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Henry V

1945

dir: Lawrence Olivier

with: Lawrence Olivier, Robert Newton, Leslie Banks, Renee Asherson, Esmond Knight, Felix Aylmer, Leo Genn

The first thing to remember is that this film gets at the fifteenth century through two sets of filters: first, the immediacies of World War II, and British morale and propaganda needs; and second, Shakespeare's Tudor-era patriotism. We'd question how closely the script (original or adapted) gets to the psychology of the original participants, or the political nuances of what was on some levels a family quarrel. So we'll stick primarily to the visual presentation.

The production designers (Carmen Dillon and Paul Sheriff) clearly decided to take their cue from manuscripts and brasses, and did a remarkable job of conveying the sense of illuminations like those in the Berri Belles Heures -- visually the film is lavish and evocative. We loved the foreshortened perspectives, the use of manuscript conventions (check out the hangings in the Dauphin's tent), and the fun of recognizing the sources for some of the visuals. The tents are quite gorgeous, in shape, decoration, and (an especially nice touch) the way their bottom edges bow up between the stakes. But be warned that the emphasis is on visual effect, not on reproducing reality: Katherine's pink gown, for instance, has a 1940s bodice with the skirt pleated in at a waist seam, and we've never seen trim or sleeves quite like hers. The dishes on the "feast" table look like gilded pottery based on illuminations of table settings -- not like surviving vessels. Lots of dagging, lots of voluminous cloth, lots of heraldic motifs -- and clearly someone had lots of fun with the man's hats (most of which are darn good).

The overall effect of the English army is very evocative, and there are some nice touches -- Pistol's teeth, and the number of archers without hosen. Up close, they're not so convincing. Similarly for the men at arms -- the overview is dramatic, but many of the details are off. Of course, most of the fighting men -- not excluding those with speaking parts -- are wearing stage mail. And everyone looks far too hale for an army ravaged by dysentery (one reason for archers without hosen ... or braies, for that matter).

The haircuts are a mixed bag. Henry's is mostly good (though in some scenes it looks a little curly in front), as are most of the nobles', though Burgundy's is right out. There are probably too many beards (as opposed to in-the-field stubble), though Mountjoy's beard is great.

As for the military side ... this film does a much better version than the Branagh movie of laying out the deployments of the two sides before the battle. The shot of the French riding through a huge puddle makes the point about the muddiness of the field -- and then allows the filmmakers to stage the rest of the battle on nice dry ground.

The extended sequence of the French chivalry charging is swell. Most movies would have you believe that cavalry generally goes instantly from a dead standstill to a flat gallop, but this is much more the real thing: from a slow walk, it takes the French several minutes to get -- somewhat raggedly -- to top speed. Hundreds of knights charging! Woo-hoo! And be sure to listen for the pre-Dolby, but very penetrating, thunder of their hooves.

On the other hand, some of the close-up fighting is pretty bogus: archers firing-and-charging (instead of staying where they're protected and can see to aim), footsoldiers jumping out of trees on top of mounted knights (seen too many Robin Hood movies, guys?), indiscriminate stabbing of fallen men at arms (instead of capturing them to ransom). The hand-to-hand fighting is standard old-time stage and movie stuff, predating the growth of historical combat recreation in movies over the last 30 or 40 years.

Henry's armor is well done in terms 1940's scholarship, but thinking has changed about several things, notably the way his great bascinet works: the general feeling these days is that they weren't locked in place with the head free to move within them. Most of the shields are just odd: for starters, shields were pretty passe on the battlefield by 1415. And the assortment of shield is peculiar: round shields (not in use by the aristocracy since William took over from Harold and probably even before that), tourney shields (not designed for use in battle), and some out-and-out fantasy shields. The horse trappings are pretty (though we'd question their use in battle), though the chamfrons are a little too late. We're not sure about the saddles -- the high fronts & backs are good, but overall they look a little insubstantial.

The bows are terrible: clearly just sticks of wood, and strung very strangely. If they were real bows, there's no way the archers could stand around for (apparently) several minutes, bows drawn, waiting for the signal: with a war bow of 100-plus pounds pull, you want to nock, draw, and loose as fast as you can! The arrows are tipped with some kind of shiny modern broadhead instead of iron, presumably to punch them up visually. Points for not giving the archers quivers, though.

The cranes for lifting knights into their saddles? Pretty good crane design, actually, but a totally bogus use. Well, at least they only showed the decadent French needing them.

There are some nice "personality" bits -- Charles VI of France, aka Charles the Mad, is shown as alternately alert and out of it, which was pretty much the case for most of the real Charles's adult life. However, Isabeau (Isabelle) of Bavaria, his queen, was nowhere near as well-behaved as she's presented. And at this point in the war, the Duke of Burgundy was not exactly a French partisan.

Gestures from contemporary art are used occasionally, a nice touch -- watch Henry go into "king" mode when he starts his greeting in the treaty negotiation scene. And while the women's clothes aren't good for costume research, watch the great way the royal ladies scoop up the huge volumes of their skirts and sway their backs to parade around the castle: just terrific.

We all want to play with the model of Elizabethan London that opens & closes the film; a bit too clean & tidy for reality (and a bit too big & prosperous for the 14th century), but evocative -- and wouldn't it make a great toy? The costuming for the crowd in the Globe seems quite good, though that's not our period, and the portrayal of Tudor stage practice conveys the right impression.

The score, of course, is a classic, though the Agincourt Carol makes only a brief appearance and most of the rest is either 20th-century-dramatic or 16th-century-flavored.

All in all, a fine movie and well worth watching. Just remember that it only makes the "ten-foot rule": it looks terrific at a distance, and it captures a lot of the flavor, but up close the details tend to be off.