Henry V (1944)

This adaptation of Shakespeare’s historical epic “Henry V” waters down and simplifies a lot of the text (indeed, it was effectively funded as British propaganda to function as a morale booster during the war, so most of the material that couldn’t be framed jingoistically was cut), but adds a whole new, complicated metatextual layer to the story in framing it was a performance at the Globe theatre in Shakespeare’s time. We’re not watching a fictional rendition of Henry the fifth warring against France, we’re watching a fictional rendition of actors of Shakespeare’s time performing a fictional rendition of Henry the fifth warring against France.

That new layer, positioning the story within a construction of its own, is so fascinating to me, and it goes really well with the Chorus’ calls for the audience to perform in the shared mental construction of spectacle through the synthesis of audience imagination and evocative language. I see the power of language as the underpinning idea behind the original play, so I was intrigued to see a film adaptation tackle that idea in an even more metatextual way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really track, and never really goes anywhere. I’m left a tad confused why the Shakespearean-staging was added at all. Perhaps it was merely another nationalistic element, reminding the British of that glorious part of their history where national artist-hero Shakespeare captivated London audiences? A shame, because I was so intrigued by what I thought the film was doing at first.


Then again, am I being too cynical? Perhaps Olivier (in fine form here, both as actor and director) was undercutting the propaganda angle he’d been dealt in making the film, and using the added level of framing, of detachment from the audience, to comment on the role of storytelling as propaganda. I don’t really see it, but I could well be missing something.

Setting the added metatextual level aside, it’s a fine but very reductive staging of the play. Strong performances, lovely visuals, engaging enough pacing. It’s a much duller and simpler take on the story, but far from uncompelling. I give it three longbows, and a French bride.


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