Sunday, 11 February 2007

Henry V (UK, 1944, Laurence Olivier)

"To the commandoes and airborne troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture in some ensuing scenes, this film is dedicated."

Original prints of Olivier’s Henry V featured this dedication as an epilogue, which speaks volumes about the context in which the film was made. The 1940s saw a series of heritage films produced in the UK, which were produced as propaganda pieces. The likes of ‘This Happy Breed’ and the Hollywood produced ‘Mrs Miniver’ concentrated on paying tribute to the lives of ordinary people living as best they could during the war, whilst the likes of Henry V were set in the past to celebrate British (English?) history and past glories.

Stirred by the means in which enemy powers had harnessed their indigenous film industries to produce patriotic propaganda, government departments began to see the value in co-opting the British film industry to similar effect. Released from naval duty, Olivier was afforded all the resources possible to adapt and direct Shakespeare’s celebration of British defiance and victory against a more powerful continental foe, and assisted by direct government assistance (such as ensuring that Olivier could film scenes in Ireland, technically a neutral country during World War Two), Olivier was able to create a rousing nationalistic epic on a par with anything produced in Germany during the Third Reich. It is known that the film was shown to troops during World War Two with the intention to improve morale.

To make the propaganda aspect of Henry V more credible, Oliver has to edit parts of the text, especially to remove some of the less savoury elements that would undermine Henry’s status as a hero, such as the hanging of an old friend, the atrocities committed by his army, and executions that took place after battle. The play itself was a rites of passage to some extent, as Henry transformed from an off the rails adolescent to a mature and charismatic leader of men (Henry’s rousing speeches at Agincourt turns his defeated men into greyhounds slipping at the leashes and ready for battle). Henry is presented by Olivier as a king with no airs or graces and who does not treat his men according to social status; able to relate to the commoners within his army just as much as the nobility. His leadership turned the early stages of battle when defeat looked inevitable to a stunning against the odds victory, which mirrors the situation of World War Two, when an inspirational leader (Churchill) led the British to victory from an equally perilous position.

Olivier initially sets his film as a theatrical production at the Globe. We see both the onstage and backstage developments to reinforce the artificiality and self-awareness of the project, before moving to a more obvious cinematic style, albeit with obviously artificial sets at about thirty minutes into the film. Shot in Technicolor with the only such camera available in Britain at the time, it is a technical triumph as much as a triumph in propaganda. Whilst we might consider whether our French cousins might consider the celebration of the Battle of Agincourt objectionable, Henry demonstrates a love for France and its people and how uniting kingdoms is for the benefit of both countries and it isn’t hard to replace France with Nazi Germany in this context. Divorcing Henry V from the context in which it was filmed might just render it another Shakespeare adaptation, but it impossible to do so in all honesty; as a propaganda piece designed to improve the morale of the troops and the public it appears mightily effective.

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