with the record and played it. Then played it again. Then played it approximately 120 times over the next two weeks. I wasn’t a bellicose adolescent by any means, but each time I heard Olivier’s trumpeting of the lines, ” … and, upon this charge,/ Cry God for Harry, England and Saint Geo-r-r-ge!”, I was perfectly willing to hurl myself on the troops of France or Germany or New Jersey or whatever enemy Olivier cared to designate. I was caught up in the exaltation of the fighting spirit that Henry V is. A later viewing of the movie was no anticlimax, for the film is indeed a poem of martial glory, a fairy tale sculpted out of the mess of history. It completely justifies what Olivier once said in an interview: “When you are young, you are too bashful to play a hero; you debunk it. It isn’t until you’re older that you can understand the pictorial beauty of heroism.” Olivier was 37 when he put Shakespeare’s boyish king on film.

Now a kind of miracle has occurred. In our anti-jingoistic, heartily war-debunking times, a young man, a very young man (27!) has directed and starred in his own version of Henry V and has succeeded in making this play his own. Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V works neither by trying to downplay the play’s bellicosity nor by mocking its patriotism nor by trying to emulate Olivier’s sublime dash. The militarism of the play has been faithfully transmitted to the screen (and will doubtlessly offend strict pacifists), but it is an honest militarism that shows the degradations of war as well as the exaltation of conquest.

In Olivier’s version, the great speeches were vocal blasts heard above the din of battle, calling upon the soldiers to rejoice in the glory of bravery under fire. But Branagh’s delivery makes those same speeches desperate pleas to his men to rejoice in the feeling of brotherhood that is a desperate but poignant byproduct of war. Olivier’s Henry seemed to say, “Look at me. I, your king, am magnificent. Share in my magnificence by fighting for England. Because I am England.” But Branagh seems to say, “Look at us, all Englishmen, trapped among our enemies. Let us transcend our common clay by fighting for England. Because we are England.”

Olivier’s version is great because his direction gives the text cinematic wings. Branagh’s version is equally great because he roots the text in misery, dirt, and blood. He weights Shakespeare’s words with their own consequences. Death sentences are carried out and we see them carried out. Claims on land lead to blood spilled on that land. A call to arms is a call to kill or die. To kill and die —Branagh succeeds by taking Shakespeare very seriously indeed.

This seriousness first manifests itself in the way the director treats the early scene of the Archbishop of Canterbury, called upon by Henry to justify the contemplated invasion of France to obtain land claimed by England. The resulting exposition is a long, winding piece of monstrous rhetoric and legalistic obscurantism that dares an audience not to yawn. Olivier mocked the speech by having Felix Aylmer as the prelate stumble through it, with lots of humorous by-play from Canterbury’s sidekick, the Bishop of Ely. Olivier’s farcical staging was an expression of the boredom he shared with his audience at the long-windedness of the cleric.

But Branagh’s Archbishop (Charles Kay) is a shrewd politician dealing with fierce warlords. (Branagh has costumed the members of Henry’s war council to look like mastiffs, dogs of war straining at the leash). When he rattles through his brief, the joke’s not on him, though he himself well understands why the nobles laugh when he claims that his reasoning is as “clear as the summer’s sun.” The Archbishop knows that nothing’s clear when you’re trying to justify an invasion, but he also knows that, though nobody is really interested in the legalistic twists and turns he must negotiate, he must nevertheless show that he’s done his homework before he presents his conclusions.

When the Archbishop does present those conclusions, he and the Bishop of Ely are seated on either side of the king, their profiles hawk-like as, accompanied by ominous music, they call upon Henry to remember his fierce ancestors, “And with your puissant arm renew their feats:/ You are their heir.” Branagh’s face expresses awe, even fear at what he is about to undertake: the unleashing of the dogs of war. This Henry is a high-spirited youth, but he is also a killer-in-the-making: a killer of the enemy, but also, indirectly, a killer of his own countrymen since, to make good his threats, Englishmen must die.

And those Englishmen include those characters usually labeled as the “clowns” of the play: Bardolph, Pistol, Nym. Because these too will suffer and die, Branagh takes them seriously. When this Pistol (Robert Stephens) complains that “from my weary limbs/ Honour is cudgelled,” we feel that it is war itself that has beaten the man, no individual. Shakespeare’s braggart has been changed into a medieval version of one of Bill Mauldin’s dogfaces, and I’m willing to call that an acceptable trade-off.

The battles Branagh has staged are enough to cudgel the honor out of any man. Here, too, we must accept a trade-off. As David Denby pointed out in his excellent New York magazine review, this Agincourt battle makes no tactical sense of the fact that Henry’s small army beat the massive opposition of France. Olivier showed us exactly why, in his breathtaking shots of English archers picking off overloaded French cavalry from a great distance away. His Agincourt stands for the end of chivalry, the end of the mounted armored man as the basic fighting unit. Branagh’s battle, on the other hand, is shot too close in, too claustrophobically, to allow us to see the working out of a strategy. Branagh isn’t after a panoramic view of fighting. Instead, he gives us the slow motion, crowded delirium of battle as experienced by men in the thick of it. These men, English and French, fight with the desperation of people caught in a nightmare, as indeed they are.

After it is over, Henry (who has fought on foot, in the mud, with little armor on, alongside the lowest of his ranks) doesn’t exult when the casualties list, containing its startling revelations of enormous French losses and few British deaths, is read. He’s so battle-fatigued that he can barely take in the news. Instead, the images of the deaths of all the individuals he knew — Nym, Bardolph, Falstaff’s page boy, the children in the baggage train —flash through his mind.

Holding the body of the page boy in his arms, he leads his men in a hymn of Thanksgiving. He walks a long distance to a wagon stacked with corpses, climbs up on it, puts the boy’s body down, and stands amidst the dead as if taking responsibility for such carnage on himself. This image makes us recall Henry’s soliloquy, “Upon the King! let us our lives, our souls,/ Our debts, our careful wives,/ Our children and our sins lay on the king!/ We must bear all. O hard condition.” When Branagh’s Henry lifts himself into that cart of death, he tragically, transcendentally, accepts that “hard condition.” It’s a gloriously crystallizing moment.

Branagh’s great virtue as a Shakespearean actor is his ability to infuse a scene with surging warmth without blurring verbal detail. A good example is in the early scene in which the king uncovers the treachery of some English nobles who have been suborned by the French to assassinate Henry. Branagh’s tone is at first one of lofty, ex cathedra condemnation. But when he turns to the one noble whom Henry had counted as a close friend, he explodes into utterly personal, wounded rage. The change is made in such a manner that it carries a jolt without seeming to be an acting stunt. Branagh doesn’t make the mistake of providing a smooth transition which would belie the king’s rage, but he doesn’t force the explosion either. Thus, we get royal fireworks rather than bombast.

Branagh beautifully manages a much different sort of transition near the end of the movie while wooing Princess Katherine of France (shrewdly portrayed by Emma Thompson not as a coquettish kitten but as a mettlesome young woman who realizes that her nubility is just another negotiating chip). Realizing that his courtship, begun in English, is getting nowhere fast, the king, no linguist, switches to French. Branagh’s here-goes-nothing roll of the eyes just before he takes the plunge is hilarious. But whether exploding or sputtering, Branagh well understands that a Shakespearean actor must do as Bernard Shaw enjoined: “He plays . . . on the line and to the line, with the utterance and acting simultaneous, inseparable and in fact identical.”

Nevertheless, if this amazing young talent has a limitation, it is in regard to language. His reading of many individual lines will linger long in my memory (especially, in reply to Pistol’s announcement of his own name, his delightful rendering of “It sorts well with your fierceness”). But Branagh doesn’t yet have the sort of architectural sense that sends a long speech hurtling to its one true climax instead of rearing up into several half-baked climaxes. He is superb delivering the kings’ hair-raising reply to the Dauphin’s taunting gift of tennis balls: his adrenalin carries it off. But in the two great orations, “Once more unto the breach,” and the St. Crispin Day address to the troops, and in the refusal of ransom to the herald, Branagh’s voice surges up and down, wringing great meaning and motion out of individual lines but finding no clear profile for the entire speech. He himself seems to realize this, for he swells his own delivery with Patrick Doyle’s music (overly influenced, I would hazard, by the Vangelis Chariots of Fire score). Olivier’s orations didn’t need any musical help; his lungs poured forth their own strings and brass. More importantly, Sir Laurence had a great composer’s sense of where to find the highest vocal point and the artistic parsimony to rein in his force until that peak had to be crested.

It is as a director that Branagh truly astonishes. He knows exactly how much distance the camera must be from what it looks at in order to wrest meaning from the photographed person or object: a cool long shot of a negotiating table seen an instant before the diplomats take their places at it evokes the necessary dispassion of diplomacy. Branagh also knows how to cut from movement in one shot to a complementary movement in the next so that a satisfying visual flow is maintained. He also knows how to tease the viewer’s eyes creatively. When the king makes his first entrance, we don’t see his face but only the faces of courtiers as they make obeisances to the Majesty sweeping past them. Master stroke: after all this build-up, when the camera does finally reveal Henry’s face as he takes the throne, we get hardly more than a subliminal glimpse before the camera cuts away again. We internally gasp: could the great Henry really be that boyish-looking? Did we really see what we think we just saw? Then, finally, we get a good, steady look at Henry’s face and . . . yes, he is that young. Branagh dares us to underrate the king as much as the French do.

Best of all is Branagh’s work with actors. This is the best ensemble work I’ve seen on screen since Sidney Lumet ‘s film of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But Lumet had five actors to direct; Branagh has a veritable army and succeeds with them all. Paul Scofield’s face has the King of France’s dignified misery etched into every wrinkle. Ian Holm’s Fluellan is a military pedant who never loses his awareness that the misery of war cannot be contained or mitigated by his “scientific” approach.

Out of this troupe of virtuosi, do I dare name a favorite? I cannot help it. In her account of Falstaff’s death, Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly quietly relates how she put her hand in the bed and felt that the fat knight’s feet “were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold any stone, . . . and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.” Before she reaches the second repetition of “as cold,” she quietly breaks down so poignantly that we can hear how the seemingly clumsy reiteration is a master stroke of a poet who knew how much poetry there could be in people who don’t have enough words to say what they feel.

If I have tested Branagh’s adaptation against Olivier’s throughout this review, it is not just a matter of a critic’s odious compulsion to make the best the enemy of the good. Branagh made such comparisons inevitable when he selected for filming a play that already existed in a seemingly definitive cinematic version. His talent vindicates his arrogance. His film neither eclipses nor is overwhelmed by Olivier’s; it is to be set beside it. Each adaptation is of its time without fashionably catering to its time (as Peter Brook’s chicly dreary King Lear catered to fashionable anomie). Olivier’s Henry made cries that can never leave our ears once we have heard them. What Kenneth Tynan said of that actor’s Coriolanus applies also to his Henry: “The voice . . . sounds, distinct and barbaric, across the valley of many centuries, like a horn calling to the hunt, or the neigh of a battle-maddened charger.” But Branagh’s entire movie is a battle cry with a dirge played under it, and the dirge finally rises and overwhelms the call to arms. It is a film for neither pacifists nor war hawks. It’s a film that will finally be cherished by those who must hate war more than any pacifist can and who must also have contempt for jingoism. I simply mean that Kenneth Branagh’s Henry Vis finally a movie for soldiers.


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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